American Authoritarianism Hasn't Ended

While much of the world is liberalizing its abortion laws, America is joining an authoritarian few in limiting ours

1When Donald Trump came to power, liberals warned of a rising authoritarian threat, and we were right. Trump didn’t succeed in dong his worst, thwarted by some combination of American institutions hanging on by a thread, his lack of focus, and his team’s general incompetence. But he certainly did significant damage, and he went out with a bang as rioters descended on the Capitol complex trying to overthrow a legitimate US election and demanding Trump be installed as president.

It didn’t work, and now we’re in the comparatively boring era of Joe Biden. It’s easy to get complacent — adults are in charge, there isn’t a daily White House news cycle of the outrageous and the offensive, and even people who aren’t Biden fans aren’t particularly worried about him going off the deep end and launching the country into an impossible-to-come-back-from crisis.

But the era of authoritarianism hasn’t ended. It’s just quieter — and around the world, authoritarians are setting their sights on women’s rights. What’s particularly worrying is that even in the Biden era, the US is joining them.

There are two global stories about abortion rights right now: More women than ever are seeing their right to abortion expand as more and more countries liberalize their abortion laws; and authoritarian governments are scaling abortion rights back in an interconnected global effort to control and coerce women back into traditional roles. In recent years, abortion rights advocates have seen big wins from Argentina to Ireland, from Mexico to San Marino, and from Thailand to New Zealand. Many more countries have made incremental changes to liberalize their abortion laws, making the procedure legal under a greater number of circumstances. Even some nations that continue to have some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world (Somalia, Chile, Iran) made small changes so that a pregnant woman can at least get an abortion to save her life.

In the last quarter century, while dozens of countries have softened or entirely lifted their abortion restrictions, just three countries have made their abortion laws more strict: Poland, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. China seems to have now joined them: The country that once implemented the cruel one-child policy has, unsurprisingly, simply decided to flip its reproductive abuses in the opposite direction, and will limit abortion rights in an effort to increase their population.

The United States is right on their coattails.

One thing these countries have in common is a slide toward authoritarianism. They share those anti-democratic impulses with many countries where abortion is already broadly outlawed. It’s an obvious but seldom-made point: Outlawing abortion is by its very nature an authoritarian move; no wonder we see it so often in countries where authoritarianism reigns. And no wonder abortion restrictions — and restrictions on reproductive rights generally, including policies that limit family size — are one sign of creeping authoritarianism.

Just look at Hungary, a nation with a far-right government. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban has consolidated and taken over his nation’s media, mostly banned immigrants, attacked LGBT people, undermined democratic rule, and scaled back women’s rights. And of course, Orban poses a direct threat to abortion rights. Hungary under Orban and the US under Trump signed onto the Geneva Consensus, a non-binding document declaring broad opposition to abortion rights. Thirty countries signed it, almost every single one of which is among the worst countries in the world for women.

Hungary is now a fan favorite among Republicans and Fox News acolytes in the US. Tucker Carlson traveled to Budapest to sing the nation’s praises. CPAC, the annual conservative gathering, will be held there next year. And last month, after Texas instituted the first near-total ban on abortion since Roe v. Wade, former Vice President Mike Pence went to Hungary to applaud the nation’s far-right leadership and voice his own hope that the US would follow suit — and would begin by ending the era of safe, legal abortion in America.

Or look at China, an excellent example of conservative hypocrisy. Feminists and pro-lifers agreed that China’s one-child policy was an abhorrent violation of human rights and bodily autonomy. But now that China has flipped the dial the other way — forced or coerced women to carry pregnancies and give birth, rather than forcing them to abort — conservatives don’t seem particularly worried about human rights or bodily autonomy. That’s not surprising. But it should give up the game, and tell us that this was never about women’s rights or protecting personal freedom. It was always about control.

It’s useful to see which nations form allegiances and where. It tells you a lot about how a country sees itself, and where it thinks it’s going. In the US, and particularly in conservative states, we’re going the way of other authoritarian and anti-democratic nations — places where leaders cancel elections or falsify the results, have a stranglehold on media, imprison their opponents, and curtail the rights of their citizens.

The troubling truth is that, counter to American mythology, a lot people the world over don’t want to be free. They would rather feel important, would rather see members of their group elevated and lauded, would rather have fewer options and more government control in exchange for a sense of safety and power, and the promise of dominance and traditionalism. The irony, in the US, is that the people who toss around the word “freedom” the most are those who are the quickest to curtail it. They are increasingly those whose actions suggest they fear it.

Trump is out of the White House, but America is not out of the woods. I fear that the Trump presidency was just a test run for what’s to come, and that the total lack of real consequences for a law-breaking administration that ended with an insurrection — and the move of so many, including those in power, toward the far-right extreme and not away from it — has only made an even worse outcome inevitable.

The American right’s doubling-down on their anti-abortion attacks, and the fact that they now seem to have the Supreme Court on their side, is a dangerous sign — not just for women, but for anyone, including those who personally oppose abortion, who cares about personal freedom and American democracy, and would prefer we not go the political way of Hungary, Poland, China, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Abortion, by the way, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the same nations that have sought to restrict the procedure have gone even further, attempting or successfully outlawing various forms of contraception and even making IVF and some fertility treatments illegal or highly restricted. Some have put women behind bars.

Most of the rest of the world is moving toward freedom and expanding women’s rights. Here in the US, one of our two major political parties is on the precipice of winning its decades-long battle to restrict women’s most fundamental freedoms.

Abortion rights are a global struggle; feminists look to other nations’ histories to create their own local strategies. Abortion opponents do the same, and they have a broad, well-funded, and deeply connected global network of activists, politicians, and wealthy donors working hard to make sure that more and more women are forced into motherhood under the threat of jail time, serious injury, or death. These kinds of authoritarian encroachments do not begin and end with abortion. Abortion restrictions are just the beginning.

xx Jill

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