Pink wave? Women rise up for reproductive rights — as conservatives scramble to stop them

Pink wave? Women rise up for reproductive rights — as conservatives scramble to stop them
Abortion rights activists in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2019, Lorie Shaull

The ballot referendum on abortion rights in Kansas wasn't just a test of public attitudes about reproductive rights — it was a test of democracy.

The Republican organizers behind the bill were no doubt aware of the robust polling that shows that strong majorities of Americans support abortion rights, and thus did everything in their power to make sure the general public did not turn out to vote on the question of banning abortion in the state. So they scheduled the ballot initiative during an August primary election, when few Democrats turn out to vote, even though other ballot initiatives are scheduled for November's election. They made the language of the ballot initiative confusing, so pro-choice people might accidentally vote for the ban. And they blanketed the airwaves with misleading ads meant to trick pro-choice voters into voting for the ban.

None of it worked.

Pro-choice activists in the state worked tirelessly to register and turn out voters, as well as educate them on how to vote down the abortion ban, despite the confusing wording. Indeed, the vote wasn't even close, with nearly 60% of voters giving the abortion ban a thumbs down. A huge chunk of voters were independents who didn't even vote in the primary races, only showing up to weigh in on the ballot referendum.

But rather than accept this democratic outcome, conservatives are hardening even more against democracy.

What began with Republicans hand-waving away the election as somehow not a true reflection of voter desires, soon became conservatives reskinning Donald Trump's Big Lie, that the 2020 election was "rigged" against him, to argue that something fishy must have happened in order for Kansas result to occur. They forced a recount of the abortion vote. Recounts, which are expensive and time-consuming, tend to occur only when an election is close. The abortion ban, however, lost by an 18-point margin, so there was zero chance that a recount would change things. Still, as the Kansas City Star reports, the recount was authorized at the request of Melissa Leavitt, a Big Lie advocate who pushed Trump's conspiracy theories to the Kansas state legislature in 2020. Along with Mark Gietzen, a hardline opponent of reproductive rights, they raised nearly $120,000 for the recount. Unsurprisingly, it did nothing to change the outcome. Yet Leavitt and Gietzen are using the recount effort as the foundation for what appears to be a larger push to harass anyone who dared vote against the abortion ban in the state.

"The next step is to check the registrations of the people who they say voted," Gietzen told the Star.

He promised he'll "be visiting homes" of said voters. The pretext is "to see if anyone lives there," but of course, the real purpose is clearly intimidation. This isn't just conjecture. Gietzen is a long-time practitioner of the politics of personalized intimidation. He's spent years parking himself outside of abortion clinics, approaching patients trying to enter, writing down information about them, and repeatedly filing nuisance police reports to waste the time of clinic workers.

The adoption of Trump's Big Lie rhetoric by anti-choice activists is likely only to get worse from here. As political data analyst Tom Bonier noted last week, the overturn of Roe v. Wade is causing an unprecedented spike in registrations of female voters.

Abortion politics in Kansas have been particularly salient, due to a state constitution that protects abortion rights, which is what the ballot initiative was meant to repeal.

The gender gap is why President Joe Biden won in 2020, as Biden performed 12 points better with women than men. If it was only up to male voters, Trump would have won handily, as 53% of men voted for Trump while 57% of women voted for Biden. The gender gap in new registrations is only likely to make the gap grow. With his conspiracy theories about "rigged" elections, Trump has handed anti-choice activists a pretense to undermine democratic efforts to protect abortion rights.

Opposition to abortion was already the root of a great deal of domestic terrorism. Shootings and bombings at clinics in the past few decades have resulted in 11 deaths of clinic workers and patients. In the wake of January 6 and Trump's continued implicit promotion of political violence, however, the use of terroristic tactics has expanded beyond clinics. Gietzen's hint that he'll be dropping by to "investigate" pro-choice voters, for instance, is not isolated. As Kathryn Joyce reported for Salon, in the wake of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, pro-choice activists were subjected to violence at the hands of police and civilians. While Fox News ran misleading stories accusing pro-choicers of violence, in reality, pro-choice activists were punched, beaten, and in at least one case, run over by a car.

The Proud Boys, who were deeply involved in the January 6 insurrection, have taken up the cause of silencing and intimidating supporters of reproductive rights. Anti-choice activists have started to invite Proud Boys to join as "security," using trumped-up claims of supposed threats from pro-choicers as a justification for violent posturing. As the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recently documented, "Abortion-related events involving far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys increased by 150% in 2021 relative to 2020, and 2022 has already seen a 90% rise compared to 2021." Demonstrations where people show up armed tripled from 2020 to 2021. Researchers found that when guns are on scene, demonstrations turn "violent or destructive 40% of the time," compared to .2% of the time when there are no guns.

Since January 6, anti-democratic organizing has only grown more intense and effective.

Proponents of the Big Lie are winning Republican primaries on campaigns built around promises to void any election results that go against the preferences of Republican voters. Under the banner of Big Lie-style conspiracy theories, right-wing sheriffs across the country are organizing campaigns to intimidate people from voting in 2024. As the Kansas recount shows, even a blowout election does little to put a damper on conspiracy theories about "rigged" elections. That's evidence that these conspiracy theories aren't really about a sincere belief that elections are being stolen, but merely a pretext to undermine free and fair elections.

For Trump, January 6 and his subsequently unsubtle incitements to violence are largely about his ego. But while his following has a very cult-like quality to it, ultimately the reason his supporters embrace his anti-democratic attitude isn't just about making one man feel good about himself. It comes back to the fact that Republican views and policies are unpopular with the general public. They can't win at the ballot box, so increasing numbers of Republicans are looking for ways to impose their will outside of democratic means. Legal abortion is perhaps the most crystal clear test of this, as Republicans seem determined to ban it no matter what the voters say.

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