Supreme Court’s Abortion Ruling Shows What Happens When Democracy Is Thwarted
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Author: Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, et al.
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Brennan Center for Justice

There is a straight line from Amer­ica’s broken systems of demo­cracy to the Supreme Court’s cata­strophic major­ity ruling in Dobbs v. Jack­son Women’s Health. That’s because both abor­tion access and systems of civic parti­cip­a­tion and repres­ent­a­tion are essen­tial for autonomy and equal­ity.

Abor­tion enables people to exer­cise self-determ­in­a­tion over their bodies and their family lives so that they are not rendered second-class citizens by the unique burdens of preg­nancy and child­bear­ing. A func­tion­ing demo­cracy protects these very same values: polit­ical self-determ­in­a­tion requires voters to be able to effect­ively choose who governs, and the ballot lets voters defend them­selves against policies that threaten their rights. 

Below, Bren­nan Center experts exam­ine these fail­ings and what lies ahead.

Fair Elections and Reproductive Freedom Go Hand in Hand

By Ian Vandewalker

The move­ments to elim­in­ate abor­tion and restrict the vote are both under­girded by many of the same power­ful forces. Before it over­turned Roe v. Wade, the conser­vat­ive major­ity on the Supreme Court spent the past decade slash­ing campaign finance laws, hobbling the Voting Rights Act, and allow­ing partisan gerry­man­der­ing.

Today, many states that have enacted restrict­ive voting laws, like Arizona, Geor­gia, and Texas, have also pushed constraints on abor­tion access. And major corpor­a­tions like AT&T and Coca-Cola have made dona­tions to state lawmakers who advance both voter suppres­sion and abor­tion restric­tions.

Anti-abor­tion rhet­oric is even show­ing up in campaigns for secret­ary of state, a posi­tion that has no role in the regu­la­tion of health care. In Arizona and Michigan, elec­tion denial candid­ates running on lies about the 2020 race being “stolen” from Trump have also weighed in on the abor­tion debate.

In our post-Roe, post-Dobbs future, protect­ing and expand­ing access to abor­tion neces­sar­ily entails parti­cip­at­ing in the fight for fair elec­tions. Every­one who values autonomy and equal­ity must redouble their commit­ment to both.

In Many States, Gerrymandering Blocks the Abortion Policy the Public Wants

By Sonali Seth and Michael Li

The major­ity opin­ion in Dobbs asserts that women need not worry about the impact of the decision on repro­duct­ive autonomy because they can turn to the polit­ical process and vote out lawmakers who pass abor­tion restric­tions and bans. But the real­ity is that by fail­ing to rein in partisan gerry­man­der­ing and consist­ently gutting voting rights protec­tions, the Supreme Court has rendered that impossible.  

Consider Texas, home to one of the nation’s most restrict­ive and contro­ver­sial abor­tion laws. Partis­ans there aggress­ively redrew legis­lat­ive maps during last year’s redis­trict­ing to trans­form a once compet­it­ive state legis­lature into a safely Repub­lican one. Before, Demo­crats only needed to win a little more than half the vote to be favored to win control of the Texas House. After brazen redraw­ing of the maps, they now need to win more than 56.2 percent of the vote to be favored to win even a bare major­ity. Mean­while, Repub­lic­ans only need 43.9 percent for a major­ity.  

Such game rigging to create unac­count­able endur­ing partisan major­it­ies — green­lit by the Supreme Court in 2019 in Rucho v. Common Cause — stands in stark contrast with maps drawn by more neut­ral bodies.

For instance, in Michigan, the inde­pend­ent commis­sion created by voters conver­ted maps that had been biased in favor of Repub­lic­ans into ones where both major parties have a reas­on­able chance to win control. Like­wise, in North Caro­lina, state courts rely­ing on the state consti­tu­tion threw out maps designed to guar­an­tee Repub­lic­ans a super­ma­jor­ity and put in place a balanced altern­at­ive, making it much less likely that Repub­lic­ans will be able to over­ride a gubernat­orial veto.  

Unfor­tu­nately, the Supreme Court has abdic­ated respons­ib­il­ity for making sure that the checks and balances in our demo­cratic system work. It is now up to voters to fight for reforms — at both the state and federal level — to ensure voters can, in fact, make their voices heard when politi­cians get it wrong.

The Supreme Court Has Undermined the Tools It Says Can Be Used to Protect Abortion Rights

By Madiba Dennie

The Supreme Court has dealt a crit­ical blow to both bodily and polit­ical autonomy. Recog­niz­ing the over­whelm­ing popular­ity of abor­tion rights and public support for the preced­ent of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s major­ity offers the fran­chise as a rotten olive branch of sorts: the opin­ion para­dox­ic­ally suggests citizens in each state can vote about the legal­ity of abor­tion while simul­tan­eously ignor­ing the Court’s own role in dismant­ling crucial voting protec­tions and making people’s full citizen­ship condi­tional on their repro­duct­ive status. 

Among a host of damaging decisions, two stand out. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court hollowed out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, dramat­ic­ally weak­en­ing the federal govern­ment’s abil­ity to prevent discrim­in­at­ory laws from going into effect. Then in Brnovich v. DNC, the Court gutted Section 2, hinder­ing voters from chal­len­ging these laws in court after enact­ment. 

The Supreme Court’s open hostil­ity toward voting rights and abor­tion rights has enabled a surge of laws under­min­ing both. Last year, for instance, 18 states passed 34 laws making it harder to vote, account­ing for over one-third of all restrict­ive voting laws passed in more than a decade. These state laws are curtail­ing the polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion of people of color. And at least 16 states have passed laws banning abor­tion before viab­il­ity, inten­tion­ally defy­ing the consti­tu­tional stand­ard espoused in Roe.

Perversely, communit­ies of color are dispro­por­tion­ately harmed by both forms of restric­tions. And the consequences are troub­lingly connec­ted. As the Supreme Court once recog­nized — and as data has since borne out — abor­tion is essen­tial to “the abil­ity of women to parti­cip­ate equally in the economic and social life of the nation.” Voting, too, is crit­ical for people’s abil­ity to parti­cip­ate in their soci­opol­it­ical community and exer­cise some say over the governance of their lives. Voter suppres­sion and state repro­duct­ive control are, there­fore, mutu­ally rein­for­cing, work­ing in tandem to curb civic and polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion, espe­cially for women of color.


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