What Does Killing the Filibuster Have to Do With Abortion?

The people most affected by reproductive tyranny are the same people who are systematically being disenfranchised—particularly when it comes to voting.

Photo of President Joe Biden behind a podium speaking about voting rights in front of a crowd outside at the Atlanta University Center Consortium
"We’d rather that the president stayed in D.C. and perhaps delivered this speech to the Senate," Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told CNN. Megan Varner/Getty Images

Our democracy hangs in the balance. Christian evangelicals and their supporters have never had this much power—and they know it. They’ve got numbers on the Supreme Court. They’ve got numbers on the federal courts of appeals. They have also amassed the power to force everyone in this country to bend to their dominionist will. And they’re not going to stop with abortion.

They’re going to come for birth control. Trans rights. Same-sex marriage. And in the process they will wield “religious freedom” as a cudgel to beat down every person who does not adhere to their worldview.

Fortunately, our democracy—what little remains of it—can be saved. But the only way to do that is for Democrats to find a way to pass voting rights legislation, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema be damned. And the only way to do that is to kill or reform the filibuster and hope that if Manchin and Sinema can’t be persuaded by noogies or headlocks, then perhaps a couple GOP senators could: Susan Collins? (Unlikely.) Lisa Murkowski? (Perhaps!)

It’s a long shot, to be sure. Senate Democrats have less than a year to do it. But it’s a shot that must be taken, and the speech that Biden gave this week in which he endorsed changing Senate procedure in order to pass voting rights legislation signals he may finally be ready to shoot his shot.

On Tuesday, Biden called to reform the filibuster in a speech he delivered in Atlanta at what locals call the AUC—the Atlantic University Center Consortium, home to a quartet of HBCU heavy hitters: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College. It was an opportunity for Biden to reach out to Black voters well before the midterm elections.

With abortion on the verge of being criminalized in half the states in this country, the people most affected by reproductive tyranny are the same people who are systematically being disenfranchised. Black, brown, and Indigenous people are losing their access to the ballot at the same time the constitutional right to an abortion is coming to an end. (Notably, many Black, brown, and Indigenous people have never had easy access to affordable abortion care.)

The filibuster must be reformed or killed if marginalized people are ever going to control their own political fate. The only recourse for many people of reproductive age in this country will be to remove the anti-choice Republicans who are putting bounties on the heads of people who provide—and get!—abortions and to elect pro-choice Democrats who will protect a pregnant person’s right to an abortion.

But how are they supposed to do that if they are being prevented from voting by Republicans who know that GOP policies do not reflect majority will? Democrats’ refusal—or inability—to reform the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation lays bare the failure of our political system. If a majority of people cannot impose their will through their representatives, then what’s the point of pretending we live in a democracy?

And it’s not just abortion. It’s decisions being made at the local level about a wide swath of issues—masks in schools and vaccine mandates, for instance—that affect a person’s ability to raise the children they have in a safe environment, one of the key tenets of reproductive justice. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the filibuster is killing us.

The filibuster is anti-democratic

The filibuster, to put it plainly, is anti-democratic. It’s also a tool of white supremacy.

“Oy yoy yoy,” you must be thinking. “She thinks everything is a tool of white supremacy.”

But hear me out!

Actually, hear David Litt of the Atlantic out. Litt explains that the filibuster was really just an accident—a copy-editing error:

It was created by accident, part of a sloppy revision of the Senate rule book by Aaron Burr just a few months after his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton. In a careless effort to remove what he thought was redundant language, he cut the “previous question motion,” which would have allowed a majority of lawmakers to end debate and force a vote on a bill.

Perhaps this is why, incidentally, white dudes shouldn’t get in duels: They end up throwing a wrench in democracy that results in Black people hanging from trees.

I’m not just trying to be crass here. Between 1920 and 2005, the filibuster was wielded again and again to block federal anti-lynching legislation. Even though the majority of senators were in favor of an anti-lynching law, a handful of Southern segregationist Democrats were able to keep the issue from even making it to the floor for a vote.

Just as Southern segregationist Democrats used the filibuster to thwart civil rights legislation, modern conservatives are doing the same thing.

In the early days of the filibuster—after Aaron Burr removed that key provision, thus permitting endless debate as an obstructionist tactic in the Senate—it took only a handful of senators to hold up legislation. If three or four senators wanted to be obstreperous, they could gum up the works. This was obviously unworkable, so during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Senate adopted a rule allowing two-thirds of senators to end a filibuster. Two-thirds was later reduced to three-fifths. (Congress sure does like that fraction!) Now, ending a filibuster requires 60 votes. That means it takes 60 votes to even get a piece of legislation to the floor.

Even with the Wilson-era filibuster reforms that allowed breaking a deadlock instead of allowing it to go on interminably, Southern segregationist Democrats were so well-organized—and so committed to being as racist as humanly possible—they were able to block civil rights legislation that would have ended Jim Crow and the racial terror of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century.

And ironically, because Southern segregationists were so successful in wielding the filibuster as a weapon to block civil rights legislation and perpetuate the oppression and outright murder of Black Americans, other senators didn’t want to use it to obstruct any other kinds of legislation. As Litt notes, “most senators didn’t want to legitimize Jim Crow’s favorite procedural tactic.”

Imagine that. A time when the Senate worked together to pass laws rather than one party stymying legislation at every turn because its lust for power has rendered the needs of the electorate irrelevant.

Just as Southern segregationist Democrats used the filibuster to thwart civil rights legislation, modern conservatives are doing the same thing.

Is it enough?

“I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” Biden said during his speech in Atlanta.

“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” he continued.

Drawing explicit parallels between the behavior of modern conservatives and racist conservatives of old was certainly a fiery sound bite. And I consider anything that makes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell huff and puff about language “unbecoming of a president” to be a pretty good time.

But some think his speech, passionate though it may have been, simply wasn’t enough.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, boycotted Biden’s speech along with other grassroots voting rights activists, telling CNN’s John Berman: “We’d rather that the president stayed in D.C. and perhaps delivered this speech to the Senate.”

“At this point, what we’re saying is we don’t need another speech from the president. … He gave a very passionate speech back in Philadelphia back in July but then literally for seven months we heard nothing else about voting rights from him, and so now is not the time for another speech.”

Albright is right. The time for speeches is over. It’s time for noogies and headlocks.

Democrats owe it to Black voters. Black voters have put them in power again and again only to be disappointed by the lack of care and focus on issues that matter most to Black people.

Democrats also owe it to themselves. If voting rights legislation is not in place by the time the midterms roll around this fall, it’s a distinct possibility that Republicans will wrest control of Congress and Democrats won’t ever be able to get it back. Absent legislation that gives the 15th Amendment some teeth, the deluge of voter suppression and gerrymandering efforts all but ensures that Republicans will regain control of the House and Senate and maintain that control.

And as a Black woman in this country—and a reproductive justice enthusiast—I’m horrified.