Leonard Pitts: Rights are never fully won and must always be defended

Anti-abortion activists never had to be begged to get out and vote.

(Arin Yoon | The New York Times) Abortion rights demonstrators in Topeka, Kan., July, 30, 2022. After a broad victory in a deep-red state, Democrats are vowing to elevate the fight over abortion rights in midterm races across the country.

“Dare we hope?”

That was the rather plaintive response of a man on Twitter when news broke that Kansas voters had rejected an attempt to remove the right to abortion from their state constitution. We are talking about a fire-engine-red state. It went for Donald Trump in 2016 and repeated the error in 2020. In fact, Kansas has supported only one Democratic presidential candidate -- Lyndon Johnson -- in over 80 years.

Yet, that same Kansas just voted to preserve abortion rights. And at 60 percent to 39 percent, it wasn’t even close.

“Dare we hope,” indeed. Dare those of us who think an ideological and illegitimate Supreme Court committed judicial malpractice when it overturned Roe v. Wade take the vote as a reason for optimism that women’s rights to control their own reproductive future might yet be preserved? You can’t blame people for being hesitant. This has been a brutal season for progressive values.

Voting rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, even contraceptive rights ... somehow, it’s all once again up for grabs. And people who fought and won those fights are understandably exhausted at the idea of having to do it all over again. A recent poll by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University found that, while 65 percent of Americans disapprove of the court’s decision, supporters of abortion rights are far less likely than opponents to vote in this fall’s midterm elections.

Which underscores how deep and abiding is their fatigue. Through its willingness to smash the rules, both written and unwritten, the Republican Party has managed to dispirit better than half the electorate. Like apartheid South Africa, they have made the majority seem politically irrelevant.

But if they really are irrelevant, then how do you explain Kansas?

The problem with progressives is that many have forgotten the need to fight for the long term. Consider that the right-wing battle to overturn Roe started almost 50 years ago and the battle to curb African-American voting rights took about as long. Yet progressives are disappointed because they turned out in record numbers in a single election two years ago and don’t yet have everything they wanted? Indeed, a few months ago, one talk-show host pleaded for liberals to show up at the polls, but apologetically compared hearing such appeals to eating ground-up glass.

Poor babies. Conservatives spent half a century not getting what they wanted on abortion rights. Yet, one struggles in vain to recall when anyone ever had to beg them to vote, much less apologetically. They seem to understand what progressives often don’t. Which is that human-rights battles -- and reproductive freedom is certainly one of those -- are not like baseball games where final victory comes with the last out. Human-rights victories must be safeguarded and preserved or else they are subject to being overturned. The good news is that the same goes for human-rights defeats.

For what it’s worth, the victors in Kansas say they won that battle by knocking on over 60,000 doors, making over 600,000 phone calls and raising over $6.5 million.

So, dare we hope their victory has meaning? Well, that depends on where we go from here.

If progressives knock on enough doors, make enough phone calls and raise enough money?

If we finally accept that rights are never fully won and must always be defended?

If we are resilient and tough over the long haul?

If we vote?

Then, yes. We dare.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com