I just hung up with a pro-life activist. I am pro-choice. Yet we had a civil, enjoyable conversation about what we can do to promote the health and welfare of expectant mothers, especially those with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. These conversations are increasingly rare, but they are so important. Indeed, the fabric of our democracy depends on them.
The leaked draft opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, which indicates that <em>Roe v Wade</em> – and thus a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion – may soon be overturned by the Supreme Court. Since then, the nation has been rocked by demonstrations from coast to coast. The office of a pro-life organization in Wisconsin was burned over the weekend in what police suspect was an arson attack. This follows a suspected arson attack on a Planned Parenthood location in Tennessee earlier this year. And over the weekend, pro-choice protestors turned up outside the homes of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
There is, of course, a poetic irony to these protests. The right to an abortion rests on the right to privacy, so it is somewhat delicious that those opposed to that right for women are now crowing about how important it is to respect the privacy of the men who want to take that right away. I agree with many on the left who believe this outrage is contrived and politically calculated; there were few if any full-throated defenses of Christine Blasey Ford’s privacy when she publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and was subsequently forced to move four times due to death threats from conservatives. So in that regard, I’m inclined to beg pro-lifers to spare me their crocodile tears – or at least their hypocrisy.
And yet, I cannot celebrate these protests with the same relish as many of my fellow travelers on the left. I lament the fact that we’ve become so uncivil that someone’s private home is being protested. For me it brings back memories of another time and another place – and the political violence these protests foretold.
Cast your minds back to December 2015. I was a freelance political writer focusing on British politics. Stella Creasy, the MP for my adopted home of Walthamstow in east London, was casting her vote on whether the UK should engage in military action in Syria. A group of protestors set off from a local mosque and headed to her constituency office – a completely reasonable action for those opposed to military engagement. However, in the confusion of social media, reports broke out that the protestors were outside Creasy’s home. They were not, but the confusion was enough to prompt hard left Labour MP Diane Abbott to tweet out sympathetically that “protesting outside someone’s home is a step too far.”
The debate over Syria was a debate over Britain’s place in the world, among other things, and that debate would explode the following year when the UK voted to leave the European Union. In the midst of that referendum, Jo Cox – a Labour Member of Parliament and a Remainer – was murdered by a far-right extremist. She was leaving a surgery – the British equivalent of a town hall – not unlike former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords when she was shot in the head in 2011. So too was Sir David Amess, a Conservative MP, when he was murdered by an Islamic State terrorist last year.
These incidents are all different, and obviously protesting outside of someone’s home is not the same as murdering them in broad daylight. Yet they are united in acts of political violence that steadily escalated and raised questions about the safety and security of public servants. As the shooting of Gabby Giffords, the 2017 gun attack on Congressional Republicans who had gathered to practice for the upcoming charity baseball game against Democrats and which nearly claimed the life of Republican House Whip Steve Scalise, and the January 6th insurrection show, Americans are not immune from political violence. If anything, it is escalating.
Which brings me back to the protests outside of Kavanaugh’s and Roberts’ homes. I have spent most of the past week alternating between angrily tweeting and crying out in lamentation at the demise of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. A lifelong supporter of abortion rights, I not only profoundly disagree with the Court’s decision but believe it is legally, morally, and ethically unsound. However, I fear that the personalization of these protests – directed not at institutions nor at individuals in their formal capacity as Justices but rather as these individuals as citizens – bodes ill for our future.
I can already hear the left arguing that this is personal. That these men have made it personal by attacking the most intimate right a person can have – a right to control one’s own body. I get it. I share the outrage. Yet I am terrified that our actions will escalate the ongoing cultural and political tensions which, stretched any further, might just tear our nation apart. I fear that in an environment where the right and left both believe turnabout is fair play that it could be left-wing justices, politicians, or even private individuals who will face organized and sustained attacks on their private and personal lives, not just their public and political offices.
There is a real danger here, one that too many people seem blinded to by their passions. I’m worried, more worried than I have been since January 6, 2021. Only this time, it’s the left that worries me.
I’m not asking anyone to back down on fighting for abortion rights. I won’t stop until every woman and girl in America has the right to a safe and legal abortion. But we cannot allow this to escalate into a full-blown political violence. While that may seem hyperbolic now, it is not outside the realm of possibility. I fear the leaked Supreme Court opinion has, like Brexit before it, served as a metaphorical lit match tossed into the powder keg that is American society. That is to be expected from something so controversial. The historic polling shows that Americans have hardly budged on the issue of abortion in the past half-century. In 1975, Gallup found that 21% thought that abortion should be legal in all cases, 54% thought it should be legal in some cases, and 22% thought it should be illegal in all cases. In 2022, those numbers are 32%, 48%, and 19% respectively. Americans are as divided as ever over the issue of abortion.
That division saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t scare me. What does surprise and scare me is that our political norms are so thoroughly degraded that we cannot debate and fight this in the political realm, but rather that it is spilling onto the streets of America.
The Supreme Court of the United States of America seems poised to thrust a radical change upon the country and strip away the rights of every American woman. They seemed to expect those same women would take this lying down. They will not. That is good. I will gladly march with the women of America in solidarity and support of their right to choose.
But I cannot condone protesting outside someone’s home. I couldn’t in 2015 when it was someone I greatly admire – Stella Creasy – and I can’t now. I urge pro-choice activists to keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be with you every step of the way. But please, don’t personalize this ruling. Protest justices and politicians in their official capacity but recognize the difference between that and their personal lives and homes – homes which include innocent spouses, children, and neighbors.
Because I have been here before. I’ve seen what can happen when we lose the distinction between someone acting in an official capacity and someone as an individual. I’ve seen what can happen when we so thoroughly demonize our political opponents that we see them as an existential threat. It nearly cost Gabby Giffords and Steve Scalise their lives. It did cost Jo Cox and David Amess theirs.
So please, for the love of God, let’s cool down before this escalates into something we all regret.
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