Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a British writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has spent the last several weeks battling disturbing accusations of sexual violence, is now one of the most powerful people in America. While his appointment to the US Supreme Court is devastating for much of the population, it is easy to forget what a triumphant victory it represents for many others.
Upon hearing the news of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, a West Virginia city councilman named Eric Barber posted to a private Facebook group: “Better get you’re (sic) coat hangers ready liberals.”
Barber, who is a devout Christian, was referring to a sometimes lethal (and by no means extinct) method of DIY abortion used by desperate women for whom safer legal methods are not available. He later deleted the comment. A fellow councilman has since come forward to say that Barber’s post was a callback to an incident in Washington earlier this autumn, when a pro-choice activist threw a coat hanger in his face. Barber, who quit the Democratic Party last year citing its “anti-Christian rhetoric,” has yet to apologize for his remarks.
Barber’s language is extreme, but many Americans agree with his basic sentiment that abortion is wrong, and that nominally religious values ought to be reflected in the political discourse. It is no wonder, then, that he and so many others are delighted with the Supreme Court’s newest appointee.
On the flipside, the potential for regressive, draconian reform which now rests in Kavanaugh’s hands should shock and galvanize every young person who has hitherto taken their rights for granted. And while there is little the American public can now do about the Supreme Court, it will soon have a say in the makeup of Congress in the midterm elections. This is the remaining opportunity to dilute what might otherwise become an entirely conservative federal government.
According to a June poll, only 28% of young voters say they will definitely vote in the midterms, compared with 74% of seniors. When it comes to issues like reproductive rights, which do not directly affect the elderly, this disparity leaves young people incredibly vulnerable to the whims of people who will not have to live with the consequences of their vote.
Young voters – even those registered as independent – are much more likely to lean toward the Democrats, who are mostly supportive of abortion, and for whom turnout will be key in the midterms. And there is some good news – in the latest CNN poll, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters say they are enthusiastic to vote in November. The most recent red wash of the executive and judiciary arms of government should therefore inspire serious urgency in young Americans to hit the ballot boxes and affect the legislature where they can.
Kavanaugh gives supporters of abortion reason to worry. In a 2003 memo, Kavanaugh wrote that the Supreme Court “can always overrule” Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing a woman’s right to legally terminate pregnancies anywhere in the United States. (Before Roe, women could legally get abortions in some states.) Last year, Kavanaugh called late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who notably voted against Roe in 1973, his “first judicial hero,” and lauded his efforts to stem “the general tide of freewheeling judicial creation of unenumerated rights”.
He also replaces Anthony Kennedy, a center-right and broadly socially liberal justice who has wielded the decisive vote in rulings, including the upholding of Roe v. Wade. In his absence, and with Kavanaugh in situ, the court will likely roll back a number of progressive rulings, including those concerning abortion rights.
Abortion hasn’t always been such a partisan issue. Until the mid-1970s, the majority of Republicans favored abortion rights, favoring all the self-determinism that position represented. The need to mollify the religious right saw a gradual shift toward the anti-abortion stance today’s millennials most associate with the party. What might once have been a matter for individual social conscience is now a definitive political marker. As such, the Republicans are now almost completely united in their mission to scale back progressive abortion laws, and President Donald Trump has made it clear that he intends to spearhead the endeavor.
Reports vary, but it is generally agreed that over half of Americans under 30 are pro-abortion. And even with Roe v. Wade in place, several states have begun to impose restrictions on abortion. West Virginia, where the coat hanger-celebrating Barber is a councilman, is one of seven states which currently have just one abortion clinic. The fact that anti-abortion politicians have already made such headway in removing options for pregnant women should be of acute concern to the pro-abortion population, not least because of the broader social injustice it represents.
Any measures to restrict abortion disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and as abortion rights were restricted, internet searches about self-induced abortions nearly doubled. And black women seek abortions at five times the rate of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which puts them at even greater risk when their rights are restricted.
And it’s important to remember that punitive measures don’t deter women from attempting DIY abortions, but they do make them more hazardous. Self-induced abortions, even those managed with pills rather than invasive measures, are very dangerous.
Americans’ reproductive rights were under threat long before Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but his presence in the Supreme Court could accelerate their dissolution aggressively. And as Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, made clear this week, Kavanaugh’s appointment and confirmation to the Supreme Court is just one component of a broader Republican assault on women’s bodily autonomy.
Asked whether Trump was upholding his promise to work toward getting Roe v. Wade overturned, she said: “He’s nominating people – 26 to the US Circuit courts and two to the United States Supreme Court – who are going to apply the law.” She stressed that the state would tackle late-term abortion and sex-selection abortion, and “look at abortion after nonpartisan scientists and doctors say a fetus can feel pain.”
In short, if the Republicans maintain control of Congress, that could prove the nail in the coffin for federal-mandated reproductive rights. Young people who were not born before Roe v. Wade could discover a grim world of DIY abortions, already familiar to many of America’s poor and disenfranchised, if their states pass strict anti-abortion laws. While this is more likely to occur in red states, some blue states have not yet passed laws protecting abortion. It is not only “liberals” who want or need abortions, as Barber’s disgusting Facebook post suggested earlier this week. The option needs to be safely, legally available to all American women.
The majority of young voters agree, but unless they turn out to vote, their voices will go unheard. The Eric Barbers of America will celebrate their final, definitive triumph.