To mark the supreme court judgment that guaranteed American women a right to abortion in 1973, the feminist magazine Ms. published a graphic photo of a dead 27-year-old woman kneeling over, surrounded by bloody towels. Her name was Gerri Santoro and she died alone in a motel room during a botched abortion in 1964, a mother to two young daughters who had left her violently abusive husband.
That is the image the United States will today again have to confront as a result of the anticipated decision of the supreme court to overturn that federal guarantor of abortion rights, Roe contra Wade. It leaves abortion rights to the states, meaning abortion is now illegal or soon-to-be illegal in 22 states in all or most circumstances, incluso, in some states, in cases of rape. It comes in the wake of already reduced access to abortion in many of those states as a result of practical restrictions on the operation of abortion clinics. It is a dramatic rollback of women’s rights in one of the world’s richest countries, which prides itself on its protection of individual liberties.
The case against abortion bans is overwhelming. It is impossible to abolish abortion altogether: desperate women will always find ways, putting their own lives at risk and making them vulnerable to sexual and financial exploitation. The only effective and safe way to reduce abortion is to expand access to contraception, something Republicans have impeded under Trump. It has been estimated that maternal mortality will increase by 20% in places with a ban. It is always inhumane and degrading to force a woman to give birth against her will, but there is something particularly chilling about doing it in a country as unequal as the US, where half of women seeking an abortion live below the poverty line. The US is a terrible place to be a poor woman: exceptional among nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in having zero national entitlement to maternity pay, it has no universal healthcare, the highest rates of maternal mortality of any wealthy nation and barely any support with the costs of childcare.
Worst of all will be the impact on survivors of rape and domestic abuse. Abortion bans ally the state with violent men who use sexual assault as a means of control, by forcing women to carry the pregnancies that result from their rape to term, heaping trauma upon trauma and making them more dependent on their abusers. In some states, the criminalisation of abortion will be wielded to impose penal sanctions on these women – a breathtaking level of state-sanctioned misogyny.
It is frightening to witness, but cannot be understood without reference to the fraught politics of the US. American feminists have long regarded women’s abortion rights as fragile, established as they were by a supreme court that engages in unashamedly political interpretation of an 18th-century constitution that is almost impossible to amend. A majority liberal supreme court derived the right to abortion on privacy grounds, but it was inevitable that a majority conservative supreme court would one day overturn it. To ensure their longevity, women’s reproductive rights needed to be codified by American legislators on grounds of sex discrimination.
But the levels of inertia built into the other two branches of government, the presidency and Congress, have empowered a loud and rich evangelical religious minority to the extent that Democrats would have had to expend significant political capital in order to protect the majority position on abortion.
They chose not to: neither the Clinton nor the Obama administrations made this a priority, despite Obama promising before his election it would be one of the first things he would do. Women’s rights were banked, even as they so clearly hung by a time-limited judicial thread. And Democrats have been far less strategic than their counterparts on the right in using the constitution to their advantage; Trump was able to appoint three out of the nine justices on today’s court not just through luck or dirty tactics, but because Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose not to step down during the Obama presidency. The result is a supreme court that can impose its minority political views on a country for decades to come.
While there remain huge issues of abortion access in Northern Ireland, there are limited parallels to be drawn with most of the UK, where we are lucky that abortion is a settled, non-partisan issue and there is no significant religious minority opposed to abortion rights. But there are broader lessons for British feminists and others who seek progressive social change.
While abortion rights may be settled here, we have plenty enough problems: a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK and rape convictions are at an all-time low. The US – a society in which individual rights are so prized, but in which women are treated as if they are men who just happen to have wombs – offers a cautionary tale. We forget at our peril that the patriarchal oppression of women is heavily rooted in our reproductive systems and that equality cannot be achieved without recognising that women are a sex class who need specific rights, to abortion for one, quite apart from those accorded to men. Yet even as conservative justices write that banning abortion does not amount to sex discrimination, “women” has become an offensive and exclusionary word to some on the American left.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all is the danger of relying on judicial activism to deliver and maintain social change, rather than building a democratic consensus around it. Ireland provides a powerful counterpoint. Establishing abortion rights there was no less of a challenge than in the US, arguably more so given the role the Catholic church has played as a moral arbiter in Irish society. Yet Ireland’s political leaders paved the way for a respectful national conversation that built a popular super-majority for abortion rights, which brought together progressive and conservative voters. It shows the extent to which these conversations can be had. Liberals who rely on the courts to the exclusion of talking to people who don’t think like them ultimately only undermine the progressive change they seek to achieve.
Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist
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