Texas’ abortion ban is authoritarian

Illustrated | iStock

If conservatives really are worried, as they claim to be, about authoritarianism, then the time is now for them to act, because Texas just implemented one of the most totalitarian anti-abortion laws in the world. If there was ever a moment to see if principle would trump ideology, this is it.

The right has been on a tear about what they say is the massive threat of liberal totalitarianism, from the classroom to the boardroom to the federal government. The Biden administration’s plan to have health-care workers go door to door to talk to people about the COVID vaccine? Outrageous. “People have a choice, they don’t need your medical brown shirts showing up at their door ordering vaccinations,” said Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Mask mandates in schools? Those are an “attempt to restrict the rights and freedoms of Texans,” a spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. Teaching the history of racism in public schools? “Indoctrination” that must be stopped.

Anchors on Fox News fret about “cancel culture” and claim that “wokeism is the biggest threat this country faces.” Republicans in Congress are melting down because the committee investigating the Jan. 6th insurrection has asked telecoms companies to preserve a handful of phone records from that day. Even some moderates and liberals point to the rise of online outrage mobs and the costs they extract as indications of a new Puritanism, devoid of due process and fueling fear and self-censorship.

I’m more sympathetic than many who share my politics to worries about a lack of due process in employer responses to internet outrage, and in our growing penchant for retribution and ostracization without any mechanism for forgiveness or reintegration. These are real causes for concern (“critical race theory” and mask mandates? Not so much). But if you’re a person who worries about mob justice and vigilantism without due process protections, Twitter dust-ups are vigilante tee ball. Texas just brought us into the big leagues.

The Texas law essentially offers a bounty for ratting out anyone who helps a woman who seeks an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy: $10,000 and all your legal fees covered if you sue and win. Whatever you think about abortion rights, deputizing any person in the United States to be their own little secret police is an incredibly dangerous approach, less “pro-life” than “American Stasi.”

This goes far, far beyond any encroachment into personal liberty that Republicans have complained about. While Marjorie Taylor Greene worries about the “brownshirts” who go door to door with vaccine information, her party is behind a law that hauls people into court, publicly humiliates them, and potentially bankrupts them for doing as little as giving a woman a ride to a health clinic. Greg Abbott’s office trumpets Texans’ “right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated” and rejects any “attempt to restrict the rights and freedoms of Texans” – so one can only conclude that in Texas, women don’t fully count as people or citizens duly entitled to a full range of rights and freedoms.

We know that women who seek and are denied abortions face a whole host of negative consequences. Compared to women who sought abortions and got them, women who are turned away wind up more likely to be stuck in abusive relationships. They are more likely to be reliant on the welfare system. They have more mental health problems. They have fewer aspirations and are more likely to have scaled back their hopes and dreams. The children they had before seeking out and being refused an abortion end up with lower developmental scores and are more likely to live in poverty than the existing children of women who sought abortions and received them. The children born after women sought and were refused an abortion are also more likely to live in poverty and are more likely to struggle to bond with their mothers. Women who are refused abortions are more likely to have serious health consequences and to die in childbirth.

While conservatives whine about authoritarianism in theory, they are also the ones putting authoritarianism on the books: empowering any random person to sue over an abortion that they suffered no harm from and is none of their business; barring educators from speaking freely and teaching American history fully; and curtailing the fundamental right of Americans to cast their ballots in free and fair elections. Yes, Texas just did that: As the state’s abortion bounty law was going into effect, the Texas legislature was passing one of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the country. In part, it’s not so different from the abortion law in that it empowers partisan vigilantes to serve as poll watchers. It also creates new criminal penalties for making a mistake at the ballot box.

This is the strategy for a party that increasingly cannot win fair and square: Rig the game. Make it harder for people to vote so that an ideological minority can maintain its grip on political power. Claim political opposition is the real authoritarianism, while using the courts and legislatures to enact authoritarian laws that serve your aims. Keep women and those who love and support them scared, ostracized, and under the very real threat of having their lives ruined – and in refusing women abortions, keep them poorer, more tethered to abusers, and less able to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

It’s all part of a larger anti-democratic game of minority control, and how that minority wants to force a return to old power structures. This Texas law just makes the whole strategy clearer than most.


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