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Opinion | Just How Far Will Republican Attacks on Institutions Go?

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Bret Stephens: Gail, as you know, I have a long history as a pro-choice conservative, going back to my days at The Wall Street Journal.

But as a legal matter, I wouldn’t be entirely sorry if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That’s now on the table as the court agreed last week to review a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, concerning the legality of a Mississippi ban on most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.

Your thoughts?

Gail: I’ve been thinking about abortion since — I guess ninth grade. Went to a Catholic girls’ school and there was barely a day when we weren’t warned about the evils of … oh gosh, everything sexual. Sex outside of marriage, sex inside marriage with any form of birth control but rhythm.

Bret: Sounds cheerful.

Gail: And abortion was murder. Flat out. So I understand how people believe that and want to fight for “life.” The thing that turns it all around, however, is that many of the same forces battling against abortion are also trying to restrict access to birth control.

Bret: Cue Monty Python’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

Gail: No medical subsidies for poor pregnant women who need help to obtain effective protection against pregnancy. No counseling for confused kids who get in trouble. All of which causes me to conclude that the anti-abortion movement isn’t so much fighting for life as for the right to impose its religious convictions regarding sex on everyone else.

Bret: I’m fond of the classic rebuttal to the church’s teachings on contraception: If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules. Then again, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that the Supreme Court gets to be the ultimate arbiter of the abortion question. I’d much rather that it be dealt with by state legislatures or by Congress.

Gail: I totally disagree. We’re talking about a fundamental right for women, and the idea that your ability to end a pregnancy should depend on which state you live in is just … wrong.

Bret: My point is that abortion rights would be more secure, not less, if they had been achieved through normal legislative processes, or ideally with a Constitutional amendment. Because what the Supremes giveth, the Supremes can now taketh away — thanks, in this instance, to the accident of Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying less than two months before the election instead of two months after it. My hope is that if the court overturns Roe, it will energize voters at the state level to elect legislators who’ll protect abortion rights.

Gail: Yeah that’ll work great for Massachusetts. Not so sure about Mississippi. Or Texas, which just passed a law banning abortions after six weeks — well before many women would even know they were pregnant.

Can’t argue with your concern about the way Republicans packed the court, however, and of course it wasn’t just about Amy Coney Barrett. But one last abortion question: How about timing? The vast majority of Americans say that they want abortion to be legal during the first trimester, but they’re much more uncomfortable with abortions further down the line.

Bret: I also used to favor legal restrictions on late-term abortions. But as my friend Richard North Patterson points out, many of these abortions happen when there’s an urgent and justifiable medical reason, not as some flippant last-minute decision not to have a baby. And in those cases, the law should be on the side of the woman.

On a different topic, we are about to reach the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder on May 25. Thoughts on how it changed the country?

Gail: Our opinion folk put together a powerful section on that very subject, and it reminded me that this is going to be a permanent piece of the American memory. And at least for now, it’s made us very sensitive to issues of police brutality. Hope it leads to permanent change, but having been down this road before, I’m a little skeptical.


Bret: The article in the section that struck me most was the focus group that Frank Luntz conducted (alongside our colleague Patrick Healy) with 14 Trump voters, almost all of whom seemed to think that Floyd bore at least some responsibility for his own death. There’s just a huge gap in this country when it comes to perceptions of racial issues. And I often wonder if we’ve passed the point where it can be bridged.

Gail: Having seen it bridged on so many other fronts I have got to believe this is possible, too. Our response has to include some very specific changes to policing. For instance, New York has spent years and years debating whether police officers should have to live in the city. That’d be a big step up, I think.

Bret: Easier said than done, though I’d love to see some of our friends from Brooklyn’s trendier neighborhoods volunteer for six months of community policing and see whether their political views change.

More broadly, I’d like to think that people on the political right can recognize that what happened to Floyd was outright murder. And that when millions of Black citizens testify that policing is arbitrary, discriminatory and too frequently deadly, we should listen to them and reform policing accordingly. I’d also like to think that people on the political left can understand that efforts to defund or disempower the police have the real-world effect of consigning vulnerable communities to greater violence, insecurity and poverty.

I don’t know why it should be hard for people to hold both ideas in their minds at once. But we’re becoming a country that has a hard time holding any balanced views.

Gail: Listening to our mayoral candidates debate this issue — and hey, I want extra credit for listening since it was on Zoom — I’ve heard a couple of the candidates call for a reduction in the size of New York’s police force, while using the money to build up civilian intervention — with social workers and mental health experts.

What do you think of that?

Bret: Full credit for your Zoom masochism, Gail.

I can see the value of using social workers in many of the situations in which the police are now called, like middle-of-the-night marital altercations. But I think it’s naïve to imagine it’s going to work when it comes to problems like dealing with mentally ill, potentially violent, homeless people on subways.

Force, or the threat of it, is part of maintaining social order, which is why I also think it’s foolish for New York State’s attorney general to push for a law that would put drastic limits on the police use of force, with legal penalties for cops who exceed them. Sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s a recipe for cops to be afraid to do their jobs. Crime will be back to 1980s levels in no time.

Speaking of crime, thoughts on Republicans refusing to go along with a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection?

Gail: That was fascinating. You could see how Republicans of good will were totally on board with a bipartisan investigation — and then suddenly got the rug pulled out from under them by their leaders.

I felt so sorry for John Katko, the Republican who worked out the House deal with the Democrats. Which everybody seemed to like until somebody suddenly said: “Hey wait, this might make Trump look bad!”

The new G.O.P. leadership theory that Congress can’t investigate that assault on the Capitol without also investigating Black Lives Matter was … sort of shocking, even to me.

Bret: Same here. It’s worth going back and watching the speeches right before the insurrection from people like Mitch McConnell. “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share,” he said then.

And now it’s as if he’s morphed into Alicia Silverstone’s character from “Clueless,” saying something like, “That’s so last January!”

Gail: We’ve been agreeing so much about this that I feel constrained to ask you how you feel about the ongoing negotiations about the Biden infrastructure plan.

Bret: Well, the president shaved $500 billion from his opening bid, so that’s progress in my book. I imagine that somewhere between the administration’s new $1.7 trillion figure and the Republican $568 billion counteroffer, there’s a magic number. Personally I’d be very happy with an extra lane or two on the F.D.R. Drive, though I’m sure it would take 45 years to build.

Gail: Personally, I’d be happy with universal quality early childhood education. But since that would set us off on another whole conversation, maybe I’ll save it for … June. It’s coming, Bret! Masks off!

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