Roe v. Wade created a strange situation in American democracy. Politicians could posture against abortion without having to face the consequences of actually banning it. The contradictions of so-called pro-life positions were cost-free. Not anymore. Look carefully at what just happened in South Carolina.
Republican State Rep. Neal Collins, a staunch pro-life SC legislator, faced reality when a doctor called him and told him about a pregnant 19-year-old whose water broke when she was at 15 weeks gestation. She was seen in an emergency room. The fetus was alive but non-viable. The young woman was at risk for a uterine infection that might result in her death or the loss of her uterus. Both could have been prevented by terminating the pregnancy. But a state law, one that Collins had supported, prohibited abortion when there was a fetal heartbeat. They discharged the woman instead. “That weighs on me,” Collins said. “I voted for that bill. These (laws) are affecting people.” Well, duh. Or not duh. Since, before Dobbs, the laws were not affecting people.
Republican SC State Senator Katrina Shealy was an anti-abortion crusader. She had frequently sponsored antiabortion legislation that would never actually be enforced. Now, things have changed. This week, Shealy lashed out at her Republican colleagues for trying to pass an abortion bill that would eliminate exceptions for rape and incest victims. She had suddenly become a feminist, telling her male colleagues that women are smart enough to run households and businesses, to take care of children and aging parents.“The only thing that we are not smart enough to do is take care of our own bodies. We need men in government, not medical professionals, to do that,” she said sarcastically, adding, “The South Carolina legislature — we know best.”
SC State Sen. Penry Gustafson echoed Shealy from the floor a few minutes later. The Republican said she was against abortion and wished that no one had sex before marriage and that pregnancies were always wanted. But, Gustafson added, she lives in “Realville,” where she acknowledges that’s not reality. She challenged fellow Republicans to consider mothers’ rights. “So,” she asked, “Do we women have no autonomy over our own bodies? Are we simply baby machines?” She asked other senators to weigh possible health emergencies. What if a woman is carrying a dead fetus? What if someone has an ectopic pregnancy that could threaten their life? What if an 11-year-old girl gets raped and impregnated? “Well, that’s just too bad, according to this bill,” Gustafson said.
Sandy Senn, the third Republican woman in the Senate and the only one who voted against the six-week ban passed last year, mocked her male colleagues: "You cannot legislate morality," she said, " You cannot tell people who to sleep with, you cannot tell people who to marry and you cannot tell women what to do with their own bodies, try as you might.” It is as if these women had woken up from a fifty year slumber.
There is something both ironic and heartening in these responses by Republican Senators. Roe v. Wade distorted our politics, creating a conservative movement based on the passion inspired by a single issue when those elected did not have deal with the ethical or political consequences of their beliefs. Dobbs ripped away the masquerade. It returned decisional authority to the voters. And the voters are speaking. Some legislators are listening. It could usher in one of the biggest changes in the demographics of power this country has ever seen.
Consider this; In 2022, the first national election after Dobbs, more women were elected to state legislatures than ever before. Furthermore, in debates about abortion, gender affiliation is turning out to be more powerful than party affiliation. Maybe, the long distortion caused by Roe v. Wade is at last coming to an end. Perhaps the movement to protect women’s rights will galvanize a grass-roots movement as powerful as did the one to overturn Roe.