Democratic Disobedience: A Different Justification for Civil Disobedience and the Case of Anti-Abortion Activism in the U.S.

21 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2013

See all articles by Sara Gebh

Sara Gebh

New School for Social Research

Date Written: 2013


With the concept of 'democratic disobedience' this paper introduces a justification for civil disobedience that differs from the traditional account of liberal civil disobedience primarily in two aspects: first, the grounds on which disobedient actions are justified and second, the scope of legitimate demands within this mode of protest. To demonstrate the potential of this new mode of justification it is applied to the case of anti-abortion activism in the U.S.

The liberal concept of civil disobedience is based on the idea that in cases of blatant injustices civil disobedience is a means to trump and correct democratic decisions in the name of justice. Democratic disobedience, on the other hand, does not invoke an external corrective instance, but rather bases its justification on the assumption that the democratic process is inherently imperfect and therefore inevitably produces democratic deficits, i.e. incongruities between the will of the citizens and governmental politics. Contrary to the liberal model, democratic disobedience does not refer to pre-political or metaphysical concepts like justice, God or personal conscience, but grounds its justification in the conflictual practice of democratic decision-making processes. This theoretical reorientation expands the legitimate reasons for civil disobedience beyond strict violations of justice. To counterbalance this tendency democratic disobedience is strictly confined to demand only a reintroduction into the political decision-making process and, accordingly, the justification for democratic disobedience expires if a political reengagement with the issue in question is successfully triggered – and this includes the case in which the sovereign reaffirms the policy. By virtue of this construction liberal and democratic disobedience can co-exist and complement each other depending on the particular context and the justifying reasons for civil disobedience. What renders the concept of democratic disobedience especially valuable, however, is that this new formulation avoids any tendencies towards an instrumental understanding of democracy and justifies disobedience rather as a productive form of participation than as a parasitic external revising mechanism that limits democratic self-government.

Keywords: civil disobedience, democratic theory, protest, anti-abortion activism, pro-choice

Suggested Citation

Gebh, Sara, Democratic Disobedience: A Different Justification for Civil Disobedience and the Case of Anti-Abortion Activism in the U.S. (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Sara Gebh (Contact Author)

New School for Social Research ( email )

6 East 16th Street
New York, NY 10003
United States

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