Adam Fagen / Flickr

On Monday evening (2nd May), POLITICO released a leaked document from the US Supreme Court displaying the intention to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since its 1973 ruling, Roe v. Wade has embedded the right to a safe and legal abortion within the country’s constitution. In last week’s revelations, Justice Alito’s draft majority opinion proclaimed that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start”, arguing the ruling does not fall under the constitutional requirements for rights protection, and that it is instead “time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

Abortion has a long history in the United States. It was effectively legal until the Civil War period, and was not criminalised nationwide until 1910. In the mid-late 1960s, eleven states legalised it, and Roe v. Wade legalised it nationwide in 1973. The court stated that “the right of privacy… is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent”.

“It is a logic that sacrifices equality at the altar of tradition”

In the last few years, several state legislatures have attempted to strip back abortion access. In 2019, Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama all passed laws that banned abortion in almost all cases, though these were all struck down. In 2021, Texas’ state government banned most abortions after six weeks, making no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The Supreme Court rejected an emergency request to block the law while Texan abortion providers’ legal challenge progressed. It is a Mississippi law brought before the Supreme Court illegalising abortions after fifteen weeks that is the case in question in the leaked document.

The consequences of this decision, which will likely be officially unveiled in June or July, will not fall evenly. Those who live in states where abortion is at risk of being banned or heavily restricted, mainly in the South and Midwest, can legally travel to other states to undergo them. But such travel is restricted by finance. Poverty is a predictor of seeking abortion in the first place; nearly 50% of those who had abortions in 2014 were poor according to the Guttmacher Institute. Black women, who make up 13% of the population, but have around a third of reported abortions, will again be placed at higher risk. Decisions made by men in high — yet unelected — office, men whose earnings far exceed the average American wage-earner, are set to create incredible burdens on the vulnerable, while these men go untouched and unbothered by their own casual oppression.

“Decisions made by men in high – yet unelected – office are set to create incredible burdens on the vulnerable”

Most data shows that abortion bans do not significantly reduce the number of abortions that are performed. There will always be people who are pregnant and do not wish to bear a child: a fact, no matter how much it upsets those who disagree with premarital intercourse. Those people will find a way to access abortions: whether it is travelling across state borders if they can afford it, or finding other methods if they cannot. The most urgent issue that faces the US now is the safety of those left pursuing dangerous backstreet procedures. Abortion bans have a death toll.

Abortion has a uniquely powerful character in American party politics. The rise of the religious right in the mid-20th century brought forth a voter base carrying the unflinching belief that life begins at conception. Abortion thus became a battleground for issues of women’s rights, secularism and religion, and a deeply emotional partisan divide.


Mountain View

It’s not just America, the abortion of women’s rights is happening globally

Anti-abortion sentiments are easy to appeal to. If a candidate promises to restrict abortion access, or appoint justices who will do so — a technique employed by Trump — they will inevitably gain the vote of those whose chief political concern is that fetuses are carried to term. The Republican party’s manipulation of the appointments system — banning Obama from appointing a new justice in an election year, yet allowing Trump to do so in 2020 — meant that Trump was able to appoint three justices in his time, all of whom are set to vote for the overturn.

The most egregious aspect of this decision is the way in which it is cloaked in the language of neutrality and states’ rights — its legitimacy stemming from allegiance to a constitution written at a time when women could not vote and black people were enslaved across the Americas and the world. Alito writes that court-granted rights must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. The implicit statement of the decision is that women’s rights, their ability to make medical decisions about their own bodies, are outside the category of human rights, beyond the definition of “life, liberty and property”. It is a logic that sacrifices equality at the altar of tradition.

American politics continually teeters on the edge of history and modernity, progressivism and oppression. It seems as though they have tipped over that edge.