At the beginning of April 2022, POLITICO obtained a draft opinion revealing that the Supreme Court had voted to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — the 1973 court ruling that protected a woman’s liberty to have an abortion without excessive government intervention. The news of its proposed repudiation, in which Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” quickly sparked widespread outrage. Not only did it reveal that access to safe abortions was gravely at risk, but it also signalled a wider attack on women’s rights.
But as the weeks have passed, and women have gone through cycles of disbelief, outrage, and fear, now the question being asked is, just how did America arrive at this point? Why are these proposals no longer hushed conversations behind closed doors, but official drafts put onto paper? Is it a perfect storm of the current political climate, or can it be traced back as something that has been bubbling under the surface for decades?
Decades in the Making
“A lot of conservative leaders, church leaders, and evangelicals have had this plan in motion for 40 years,” Amani Wells-Onyioha, partner at political organization Sole Strategies, says. “They’ve been planning on doing this for a really long time — slow and steady wins the race.”
Wells-Onyioha, who focuses on reproductive rights, says that Republicans have been “meticulous” with strategic appointments, including within the Supreme Court. “They were trying to put people in power in different parts of government, all over the country in all branches, so that even if they never got the Supreme Court decision overturned, they would have so many conservative people placed all throughout government, that they could at least be able to put these laws into place on local levels,” she says. “This is a plan that has been a very evil, calculated move.”
According to Wells-Onyioha, it’s today’s political climate that has allowed these strategic decisions to finally start having a tangible impact. “We saw it come to the surface when we reached a point where extreme conservatism found its place in the forefront of society.” Things that used to be discussed behind the scenes have now gone mask-off, she adds, whereby matters such as anti-abortion sentiment have become the “norm”.
Donald Trump’s Presidency
Four years under Trump’s presidency undoubtedly played a key role in encouraging a more overtly-transgressive rhetoric, which has ostensibly made the idea of anti-abortion rights more palatable. “It just shows that we never grew as a nation,” Wells-Onyioha says. “We had got to a place where you weren’t allowed to be so open with these super extreme opinions, and Trump’s presidency really just ripped it all away.”
Not only this, but evangelical Christians, in particular, who hold ultra-conservative views, are an extremely strong political force in the US. Is there greater pressure to appeal to them?
“We’re really putting on a display of American idealism,” Wells-Onyioha says. “We’re at a crossroads as an American society where we need to decide who we are. We can cater to the pressures of these people, or we can decide that we are the America that we’ve been saying we are for the past 50 years.”
As Wells-Onyioha explains, while the source of growing conservative sentiment predominantly stems from US Republicans, Democrats have also played a contributing role in not acting to curb this. Not only was Roe v. Wade never codified under Barrack Obama, but it seems that, for Democrats, women’s rights is more of an election issue to rally around, without the follow-up of action.
“[The Democrats] use all this stuff as a way to get fundraising and as a way to get people to come out and vote,” Wells-Onyioha says. “But they are losing the trust of their base, and that’s what’s going to, in my opinion, lead to the demise of democracy as we know it.” She adds: “I’ve never seen a more perfect opportunity to step up and do something than now. It’s the perfect whirlwind of every Democratic issue that they claim they care so much about. It’s the time to act, so if they don’t act, then that’s going to show everything that we need to know.”
Alongside these issues, the US minority rule structure — whereby conservatives continue to gain greater power and influence, despite not representing the majority — also plays a significant role in such a controversial proposal. “The minority party has made all the decisions, that’s why I say democracy is at risk here,” Wells-Onyioha says. “Because we have minority rule, we have people in the Supreme Court, in this ‘democracy’, who know that 69 to 70-plus percent of Americans are pro-choice, but they are still going to vote the other way.”
Conspiratorial Thinking and Systemic Racism
When looking at this issue on a more human level, there is also a deeply ingrained, racist sentiment that influences these choices. Wells-Onyioha explains that evangelicals don’t want white women having abortions because of “replacement theory”, a white nationalist conspiracy theory that claims political powers are intentionally altering the country’s demographic make up to affect elections, by replacing white conservative voters. A recent poll of 1,500 Americans, taken before last month’s racially motivated Buffalo mass shooting, found that seven out of ten Republicans believed in “great replacement”. Wells-Onyioha says that this has converged with the mass loss of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, paired with an increasingly non-secular relationship between church and state. Crucially, the dark reality of overturning Roe v. Wade means that Black women, who are four times more likely to die during childbirth, would be disproportionately at risk.
The crossroads that American society is currently at, Wells-Onyioha says, poses grave concern for women’s rights and democratic values as a whole. “This whole democracy, this American society that I’ve seen in my lifetime, won’t exist anymore for a while until something happens in another 50 or 60 years and there’s another political shift,” she says. “But there’s definitely a shift happening, that, if the Democrats don’t wake up and do something, then they’re just going to let everything slip through their fingers, and it’s going be a tough few years.”
Find out more about Sole Strategies here.