The GOP's War on Abortion Is Now a War on Privacy Rights | Opinion

Missouri Republicans recently expanded the GOP's all-out war on abortion rights, introducing legislation that would make it a crime for women to leave the state to obtain an abortion. What's more, the bill proposed by state Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman would also make criminals of anyone who assists a woman seeking an abortion. Coleman's legislation amounts to a revocation of Missourians' freedom of movement and freedom of association—and some Republicans couldn't be happier.

The proposal, which would allow private citizens to sue women who obtain out-of-state abortions, looks disturbingly like the current Texas anti-abortion "bounty" law being debated before the Supreme Court. If passed, the Missouri GOP's bill would represent a shocking abandonment of fundamental human rights. And worst of all, there's no guarantee our increasingly GOP-captured federal courts would strike down this sweeping act of state harassment.

The Missouri bill and other legislation inspired by Texas' de facto statewide ban on abortions isn't just about stripping choice from women. These efforts represent the next phase of advancing Republican authoritarianism: repealing the constitutional right to privacy affirmed by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut over half a century ago.

"If the courts uphold this, just as courts have failed to block Texas S.B. 8, it could mean open season on our fundamental rights," said Richard Muniz, general counsel at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis region and southwest Missouri. "Whether it be the freedom to marry, the right to access birth control, or even the right to bear arms, politicians hostile to our freedoms can use these dangerous tactics to take away our rights and control our lives and bodies."

Beyond the immediate and real threat to the rights of women, what's happening in Texas, Missouri and other red states is another sign that the Trumpified GOP's ideology is shifting rapidly toward authoritarianism. Despite a third of Republicans supporting at least some form of legal abortion and nearly half of GOP voters opposed to government intervention in gender-affirming care, radicals are clearly in the driver's seat when it comes to advancing the Republican Party's anti-abortion, anti-privacy agenda.

From Texas to Missouri and beyond, the era of small government, states' rights Republicanism is over. Far from restricting the power of governments in favor of the individual, states are now assuming the role of a federal government within themselves. By limiting a woman's ability to seek an abortion in states where abortion is legal, Missouri has effectively banned abortion nationwide for its residents. And if courts uphold a state's ability to police the movement of women seeking abortions, there is no clear limit to what other private choices the state can control—as long as your neighbors and not state officials are the ones enforcing the law.

"This could be the beginning of a new legislative strategy that goes beyond abortion, but abortion is often treated exceptionally in many areas of the law," said Greer Donley, assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. "I wouldn't be surprised if these cross-border laws primarily focus on abortion and abortion-adjacent health care."

Other red state legislatures are taking the hint and expanding their own attacks on the right to privacy beyond just restricting abortions. A measure passed the Idaho State House of Representatives on March 8 that would make it a crime for parents to transport their transgender children across state lines to receive health care. As Republicans prepare for the Supreme Court's likely gutting of Roe v. Wade, they are already hard at work destroying the underlying privacy rights that make Roe, gay rights and trans rights possible.

A Republican Party elephant logo
A Republican Party elephant logo is pictured with the hair of former President Donald Trump during a demonstration against Washington state's stay-home order at the state capitol in Olympia, Wash., on April 19, 2020. JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

Missouri's proposal—like the Texas law it emulates—skirts past legal challenges by taking the state out of the enforcement equation in favor of vigilante lawsuits from residents "deputized" to carry out the law themselves. By allowing private citizens to sue each other for perceived violations of these new, restrictive abortion laws, Republicans have so far successfully gamed the federal courts into allowing these laws to remain in force even as the Supreme Court considers their constitutionality. In the case of Missouri, Muniz said, that could mean everything from Uber drivers being sued for unknowingly transporting a woman out-of-state, or facing a lawsuit for contributing to a GoFundMe where funds are later used to obtain an abortion.

"This is clearly an attempt to test new ways to take power and control over our bodies and lives," Muniz warned. "Today it's about abortion. Tomorrow, it's any other right and freedom on the line."

There is little the federal government can do. With federal action to enshrine abortion into law blocked by unified GOP opposition and the anti-abortion position of West Virginia's Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, there is little hope of strong congressional action. That hasn't stopped Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer from trying: In late February, a procedural vote on the Senate's abortion rights bill failed after Manchin and Republicans withheld their support.

That doesn't mean there is no path forward. In a New York Times op-ed published in December of last year, Donley called on the Biden administration to consider options such as leasing federal property to abortion providers in states that have effectively outlawed the practice.

With a huge abortion decision coming from the Supreme Court as early as this spring and states like Missouri and Texas clamping down on abortion rights, Republicans are now at risk of pushing too far for even some of their own voters. A defection of women or suburbanites from the GOP—both critical groups that delivered electoral victories for Republicans in past elections and hold more moderate views on abortion—would spell long-term doom for the party. And it will only take one maliciously-filed lawsuit against a woman or an alleged accomplice before the true witch hunt nature of these repressive bills becomes clear to the broader public.

The right to an abortion, the freedom of movement and the right to privacy are cornerstones of our modern, free American society. In their haste to replace those inconvenient freedoms with a state that dictates where women can travel and what they can speak about with their doctors, Republicans have forgotten that millions of Americans do not fall into their authoritarian camp. Democrats must now show voters that Republicans aren't just aiming to end abortion, but to restrict the fundamental freedoms of speech, movement and privacy as well. Losing those rights will harm Americans regardless of their politics, and send our country down a dark path toward illiberalism.

Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and the founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm based in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.