Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book, “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
With the Supreme Court looking like it’s ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement is emboldened. And it’s coming for more than just one legal victory. Republican leaders have much more than Roe in their sights, but they are desperately trying to downplay that fact.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told USA Today a federal abortion ban was “possible.” But he walked those remarks back on Tuesday, saying the “sentiment” on Capitol Hill is abortion is an “issue to be dealt with at the state level – if we are, in fact, confronted with a final Supreme Court decision that throws this decision back into democratic processes.”
A federal abortion ban is a political impossibility at this moment, given there is a Democratic President in office. But the political landscape may not be impossible forever: Midterms are looming; there’s a presidential election in two years; and Republican-led states are going so wild with abortion restrictions that they’re radically redefining what’s possible when it comes to constraining reproductive rights.
Over and over again, feminists have been told we’re abortion Chicken Littles who should calm down because our warnings about Roe’s demise were hysterical. Now, the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe and set into motion a domino effect of draconian restrictions and ever-greater encroachments on sexual privacy and women’s freedoms that line up pretty squarely with what feminists were saying all along. So, you’ll excuse us if we’re not exactly buying what Mitch McConnell is selling.
And even if McConnell is now walking back his statement to say a federal ban isn’t on the table, that’s not the sentiment of much of his party, nor does it reflect the thinking of the anti-abortion movement more broadly.
As conservative state legislators scramble to pen and pass extreme abortions laws that will go in effect the moment Roe is overturned – including several with no exceptions for rape victims and at least one that treats women who end pregnancies as murderers – some of McConnell’s own colleagues are not content leaving this issue to the states – they’re busy drafting national legislation.
According to reporting in the Washington Post, Sen. Joni Ernst is prepared to introduce a bill that would outlaw abortion six weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period – before most women know they’re pregnant. And more than 100 House Republicans have already signed onto the Life at Conception Act, which extends equal protection under the 14th Amendment to a fertilized egg beginning at “the moment of fertilization or cloning, or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being.”
This strategy of restricting abortion at the state and federal levels has long been the plan. And for the religious right and their political representatives in the GOP, it’s also part of a larger vision of society – one that keeps White men at the top of the hierarchy. After White evangelical leaders realized enforcing racial segregation was a losing issue, they switched to abortion in the late 1970s. But while overturning Roe v. Wade – the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide – has long been a goal of the religious right, it has never been the endgame.
Leaders of the anti-abortion movement have been clear in their aims: They want to outlaw abortion nationwide with virtually no exceptions, including rape, incest or fetal abnormality. Some prominent anti-abortion activists and organizations go so far as to claim (quite falsely) that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life, and so exceptions for a pregnant woman’s life or health aren’t necessary, either.
The flat-out lies and the bad science don’t stop there.
“Life begins at conception” laws have vast consequences. There is, first and foremost, the fact that up to half of fertilized eggs don’t implant, and there’s no real way to know exactly when implantation happens. (This is one reason why pregnancy is counted from a person’s last menstrual period and why it’s defined as occurring at implantation, not fertilization).
Secondly, by redefining pregnancy as beginning at conception, the anti-abortion movement is sneakily trying to ban many common forms of contraception they say interrupt implantation of a fertilized egg. The medical consensus is the contraceptives most often targeted by the anti-abortion movement – emergency contraception and the IUD – work by preventing fertilization, not implantation. And other aspects of family planning could be affected as well: According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group, any law promulgating that life begins at the moment of fertilization would create a legal morass for parents planning to use IVF or other reproductive technology to conceive.
But none of that matters to many anti-abortion activists. Some of the biggest players in the movement, including Americans United for Life, which writes the model legislation for the anti-abortion and anti-contraception laws sweeping the US, claim the IUD is a “life-ending device.” Other prominent anti-abortion groups argue even the birth control pill is tantamount to abortion.
And conservatives – including those sitting on the Supreme Court – have been clear: It’s not just Roe that’s under threat but the entire line of cases decided under the longstanding view that the constitution includes a right to privacy. The first case to formally recognize that right was Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, the case that legalized contraception for married couples. Those in the anti-abortion movement doesn’t just want to overturn Roe; they want an end to the recognition of a constitutional privacy right, which would mean overturning Griswold and throwing cases that have protected consensual sex among adults and same-sex marriage into question.
The to-do list of the anti-abortion movement is long, and it extends far beyond abortion. The question now is how quickly it’ll move and how aggressively. As I’ve noted, a federal ban is a nonstarter as long as a Democrat is in the White House, but the anti-abortion movement and its extremist enablers in the Republican Party have eyes on winning a congressional majority in the 2022 midterm elections and the presidency in 2024.
There would still be hurdles to overcome, chief among them the 60-vote majority needed to override a filibuster in the Senate. Would banning abortion nationwide be tempting enough for Republicans to finagle an abortion-specific filibuster carve-out that would lower the vote threshold to 50? McConnell, for now, says no: “There are no issues which Senate Republicans believe should be exempt from the 60-vote threshold. In other words, there’s zero sentiment in the Republican Conference in the Senate to get rid of the filibuster,” he told reporters.
The question is whether anyone believes him. McConnell isn’t exactly trustworthy: Remember his appeals to fairness and consistency when he blocked Barack Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice during Obama’s last year in office? Those went out the window as soon as Donald Trump had the chance to appoint a judge in his last year. His appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat is exactly why we may be about to see Roe overturned. McConnell is not motivated by fairness, consistency or honesty; he’s motivated by power, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t wield it against abortion rights.
Democrats need to be a bulwark against Republican extremism. This year’s midterms are incredibly important, as is the presidential election in two years. But consistently shoring up emergency support to keep abortion somewhat legal for at least some women in the United States is not sustainable.
If the Supreme Court does move forward with overturning Roe, this is what’s coming: a country even further polarized and badly cleaved, with women’s lives, well-being and futures in peril. Expect more vicious fights, not just over abortion but also over contraception, marriage and consensual sex.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Despite a majority of Americans saying they want abortion to be legal, contraception available and marriage open to whichever consenting adults want to marry each other, we’re headed instead into a period of misogynist and reactionary minority rule.
Overturning Roe is just the beginning.