Sunday marks 50 years since the landmark Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which secured women's constitutional right to an abortion - or so we thought.
Since last year's decision to overturn Roe, abortion access has been banned or severely restricted in dozens of states. Partially to blame for this catastrophic outcome is a breakdown in our democratic system. The good news is there is a path to regain reproductive rights and make our entire system stronger.
While it took nearly half a century for abortion rights opponents to secure their victory with the Dobbs decision this past summer, it took mere days for the consequences to rear their ugly head.
In Texas, pregnant women with complications have nearly died or, in one case, have been forced to carry a dead fetus for weeks because doctors were restricted from administering critical care. And in Ohio, a 10-year-old child was forced to cross state lines to obtain an abortion after she was raped. There’s also the devastating economic and personal consequences for millions of women who are now forced to have children they cannot afford or do not want.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research also found that restrictive abortion laws cost state and local economies $105 billion annually by reducing work force participation and earnings levels, while also increasing time off and turnover among women between the ages of 15 and 44 years old.
The consequences for democracy are also serious. Women cannot be full and equal members of society without the freedom to make choices about their bodies and their futures. Forcing women to bear children against their will, subjecting them to potentially horrifying medical trauma and possible economic turmoil repress women's freedom and ability to contribute to society and democracy.
The barriers to abortion access today are a direct result of a broken democratic system. The most glaring example is the Supreme Court. In the Dobbs decision, five majority opinion justices (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney-Barret) were appointed by Presidents Bush and Trump who lost the popular vote.
Meanwhile, in 2016, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell weaponized Senate procedure to block then-President Obama’s Supreme Court appointment of Merrick Garland – though Obama was twice elected to the presidency with overwhelming support in both the popular and electoral college votes.
I believe the entire Senate confirmation process for Supreme Court Justices is problematic. Several justices, notably Justice Kavanaugh, assured senators they would not upend established precedent and did so anyway. Unsurprisingly, the latest polling shows American confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low.
With abortion relegated to the states, another glaring problem with our democracy has come into stark view: Gerrymandered, unrepresentative state legislatures that have made abortion illegal in so many states. Wisconsin is a perfect example. There, the state legislature, which passed an abortion ban after the Dobbs decision, has a large Republican majority, even though the majority of voters in the state voted for Democrats in recent elections.
And when it comes to representative government, there are just 32 percent women in state elected office. In Texas, it’s barely 20 percent. Around the country, many male-dominated state legislatures are passing abortion restrictions their constituents do not want. In fact, as the Kansas constitutional fight over abortion proved, if given a choice, most voters, even in red states, want abortion access preserved.
The good news is that there is a path to restoring abortion rights, which would also strengthen our entire democratic system. And while it might seem pie-in-the-sky to enact these critical reforms, it’s certainly worth working toward.
First, it’s time to abolish the electoral college so that presidential elections are truly the will of the people.
Second, it’s time to depoliticize the Supreme Court by reforming its structure. The constitution does not specify that there be nine justices and in the past there have been more. By expanding the court to include more members, as some have proposed, it could become less virulently partisan.
Third, Democrats must win control of the entire legislative branch to protect abortion rights (entirely within reach in 2024).
Fourth, we must be willing to forgo the filibuster and pass federal abortion protections.
Fifth, we need a more serious national effort to tackle gerrymandering in state legislatures so that representation is proportional to party affiliation.
And finally, it’s time to elect more women to office at the state and federal level.
All these solutions, while difficult to achieve, are worth fighting for. As Americans come to terms with what it means to have lost on Roe, a bedrock of autonomy and liberty for women, there is an opportunity to turn disaster into opportunity. But first we must really grasp all of what is at stake: nothing less than democracy itself.