Commentary

Abortion debate turns up the heat on a nation boiling over

May 12, 2022 12:03 am

Abortion-rights advocates stage a protest outside U.S. Associated Justice Samuel Alito’s house on May 09, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. In a leaked initial draft majority opinion obtained by Politico and authenticated by Chief Justice John Roberts, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey should be overturned, which would end federal protection of abortion rights across the country. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

America’s culture wars were already simmering over everything from COVID masking to school library book bans when POLITICO published the leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would reverse abortion rights protections women have enjoyed for 49 years.

That turned the burner up from simmer to a furious boil, and for good reason. The decision, if left unaltered from Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion, would criminalize, with few exceptions, abortions in some states – instantly in at least 13 of them with more Republican-ruled states racing to follow suit.

Abortion rights advocates, who had – or should have had – an inkling that this was coming since three right-wing jurists appointed by President Donald Trump tipped the court’s ideological balance, are outraged. Marches, pickets and vigils sprang up quickly. There were peaceful demonstrations near the homes of justices. In Virginia, students in dozens of high schools walked out of classrooms in protest.

Conservatives, evangelicals and MAGA voters who had awaited this moment since the 1970s were euphoric. They hailed the pending evisceration of a privacy right the Supreme Court held as the basis for its 1973 Roe decision. Some states seemed intent on pushing the issue further as Louisiana advanced legislation that would define abortion – at any point from conception on – as homicide and subject patients to murder charges.

Rage in American society is approaching dangerous levels. And, as Gov. Glenn Youngkin learned this week, the last place you want to be is the desolate terrain between entrenched, warring armies.

Youngkin’s measured response to the abortion rights protests outside Alito’s Mount Vernon home ensured that there was sufficient state and local law enforcement to guarantee the safety of Alito and his family. The protest was peaceful, something that could not be assumed in advance given a Molotov cocktail attack the night before on the office of a Wisconsin anti-abortion group and the arsonists’ chilling graffiti: “If abortions aren’t safe then you aren’t either.”

The staunchly anti-abortion Republican governor  made sure there was enough security to keep the demonstration orderly and protect both Alito and the First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” A reasonable person couldn’t ask for better.

But reason left this discourse long ago.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin attended Virginia’s fourth March for Life, an annual anti-abortion event held outside the Capitol, on April 27, 2022. (Kate Masters/ Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin’s actions drew visceral rebukes from the right wing of his own party, upset that he didn’t order an iron-fisted crackdown on the protest, according to a report from Salon. Some asserted that Youngkin had the authority to arrest protesters under a federal law, the constitutionality of which is debated among legal scholars. His failure to do so, one right-winger tweeted, was tantamount to abetting terrorism

Evidently, it brought the politically ambitious governor to heel. On Wednesday, Youngkin and fellow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who run states many justices call home, sent a joint letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the Justice Department secure the justices’ houses and enforce the federal statute. Youngkin later took a significantly harsher tone in a Fox News interview and then tweeted it for good measure afterward. 

Things are no gentler on the other side where urging restraint can get you burnt, especially if suggested by someone without a uterus. Bearing a long legacy of lower pay and less advancement for the same work as men, workplace harassment and worse, the impending loss of their reproductive autonomy has left women in no mood to hear from men how they should channel their anger. It matters not that they’re friendly admonitions against actions that allow adversaries – reeling since the leaked opinion was published – to invert the political narrative and gain a tactical advantage.

Consider the aftermath of a Minneapolis cop’s broad-daylight curbside murder of George Floyd two years ago. The righteous railing against intolerable racial injustice was subverted by calls from the far left to “defund the police.”

Republicans amplified and leveraged “defund” to stain all Democrats, including the vast majority of those who rejected the idea, crippling what appeared to be a 2020 “blue tsunami” poised to expand the party’s sizeable U.S. House majority and deliver a filibusterproof Senate majority. The result was a spare Democratic House majority and a 50-50 Senate split that effectively allows GOP-friendly West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to single-handedly doom most any bill he wants.

“Defund” still haunted Virginia Democrats last fall as it helped the GOP win its first statewide election in a dozen years, giving Republicans the governor’s, lieutenant governor’s and attorney general’s offices plus the House of Delegates. Thus, the future of abortion rights in Virginia, at least through 2023, resides with one abortion-averse male Democrat, state Sen. Joe Morrissey, if Alito’s draft becomes final and restrictive legislation reaches the Senate floor.

Rage is easy. It feels good in the moment. But in the real world, rash actions taken in anger cause electoral harm. And elections matter. The right-wing court that is about to overturn Roe and end a half-century of legal protection for abortion rights is a direct consequence of the 2016 election.

Gov. Youngkin, you did the right thing before realizing you’d riled your party base and did a humbling walkback. But by allowing the peaceful demonstration to proceed, it was a one-day story, not another historic horror show of Virginia cops in riot gear busting heads on a public street as teargas suffuses a bucolic neighborhood. We can only hope your judgment is as sound if there’s a next time.

Both sides in this struggle should remember that anger is a beneficial companion until it slips its leash.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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