After the initial shock, the blame. On Monday, when news broke of the leaked US supreme court draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade, millions of horrified Americans sought emotional release. “I am angry,” said Elizabeth Warren, voice shaking, leading a pack of reporters straight over a flowerbed outside the supreme court. Her face ignited with rage as she reminded them that 69% of Americans are against overturning the abortion legislation. “The Republicans have been working towards this day for decades,” she said. In the background, a man shouted, “You want to dismember children in the womb!”
For many of us, that man – the you-want-to-kill-babies guy – and his ilk were not the first target for righteous abuse. It’s hard, in moments of duress, to get much satisfaction from reiterating an existing and long-held revulsion, particularly when its subject is beyond reasonable reach. When considering the rightwing architects of this moment, there was no “what if” in attendance; all the what ifs belonged to the left. Political purists who in 2016 urged Democrats to avoid voting for Hillary Clinton (hi, Susan Sarandon) were the first in line, and social media echoed to the sound of, “We told you this would happen.”
Sacrificing the good in pursuit of the better and winding up with the absolute worst – a dynamic as familiar to British as to American leftwing politics – was, in this moment of horror, a more enraging consideration than flat hatred of the right. From revived outrage at the Bernie bros, it was a quick descent into rage against various champions of the left. “You know who I blame for this?” said a friend. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The late supreme court justice’s vanity in hanging on to her seat, her overconfidence that Clinton would win, her refusal to listen to warnings from the Obama White House that, should the unthinkable happen and the Republicans regain the presidency, the first casualty would be Roe v Wade – her fundamental enjoyment, one assumed, of being RBG when she could have ceded her seat to an Obama appointee – twisted us up into pretzels. I love Ginsburg, so all this had about it the extra and extremely female zing of self-harm.
Oh, and Clinton wasn’t off the hook either. “If she’d bothered to campaign in Michigan,” said another friend sourly, “none of this would’ve happened.” All the terrible, bad-tempered fights of that election flew back up into the air, like a water column after a bomb. The only Republican who came in for similar ire was that idiot Susan Collins, senator from Maine, a supporter of abortion rights who had nonetheless voted in line with her party to confirm both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court. Both had assured her, she said at the time, that they wouldn’t go after Roe v Wade. Shocked! Shocked, she was, this week to discover these were not men of their word.
Of course, all this fury was mere displacement for the fundamental truth that rightwing forces were smarter, more organised, disciplined and talented in prosecuting a digestible narrative – “don’t kill babies” – than the fractured and dissembling left. Progressives tried to rally towards concrete solutions. There were things to be done – in the first instance, register to vote. (After less than a year of citizenship, I hadn’t. This weekend, I will). There was the call for fundraising. Celebrities started throwing around $10,000 matching donations to anyone giving to local abortion funds.
And both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, as well as senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, hyped the necessity of codifying Roe v Wade in Congress, a move backed by President Biden that would enshrine the right to abortion in federal law irrespective of actions taken by the supreme court. It sounds good, and has the advantage of generating political action. But it is also a long shot, a case of last-resort measures, and too little too late. Earlier this year, Democrats tried to codify Roe, and while it passed the House it failed in the Senate, overcome by a filibuster. (Then “we must end the filibuster”, tweeted Sanders. None of this can happen quickly, if at all.)
The fact is that if, as Warren said, the Republicans had been planning this moment for decades, rigging composition of the supreme court with precisely this endgame in mind, there was, irrespective of the scale of public outrage, no immediate way to turn back. In this first week of shock, before anger might become effectively organised, there was only the tiny compensation of the blame spiral.
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