Common conceptualizations of democracy emphasize the importance of government and institutions in protecting the rights of marginalized people. In a democracy, laws are meant to apply equally to everyone and protect individual rights. More specific academic definitions have merit and are useful, but the power that these more individually focused conceptions have in people’s minds and in practice should not be overlooked. In the United States, the protection of people’s rights and liberties by government is enshrined in the Constitution, and therefore any attempt to erode that protection must be understood as an erosion of democratic principles and protections.
When democracy is understood as a protection of rights and freedoms, a removal of civil rights and government protection of any of those freedoms can be seen as the erosion of democracy. There is currently no clearer lens through which to view this issue than the question of unfettered access to reproductive healthcare. In Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the anti-majoritarian United States Supreme Court rejected the long held precedent that the protections of individual and civil rights laid out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights includes federal protection for access to abortion care, and that such care should be a fundamental civil right. This piece does not attempt to address the Constitutional validity of the Supreme Court’s claims in the Dobbs opinion, but rather address the ways in which the decision has harmed millions, and in doing so has eroded liberties inherent in democracy.
Both the Constitution, and the broadly held definition of democracy are important in understanding what democracy should be. The Dobbs decision not only removes many legal protections for reproductive health care, but also creates a system which ignores the intersectionality, and realities of the issue. In a democracy, every person should be protected by the law equally. Abortion care is only illegal in certain states, this alone creates a system where care will only be available to a select population. The rich will always be able to access the care they need, but the poor will be left out. This is inherently anti-democratic, and only serves to erode democratic principles that should be inherent in American democracy. Where abortion care is still legal, many clinics are legally required to have multi-day waiting periods, among other policies, that cause abortions to become extremely expensive, and impossible for people who are unable to get time off from work, need childcare, or simply don’t have access to cars. For example in Texas, “someone making minimum wage ($7.25 an hour …) would have to put about 3.5 hours’ worth of earnings toward the cost of gas to cover the additional one-way cost of travel …. That amounts to a full day’s earnings solely to pay for the additional amount of gas for each round trip. For anyone traveling to a state that requires multiple trips to an abortion provider, the financial burden is even higher.”
Abortions will continue to happen in illicit clinics and in homes, but the people who receive care in those settings have a much higher likelihood of injury, permanent damage, or even death. The current policies only protect the rights of the rich, and often the White, making abortion care increasingly difficult to access to those who don’t fit into either of these groups. Those with financial means will always be able to access abortion care, while those without are denied that care.
One of the supposed cornerstones of American democracy, and often democracy in general, is the idea that this protection of freedoms should extend to religion. High levels of societal religion are not anti-democratic, but the broad imposition of that religion on the masses who might not share it certainly is. The United States is a secular country with the freedom to practice any religion, or none at all expressly set forth in the 1st amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. However, much of the moral reasoning for the Dobbs decision was found in religious beliefs. Many argue against abortion using a so called ‘moral framework’ which frames the legitimate healthcare procedure, that is backed by science, as murder based on religious beliefs. Justice Scalia, one of the anti-choice movement’s champions said it best – “There is of course no way to determine that as a legal matter; it is in fact a value judgment.” Scalia perfectly encapsulates the reasoning, and reality behind the influence of religion. The high level of religion in the country should not be a reason to impose those values onto those who do not subscribe to them, as it violates the founding principles of this country. These actions are blatantly contrary to democratic principles.
Many democratic countries in Latin and South America have similarities to the United States, both in their high degree of religiosity, and in the influence that their constitutional courts have regarding reproductive rights policy. Many countries in this region also subscribe to the broad definition of democracy discussed above. In Mexico, their Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional. This set the stage for the challenge of other restrictive laws across the country, and created a substantial foundation for future progress. In Colombia, abortion activists have been organizing in the streets for decades. They set the foundation for the ‘feminist green wave’ that swept the country with the early 2022 court verdict that decriminalized abortion, and legalized the procedure until the 24th week of pregnancy. In Argentina, abortion was formaly legalized in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. In Brazil, there is a case pending before the constitutional court that could lead to the same outcome. Despite the Catholic Church’s most powerful figure, Pope Francis, having come out against abortions, many Catholic countries across the region continue to move towards legalization. This move by these countries shows true progress, and an expansion of democracy and democratic values, unlike the United States.
Some politicians running for office in the 2022 United States midterm elections have taken this democratic erosion further. They have centered their campaigns around rhetoric which removes the agency from individuals and places it in the hands of local political leaders. Dr. Mehmet Oz, Pennsylvania Senate Candidate, was quoted on the issue of abortion rights, as saying that he wants “women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves”. Essentially Oz is arguing here that ‘local political leaders’ should get a say in private healthcare decisions, limiting the rights and liberties that should be inherent in a democratic system. Democracy is not democracy if it doesn’t apply equally to everyone. If only some are granted bodily autonomy, then many are denied the protections that should be inherent in living under a democratic system. The expansion of reproductive rights in Latin and South America represents a democratic expansion when democracy is conceptualized as a protection of rights. The opposite is true for the United States where recent Supreme Court decisions and political rhetoric have eroded democracy by removing protections for individual rights and liberties. As many Columbian feminists began saying in 2022, it is time for the Global South to become an example for the Global North, the reverse of the pattern established in Roe v. Wade where the North led the way in terms of the expansion of abortion access and democratic values.