Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization) that “procuring an abortion is not a fundamental constitutional right.” This overturned a half-century of reproductive rights under Roe v Wade, and is a rare case of the Court diminishing Americans’ rights rather than expanding them.
While millions of people celebrated that decision, millions of others were outraged, and continue fearing for the safety, comfort, and rights of every American.
As a professional advocating for reproductive rights for over 40 years—I got my start as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood—I’m among the heartbroken.
A popular narrative of this judicial disaster is that a Supreme Court composed mostly of men, supported by a vague cultural construct called The Patriarchy, is responsible.
And that narrative is one reason that we’ve lost so much ground on this issue.
The reason abortion rights are shrinking across this country every month is not The Patriarchy. After all, in the last two years, countries far more patriarchal and religious have expanded reproductive rights, including Mexico, Argentina, India, and Ireland.
But when abortion is framed as a “woman’s issue,” and opposition to abortion rights is explained as misogyny or the machinations of an enigmatic Patriarchy, that issue is bound to have limited public support.
Recall that over 30 million women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. Women like Ginni Thomas, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Nikki Haley, Senator Joni Ernst, and yes, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett were part of the unrelenting pressure and amoral political savvy that made Dobbs possible. At this very moment, tens of thousands of local women are pressuring their state legislatures to restrict access to abortion even further.
To put it simply, when so many women are anti-choice, the remaining women aren’t a big enough constituency to protect reproductive rights. The movement needs more people. The best way to do that is to remind the public that abortion rights is a human issue, not a “woman’s issue.”
I’m not, not, not blaming women for Dobbs. I’m blaming people. And it’s people we need to assemble into a bigger constituency to protect reproductive rights.
I’ve heard many women say—and many placards decry—that a Court or Congress composed mostly of men shouldn’t be making crucial decisions about reproductive rights (or “women’s bodies”). If that’s the Court or Congress we have, of course they should—that’s how democracy works. The maleness of our courts and legislatures is problematic—but it isn’t the problem here. Exhibit A: Amy Coney Barrett.
Judges (and legislators) without children can make sound legal decisions about education. Judges and legislators who don’t drive can make sound decisions about road safety. And judges and legislators who lack uteruses know as much about the law (for better or worse) as their colleagues who have one.
Personal sentiment isn’t supposed to carry the legislative and judicial day, the law is. Once we start balkanizing our courts into judges whose personal feelings prevent them from taking this or that case, justice is impossible.
I’ve also heard people decry the “activist judges” who ruled in Dobbs. An activist judge is someone with whose decision we disagree. Progressives and liberals didn’t accuse “activist judges” when we agreed with decisions such as Loving (mixed-race marriage), Obergefell (same-sex marriage), or Brown v Board of Education (“separate but equal”). So Dobbs may be poorly argued (just as many claim that Roe was), but the problem isn’t “activist judges.”
In America more than any Western country, the intersection of religion, sex, and politics is explosive—and that’s exactly where abortion sits. Our country’s been wrestling with the potential separation of church and state for two centuries, and continues to do so. I’m not optimistic–I’m aghast at what some people think is legitimate.
For example, West Virginia is about to join a dozen other states in requiring all public schools to prominently display declarations that “In God We Trust.” The state of Maine now requires itself to fund strictly religious schools. More than ever, churches get to own profit-making corporations that don’t get taxed (which means we all subsidize churches). And for centuries, the country tolerated—actually, demanded—Blue Laws forbidding or regulating commercial activities (such as the sale of liquor) on Sundays. More than half of our states still have them.
Dobbs and the state decisions eliminating abortion across the South and Midwest are simply the latest intrusion of religion into our judicial and legislative system. They’ve succeeded in making the religious question of “when does life begin” into a legislative and judicial one. Predictably, that’s disastrous for secular society.
These decisions and laws are not a war on women—they’re a war on sex. As I described in my 2006 book, the Religious Right (both women and men) is using the issue of regulating sexuality to undermine secular democracy. They are working overtime to limit anything that makes sexual experiences safer, more enjoyable, and more inclusive.
It’s a War On Sex—not just on women who are sexual, but on all people who are sexual.
Calling it a war on women allows too many men to shrug. We need to get their attention and get them upset. Many men have abandoned the political process by which to assure their rights and the rights of their girlfriends, sisters, and daughters. We need to get them engaged, rather than disdaining them.
Demonizing The Patriarchy and overstating “misogyny” continues to alienate moderate voters who could be swayed closer to a pro-choice position. In private, many non-conservative, non-religious Americans support abortion rights—they just don’t want to be associated with a movement they perceive as the Radical Left.
For example, when physicians are pressured to refer to “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women,” and activists insist that drag queens should be allowed to read to five-year-olds in public libraries (two policies that only a vanishingly tiny percentage of Americans actually want), the progressive movement becomes precisely the caricature of itself that the Right scares people with. Mainstream issues suffer as a result.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to choose among righteous political issues, deciding which to act on now, and which to compromise about or defer. But in the real world, we do.
When politicians or activists get too far ahead of the public, the public won’t follow. Prohibition didn’t last very long. By contrast, civil rights for gay people did become a reality—but that involved incremental change and compromise to get there (remember when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a step forward?).
How many anti-choice people are going to change their minds by being confronted with rage about The Patriarchy? None. Or the demand that transwomen (people born with penises) be allowed to use women’s showers in college dorms? None.
The extreme wing of Progressives continues to demand perfect policies that prevent imperfect ones–which is a terrible political strategy. The demand that policy conversations about abortion include transmen (people born with uteruses who use hormones and surgery to create male-appearing bodies) may seem virtuous to some liberals, but in the real world of incremental politics, this can help sabotage a mainstream political agenda.
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Statistically, surgical abortion is far safer than nine months of pregnancy or childbirth. The abortion pill Mifepristone has been used safely in Europe for over a quarter-century.
So why restrict either surgical or pharmaceutical abortion when both are provably safe? Clearly, it’s not women’s health that’s the concern. But simply putting the fetus on a pedestal isn’t sufficient for political success. So the anti-choice program claims to care about women’s mental and physical health—while lying about what the science says about each.
Pills, rather than surgery, now account for more than half of American abortions. As safe as they are, they should be available at ordinary pharmacies. And now they finally are, although there are restrictions on which personnel can dispense them. CVS and Walgreen’s will handle the pills, and have already drafted plans for security when their stores are hit with activism or political vandalism.
Women will be at the front of those hate-filled demonstrations. They will bring their children, too.
So if you want to influence someone about reproductive rights, don’t talk about The Patriarchy—talk about something more meaningful and practical. Among other things, talk about sex.
We should be predicting the upcoming political violence at our own local pharmacies, and demand that the anti-choice movement disavow it immediately. When they refuse (a story custom-made for going viral), we should demand an explanation, and summon citizens to condemn the threat to their community. We should petition our city councils to ask the local police to prepare for this domestic terrorism now.
We should also be talking to men everywhere, all the time—not about The Patriarchy, but about the War On Sex that’s aimed at them, and at their loved ones.
It isn’t smart (nor is it fair) that reproductive rights has been framed as a women’s issue. Let’s get lots of people angry that our rights are being taken away by… “them.”
Like short videos about sexuality? See the library I’ve created at www.youtube.com/@Marty_Klein/videos