Is this the end of Roe v Wade, and the end of abortion rights in the US?
The 49th anniversary of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling on reproductive rights is this Saturday, 22 January. It’s likely to be its last
Saturday 22 January marks 49 years since the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the court case Roe v Wade established a right to abortion across the US. While reproductive rights organisations such as Planned Parenthood are celebrating the occasion, they are also preparing for the likelihood that they won’t be celebrating its 50th anniversary, next year.
The Roe ruling currently stands in the balance as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision, this coming June, in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health. It is expected that the radically right-wing court, packed with Trump appointees, will support the anti-abortion side.
“We can no longer count on the Supreme Court to uphold the precedent of Roe v. Wade,” is the sombre analysis of one Planned Parenthood affiliate holding a Celebration of Choice event this week. It adds that the organisation is inviting all celebration participants “to start a fundraiser to support reproductive rights and abortion access”.
Such initiatives are urgently necessary, but it is wishful thinking to suggest that grassroots organisations can solve the problem. Lisa Needham, an attorney and writer with expertise on reproductive law and politics, says that if Roe is overturned, there will be a “massive push” to help transport people across state lines for abortion access.
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However, states where abortion is likely to remain legal – those on the West Coast and in New England, mostly, with a handful of outliers in the middle of the country – “don’t have the capacity, and abortion funds don't have the money” to provide for everyone needing abortion care. As a result, says Needham, “huge swaths of the country will have no access. It always seems over the top to say women will be second-class citizens, but that will absolutely be the case.”
Women’s rights advocates are organising to provide abortion pills by mail in states where direct access to termination is banned. Inevitably, Republican-controlled states are already attempting to make such deliveries illegal. Needham says the legality of such bans will be unclear “until someone in a conservative state gets arrested for sending or receiving pills, and then [we’ll] see how a lawsuit plays out”.
Complacency from Democrats
On Saturday, the new organisation RiseUp4AbortionRights is holding a pro-choice rally in Washington DC, in front of the Supreme Court. According to Women’s eNews: “RiseUp4AbortionRights is unique in its assertion that not only are Republican leaders bent on eliminating women’s reproductive rights, but that ‘too many pro-choice leaders and Democratic Party politicians preach a “realism” of accepting the Court’s gutting of abortion rights.’” I fully agree with this assessment.
Complacency, at best, characterises the attitude of much of the national Democratic establishment on matters of reproductive justice. Abortion has long since become inaccessible, in fact if not in law, in much of the US. Now is the time to say, as loudly as possible, in the streets and in the media, that this is unacceptable – that we expect uncompromising support from Democratic leaders for the right to abortion. And that we demand nationwide access to safe, legal abortion.
Of course, the Roe v Wade anniversary is also when opponents of reproductive justice descend on Washington DC for their annual so-called March for Life.That event is likely to be smaller than usual due to pandemic conditions. Some would-be marchers have said they will not be attending because proof of at least one coronavirus vaccination is needed in DC to access indoor spaces such as restaurants.
This is not surprising given that white evangelical Christians – who are overwhelmingly anti-abortion – are also the American demographic most likely to refuse vaccination against COVID-19. For those who do attend, however, the mood will probably be jubilant, since the Christian Right seems to be on the verge of succeeding in its decades-long effort to see Roe overturned.
The Trump effect
If you had asked me before Donald Trump’s election in 2016 whether I thought the Roe ruling would be struck down before its 50th anniversary, I’d have found the question odd. It’s not that I agreed with conventional pundit wisdom – that Republican leaders would never ‘let’ Roe be overturned because anti-abortion sentiment is such an important driver for their electoral base. Those who create monsters, after all, do not usually manage to control them. And I know this particular monster intimately: I was raised as an evangelical and even bussed to an anti-abortion protest by my family’s church at the age of 11.
It’s just that I didn’t see an immediate path to the overturning of the crucial 1973 decision. Also, Republican-controlled states had managed to severely restrict access to abortion, rendering it effectively unavailable in many parts of the US, and the Supreme Court proved willing to weaken Roe’s impact by upholding many of these restrictions.
Once the power-driven, norm-smashing Trump was elected, I knew that the Roe ruling faced a real and immediate threat
It seemed as if that strategy would continue, so long as enough conservative justices on the Supreme Court remained concerned with the institution’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. But once the power-driven, norm-smashing Trump was elected – with strong backing from the authoritarian Christian Right – I knew that Roe itself faced a real and immediate threat. Now, a majority of the court’s justices are Christian extremists to whom it seems power matters more than legitimacy.
If Roe does go, along with it goes the explicit recognition of a constitutional right to privacy that the 1973 decision derived from the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, opening up a veritable Pandora’s box of horrific possibilities for the Supreme Court to impose theocratic norms in future decisions.
If more of the American public had truly understood the ideological radicalism of the Christian Right in the 1980s, or 1990s or maybe even just ten years ago, perhaps we could somehow have stopped US democracy (such as it is) from going as far off the rails as it has. But it’s too late. Now all we can do is work to protect the vulnerable as we organise and fight to restore our rights in the future.
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