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The protesters demonstrating to protect Roe vs Wade should be respected, not vilified

I understand the need for civility in public debate, but the right to bodily autonomy is in jeopardy.

By Emily Tamkin

In the days following the leak of the Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe vs Wade and end the federal guarantee to abortion access, people protested. This is understandable. Millions of people have fears over losing their right to bodily autonomy. Half of the country will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain an abortion. State laws are also expected to restrict certain kinds of birth control, and which could also have an impact on people pursuing IVF and those who have suffered miscarriages. 

Yet the response, from the right and also from some liberals, has been to decry these protests. Those who peacefully protested in front of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home were criticised. Those peacefully protesting in front of Justice Samuel Alito’s home were labelled a mob. In response, the Senate swiftly passed a bill to expand protection for the families of Supreme Court members. (They did not pass a bill to codify the right to abortion access, and in fact that legislation failed 49-51, with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin voting with Republicans.) ​​​​​​Susan Collins, a senator from Maine who voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the bench after he assured her that he considered Roe settled law, called the police because someone had written a pro-abortion message in chalk on the pavement outside her home.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, put out a statement saying that President Joe Biden “strongly believes in the constitutional right to protest. But that should never include violence, threats, or vandalism. Judges perform an incredibly important function in our society, and they must be able to do their jobs without concern for their personal safety”. What about the women who when they walk into an abortion clinic are harassed by anti-abortion activists? Or the pro-choice advocates who recently protested in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home?

The people who are concerned with protesting at the right location are falling into the same trap as those who believed that the main issue with the draft decision was that it was leaked: what is at stake here is not civility or respect for institutions. The important thing is not that people were in front of Kavanaugh’s home, but why they were in front of Kavanaugh’s home. The important part is that Roe may be overturned and people will lose access to abortion. 

I’m not saying that processes aren’t important. Most are critical to remaining in a semi-functioning democratic republic. We have seen what happens, for example, when the results of a free and fair election are not accepted. We have seen what happens when Republicans refuse to give a judge nominated to sit on the Supreme Court by a Democratic president a hearing, only to rush a Republican nominee through with days to go before an election. 

But civility is the norm that we get in exchange for all other norms being respected. If our institutions are functioning and we’re all treated as full citizens, then, sure, we should be polite to one another. But that doesn’t mean that the only acceptable response to an attack on human rights is to ask nicely if we might have them back. 

There are some who will say that if only we were more civil our arguments would be more respected. If only the protests were in a different place, if only the language wasn’t so coarse, if only the reaction weren’t so angry, then we’d be heard. This is not only a distraction. It is also a trick. Those whose respect of rights is contingent on civility don’t respect rights in the first place.

[See also: My abortion in 1988 was a lesson in care and resistance]

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