Historic threat to abortion rights – US Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v Wade

By Kerry Abel, Abortion Rights Chair

The leaked ruling from the Supreme Court to Politico this week indicates that the majority is set to overturn the right to abortion in the US, enshrined in the Roe v Wade case and it’s bad news for abortion rights.

The law hasn’t yet changed and the final decision is due to be announced at the end of June, but if this goes through it will be the most significant change to abortion law in half a century in the United States.

Roe v Wade – which established a nationwide framework decriminalising abortion in certain circumstances – was passed in 1973 and Planned Parenthood v Casey re-established the position in 1992. If Roe v Wade is overturned, that national legal backstop goes and with it the key protection for women across the country. Women’s lives will be at the mercy of individual states.

The leaked document drafted by Justice Samuel Alito in an initial draft majority opinion is clear in its absolute opposition to the rights won in Roe v Wade:

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.”

Underlining this reactionary interpretation, the document continues:

“The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” Alito writes.

Such statements are entirely out of step with public opinion and history. This is not surprising as the Supreme Court is ridiculously unrepresentative: the demographics of the Supreme Court do not tally with US society – all but six of 114 Supreme Court justices have been white men. Unlike the tone of the leaked opinion, the majority of US public opinion (roughly 60:40) is in favour of the right to abortion. But right-wing, anti-choice Justices have been planning for this for decades and have clearly been emboldened by the extra Trump appointees and are making the most of being in the majority.

If we assume the worst – that they are preparing to overturn Roe v Wade – it means pro-choice activists have a massive fight on their hands.

There are already many barriers to women accessing abortion in the US. As of April there were 536 restrictions in 42 states. Thirteen states have passed trigger ballots which would lead to abortion being banned if Roe v Wade falls. More than half of US states are likely to ban abortion if Roe v Wade goes. If the law is left to states to decide on abortion, whole swathes of the country could ban access to abortions for most. Many abortion clinics will close. Women in some parts of the country would have to travel long distances to access abortion. Not only will this be financially and practically impossible for many, anti-abortionists are aiming at legislation banning women from travelling out of state to access abortion services.

The politics

This is also worrying for the Presidential elections in 2024 as Trump can go to his base triumphant and boast that he has delivered what he had promised on attacking abortion rights.

Pro-abortion activists in the US have been critical of President Biden in recent weeks, for not even using the word abortion since he’s been President. Although in May 2021, Biden’s budget proposal fulfilled a campaign promise to remove a longstanding ban on federal funding for most abortions known as the Hyde Amendment, he couldn’t get it through. Biden was forced to sign a restriction on abortion funding after Democrats caved to Republican demands.

Work to support a pro-choice view seems to have been left to Kamala Harris and there are videos of Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren joining angry pro-choice protests outside the court. Activists wait to see what, if any, more centralised action is taken to defend abortion rights and the rights of half the US population.

The implications

While overturning Roe v Wade would be an outright attack on women in the US it has international negative implications: anti-abortionists everywhere will be encouraged.

In the US, let’s face it, its biggest impact would be on working class women, particularly black and brown women and pregnant people in the US, the most marginalised in society. Anti-abortion laws degrade the position of all women, but money has always been able to find ways around abortion restrictions. In the US richer women be able to fly out of state and pay for a private abortion. Poor women will rely on abortion fund handouts (even more than they do now) and if they are lucky, an underground network of abortion pill providers. Countless numbers face being forced to continue unwanted pregnancies.

On top of this, there is no universal healthcare system in the US, women have to pay to give birth in hospitals. There is no statutory paid maternity leave and many exist on poverty wages, forced to work more than one job.

Legal abortion services will be limited to blue states only on the coasts, which the Democrats should be proud of and hopefully like Califormia promoting themselves as a haven for abortion rights. But it shouldn’t be like this.

As we know even in the UK when women and pregnant people have to travel for their abortions, the cost of travel and overnight expenses, of arranging childcare and leave from work – missing out on shifts – the expense adds up, sometimes prohibitively.

There are also concerns about the legal implications of overturning Roe v Wade for other measures based on rights to privacy – for example, the right to purchase contraceptives, to equal marriage and to refuse medical care.

The implications for businesses are yet to become clear but it is inevitable that it will have a knock on effect on the workforce – which is significantly different to 1973, this article highlights the socio-economic changes made since Roe v Wade. For example Amazon have said that they will fund abortions for their staff. I don’t believe they are doing this out of simple kindness – this isn’t what they are known for, but even the 5th biggest corporation in the world knows that access to abortion services enable people to stay in the workforce.

The fightback

Activists were on the steps of the Supreme Court within minutes of the announcement and all through Tuesday.

It’s clear people are shocked and angry and #BansOffOurBodies slogans are appearing all over the US. The effect of complicated legislation and opaque politics can make people feel hopeless and it’s something we as activists have to battle against.

In October, as a response to the Texas ban, demonstrations were held in every US state and here in Britain we also took part in solidarity.

The protests in the US are growing across the board and we should support them in every way we can.

The solidarity

Our campaign Abortion Rights stepped into action straight away and called a protest on Tuesday evening at the US embassy, drawing 60 keen protesters including several Democrats Abroad activists.

Not only is international solidarity important to maintain – because anti-abortion activists coordinate globally, so we must too – it is also true that when anti-abortion activists are emboldened around the world, they up their game here. Polish activists know this only too well. Natalia Broniarczyk, of Abortion Dream Team in Poland said simply “This is really bad news for the whole world.”

British trade unions have been long-standing supporters of the struggle for abortion rights. It is important that UNISON put out a firm statement this week committing their support and I am sure more unions will follow suit. We will be coordinating these efforts, and look forward to the conversation filtering down so that branches across the country pass motions to get involved in activity and affiliate to Abortion Rights.

We do not have a perfect abortion landscape in the UK yet, but we have been campaigning for gains and making some progress over the last decade. The breakthroughs for telemedicine, decriminalisation in Northern Ireland and some progress on buffer zones have come because we campaigned hard for them. But we are well aware gains made to safe, free, legal and accessible abortion can be rolled back if we’re not alert.

Our Abortion Rights’ campaign is committed to taking up the struggle and working on different levels to protest, lobby and campaign for the hard-earned right to control our own bodies.

What you can do

  • Join Abortion Rights and join us in this work
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The above article was originally published here by Abortion Rights.