In a landmark ruling, the United States Supreme Court has just voted to overturn Roe v Wade, ending the constitutional protections to abortion across the nation. This decision has been anticipated after a draft decision was leaked in early May suggesting the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn the 1973 precedent. This follows years of growing tension among pro-choice activists and allies as abortion access has been chipped away. Recent appointments to the Supreme Court by the Trump administration have pulled the balance of the court to the extreme right, despite statements from all three justices in question during their confirmation hearings saying they would recognize the precedent. In doing so, the United States becomes one of only four countries worldwide to remove legal abortion protections in more than 25 years.
This decision has far reaching effects for women across the country. It is expected that abortion will now be made illegal in 26 states, with no or limited exceptions. Thirteen of those states already have trigger law bans in place which automatically take effect once the constitutional protection is removed. It is estimated that more than 200 clinics – a quarter of all abortion clinics in the US – will be shut down as a result.
In those places, women* will now be left with few choices and very hard decisions about their pregnancies. These bans will force women to travel out of state in order to receive what are essential health services, however this is expensive and complicated, requiring women to travel at great cost, taking time off work that they may not have or be able to afford, and needing to organize child care. Some women may be forced to continue pregnancies which are unplanned, unwanted or unviable. Many women will resort to unsafe and risky alternatives. Data from around the world shows that abortion bans do not end abortions, they simply make it more dangerous. Almost half of abortions globally are deemed unsafe, and the negative influence of abortion bans could not be clearer: just 25% of abortions in countries where abortion is banned are considered safe, compared to nearly 90% in countries with liberal abortion laws. When people face barriers to attaining safe, affordable, accessible, timely and respectful abortion services, they often resort to unsafe abortion. Worldwide, an estimated 4.7 to 13.2% of all maternal deaths each year can be attributed to unsafe abortion.
The recognition of these risks was one of the key drivers behind the push to legalize abortion in the 1970s and is also central to the momentum to relax abortion laws in other countries around the world. In Ireland, the momentum to legalize abortion was built after the country was shocked by the death of a woman from sepsis following a partial miscarriage at 17 weeks and the refusal of her medical team to perform an abortion. There are many stories of other women like her. This is the dire situation the Irish voted to end in a landslide referendum in 2018. Yet this looks to be the future for many women across the US.
Latin America has also recently seen a wave of relaxation in abortion laws across the region, with progressive legislation recently passed in Argentina, Chile and Colombia. In the last five years, Angola, Iceland, New Zealand, Rwanda, Thailand and South Korea all enacted or extended the legal right to abortion. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK has made medical abortion permanently available through telemedicine, thus removing many barriers women experience, while The Netherlands has removed the controversial waiting period for women seeking an abortion.
Yet, America isn’t the only country in the world where the anti-abortion groups are gaining ground. Following a change in the law in January 2021, Poland now has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, while Malta continues to uphold a total ban on abortion. Although some countries in Latin America have liberalized their laws, other countries in the region have some of the most draconian laws in the world, with women facing prison sentences of up to 50 years.
The debates in America have significant implications and give weight to the momentum of the anti-abortion lobby. In recent years we saw how the Trump administration’s anti-abortion stance legitimized that perspective for leaders in other countries around the world. For example, in late 2020, the United States joined forces with Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia and Uganda in an international anti-abortion declaration, in response to efforts from UN bodies to protect abortion access. The Supreme Court decision could therefore have implications for millions of women around the world.
Sadly, previous attempts to impede this decision have failed. Shortly after the draft decision was leaked, the Senate blocked the Women’s Health Protection Act for a second time, which would have guaranteed the right to perform and access abortion. The voting was highly partisan, with all Republicans voting against the Act and all but one Democrat voting in favour. Republicans and the anti-abortion lobby hide behind the rhetoric of pro-life, but what about the lives of women and their families which will be changed forever?
The impact of this decision will fall hardest on low income families, black, indigenous and people of color, people with disabilities and those in rural and underserved areas. The states with the most restrictive abortion laws and trigger bans or revisions in the pipeline in light of Roe being overturned, are concentrated in the South, Midwest and Plains. In these states, women of color, including Hispanic women and Indigeous women make up a significant percentage of the population. The large, rural nature of these states adds to the distance and travel time needed to access a functioning clinic. Restricting access to abortion makes closing the gender pay gap even harder. As 60% of people who have abortions already have one child, the right to choose is critical for many resource-constrained parents.
Yet the battle is not over. This decision goes against the views of the American people, more than 60% of whom believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Activists and allies will continue to support women and pregnant people in this choice in the best way they can. The fight for abortion rights will continue. We stand by the right to abortion. Join us.
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*people with uteruses