Gerrymandering is secret weapon for US anti-abortion movement

The majority of Americans support legal abortion, however, redistricting has allowed extremism to flourish without fear of repercussion, writes Meaghan Winter
Gerrymandering is secret weapon for US anti-abortion movement

Abortion rights supporters gather to protest Texas SB 8 in front of Edinburg City Hall in Texas last month. The nation's most far-reaching curb on abortions since they were legalised a half-century ago took effect in Texas, with the Supreme Court silent on an emergency appeal to put the law on hold. Picture: Joel Martinez/The Monitor/AP

America is at a crossroads when it comes to abortion. 

In 2021, state legislatures have passed an unprecedented 106 anti-abortion bills. 

State lawmakers in five states are preparing legislation similar to Texas’ SB 8, an effective total abortion ban that enshrines a new kind of vigilantism directed at medical providers and private citizens.

In this dangerous moment, supporters of legal abortion in the US must understand that raising our voices is not going to change anything unless we also push for major, immediate democratic reforms including ending the filibuster, enshrining federal voting rights, expanding the supreme court, and establishing fair redistricting.

I understand why those goals may simultaneously seem too wonky to follow and too ambitious to achieve.

But we cannot fight for abortion rights without first repairing our democracy, because we will continue to lose.

The conservative movement and its ideological and corporate patrons have locked in structural power at nearly every level of government, and our lawmakers don’t need to be responsive to public opinion or even long-enshrined civil and human rights. 

Agitation for democratic reform 

If we’re going to have any chance of protecting ourselves and each other, on numerous urgent fronts, we need to agitate for immediate, ambitious democratic reforms that will ensure that our courts uphold our rights, and our elected officials are responsive to the will of the people. Otherwise, our rallies are collective screams into the void.

Many abortion rights supporters have moved away from calling themselves “pro-choice” and instead have embraced the reproductive justice model, which defines itself as a movement to ensure the human right to bodily autonomy and to parent or not parent in a safe and sustainable community. 

Current threats to our democracy make clear the struggles for reproductive freedom, voting rights, and economic, racial and climate justice are inextricably linked.

When I first began reporting on abortion in 2013, when I’d ask abortion rights advocates why anti-abortion state lawmakers seemed unafraid of running afoul of the majority of the American public, which supports legal abortion, they would answer, “gerrymandering”.

As I soon learned, because Republicans have gerrymandered districts in states across the US, it no longer matters whether their policies defy most voters’ beliefs and needs, because incumbents’ seats are safe almost no matter what.

What we’re seeing now accelerated after the 2010 election, which had existential ramifications for our democracy only now becoming visible. 

Ahead of that election, during an all-important redistricting year, the Republican party and conservative and corporate donors heavily invested in state-level elections so that they could gerrymander and give themselves a competitive advantage for a decade. 

It worked; they flipped legislative chambers across the country, and states started ramping up their envelope-pushing anti-abortion bills, as well as voting restrictions designed to make it more difficult for voters to throw them out of office.

In 2020, Democrats failed to flip a single state-level chamber. 

Republicans now control 30 legislatures during yet another redistricting year, jeopardising any chance of a progressive agenda in many states as well as Democratic control of Congress next year.

Marchers at the Texas Women for Reproductive Rights rally and march earlier this month in Brownsville, Texas. The march is part of a national call by Women's March and other allies to mobilise and defend reproductive rights across the nation. Picture: Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald/AP
Marchers at the Texas Women for Reproductive Rights rally and march earlier this month in Brownsville, Texas. The march is part of a national call by Women's March and other allies to mobilise and defend reproductive rights across the nation. Picture: Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald/AP

As states begin passing ever more extreme abortion restrictions and even bans, there’s little reason to believe that the courts will stop them unless Congress gets serious about reforming the court system.

During the Trump administration, Republicans installed an unprecedented number of federal judges, many of them open ideologues with little experience on the bench, reshaping the judiciary for a generation. 

And Mitch McConnell blocked Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, changed the Senate rules for confirming justices to push through Neil Gorsuch, ushered through the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh despite credible accusations of sexual assault against him, and rushed through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett while voting in the 2020 election had already begun.

Radical takeover of courts

The radical takeover of the courts was not a random fluke but the result of careful plotting and hundreds of millions of dollars investment by rightwing ideologues and billionaires — the same kind of long-term strategising to change the rules of the game their allies used to gerrymander states and congressional districts.

In other words, the same movement of extreme, partisan donors and strategists behind the radical state laws has also installed federal judges and supreme court justices who are poised to uphold those laws. 

The issue isn’t whether expanding the supreme court will throw into doubt the court’s legitimacy; the supreme court is already partisan and ideological and therefore illegitimate. 

What’s needed now is a major and swift corrective.

That brings us to Congress. What about a federal law enshrining abortion rights? 

To achieve that — and so much more, including expanding the supreme court — Congress needs to end the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 members of the Senate to pass legislation instead of 50.

Our current Senate delivers nothing close to fair representation, which, as I write this, is on painful display as Republicans have filibustered yet another urgently needed voting rights bill, while two Democratic senators representing small states have killed provisions in the Build Back Better package that are “pro-life” in the most literal sense — in support of healthcare and a viable planet. 

To have any chance of achieving reproductive justice in this country, we need to agitate for our members of Congress to end the filibuster now.

It’s time to re-examine what we consider pragmatic. 

Sticking with the status quo means surrendering to the profound irony that a movement that branded itself as “pro-life” has helped usher in a ruling class committed not only to stripping away the social safety net but also doubling down on fossil fuels and imperiling the very existence of life on Earth.

Trying to advocate for reproductive justice without also demanding that our lawmakers immediately reform our voting laws, Congress, and the courts that have been rigged by corporate and authoritarian interest groups isn’t practical or hopeful — it’s misguided if not delusional. 

Instead, supporters of abortion rights must join the chorus calling to end the filibuster and expand the supreme court.

  • Meaghan Winter is a freelance writer and author of All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States.
  • Guardian

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.229 s