HomeLearning CenterSo Goes Reproductive Freedom, So Goes Democracy

So Goes Reproductive Freedom, So Goes Democracy

Originally published by Laleh Ispahani And Jennifer Weiss-Wolf for Ms. Magazine

When people consider what it means to be a democracy on the decline, plot points of the recent film Civil War come to mind: a U.S. president who disregards the Constitution to nab a third term. Crackdowns on dissent and the media. Leaders using the military to break up public demonstrations.

While that is, of course, representative of growing authoritarianism, recent history suggests that rollbacks on bodily autonomy and reproductive freedoms are also flashing red lights for would-be regimes. 

Elected authoritarians undermine the rule of law by positioning themselves as defenders of traditional values, spreading misinformation, and stacking the judiciary with their political allies.

  • In Hungary, far-right leader Victor Orbán has prioritized bans on gender studies and school materials deemed “LGBTQ propaganda.”
  • In Brazil, former President Bolsonaro attacked the press, sabotaged voting systems, and repeatedly clashed with the judiciary; under his leadership, Brazilian lawmakers introduced dozens of bills to restrict abortion. 

The standing of the United States among modern democracies also has continued to ebb. The capture of the federal courts and installation of a conservative supermajority on the U.S. Supreme Court not only sounded the death knell for Roe v. Wade but ushered in the chaotic judicial aftermath we are now experiencing—with not one but two abortion cases back on the Court’s docket this term. 

The anti-democratic through-line points toward fissures in other aspects of free and fair representation. A majority (67 percent) of Americans who live in states where abortion is banned want the procedure to be legal; that can only be seen as an abject failure of democratic systems and structures. This is further reflected in states where abortion has been on the ballot (going six-for-six); people overwhelmingly voted to restore abortion rights where gerrymandered legislatures would have otherwise passed and enforced bans. Moreover, the introduction of nearly 400 anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country hardly reflects the priorities and will of the majority of voters. 

Reproductive rights do not exist in a vacuum. Bodily autonomy is inextricably linked to the integrity and durability of the body politic—with threats to one reinforcing threats to the other. Targeting women leaders like Maria Ressa and Suyen Barahona, has proved a powerful political tool for illiberal leaders, a bargaining chip that not only helps them gain power but consolidate and maintain it. 

For Trump and Bolsonaro, anti-abortion stances enabled them to forge alliances with evangelical Christians, which helped to elect them. Trump, now the presumptive nominee, has bragged about his role in overturning Roe, even as he attempts to distance himself from some of the most regressive new state bills (or in the case of Arizona, renewed from 1864). 

Seeking to court evangelical voters, he recently told TIME Magazine that he wouldn’t commit to saying whether states could monitor or punish women who have abortions. 

“Misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills,” writes Harvard Kennedy School’s (and Ms. contributor) Erica Chenoweth. In other words, leveraging these in tandem is a key tactic in the authoritarian playbook. 

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