With respect to life under Dobbs, imagine the following scenario. A woman in Texas gets pregnant and decides to seek an abortion. Not that it should matter, but let’s say she’s a sympathetic figure—a single mother who has decided that she just can’t afford to support another child, or God forbid a victim of rape or incest. She can’t get an abortion in Texas, of course, but she has a sister in Illinois. She calls her sister, who helps to arrange for an abortion there.
It comes off without a hitch—until the sister’s neighbor learns about it. The sister’s neighbor is vigorously anti-abortion, and she alerts the Texas authorities and files a lawsuit against the sister and her husband, and the doctor and nurse who performed the procedure. They are forced to endure the expense and humiliation of a civil trial—for helping a family member in need and abiding by the laws of their own state.
When law-abiding and compassionate citizens can be treated like that, we’re headed into police-state territory. And what’s likely coming down the road is far worse. How long will it be before some state, probably Texas, moves this bounty-hunting proposition from merely civil (that is, the bounty hunter can file a suit) to criminal, whereby the four Illinoisans in my above scenario can be arrested? And eventually the mother too? It stands to reason: Once states pass fetal personhood laws, establishing fetuses as full human beings, then abortion will become legal murder, will it not? The mother and all her accomplices can be charged with homicide. Assuming the police in pro-choice Illinois would refuse to make those four arrests, would Texas send state troopers up to Illinois to do the job?
This is not far-fetched. And if the Democrats stand one chance of salvaging these midterms and holding onto their House majority, they will do everything they can to make this election about this and only this. Not abortion rights per se, although abortion rights enjoy broad popular support, so there’s no big downside to defending them; but the massive intrusion into our private lives by a moralistic police state that is backed by only one-third of the country.
That’s the argument: Republicans have taken away the right to choose an abortion—and they are not stopping there, not by a long shot. Right now, Jonathan Mitchell, the lawyer credited (so to speak) with cooking up the bounty-hunter law, is pushing an attack on two medications that help prevent HIV infection. It’s a way to kick down a few doors—to open a new front against the Affordable Care Act and to move against same-sex marriage and the adult right to privacy. After all, once the Supreme Court has overturned a 50-year-old civil right, it’ll overturn other, more recent ones too.
Let’s face it. As far as elections are concerned, fear motivates better than hope. And unlike right-wing fearmongering about white first graders being made to apologize for their race, this fearmongering will be entirely warranted. If you give Congress to the Republicans, Democrats must say, they’re going to pass a federal fetal personhood law. They will try to make criminals—murderers—of women who get abortions, even in states where abortion is legal. No, President Biden won’t sign it. But if they win the White House in 2024, the next president will. And the Supreme Court will side with them. If that doesn’t scare people into voting, and legitimately so, I don’t know what will.
But there is a positive side to the argument too: In contrast to the above, Democrats should say to voters, if you keep us in the majority in the House and expand our majority in the Senate, in our first month in the new Congress we will pass, and President Biden will sign, a law making abortion a federal right. The House passed such a law last September. A Senate with 52 or 53 Democrats could do the same—provided they agree to kill the filibuster for it. They have to make that commitment ironclad, from Biden to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to every Democratic senator (well, except you know who) and every Senate candidate challenging a GOP incumbent.
They have to do this in a very public and dramatic way. In late September 1994, Newt Gingrich and House Republicans held a huge event on the steps of the Capitol at which they announced, and signed, their Contract With America. Democrats should do something similar this September, with Biden, Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and every congressional Democrat and candidate willing to come, which should be almost all of them.
And since they would be doing this on the very steps where a violent, gun-toting mob was attempting a coup, they should broaden it out a bit. We are announcing today, they could say, that we will kill the filibuster to protect abortion rights first and foremost. But we’re also here to defend individual rights more broadly: your right to privacy; your right to live your life as you see fit; your right not to be mowed down in a supermarket or, for God’s sake, an elementary school by someone with a gun he has no business being able to buy; your right to live in a functioning democracy where majority opinion actually means something—in short, your freedom.
If they can make this race about that, they have a shot. I’m guessing there are women all over this country, moderate independent and even many Republican women, who might not admit to a pollster that they’re voting Democratic but who would respond powerfully to that. This emergency is real, and millions of people, women especially, know it. This election should be the siren.