Wrong on Roe, Abortion & ‘Democracy’

Stephen Colbert inside the White House press-briefing room, July 27, 2007 (Larry Downing/Reuters)

On Thursday, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert launched a diatribe against Roe v. Wade’s potentially imminent demise at the hands of the Supreme Court. Pointing to statistics showing that Americans oppose overturning Roe, Colbert said: “So if it is this unpopular, why is everyone saying it’s gonna happen? Well, I don’t want to get too technical, but . . . what’s the word . . . we don’t live in a democracy.”

“We don’t live in a democracy.” Huh.

Let’s get this straight. Nine unelected judges overturning abortion laws in almost every state in the Union is “democracy,” but the same judicial institution handing decision-making power on the issue back to the democratically elected legislatures in said states is anti-democratic. 

This is, of course, exactly wrong. Just to paint you a picture of how truly anti-democratic Roe was: Prior to the 1973 ruling, 30 states had bans on abortions in all instances. Sixteen states had bans with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother. Three states — Hawaii, Washington and Alaska — allowed abortions, but only for residents. Only New York allowed abortions for out-of-state and in-state women, but even the liberal Empire State capped its permissiveness at 24 weeks, except if the mother’s health was in danger. (At the time, that gave New York the gruesome distinction of having “the most liberal abortion law in the world,” in the words of the pro-abortion advocate Dr. Alan Guttmacher.)

Roe changed all of that. With a sweeping 7–2 ruling, the Burger Court invalidated the abortion bans passed by actual democracy — elected representatives in state legislatures across the country — in the vast majority of states.

If overturning Roe meant a universal federal ban on abortions, then Colbert might at least be able to argue that the Court would be acting in an equally anti-democratic fashion as it was in 1973. But he’s not. He’s saying that handing power back to the people is proof that we “don’t live in a democracy.” In fact, there’s only one side arguing for a top-down mandate on the issue — and it’s not the pro-lifers.

It’s beginning to seem like “democracy” just means “progressives getting what they want.”