McCain's Republic of Gilead

If he's elected, we'll live in a dystopian "Handmaid's Tale" world, says Linda Hirshman.

Published September 30, 2008 6:10PM (EDT)

This weekend, the Washington Post published Linda Hirshman's vision of reproductive rights in the United States if we are to elect John McCain as president. It's clear from the start that it's a dystopian divination: In the first paragraph, Hirshman details how in the 1980s German officials would force vaginal examinations of women crossing the Western border to prove they hadn't undergone an illegal abortion, and then offers, "It could happen here. This is how." Buckle yer seat belts, kids -– Hirshman's taking us on a road trip to the Republic of Gilead!

The first pit stop along Hirshman's hypothetical journey: A Supreme Court justice dies or resigns and "McCain appoints a suitably conservative replacement, and a complaisant or cowed Senate confirms the nomination." Then, a couple miles down the road, we hit a portentous signpost: "An ambitious district attorney in Alabama, Delaware or any one of more than a dozen other states with old abortion laws still on the books or a new, untested abortion restriction prosecutes a local clinic for performing the procedure … The clinic goes to federal court; after appeals, the case goes to the Supreme Court, which votes 5-4 to overturn Roe. And we're back to the '60s."

Well, that was fast.

Hirshman knows what you’re thinking: That isn't so bad -- at least abortion would be legal in some states and illegal in others! But, she writes, " in addition to old laws that would spring back up should Roe be reversed, the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute lists four states -- Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Dakota -- as having trigger laws explicitly aimed at making abortion criminal upon Roe's demise, and seven others that have committed to acting to the extent that the court may allow … Some states with criminal abortion laws will almost certainly also forbid their residents to cross state lines to obtain an abortion."

Hirshman senses your skepticism -- she sees you frowning in the rearview mirror -- and asks, for your benefit: Is it even possible, post-Roe, for a state to make it illegal for a woman to leave to obtain an abortion? "Under the American constitutional system, a state does have some authority to regulate its citizens' conduct even when they aren't on its territory," she answers. Also, keep in mind that "a Supreme Court that reversed Roe could also rule more broadly that the fetus is a person under the Fourteenth Amendment. Such a ruling would be the flip side of Roe, making state support of abortion a constitutional offense."

But, you might ask, how exactly would officials enforce those laws? And Hirshman answers:

The Hope Clinic in Granite City, Ill., is just 10 minutes from the Missouri border. Police from the prohibiting state can just take the license plates of local vehicles at the abortion clinics across the state lines and arrest the women when they re-enter the state. Or a traffic stop can produce a search. Tips from pharmacy workers, disapproving parents or disappointed boyfriends can alert the police to arrest the pregnant woman for intent to seek an abortion out of state. The state law may allow interested parties to seek injunctions to stop her from leaving.

Stop the car, I wanna get out.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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