Want to protect abortion rights in DC? Fight for Statehood

The Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe v. Wade in June ended a half-century of abortion as a constitutional right and turned bodily autonomy into a political football to be kicked about by state governments. And many of the states were game. Between “trigger bans” enacted before the decision, states taking action soon afterward, and those moving toward restricting access to reproductive services, abortion is now either illegal or its status is uncertain for about half of the United States, according to Politico.

On the other hand, elected leaders in a number of states have strongly affirmed their support for defending the right of access to abortion services within their borders. One of the jurisdictions advocating the most ardently for reproductive rights has been the District of Columbia, where abortion is currently legal at all stages of pregnancy.

“We are a pro-choice city. Nothing has changed in Washington, DC. Abortion remains legal,” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. “We’re going to do everything within our power … to make sure we are a safe city for abortion care and a legal city for abortion care.”

There’s a problem, though: The District isn’t a state and doesn’t have full control over its own governance. The strong abortion protections currently available in the District could be overturned at any time by federal legislation. Under Article I, Section 8, one of the most anti-democratic sections of the Constitution, Congress has the authority “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all cases whatsoever over the seat of government.”

Federal interference in DC’s abortion laws isn’t likely with the presidency and Congress controlled by Democrats. Even if Republicans gain control of Congress this November, a right-wing attack on abortion in DC would likely be blocked by a filibuster in the Senate, and President Biden’s veto would backstop that. But 2024 looms ahead, and the Republicans could again have the upper hand.

There is a long history of conservatives in Congress imposing policy on the District against the will of the residents and over the head of the local elected government. Right-wing members find value in crowing to their constituents about how they stuck it to the radical libs in DC, largely on social issues. Never mind that the folks back home would surely resent Congress overturning laws passed by their own state and local governments.

Past measures imposed on DC since gaining limited home rule in 1974 have included bans on medical use of marijuana, city benefits for the unmarried partners of DC employees, and a needle exchange program to prevent AIDS. While these restrictions have since been overturned, Congress still prohibits DC from using its own funds to provide abortions for Medicaid recipients, a restriction it could not force on a state.

There have been many other unsuccessful attempts by Congress to enact policy on the District that failed only due only to tireless work by the DC government, local activists and the dogged determination of DC’s non-voting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. But without a vote in either house, DC, like the fictional Blanche DuBois, has had to rely on the kindness of strangers, meaning supportive members of the House and Senate. With the repeal of Roe, the door is open for Republicans on Capitol Hill to attempt to limit or outright ban access to abortion in the District.

And abortion is just the beginning. As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas revealed, abortion is only the first of a number of rights in the crosshairs of judicial conservatives. He specifically cited past Court decisions protecting same-sex relationships, marriage equality and access to contraceptives. If the Court overturned any of these rights the states could act to preserve them within their borders. So could the District, but its actions could easily be overturned by Congress.

DC’s gun restrictions have come under attack by Congress and, in the absence of statehood, surely will again. Although DC had to soften its stringent gun controls in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, it still bans open carry of firearms, places numerous limits on where concealed weapons can be carried, and bars assault weapons and extended magazines. Without statehood, even those restrictions will be on the chopping block.

In an especially egregious attack on DC home rule, US Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) recently called for total abolition of DC’s elected government and a return to the direct congressional oversight that was in effect prior to 1974. Fortunately, that move seems to be gaining no traction; unfortunately, there is a great appetite in the GOP for dismantling home rule bit by bit.

What’s the solution? There’s only one: DC statehood. Nothing else would provide the District with the full control over its local legislation and budgets that the 50 states enjoy. The addition of voting representation in the House and Senate also would put DC residents on an equal footing with other Americans and give local voters a voice in decisions on the federal level – for example, the confirmation of Supreme Court justices and members of the president’s cabinet.

The cause of DC statehood has formidable foes, and DC’s gaining full partnership in the Union would step on many toes. Many years ago, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, a supporter of statehood, lamented that opposition to expanded autonomy for the District was due to its being “too liberal, too urban, too Black and too Democratic.” But despite DC being a majority-minority jurisdiction with a progressive political culture, for decades even many Democrats refused to get on board with supporting statehood. But those days are over; the cause is now a major Democratic priority. Statehood reached a new threshold when it was passed by the House of Representatives in 2020, and again in 2021. However, the measure ran into roadblocks in the filibuster-constipated Senate. (While the filibuster has sometimes helped DC avoid suffering even worse treatment at the hands of Congress, without it DC might already have statehood, which would end congressional interference once and for all).

Therefore, supporters of abortion rights – and many other rights that we have taken for granted – need to get on board the DC statehood struggle. That includes residents of the District and the rest of the country. A fully empowered District not only could defend itself; it would join the emerging alliance of blue states in support of progressive policies in human rights, criminal justice, social services and much more. The cause of DC statehood should be the cause of every American with a conscience.

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