You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
fight or flight

Democrats Can Go Scorched Earth on Abortion Rights, or Go Home

Don’t ask me again for my vote if you’re just going to sleepwalk through the end of reproductive freedom—and democracy.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confer with each other.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

“I feel like Senate Democrats care exponentially less about keeping my doctors out of jail than Republicans care about putting them there.” 

This is what I wrote in an email to a senior Senate Democratic aide in February 2020, hours after the end of a Senate Judiciary hearing on “The Infant Patient: Ensuring Appropriate Medical Care for Children Born Alive,” one of the litany of anti-women, anti-family, and anti-science bills cooked up by Republicans at the federal level, which have since metastasized at the state level in the form of bills that criminalize not just abortion but also any birth that could result in doctors counseling, or families opting, for palliative care for their infants born with no chance at life.

I think about this email often, as it came at such a critical time in both my personal life and our national politics. In February 2020, we were weeks away from Covid-19 arriving in the United States. The epidemic has since claimed nearly a million American lives: a death toll exponentially worsened by Republicans, who have used their years-long, self-fulfilling campaign to break the government as kindling for an uncontrollable pandemic fire. Fueled by their anti-science propaganda machine, the right has set the false national narrative that there’s nothing the government can do to save lives or protect the vulnerable. The latter idea, of course, is a playbook Republicans learned could work for them, like an ace in the pocket, on abortion.

Personally, I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy, after losing our first son the previous August when I went into irreversible labor at almost 23 weeks. I’ve never been the kind of person who has needed to experience being marginalized to believe in protecting the rights of those who need them most, but when you’re in labor for hours, waiting for the unfortunate and inevitable outcome of delivering an unviable baby, all you have is your thoughts. What I kept thinking about was a January 2019 controversy in which Republicans demonized then-Virginia Governor Ralph Northam—an actual medical doctor!for saying: “There may be a fetus that’s nonviable. So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

The reason I recalled these words at that moment was simply because they described everything I was going through, in sequence. Those words were also the seeds that sprouted a million bad-faith anti-abortion bills seeking to criminalize doctors and nurses just like mine. Lying in a hospital bed as a white woman in Chicago, I understood, even in my grief, how privileged I was. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine the fault lines stretching from my room across neighboring red states in the Midwest, where an untold number of women would not share in my luck.

I committed to myself in that moment that the next Republican to say anything about “Born Alive Abortion” legislation would prompt my public response. It took less than a week after my discharge from the hospital for House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy to tweet something completely unhinged and for me to quote-tweet him in turn.

In 2019, I had set my sights—and my ire—in the direction of Republican lawmakers. In retrospect, however, my most futile fights have been with Democrats, who I thought would be able to see and understand the changing political world around us. Instead, they plodded on like everything was normal, ignoring the three-alarm fire for both women and democracy. I regret not taking them on more publicly and sooner.

Which brings me back to the email I sent to that top Democratic aide in February 2020, after this little-noticed Senate Judiciary hearing in which Republicans Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas tipped their hand at the kind of divorced-from-reality, red-meat-for-the-GOP-base conspiracy theories the world would see in 2022 during the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

/  Free Pick of the Week: Homeland Security’s New Disinformation Board Is a Bad Idea, Just Not for the Reason Tucker Carlson Says It Is.

The email and, frankly, how easily it was dismissed by its recipient, haunts me, particularly from the vantage point of today, when Roe v. Wade is, at best, functionally not the law of the land after Texas’s vigilante abortion law was upheld by the Supreme Court in Whole Women’s Health in December 2021 and, at worst, on track to be obliterated by the upcoming Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision this summer.

I wrote:

“Republicans [find] every avenue to promote anti-science propaganda, including now the [Senate Judiciary Committee], and [even] when there’s only one side that’s right—the side of science—and Democrats concede it up front, Republican senators go unchallenged and right-wing media outlets that exclusively cover these topics go unchecked. 

I get that it can be easy for Democrats to be dismissive of hearings you might consider bullshit, and of course what is being attempted here is that. But to not take Republicans seriously, to be unprepared to confront them strongly and precisely on their lies, feels reckless to me. 

Of course, this issue is personal. But it’s also political. We’re in 2020, we’re only a week out from President Trump using as a State of the Union prop a two-year-old who likely will suffer from lifelong chronic medical issues, and multiple states are now pursuing legislation like the ‘Born Alive Survivors Protection Act’ on their own. This is not even to mention the tenuous state of Roe.

Republicans are all-in on these issues, and I fear that meeting them with half-efforts will only hasten the pace of their anti-science propaganda being accepted as fact and embolden them to continue down this path aggressively. 

I want you to be aware that this was an embarrassingly bad hearing.... And as someone who has sat through a lot of these hearings, I can tell you that this was one of the worst. Watching it made me feel like Senate Democrats care exponentially less about keeping my doctors out of jail than Republicans care about putting them there. While I’m sure that’s not true, it certainly did not convey today and that hurt.

I’m no longer convinced my last line is correct. It’s been gnawing at me for a while that Democrats have chosen the path of indifference and inaction, to just hold a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act in the Senate without putting each and every senator who says they are pro-choice on the record for eliminating the arcane and anti-democratic procedural filibuster, the only true vote at this point that might enshrine Roe into federal law.

Now that someone from within the Supreme Court leaked a draft opinion in which five conservative zealots will finally get to live out their career-long dreams of ending Roe v. Wade, it is clear to me that the Democratic Party, as an institution, does not care more about keeping my doctors and nurses out of jail than Republicans do about putting them there. If they did, they would not throw up their hands and say that there’s nothing they can do to protect women. They would not ask us for donations or votes in November to expand the power voters already gave them in 2020 by handing them the White House, Senate, and House.

It’s insulting to women, to voters, to people who believe in truly representative democracy to ask us to support them again when they have not proven willing to do everything in their power to prevent this outcome, even at the risk of failure, or even to imbue urgency around this outcome. At two consecutive national conventions, in 2016 and 2020, Democrats gave short shrift to the matter of the Supreme Court (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 keynote mentions the high court only in the context of voting rights and Citizens United; the 2020 convention famously ignored the Supreme Court entirely). This is all despite the fact that Republicans were already in the process of stealing a Supreme Court seat in 2016, and in 2020, Roe was locked in the sights of Republicans who have been fighting decades to reach this day.

Democrats should at least try to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate to show that they have the will to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act and expand the Supreme Court. Taking a stand and backing it up with action, even if those actions might ultimately and valiantly fail, is the morally correct thing to do. It also could engender more support from prospective voters than another empty It’s November, stupid” cheap shot from Democratic leaders. Or they can stop asking for my vote. There is no pussy hat, catchy slogan on a poster board, or pithy tweet that can save us now. Only the people who have power can try to leverage it, and as these out-of-touch elected officials have clearly demonstrated, women and marginalized Americans across the country don’t even have political power to motivate them to do the right thing. Maybe today is the wake-up call. Or maybe the Democratic Party is going to keep hitting the snooze button and hope the republic holds until morning.