Reproductive rights are everyone's rights

ACLU Illinois head Colleen Connell calls abortion rights ‘the proverbial canary in the constitutional coal mine’

Colleen Connell, head of the ACLU of Illinois, speaks at the City Club of Chicago Tuesday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Colleen Connell, head of the ACLU of Illinois, speaks at the City Club of Chicago Tuesday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said Tuesday that reproductive rights are emblematic of rights held by all embattled minorities and must be defended against the “visceral cruelty” of the Trump administration and its reactionary policies.

Speaking at the City Club of Chicago on “abortion rights and what they mean to our democracy,” ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell said, “I submit that abortion rights must be viewed as the legal equivalent of the proverbial canary in the constitutional coal mine.

“What’s at risk,” she added, “is the entire spectrum of rights for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people who adhere to faiths other than Christianity.”

Connell argued that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion didn’t emerge from a vacuum, but was in fact what she called the “robust culmination” of a progressive expansion of rights growing out of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War. Those amendments, she said, “explicitly ascribed the concept of due process and equal protection under the law for every person.” She said they were the foundation for later advances in civil rights, gay marriage, and equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans people, and queers, as well as immigrants.

“That helped to extend the Constitution’s original promises to all Americans, not just the white men of property who are the framers and beneficiaries of our original Constitution,” Connell said. “So the renewed attacks on Roe must really be seen for what they are — an all-out campaign to turn back the clock to a less-inclusive, less-tolerant time.”


“The renewed attacks on Roe must really be seen for what they are — an all-out campaign to turn back the clock to a less-inclusive, less-tolerant time.”

Colleen Connell, executive director of ACLU of Illinois (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Connell staged a withering attack on white supremacy and white nationalism, and the way they dovetail with persistent attempts in politics and jurisprudence to limit the expansion of human and civil rights, especially as played out under President Trump the last few years.

“This administration has continued its unrelenting attacks on immigrants,” Connell said. “It continues to hold immigrant children in cages.” She cited Trump’s attempts to suppress the vote, limit an accurate Census, “particularly among people of color,” and attack reproductive rights as policies of “visceral cruelty” that share “a goal of rewriting our current legal framework to ensure the primacy of white — particularly and predominantly Christian — men.”

She added, “Both history and current events document the symbiosis linking the crude white supremacists on the streets and many of the lawyers who call themselves ‘constitutional originalists,’ smugly suggesting that they have a monopoly on defending the true and permanent meaning of our Constitution.”

She quoted from white nationalist academic F. Roger Devlin in making explicit the connection between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement: “Women’s liberation has actively hurt white men’s ability to procreate, because when white women have choices they are less likely to get married, have children, and procreate the white race.”

“Let that sink in,” Connell said. “When women have choices, then the white race suffers. The inexorable conclusion, therefore, is to eliminate women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights.”

According to Connell, “hostility to reproductive freedom” manifests itself in the “so-called replacement ideology of white supremacists … namely, that low birth rates among white women facilitate white people’s replacement by people of color.”

Thus the attacks on reproductive rights, but also gay rights, transgender rights, and immigration rights — all in the pursuit of what she called “a reactionary rewriting of our constitutional and statutory doctrines.”

Connell said, “The attack on abortion rights reveals a fundamental unwillingness to treat women as full, moral, and legal people entitled to enjoy the same protection of the law enjoyed by men,” pointedly adding, “The arguments are couched in a respect for the ‘original’ intent of the framers,” according to the narrow reading of rights held by “originalists.”

And if reproductive rights are knocked down, other rights are sure to follow.

Speaking, not coincidentally, on Constitution Day, Connell pointed out that Congress also faced restrictions of its rights in the courts, as in the Trump administration’s attacks on funding for the president’s border wall with Mexico and other limits on presidential power — congressional subpoenas, for instance — as well as the legal attempts to limit or roll back the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She urged it is the duty of everyone who values our democracy to protect those rights and lauded states’ attempts to bolster rights, as with the Reproductive Health Act here in Illinois.

“Finally,” she said, “we must never lose sight that our work to protect basic rights, our work to fight white supremacy, our work to combat the narrow, originalist view of our Constitution must begin with us — with we, the people.

“We must not be afraid to engage Americans in this work,” Connell added, “to draw on their basic fairness and decency, and to make them see the consequences of policy — not just on themselves, but on the type of society they want for their children.”