Opinion: The Fight for Abortion Rights … and for Our Democracy

Abortion
Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020. Photo by Robin Bravender.

By Diana Philip

The writer is a former executive director and lobbyist of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland and serves as chief of staff of the national coalition, the Democracy Initiative.

Once again, abortion rights supporters in Maryland and across the country are holding angry rallies out of concern for the most recent threats to Roe v. Wade. Yes, again.

Emboldened by the Trump/Pence administration, state legislatures continue to pass a record number of anti-abortion bills each year. During the early months of the pandemic, governors and attorneys general in conservative states acted quickly to block abortion access by declaring it as “nonessential” health care. Since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we now face an anti-abortion super-majority U.S. Supreme Court.

Why should Marylanders care? For several years, an increasing number of patients have been traveling to Maryland for abortion care, and if Roe falls, the number will spike.

Maryland is one of 17 states with statutory protections, which was no small feat for us after the 1991 legislation turned into a ballot referendum with 62% of voters in 1992 affirming the right to abortion care.

State governments hostile to abortion rights have been waiting for the ideal climate to test the waters — but how far can they go? Pending challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court include a “bounty hunter” Texas law threatening anyone assisting a patient with abortion access after six weeks, and another seeking to eliminate previable later abortion care in Mississippi. If we cannot rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the legal right to abortion, can we count on Congress to step in?

Let’s get real — this other trouble began way before the 2016 elections. Throughout the 20th Century, the filibuster was used to undermine civil rights legislation. Major hopes of the Obama/Biden administration were dashed when the U.S. Senate began its abuse of the “Jim Crow” filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to end debate on a bill and move to vote.

Simply electing senators to represent our values and best interests with goals toward fair representation by “majority rule” is no more. With margins so narrow, a single senator can be enough to discourage the majority leader from having a bill introduced.

If we want to protect access to abortion, we must fix or nix the filibuster.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would put the protections of Roe v. Wade into federal law. But the bill faces the threat of filibuster, as do the Violence Against Women Act, Equal Rights Amendment, Paycheck Fairness Act and The Equality Act (which will extend civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity).

If none of those are your fight, don’t forget the myriad issues that affect the health and safety of our bodies — such as police reform, immigration rights, climate change, racial justice and gun violence. Oh, and yes, voting rights. The For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the latest initiative to protect our democracy, the Freedom to Vote Act, will also face a filibuster when it comes to the Senate floor.

There are no coincidences in the coordinated attacks against voting rights and abortion rights. These are designed to dismantle our democracy, while disproportionally silencing communities of color, LGBTQ individuals, and low-income adults and youth, worsening the abilities of the vulnerable and disenfranchised to meet basic needs and act in their best interests. In the abortion care community, we speak openly how our nation is divided into states with abortion access and those without — and those without are the same states struggling with voting rights.

Until a few weeks ago, I served as the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. Before moving to Maryland in 2007, I worked as an advocate for civil liberties, reproductive rights and survivors of gender violence in Texas for 15 years.

It was a tough state for me, as I found it difficult to advocate for people who seemed to constantly vote for elected officials against their own best interests. However, now that I understand how detrimental voter suppression and disinformation truly can be, and with Congress currently paralyzed, it’s clear that attacks on our basic rights are a problem not just in one state, but in every state. It’s time for nationwide reform.

I recently have taken the role as chief of staff for the Democracy Initiative, a national coalition comprised of 75 labor, environmental and civil rights groups representing a combined 45 million people.

Founded in 2012, the Democracy Initiative is designed to expand access to the ballot, combat the influence of big money in politics and fix undemocratic Senate rules, such as that reckless filibuster. Each organization has its own specific mission, but all are united and unafraid to step up to safeguard our democracy.

Maryland has made statewide and local advancements regarding voter access and public funding of elections, but it can always do more and will benefit from federal protections. Congress now has an opportunity to carve the path forward with the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, which will require eliminating the filibuster rule.

To protect abortion rights, I am stepping up to protect democracy. Which aspect of bodily autonomy are you willing to protect?