life after roe

The Right to the Ballot and the Body

Photo: Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Kansas voters on Tuesday rejected an attempt to remove abortion protections from the state constitution, and by a resounding margin. “No” votes on a referendum led by around 17 points the day after the election. Turnout was high, with the “no” vote largely outperforming Joe Biden’s 2020 results in the state, the Washington Post reported. In the harsh daylight, anti-abortion activists struggled to make sense of their loss. Abortion foes lost because they didn’t go far enough, insisted Matt Schlapp, the chair of CPAC: He said in a tweet that voters were so pro-life they rejected “timid steps.” Others downplayed the night’s results entirely. The vote is “a small set back for the pro life movement,” tweeted the conservative commentator David Marcus. “The result is bad news, but supporters of the abortion license are giddily overreading it,” Ramesh Ponnuru wrote for the National Review, speculating that Democrats could only count on abortion to drive turnout where referendums like Kansas’s were on the ballot.

I am a supporter of the abortion license, as Ponnuru put it, but I am allergic to giddiness. No leftist can afford fantasy: We seek to change the world as it is, not as what we’d like it to be. Perhaps the anti-abortion movement could learn something from this attitude. Though Kansas is a relatively conservative state, the result of Tuesday’s referendum should not be a complete shock. Abortion rights are broadly popular in the U.S. The Pew Research Center reported in June that 61 percent say it should be legal in all or most cases, which represents a significant headwind for abortion opponents.

The anti-abortion movement is passionate, but it’s out of step with the public. That doesn’t mean it’s powerless. To enforce its vision for society, it must devise other, nonpublic routes to power. With time, and a good deal of money, abortion foes have ridden these routes all the way to the Supreme Court, which they control. The fact that this happened in a democratic society does not mean the right’s strategies are the product of some popular mandate. The conservative Supreme Court does not reflect a conservative country. Never forget for a moment that the court’s right-wing majority was appointed by two Republican presidents who lost the popular vote. Foiled by undemocratic structures, manipulated in turn by the conservative legal movement, the public will has been betrayed.

Abortion rights don’t always win at the ballot box. Voters in West Virginia and Alabama both approved abortion restrictions in 2018, though that was before the Court’s decision in Dobbs that overturned Roe. Abortion bans are no longer theory but reality in many places, and their consequences are becoming difficult to ignore. As more people lose the right to an abortion and are forced to endure pregnancies that they don’t want, and which may even endanger them, the abortion-rights movement could pick up supporters. Decisions like Dobbs generate political challenges for both sides of a case. Abortion opponents won Dobbs, but now they must contend with new problems. They’re staring down a complicated future.

To keep their movement afloat, they’ll likely rely on the undemocratic tools they know best. The fight for abortion rights is no less than a fight for the democratic soul of a nation. Consider the questions it provokes: Are women equal citizens, or must they relinquish their gains and accept an inferior political position? Does the will of the public really matter, or should we allow the conservative movement to circumvent the democratic process, all to protect our political norms? Something has to give. The anti-abortion movement won’t move on from losses like Kansas; it’ll pivot instead, trying new ways to achieve old goals. Without substantial political reforms, it may even succeed. The prospect should disturb all of us.

The Right to the Ballot and the Body