The End of Roe v Wade Is Just the Beginning
The decision to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling will strip human rights from millions of women and girls and threatens the rights of minority groups across the US
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That it was inevitable did not lessen the magnitude of the shock.
When the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade – the 1973 case that allowed for nationwide access to safe, legal abortion in America – was leaked in May, both pro- and anti-abortion actors knew that it was only a matter of weeks before the right to abortion would end for millions of women, girls and pregnant people.
But, despite that knowledge, when the decision was confirmed, the screams of despair from pro-abortion activists mingled with the cries of joy from anti-abortion groups gathered outside the Supreme Court.
“This is a moment of trauma,” host of the Resistance Mom podcast Andrea Hildebran Smith told Byline Times.
Within hours, the first states enacted ‘trigger laws’ – legislation to ban abortion that had been put in place ready for the day Roe v Wade was overturned. Missouri went first, banning abortion in almost all cases, making it a class B felony. Such a category comes with a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
As he signed the new law, Attorney General Eric Shmitt called the decision “a monumental day for the sanctity of life”. Missouri still has the death penalty; recorded 89 domestic abuse deaths in 2018; and in 2020 had 1,426 gun deaths. Its maternal mortality rate is 16.4 per 100,000 live births.
Arkansas and Kentucky have now banned abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is under threat. Women and girls who do not want to be pregnant, or who are pregnant in cases of rape and incest, will no longer be able to terminate a pregnancy. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also introduced bans.
In the space of three days, 11.5 million women and girls have lost their right to bodily autonomy in a country with a pro-choice majority. All these states, which boast of being ‘pro-life’, have the death penalty as a legal penalty for crimes.
More bans will follow in the coming days and months in Alabama; Arizona; Georgia; Idaho; Iowa; Michigan; Mississippi; North Dakota; Ohio; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; West Virginia; Wisconsin; and Wyoming.
Florida, Indiana, Montana and Nebraska are also likely to implement bans. As previously reported by Byline Times, the new laws will impact 64 million women and girls (not all of child bearing age).
The Lives of Women and Girls
Many of the states that have already banned, or are set to ban, abortion had carried out a long-term assault on abortion services in their communities, closing reproductive healthcare clinics or imposing ‘TRAP’ (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws which made it almost impossible for clinics to survive. Before the decision was published, Kentucky had only one remaining abortion clinic.
But, as law-makers across the states signed their trigger bills into legislation, those who had dedicated their lives to providing abortion services to women and girls were forced to cancel appointments, shut their doors, and come up with new strategies to support those in need of reproductive healthcare.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to explicitly overturn Roe v Wade is already causing devastating consequences for abortion access across the country,” said Dr Herminia Palacio, president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. “Our hearts go out to the patients and providers seeking a path forward.”
For women and girls living in the states that have banned abortion, there are limited choices.
Those who can afford to travel can go to states where abortion is expected to remain legal, such as New York or California. But this option is simply not available for the poorest and most vulnerable in society – for the teenage girl who cannot be expected to miss school, escape the house, pay for a flight and accommodation, and pay for abortion care; for the single mum who cannot get time off work or additional childcare.
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Others may seek to order pills online. Far too many will resort to unsafe abortion methods.
Of course, many women and girls will be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, with all the mental and physical health impacts that brings. We know, too, from the death of Savita Halappanaver in Ireland, and the deaths of Izabela and Agnieszka in Poland, that women with wanted pregnancies who suffer miscarriages or complications will lose their lives, as doctors left with few options by the bans avoid providing life-saving abortion care. Some law-makers have said that they will deny abortion care even in cases of ectopic pregnancy – condemning women to death.
“Decades of research consistently show that abortion bans and restrictions don’t reduce unintended pregnancy or demand for abortion, and they certainly do not help people improve their health,” according to Dr Palacio. “Rather, they impose significant hurdles to obtaining care, causing stress for people in need of abortion and leading some to experience forced pregnancy and all its troubling consequences.”
A 50 Year Fight – And Worse To Come?
The Supreme Court’s decision represents the victory of a 50-year fight by the religious and far-right in America to overturn Roe v Wade and end the right to safe, legal abortion.
That fight saw the marriage of Republican law-makers – some of whom like Ronald Reagan had previously signed bills to decriminalise abortion in their own states – with the ‘moral majority’ represented by activists such as Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly.
Abortion became a wedge issue that stood in for religious freedom, with organisations proclaiming to protect religious liberty. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for instance, achieved legal wins to ban buffer zones protecting clinics. So-called ‘partial birth abortion’ helped to chip away at access to reproductive healthcare.
But it was the victory of Donald Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence that finally allowed the anti-abortion minority to push through their agenda.
Despite having once told reporters that he was pro-choice, Trump knew that in order to win the evangelical vote needed to propel him to power, he had to take an anti-abortion position. He was, after all, running against one of the most famous pro-choice women in the world, Hillary Clinton. According to the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, when Trump mentioned “partial birth abortion” during the Las Vegas presidential debate, that was the moment “he won the pro-life vote”.
Throughout his presidency, Trump appointed mostly-male, anti-abortion judges across the nation’s courts, allowing for the creation of the trigger laws. He was supported in this by the anti-abortion Federalist Society, which trains conservative lawyers.
The Long BacklashAgainst Abortion in AmericaSian Norris and Heidi Siegmund Cuda
Trump also used his presidency to nominate Federalist Society-approved anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court to create a conservative majority on the benches: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh – who was accused of historic sexual assault during the nomination process – and Amy Coney-Barrett. Both Kavanaugh and Coney-Barrett said that they would not overturn Roe v Wade if appointed to the court. Both broke their word.
Meanwhile, the Alliance Defending Freedom funded law firms drafting anti-abortion bills and defended the Mississippi law that triggered the Supreme Court decision. Religious right groups such as the Thomas More Society, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the American Centre for Law and Justice submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court arguing against Roe v Wade.
As this newspaper has documented, dark money groups have been funding the efforts to overturn Roe v Wade for decades.
A post-Roe v Wade world means that women and girls in the US have lost one of the most fundamental human rights: bodily integrity. Black and ethnic minority women, and women in poverty, will be worst impacted. But the Christian and far-right won’t stop there. There are clear warning signs that they will now seek to reverse progress on LGBTIQ and civil rights.
The end of Roe v Wade, according to disinformation specialist Dave Troy, “signifies the roll-back of rights in the future, taking us away from progressive pluralistic democracy and back to something much darker and revanchist”.
Author Margaret Atwood has also laid out her fears for the future. “They want to go back to white male property owners being in control of the vote,” the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale observed. “Women aren’t mentioned in the original Constitution, have no political power, are not therefore full citizens in law, and got the vote in the US only in 1920, via an amendment to the Constitution. Clearly, amendments can be overturned. What’s next?”