The Supreme Court leak confirmed that this is no longer the America we grew up in

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Kadida Kenner speaks during a protest against the Supreme Court's imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade, at the courthouse in Media, Pennsylvania, on May 3, 2022. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

When the news dropped around 9 p.m. on Monday, one woman said she’d stomped around her house, cussing. Another said she cried. Only 20 hours after the unprecedented leak of a looming Supreme Court decision to undo nearly a half-century of abortion rights, they and more than 100 other people, mostly women, showed up at the Delaware County, Pennsylvania, courthouse in Media to raise their voices in protest.

The protesters were loud. They were definitely mad and frustrated, but the one thing you didn’t hear was surprise. The method of delivery — a news leak of an unpublished majority opinion — may have been a shock, but these women protesting for their reproductive rights said they’d been anxiously expecting this moment for a long time.

“I got my tubes tied, because I saw this coming,” Elisabeth McColm, a 36-year-old teacher who lives near Media, told me. She was watching the speakers from the courthouse steps and clutching the sign she’d quickly drawn up before racing over after work: “Banning Abortion Doesn’t Save Babies, It KILLS Women.” McColm, who has an 8-year-old daughter, said she was determined to make her own reproductive choices before an increasingly conservative Supreme Court made them for her.

“I had thought of it as settled law,” said 75-year-old Christine Dalton, a retired schoolteacher from Marple, referring to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, and that stands to be overturned by a 5-4 vote, based on the majority decision from Justice Samuel Alito leaked to Politico. When the justices recently added to the court — particularly those appointed by Donald Trump — said they believed Roe was settled law, “I knew they were frickin’ lying,” Dalton said. “It’s sad. It’s been a difficult five years.”

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Take them at their word: Indeed, it has. The thing about the looming reversal of Roe v. Wade — undoubtedly one of the biggest U.S. stories of the 21st century, signaling a larger reversal of civil rights that may gain momentum — is that while the news hit like a nuclear bomb, it was a detonation that arrived in super slow motion, looping in over our horizon for decades.

When Republicans said they would undo women’s reproductive freedom, we should have believed them the first time — beginning in the late 1970s. Instead, for too long, too many folks took the GOP’s anti-abortion stance as nothing more than a political ploy to keep the small donations rolling in and to rally the rubes behind their real agenda of endless tax cuts for the rich.

Somehow, too many of us remained in a state of denial even as Ronald Reagan hopped in bed with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As Pat Buchanan told America in 1992 that “there is a religious war going on in this country.” As the dangers of minority-mob rule took shape in the 2000 election with the Brooks Brothers riot. As George W. Bush and Donald Trump, both guys with the fewest votes from Americans, named five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, some of them confirmed by senators also representing a minority of Americans. And as Mitch McConnell plowed through the guardrails of democracy to steal one of those seats. Too many of us refused to believe this was where it was all headed.

Instead, we relied on Roe’s ability to hang on and survive so many challenges. We told ourselves that the expansion of civil rights that started with the Warren Court in the 1950s and 1960s — and included recent wins like 2015′s narrow ruling to nationally legalize gay marriage — would prevail.

So the real bombshell Monday night wasn’t just the news on abortion rights but also the need to face the reality that this is no longer the America we grew up in. And perhaps more grimly: that the right-wing offensive to roll back the basic rights that it took decades — or even centuries — for women, Black and brown people, the LGBTQ+ community and others to win has just begun.

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“We’ve never had a right that’s been taken away,” said Deb Kossmann, a 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Havertown, who stood at the Media rally holding a sign that read, “We’re not going to Gilead,” referring to the dystopian and patriarchal society depicted in Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale." “This is a right that’s being taken away, so the question about this is, what comes next? Is it gay marriage? Is it ... ?” Her voice trailed off.

Nearby at the booming microphone, Kadida Kenner — the activist leading the New Pennsylvania Project seeking to boost voter turnout in the model of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams — voiced similar concerns in her speech. “It starts with the overturning of settled law, which is Roe v. Wade, but it doesn’t end there. This is the start, because if you can overturn this settled law, then you can overturn Brown v. Board. You can overturn Obergefell (which legalized gay marriage). ... We had it rammed down our throat that the far right did not want an activist court. How do you explain this?”

Later I asked Kenner — who carries a poster of Bayard Rustin, the West Chester-raised architect of the 1963 March on Washington, to every event she attends — if she really feared that today’s court could undo the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended legal school segregation. She responded with a list of 27 Trump judicial nominees who refused to affirm that Brown was correctly decided, adding, “We should not be surprised if Brown comes up for ‘interpretation.’” On Wednesday night, Gov. Greg Abbott — breathing in the new zeitgeist — said Texas may ask the court to reverse a 1982 ruling that required educating the children of undocumented immigrants.

It was only a few weeks ago that pundits (myself included) said the Supreme Court’s recent actions suggested a growing crisis of legitimacy. It’s no longer a suggestion. The 2016-17 hijacking of a vacancy by Mitch McConnell, the stunning matter of Justice Clarence Thomas hearing Jan. 6 cases while his wife is tied to the insurrection, the increasing use of a “shadow docket” to make controversial rulings without public debate or votes — all of it was leading to this moment. That a draft decision was leaked to the press — shattering one more precedent — is just the exclamation point on the anti-democratic slide of another American institution.

The Roe v. Wade opinion felt like the activation of a five-member extreme-right sleeper cell.

Fight of a lifetime: But last week’s boisterous protests, which brought out large throngs in Philadelphia and across the country, didn’t offer an immediate answer. Much of the talk was about voting, and there’s no question that a reversal of Roe v. Wade could boost November turnout among angry Democrats. But a 5-4 far-right majority, including those three Trump justices, looks locked in for a while, no matter who controls Congress. And no one knows how many civil rights, from contraception to LGBTQ+ rights, will take a hit before the next vacancy.

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For Dalton, the retired schoolteacher who protested the Vietnam War as a student at Immaculata College in the 1960s and today wears the T-shirt “I Read Banned Books,” this week’s news from Washington stirred up a lot of feelings. They included her memories of American optimism in her post-World War II childhood and her fear that our nation may be sliding toward the fascism that was defeated in Normandy. “My father was a World War II vet, and he fought that system, so I knew a little bit about it, as he would tell me things,” she said.

Those things are informing her fears for the future, and for her 8-year-old granddaughter. “I really don’t want to leave this world like this for her,” Dalton said, “and I certainly don’t want to leave her without the protections that other people have had since 1973.” Suddenly, it looks as if getting that back will be the fight of a lifetime.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.