Whether Texas’s anti-abortion law survives inevitable Supreme Court scrutiny, it may already have done irreparable damage to what was once known as the conservative movement — despite delivering a crucial part of that movement its greatest win.
The law, which bans abortions after six weeks and allows private citizens to sue abortion providers, has already helped energize a progressive pro-choice base that might otherwise have been complacent or demoralized heading into 2022. Meanwhile, the law threatens to upend a decades-long alliance among several factions of the conservative movement.
From the 1970s onward, that movement was a loose confederation of conservatives with various priorities: a strong defense (with a fervent anti-communist wing), fiscal discipline (with a fervent anti-tax wing) and traditional family values (with a fervent anti-abortion wing). But by the early ’90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union had made defense and anti-communism less prominent as issues.
So in 1996, conservative activist Grover Norquist announced a new unifying principle. The new “common political goal” for Republicans, he said, was simple: “to be left alone by the government.” The “Leave Us Alone Coalition” was a center-right alliance of conservative and libertarian groups that promoted individual freedom over government involvement.
Norquist, then as now president of Americans for Tax Reform, defined the coalition broadly, including small business owners, the self-employed, home schoolers and gun owners. Democrats, who wanted to raise taxes or increase regulations on all these groups, were part of what he called the “Takings Coalition.”
Accept that formulation or not, it essentially describes how much of the center-right has seen itself over the last quarter-century.
To be clear: The center-right coalition was not universally pro-life, with many libertarians agreeing to disagree with social conservatives on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Nonetheless, the right was mostly unified in its support for conservative judges committed to individual freedom and limited government.
The Texas abortion law threatens to blow up this truce. In empowering anti-abortion activists to sue any party that “aids and abets” a woman seeking an abortion after six weeks, the law is an open invitation to upend the private lives of untold numbers of Texans. It’s not just abortion providers that can be sued; so can friends or relatives who might accompany a pregnant woman, or even a driver hired for the journey. So much for reducing regulations on small businesses or the self-employed.
And for conservatives who have traditionally seen trial lawyers as an adversary, this law is a kind of lawyer-enrichment program. It not only sets a floor of $10,000 in civil claims from a defendant, but it also requires a losing defendant to pay all court costs (the same does not hold if the plaintiff loses).
It’s hard to square the philosophy of “leave us alone” with a law that essentially deputizes private citizens to interfere in their neighbors’ lives. Previous anti-abortion laws have targeted abortion providers for regulation (or, yes, elimination). This one pits citizen against citizen — creating a financial incentive to pry, probe and sue.
It is ironic that the debate over Texas’s law coincides with increasing calls on the right for greater “freedom” amid a pandemic. At least members of the “Leave Us Alone Coalition” are on firmer philosophical ground when they oppose vaccine mandates or mask-wearing in schools. As it turns out, whether you deserve to be left alone depends a lot on who you are, where you live and what you’re doing.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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