Column: It’s not about babies. Abortion restrictions are about power

Marissa Messinger, of Lake View, Iowa, center, holds a sign advocating abortion rights during a rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
Marissa Messinger, of Lake View, Iowa, center, joins abortion rights proponents during a rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

The toes, the clothes and, oh, the smell of a newborn.

Babies are adorable — which is precisely what makes infants such powerful political forces, and abortion such a divisive issue.

But of course, abortion isn’t really about the babies, is it? Because we have plenty of babies living without healthcare, going hungry, stuck in foster care with no prospects of adoption. Few antiabortion folks spend their weekends protesting those realities.

Abortion restrictions are about power — particularly dominance over Black and brown women. And even the overturning of Roe vs. Wade last summer didn’t drive that home quite so much as Friday’s ruling from an ultraconservative Texas judge whose court order, if it stands, would thwart access to the safest and most common drug in use for chemical abortions by the end of this week.


“Misogyny amongst certain parts of our culture knows no bounds,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat and head of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, told me.

I can’t argue. We are, as she put it, in a “dark age” where hatred of women is “insidious and couched in morality.”

That Texas ruling is now the subject of intense political and legal maneuvering that over the next days could fast-track an appeal to the majority antiabortion Supreme Court. At issue is the supposed risk of a drug called mifepristone that is used in combination with a second drug for more than half of all abortions in the U.S.

Despite the alleged concerns of federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, who in his ruling eschews the term fetus in favor of “unborn human” and “unborn child,” mifepristone has been used for more than 22 years and is deemed so effective and safe by medical providers that women can use it in the privacy of their own homes up to about the 10th week of pregnancy.

Which is the point.

This ruling isn’t about safety. It’s about stripping away privacy in abortions and forcing women into public where they can be policed and controlled.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD’s abortion squad hunted down women getting the procedure and the people performing them.

March 31, 2023

Since Roe vs. Wade was overturned, abortion has been banned in 13 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive and sexual health think tank. Two other states have near-bans, creating a block of Southern states where women have no recourse, often even in cases of rape or incest.


Guttmacher also reports that in the first few months since Roe was overturned, at least 66 clinics in 15 states either shut down or stopped performing abortions, leaving nearly 30% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. with limited options for obtaining one.

Chemical abortion, with mail delivery of the medication in some cases, was a lifeline.

A chemical abortion can still be safely induced with the second drug alone, misoprostol. But that single-drug regimen is not as effective (though still highly effective) and can lead to more cramping. Simply put, it works, but it’s not the gold standard of the two-drug option.

Because it is slightly less effective and can result in more pain, it could lead more women to seek medical care. And since some hospitals in states with abortion bans are refusing care even for miscarriages, a complication could represent a deadly threat. Forcing women into a less effective and potentially more public and dangerous method of medication abortion is a cruelty meant to scare women and make them dread the consequences.

“This kind of confusion and fear is, in addition to obviously making it close to impossible to get an abortion, definitely a purposeful intention,” said Mia Bloom.

Bloom is an extremism professor at Georgia State University and an expert on the far-right forces that are creeping into power in the United States. When it comes to abortion, she sees the bans as tentacles of white nationalism and racism.

Bloom points out that wealthy women will find ways to travel for an abortion. That makes poor women, especially Black and brown ones who may live hundreds of miles from a state where abortion is still legal, the true targets of this court ruling and the slew of new laws restricting abortions in Republican-controlled states.


Women, in particular women of color, have grown politically and economically powerful, a circumstance that threatens the patriarchal norms that have dominated our power structures since the founding fathers conveniently forgot about the potential rights of the founding mothers.

The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, found that between 2000 and 2019, the citizen voting age population of women of color increased by 59% — a gain of more than 13.5 million potential votes, the majority of which likely would not be cast for a Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.

Black women “basically put Joe Biden in office and they are the reason we didn’t have the red wave in 2022,” Bloom told me. “So if you are Harlan Crow sitting there trying to think of these things long term, keeping Black and brown women poor and pregnant and dependent on the system has long-term ramifications on the ballot box.”

Poor women with children can’t stand in line for hours to vote, she points out.

Crow is the billionaire collector of Nazi memorabilia who is buddies with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in case you missed last week’s big reveal of their friendship. You may recall Thomas wrote a terrifying concurring opinion on Roe that suggested the same logic that served as a basis for that decision could be used to overturn precedents protecting access to contraception, sexual privacy and same-sex marriages.

But one panic at a time.

A 2004 Los Angeles Times report disclosed gifts to Justice Thomas from rich Texan Harlan Crow. In response, Thomas stopped disclosing them.

April 6, 2023

Kacsmaryk’s ruling is a harsh wake-up call that “democracy is fragile,” Skinner said.

She has a granddaughter and now worries what that child’s future will look like, maybe one “where she would have to think twice about where she would go to work, where she would go to school,” Skinner said.

Bloom takes that darkness a step further, stitching together the pieces of this dictatorial monster that is the new Republican Party. “It’s all part of this Christo-fascist agenda to target minorities,” she said. “Controlling women’s bodies, controlling sexuality, also means controlling the sexuality of gay, transgender, all the [LGBTQ] letters.”


So Kacsmaryk’s ruling is a beginning, not an end.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, said he is hopeful the Texas ruling will be overturned because it is so extreme and out of sync with judicial precedent.

But if it’s not, its spurious logic, especially that “unborn child” language, opens a Pandora’s box with its misery and evil aimed at those who have long fought, with some success, for equality and equity.

Chemerinsky said that female contraception could be targeted soon, perhaps going after the long-standing Griswold vs. Connecticut decision that established case law on reproductive privacy. Also at risk would be the Lawrence vs. Texas and Obergefell vs. Hodges decisions that Justice Thomas singled out in his Roe opinion, which protect same-sex couples from discrimination.

Julia Spiegel, deputy legal affairs secretary to Gov. Gavin Newsom, calls the current moment “incredibly alarming and concerning.”

She has spent the last few months helping California plan for the Texas ruling, work that culminated with the announcement Monday that the state has purchased a stockpile of misoprostol that could provide about 12,000 abortions if needed, and has the ability to obtain 2 million pills — enough for nearly 100,000 abortions — in all. Not only is the state offering that stash for free if the drug should get in short supply, it has offered a template to other states on its purchase order, so that others can follow suit.

The cache is an “insurance plan,” she said, to protect safe, legal and affordable abortion in California for all women — the ones who live here and the ones forced to travel here for care.


That kind of reassurance — and action — is critical right now because there are plenty of women and girls who are pregnant, afraid and confused about what options they have. Even if the Texas ruling is ultimately struck down, it is the new normal that the far-right will continue to attack women and other vulnerable groups.

And it needs to be the new normal that those of us who believe in civil rights and democracy are as loud and forceful as those who prefer their power unchecked.

Because while babies are adorable, authoritarianism is not.