The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Roe’s impending reversal is a 9/11 attack on America’s social fabric

Two layers of fencing are pictured in front of the Supreme Court in D.C. on May 10. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg News)
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Washington’s reaction to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has been typically myopic.

Republicans first tried to make people believe that the issue wasn’t the opinion itself but the leak. Now they’re absurdly trying to portray Democrats as supporters of infanticide. Democrats, in turn, squabbled among themselves before a show vote on a doomed abortion rights bill. And the news media have reverted to our usual horse-race speculation about how it will affect the midterms.

This small-bore response misses the radical change to society that Justice Samuel Alito and his co-conspirators are poised to ram down the throats of Americans. Their stunning action might well change the course of the midterms — but more importantly, it is upending who we are as a people.

Assuming little changes from the draft, overturning Roe would be a shock to our way of life, the social equivalent of the 9/11 attacks (which shattered our sense of physical security) or the crash of 2008 (which undid our sense of financial security). As epoch-making decisions go, this is Brown v. Board of Education, but in reverse: taking away an entrenched right Americans have relied upon for half a century. We remember Brown because it changed us forever, not because it altered the 1954 midterms.

It’s impossible to say what will result from the trauma of overturning Roe, but the effects will be far reaching and long lasting. Americans are not prepared for this. Though people have been aware of the possibility of Roe falling, as recently as last month, just 20 percent thought it very likely or definite that it would be overturned, an Economist-YouGov poll found. Even now, after Alito’s draft, only 57 percent of voters in a Morning Consult-Politico poll believe it likely Roe will be overturned.

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The political jockeying misses the overarching significance: that the expectation of reproductive freedom, of a woman’s autonomy over her own body, built into the American psyche over two generations, is about to be shattered. “This is intrinsically horrific,” says Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who served as acting solicitor general during the Obama administration. “This huge right is being taken away. Everyone has socialized expectations that have crystallized around this. … It totally disrupts social expectations.”

There is simply no precedent for such a court-induced shock. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case eviscerated enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for states and counties to disenfranchise Black voters. But the impact of that case (involving “preclearance”), though devastating, is indirect and complex. Overturning Roe is dramatic, stark and clear.

Similarly, the court has waded into social controversy before, such as in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case affirming marriage equality. But public opinion had already shifted in support of same-sex marriage by then — and the case was expanding freedom, not curtailing it. The destruction of Roe rescinds a freedom Americans have supported by a wide and unchanging margin for 50 years.

Americans are riled. Only 14 percent of registered voters said “happy” would very well describe how they feel about the draft opinion striking down Roe, and another 20 percent were “somewhat” happy about it, according to the Morning Consult-Politico poll. Rather, they felt “angry” (43 percent), “worried” (50 percent), “frustrated” (50 percent) and “helpless” (44 percent). Likewise, a CNN poll found that anger at the prospective ruling outweighed happiness by better than 2 to 1.

This shows the folly of Republicans’ attempt to reframe the debate. Roe v. Wade isn’t some little-known term such as “critical race theory” that can be hijacked with disinformation. Americans understand it as plainly as they understand Social Security, and they aren’t going to be convinced that the 50 years under Roe was a time of rampant killing of viable fetuses.

Yet, as Democrats waged their symbolic effort to codify Roe last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) alleged that they support “abortion on demand through all nine months, until the moment before the baby is born.”

“Just seconds away from delivery,” accused Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

“Even beyond birth,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said.

Americans are not stupid. They know Roe, and they’ll know who the extremists are when, post-Roe, they see states considering or enacting legislation to charge women with homicide for abortions, to ban abortion even for life-threatening ectopic pregnancies, to throw doctors in jail, and to forbid women any relief even if they are raped — calling the rape of a 13-year-old girl an “opportunity” for her.

I hope voters punish Republicans in November for this assault on Americans’ freedom, and there’s evidence they will. A new Monmouth poll shows abortion has leaped to being the top concern of 25 percent of voters, virtually tied with the economy. But it took years (and a stolen seat or two) to build this destructive Supreme Court. The building backlash will have to be just as sustained.