My Turn: ‘Bigger than Dobbs’: So many rights at risk

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. AP PHOTO/MARIAM ZUHAIB


Published: 06-16-2024 8:12 PM


June 24 will be the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s earthshaking decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Reversing nearly five decades of precedent supporting Roe, six Republican-appointed justices appealed to “history and tradition” to argue that there was no constitutional basis for securing a woman’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy.

This was, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the first time in history that the court “eliminated a right grounded in personal liberty.” Of course the Constitution was written at a time when Black persons were enslaved and most women were virtually the property of their husbands, so “history and tradition” takes no account of the basic rights of members of these (and other) groups — one reason why this “principle” is repudiated by most contemporary jurists.

The court’s decision was said to “return to the states” the question of abortion regulation. While this has the veneer of supporting democracy, in practice it puts the health of anyone needing reproductive care at the mercy of state legislatures, too many of which have been rendered grossly unrepresentative by Republican gerrymandering.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 41 states have enacted some kind of abortion ban, with 14 banning abortion outright. There are racial and class dimensions to this geographical inequity: Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women are more likely than white women to live in states with such bans, and persons with low incomes residing in such states have less ability to travel to states where they can obtain the care they need.

It’s clear that the Dobbs majority justices want to roll back most of the court’s rulings on privacy and personal liberty, particularly in the area of sexuality and gender justice. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Dobbs, asserted that the court has a duty to “correct the errors” that established rights to contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut), to homosexual activity (Lawrence v. Texas) and to homosexual marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges).

Justice Samuel Alito, in his majority opinion, chillingly advises us to scale back our expectations of personal freedom: “In interpreting what is meant by the Fourteenth Amendment’s reference to ‘liberty,’ we must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what the Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.”

But the crisis facing us now in America is “bigger than Dobbs.” The current attacks on reproductive autonomy are part of an even larger, more general assault on democracy itself. We are already seeing ominous crackdowns on peaceful citizen protest, vital to a healthy democracy, such as attacks on protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota in 2016, violent actions by state troopers on “Cop City” protesters in Atlanta in 2023, and, close to home at the University of Massachusetts, the recent outrageous police assault on a peaceful encampment protesting the war in Gaza.

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Many other democratic rights are at risk. Should Donald Trump win the 2024 election, his conservative coalition has drafted a plan known as “Project 2025” that details plans to outlaw the expression of progressive opinion not only on issues of sexuality, but on matters of race and diversity.

The plan would dismantle the federal government’s existing administrative departments of health, education, welfare, labor and environmental protection by politicizing appointees and rewriting these departments’ goals. Project 2025 openly seeks to eliminate separation of church and state, pursuing “Christian Nationalist” goals. These include enshrining “fetal personhood” and prioritizing it over the well-being of pregnant persons, rolling back LGBTQ rights and stigmatizing single motherhood.

The rights of workers to organize and unionize will be curtailed, immigrants will be deported and asylum seekers arrested, and educators who speak of “critical race theory” will be disciplined or fired. (New York Times reporter Carlos Lozada has written a detailed analysis of this plan:

We are members of a coalition of organizations who want to move forward to challenge the war on women, democracy and humanity. In recognition of the second anniversary of the Dobbs decision, we will be holding a demonstration, “Bigger Than Dobbs” on Sunday, June 23 at noon on the Greenfield Town Common. Many of us will wear white to honor the U.S. suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote, or a green ribbon or sash to stand with the Green Wave feminist movement in Latin America for abortion rights and against violence against women. Please come!

Louise Antony is a professor of philosophy emerita, University of Massachusetts, and Ann Ferguson is a professor of philosophy and women gender sexuality studies, University of Massachusetts. They are members of the Reproductive Justice Task Force of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution and live in Leverett.