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June 24, 2023
Yesterday, forces from the private mercenary Wagner Group crossed from Ukraine back into Russia and took control of the city of Rostov-on-Don, a key staging area for the Russian war against Ukraine. As the mercenaries moved toward Moscow in the early hours of Saturday (EDT), Russian president Vladimir Putin called them and their leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, traitors. This morning, they were bearing down on Moscow when they suddenly stopped 125 miles (200 km) from the Russian capital. This afternoon the Russian government announced that Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko had brokered a deal with Prigozhin to end the mutiny: Prigozhin would go to Belarus, the criminal case against him for the uprising would be dropped, the Wagner fighters who did not participate in the march could sign on as soldiers for the Russian Ministry of Defense, and those who did participate would not be prosecuted.
Prigozhin said he turned around to avoid bloodshed.
U.S. observers don’t appear to know what to make of this development yet, although I have not read anyone who thinks this is the end of it (among other things, Putin has not been seen today). What is crystal clear, though, is that the ability of Prigozhin’s forces to move apparently effortlessly hundreds of miles through Russia toward Moscow without any significant resistance illustrates that Putin’s hold over Russia is no longer secure. This, along with the fact that the Wagner Group, which was a key fighting force for Russia, is now split and demoralized, is good news for Ukraine.
In the U.S. the same two-day period that covered Prigozhin’s escapade in Russia covered the anniversaries of two historic events. Yesterday was the 51st anniversary of what we know as “Title 9,” or more accurately Title IX, for the part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 that prohibited any school or education program that receives federal funding from discriminating based on sex. This measure updated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and while people today tend to associate Title IX with sports, it actually covers all discrimination, including sexual assault and sexual harrassment. Republican president Richard Nixon signed the measure into law on June 23, 1972 (six days after the Watergate break-in, if anyone is counting).
Fifty years and one day later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman's constitutional right to abortion. That is, a year ago today, for the first time in our history, rather than expanding our recognition of constitutional rights, the court explicitly took a constitutional right away from the American people.
The voyage from Title IX to Dobbs began about the same time Nixon signed the Education Amendments Act. In 1972, Gallup polls showed that 64% of Americans, including 68% of Republicans, agreed that abortion should be between a woman and her doctor—a belief that would underpin Roe v. Wade the next year—but Nixon and his people worried that he would lose the fall election. Nixon advisor Patrick Buchanan urged the president to pivot against abortion to woo antiabortion Catholics, who tended to vote for Democrats.
As right-wing activists like Phyllis Schlafly used the idea of abortion as shorthand for women calling for civil rights, Republicans began to attract voters opposed to abortion and the expansion of civil rights. In his campaign and presidency, Ronald Reagan actively courted right-wing evangelicals, and from then on, Republican politicians spurred evangelicals to the polls by promising to cut back abortion rights.
But while Republican-confirmed judges chipped away at Roe v. Wade, the decision itself seemed secure because of the concept of “settled law,” under which jurists try not to create legal uncertainty by abruptly overturning law that has been in place for a long time (or, if they do, to be very clear and public about why).
So Republicans could turn out voters by promising to get rid of Roe v. Wade while also being certain that it would stay in place. By 2016 those antiabortion voters made up the base of the Republican Party. (It is quite possible that then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to permit President Barack Obama to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court because he knew that evangelicals would be far more likely to turn out if there were a Supreme Court seat in the balance.)
But then Trump got the chance to put three justices on the court, and the equation changed. Although each promised during their Senate confirmation hearings to respect settled law, the court struck down Roe v. Wade on the principle that the federal expansion of civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment incorrectly took power from the states and gave it to the federal government. In the Dobbs majority decision, Justice Samuel Alito argued that the right to determine abortion rights must be returned “to the people’s elected representatives” at the state level.
Fourteen Republican-dominated states promptly banned abortion. Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas banned abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest; Mississippi banned it with an exception for rape but not incest; and North Dakota banned it except for a six-week window for rape or incest. West Virginia also has a ban with exceptions for rape and incest. In Wisconsin a law from 1849 went back into effect after Dobbs; it bans abortion unless a woman would die without one. Texas and Idaho allow private citizens to sue abortion providers. Other states have imposed new limits on abortion.
But antiabortion forces also tried to enforce their will federally. In April, Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that the Food and Drug Administration should not have approved mifepristone, an abortion-inducing drug, more than 20 years ago. That decision would take effect nationally. It is being appealed.
When the federal government arranged to pay for transportation out of antiabortion states for service members needing reproductive health care, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) put a blanket hold on all military appointments—250 so far—until that policy is rescinded. For the first time in its history, the Marine Corps will not have a confirmed commandant after July 10. In the next few months, five members of the joint chiefs of staff, including General Mark Milley, its chair, are required by law to leave their positions. Tuberville says he will not back down.
On June 20, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), chair of the House Republican conference, called for a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks, saying that the right to life “is fundamental to human rights and the American dream” and calling out the justices who decided Roe v. Wade as “radical judges who frankly took the voice away from the American people…. The people are the most important voices” on abortion, she said.
But, in fact, a majority of Americans supported abortion rights even before Dobbs, and those numbers have gone up since the decision, especially as untreated miscarriages have brought patients close to death before they could get medical care and girls as young as ten have had to cross state lines to obtain healthcare. Sixty-eight percent of OB-GYNs recently polled by KFF said Dobbs has made it harder to manage emergencies; 64% say it has increased patient deaths. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll shows that 80% of Americans—65% of Republicans and 83% of independents—oppose a nationwide ban on abortion while only 14% support one. Fifty-three percent of Americans want federal protection of abortion; 39% oppose it.
In politics, it seems the dog has caught the car. The end of Roe v. Wade has energized those in favor of abortion rights, with Democrat-dominated states protecting reproductive rights and the administration using executive power to protect them where it can. Republicans are now running away from the issue: the ad-tracking firm AdImpact found that only 1% of Republican ads in House races in 2022 mentioned abortion.
At the same time, antiabortion activists achieved their goal and stand to be less energized. This desperate need to whip up enthusiasm among their base is likely behind the Republicans’ sudden focus on transgender children. Right-wing media has linked the two in part thanks to the highly visible work of the American College of Pediatricians, which, despite its name, is a political action group of about 700 people, only 60% of whom have medical degrees. (They broke off from the 67,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 after that medical organization backed same-sex parents.) They are prominent voices against both abortion and gender-affirming health care.
In Nebraska in May, a single law combined a ban on abortion after 12 weeks and on gender-affirming care for minors. “This bill is simply about protecting innocent life,” Republican state senator Tom Briese said.
Vice President Kamala Harris has made protecting reproductive rights central, traveling around the country to talk with people about abortion rights and pressing the administration to do more to protect them. At a rally in Washington, D.C., on Friday, she articulated the message of fifty years ago: “We stand for the freedom of every American, including the freedom of every person everywhere to make decisions—about their own body, their own health care and their own doctor,” she said. “So we fight for reproductive rights and legislation that restores the protections of Roe v. Wade. And here’s the thing. The majority of Americans are with us, they agree.”