The decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe versus Wade is a major attack on women’s rights and on abortion rights. It has many implications for the right to privacy and many other constitutional rights.
In the USA it will mean abortion is legal in some states and not others. This means women who live in states where abortion is legal and women who can afford to travel can access abortion, but other women will not. This is similar to the situation in the UK before the 1967 Abortion Act, when safe medical abortions could be accessed by those who could afford to do so and knew which clinics to go to, while others faced the choice of continuing with an unwanted pregnancy or risking their lives going to an illegal abortionist.
President Biden warned against attempts by anti-choice states to restrict women’s rights to travel freely in the USA and to receive drugs from pharmacists. It is chilling that the US President felt it necessary to say this. Can this really be happening in the 21st century in a country which has had nearly 50 years of legal abortion? Is it the case that US citizens could be banned from travelling out of their state lest they access termination of pregnancy in another state? Many women do feel this is getting like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
Already the anti-choice states are bringing in restrictions and abortion clinics in these states are closing. Some states are banning abortion from the moment of conception, others from six weeks of pregnancy, a time when many women may not know they are pregnant and will have had little opportunity to obtain an abortion. In the anti-abortion states the only exception allowed is where the life of the pregnant woman or pregnant person is at risk. There are not exceptions in the cases of rape or incest. These states are enacting draconian anti-abortion laws, which will put women’s rights and reproductive rights generally back more than 50 years.
What are the implications of this decision for women in the USA and world-wide?
The prohibition of abortion in some states in the USA will lead to forced child-bearing and to increased rates of illegal abortion, causing death and injury to women. These changes will particularly harm poor women, women of colour and women who do not have the means or the opportunity to travel to a pro-choice state.
There will be greater state intrusion in women’s lives and invasion of privacy. In states where abortion is prohibited women who experience spontaneous miscarriages may find themselves subject to police questioning to check whether they have had an (illegal) abortion. This happens often in societies where abortion is illegal. One example of this was Romania under Ceausescu, where women were subject to compulsory pregnancy tests and then had to explain if they were no longer pregnant.
This type of invasion of medical and personal privacy and increased policing of the human body is also a major threat to transgender and non-binary people. The rights of trans and non-binary people to live their lives freely and to access appropriate medical care is likely to come under attack. If medical privacy can be invaded in one area of life, it can be invaded in many other areas of life.
As a result of the loss of reproductive freedom, women’s employment status will diminish. If women’s lives can be disrupted at any stage by unplanned pregnancy, then this potential maternity is used against all women of childbearing age, irrespective of marital status, sexual activity or sexual orientation, to deny women equal opportunities in education, employment and public life. The argument will be put, as it was put half a century ago, that it is not worth investing in women, because they may at any moment have a baby and leave education, work etc. Women workers are classified as unreliable. This is what happened to women workers prior to the second wave of feminism and the establishment of sex equality laws in many jurisdictions.
The removal of abortion rights in many states of the USA will have major implications for education workers and for students. There will be limitations on what education workers, particularly counsellors, can say to students, if it is a state felony to do anything to help anyone access abortion or even advice about abortion. Students will lose their right to education if unplanned pregnancies force them to terminate their studies.
The status of women as rational decision-makers is undermined. If women cannot be trusted to make decisions about our own bodies, there is a frightening implication that we are not competent people to make any decisions, for instance about how best to govern a country or what should be done about climate change.
The right to contraception will come under attack. This may be done piecemeal, first by trying to restrict contraception for young people, then to married women only, then only to those married women who already have children, perhaps then only to those whose lives would be threatened by pregnancy. We must remember many anti-abortionists do not believe in equal rights for women. They think women should be wives and mothers and nothing else. They come from a very conservative place in terms of their view of gender roles, often reinforced by yearnings for a theocratic state and particular readings of major world religions which justify patriarchy and women’s oppression.
Among the anti-abortion demonstrators in Washington were young women who were describing themselves as the ‘post-Roe’ generation. Do they realise what is in store for them? Will they still think reversing Roe versus Wade was a good idea when they lose the right to contraception and to equal employment rights?
Anti-abortionists world-wide will be encouraged by this attack on abortion rights in the USA. It gives encouragement to all who seek to repeal reproductive rights. We must remember there are too many countries in the world where lack of access to safe, legal abortion significantly increases rates of maternal mortality.
What can pro-choice activists do in this situation?
Worldwide pro-choice campaigners must demonstrate in solidarity with the pro-choice movement in the USA. We should support their campaigns for legal reform, including a federal law guaranteeing abortion rights.
It is important to keep in mind that abortion rights are a trade union issue. Reproductive rights are essential for sex equality in the workplace.
Trade unions can pass motions protesting attacks on abortion rights, including the overturn of Roe versus Wade. Unions can continue to educate members about why abortion rights are necessary for women’s liberation. We must raise the health issues and the danger of a return to backstreet abortion. Unions must also make members aware of the danger of other, related attacks on democratic rights, such as attacks on gay marriage or rights of transgender people. We must defend medical privacy for everyone.
Pro-choice activists, trade unionists and human rights defenders must defend pro-choice laws everywhere they exist, and campaign for legal reform where it is needed. We must defend abortion clinics and call for exclusion zones around them, if anti-abortionists harass the patients and staff of these clinics.
We must be organised and vigilant in defending women’s rights and other human rights. We must be prepared to argue the case for abortion rights and to educate on this issue. For some of us this means we fight again battles we fought decades ago. We need to do this. We must keep saying ‘Abortion on demand; a woman’s right to choose’.
Picture: Laurie Shaull