The first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 celebrated America’s unity in diversity. Activists from the Civil Rights era were among the honored guests, and his inaugural speech won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. Obama’s emphasis on unity was a constant theme that echoed throughout his political career and into his post-presidency work. In particular, he highlighted the civic duties and obligations that Americans owe to one another.
It was a moment to honor the hard-fought legacy of civil rights that had helped bring Obama to the presidency at a critical low moment in American history. It was also a moment in which Obama hoped to bring the entire country together after a bitterly divisive campaign. Obama consistently tried to evoke the common bonds that hold Americans together as a means of softening the political, cultural, and ethnic animosities that had flared up around his candidacy and election.
The Loss of Civility and Nuance in Politics
Obama’s successor was his opposite in many ways, particularly with regards to his rhetoric. In his inauguration speech in 2017, Donald Trump talked about “American carnage,” painting a bleak and terrifying picture of the state of the country. Far from “making America great again,” Trump’s presidency may have taken America farther down the road to lawlessness, corruption, violence, and hatred than we have ever been. We are more divided than ever.
The “carnage” didn’t stop with Trump himself, his administration, or any specific politician in today’s Republican Party. It continues to morph and metastasize among a relatively small, but increasingly grievance-filled, raucous, and influential group of fellow citizens.
At no time is the divide more apparent than when the issue of abortion comes up.
A Formerly Bipartisan Issue Has Become Divisive
The 7-2 majority that decided Roe in 1973 was heavily influenced by Republican appointees on the Court. And in deciding 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the core principles of Roe, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—a Ronald Reagan appointee—wrote that, regardless of any jurist’s personal views, there is a necessity to “define the liberty of all,” rather than attempt to legislate one’s “own moral code.”
However, Trump supported the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And, while he later tried to walk the statement back, in early 2016 he told interviewer Chris Matthews that he supported “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. His supporters, buoyed by the violent imagery consistently present in his rhetoric on a multitude of issues, are now acting in ways that threaten the lives of women, girls, other people with uteruses, and pregnant people across a big swath of the country.
Trump’s legacy has deeply impacted social policy through the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. The three justices he appointed—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—formed the core of the 5-4 majority that voted to overturn the precedent of protecting privacy and bodily autonomy enshrined by Roe half a century ago.
The Decision’s Impact Is Already Being Felt
From members of Congress being influenced by conspiracy theories to local and state officials with extremist positions, the rhetoric around abortion is now turned up well past the boiling point. A number of states have already passed draconian anti-choice legislation that has resulted in needless tragedies. “Bounty” laws in Texas and Oklahoma encourage bystanders to collect money by suing fellow citizens suspected of even “aiding” an abortion.
In Ohio, all abortions, even when pregnancy results from rape or incest, are now banned after six weeks. When a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim had to travel to Indiana to obtain an abortion, the story became fodder for a vicious disinformation campaign that attempted to discredit the journalists who reported it and the Indiana doctor who treated her. The doctor has received threats that made them fear for themselves and their family’s safety.
In a combination of reinstating a 1925 law and creating new legislation, Texas has made it almost impossible to obtain an abortion. One woman told reporters how she lost an desired pregnancy after experiencing a premature rupture of membranes. Although there was almost no chance the fetus would survive, the hospital forced her to continue to continue the pregnancy because her doctor detected fetal cardiac activity. Only after the infection came close to killing her and she insisted a medical ethics panel review her case, did the state allow her to have the abortion that likely saved her life.
Are We Going To Uphold Essential Freedoms Or Destroy Them?
Barack Obama immediately denounced the Court’s overturning of Roe, saying it represented an assault on “essential freedoms” that people have come to rely on. In remarks that echo Sandra Day O’Connor, he said the ruling subjected the “most intensely personal decision” anyone can face to the “whims of politicians and ideologues.” When and if grassroots activism and local, state, or federal legislators will eventually restore these basic human rights remains to be seen.