One of the more shameful moments in congressional history was the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act. It required that even slavery-free Northern states must abet that evil institution by returning enslaved people who’d escaped from the South and believed they had attained freedom. With the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, America may again see attempts by states that restrict the freedom of some of their citizens to extend those restrictions into other states. Missouri lawmakers, for example, seriously considered a measure this year that would have presumed to punish out-of-state abortion providers if they serve Missouri women.
Until June 24, that sounded like the kind of clearly unconstitutional scheme that would never survive a court challenge. But now that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has signaled its willingness to rubber-stamp the most extreme items on the Republican agenda, Missouri will almost certainly revisit this dystopian vision, as will other red states.
The court’s decision overturning Roe ostensibly puts decisions regarding abortion rights into the hands of each state legislature. But anyone who thinks the newly invigorated anti-choice movement will be content to stop there hasn’t been paying attention. Missouri’s flirtation last session with what should be called the Fugitive Woman Act is instructive regarding the off-the-charts radicalism of the most extreme anti-abortion rights legislators today.
Its creator, state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, is an attorney who presumably understands the core constitutional rights of interstate travel, interstate commerce and free speech. Yet she pursued legislation that would discard all three in service to the overriding goal of ensuring that Missouri’s restrictions on women’s biological autonomy follow them even if they leave Missouri. In addition to offering civil judgments to random Missourians who could sue out-of-state doctors for aiding Missouri women fleeing the state’s abortion restrictions, Coleman sought to criminalize even giving women “instructions over the telephone, the internet or any other medium of communication” regarding abortion services.
The measure wasn’t approved, but Roe’s demise will give it new momentum. Coleman already is telling interviewers the next big battle is over what she terms “abortion tourism” — as if rape victims desperately seeking out-of-state services to escape Missouri’s new law exacerbating their trauma are just taking a carefree road trip.
Many activists who worked for years to wrench away women’s constitutional right to control their own bodies in red state America aren’t going to respect other constitutional rights in their zeal to extend those restrictions into blue states.
Congressional Democrats must get in front of this and do whatever they can to backstop the core constitutional principle that a state’s laws and protections apply to everyone who is physically within that state. If Senate Republicans want to filibuster such legislation, let them publicly reconcile that with their supposed reverence for state sovereignty.