The Supreme Court of United States on 24 June declared its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health by overturning Roe v. Wade; jettisoning the federal standard protecting the women’s right to abortion and making abortions illegal in the US. Now the individual states will be allowed to establish laws to safeguard or restrict abortion and access to safe and legal abortions now depends on where you live in America.
Pro-life and pro-choice are two dominant ideologies concerning abortion rights in the United States and their respective movements have time and again come into conflict on the issue of abortion, as pro-life movement contends that even a nonviable and underdeveloped foetus is sacred and separate from the will of the mother and, therefore, must be protected by the government, while the pro-choice movement emphasizes a women’s right to bodily autonomy and that the government should not prevent its citizens from terminating a pregnancy before the point of viability. Roe v. Wade was one of the most controversial decisions in American history as it articulated the right to abortion as a fundamental right and made abortion a private matter. The Supreme Court in its latest decision held that the Constitution of United States does not bestow a right to abortion as there is nothing in the text of the Constitution or really of precedent that would support the decision and that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in US history and tradition, as privacy is not clearly established in the American Constitution and there is no reference to privacy of the sort that would remotely have to do with contraception or other public morals law of that nature. The Supreme Court considered the verdict of Roe v. Wade as “egregiously wrong and on a collision course with the Constitution from the day it was decided” and, therefore, returned the authority to regulate abortion to “the people and their elected representatives”, meaning the state authorities.
The Supreme Court’s latest decision has overturned almost fifty years of precedent that granted a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. In the decision of Roe v. Wade (1973), it was ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to choose to have an abortion and pregnant women were entitled to an abortion during first three months of their pregnancy, though permitting legal restrictions and bans during second and third trimester. The new decision overturns this ruling significantly by providing a leeway to states to ban abortions earlier than 12 weeks.
For decades, many states have introduced and implemented several laws regulating abortions, where some states implemented laws to safeguard the access to abortion, while others have pursued to prohibit abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and imposed more arduous limitations on abortion providers which consequently led to the closing of more than 160 clinics and leaving just few states with only a single abortion provider. The overturning of Roe v. Wade permits 13 states which have trigger laws to either ban abortion automatically or within the period of thirty days. Although these state laws exempt abortions in cases of life-threatening pregnancies, most of them do not exempt pregnancies caused by rape or incest and foetal abnormalities where baby dies within hours or days of birth.
According to World Health Organization, around 73 million abortions are performed globally every year, which renders to about 39 abortions per 1,000 women. Before the pandemic, in 2019, about 860,000 abortions were performed in the America. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that most women who get abortions are unmarried and 92.8 per cent of abortions are performed during the first trimester of pregnancy. In terms of teenage pregnancies, 350,000 American teenagers under the age of 18 become pregnant every year, out of which 82 per cent of pregnancies are unintended. According to American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), around 55 per cent pregnant teenagers give birth, 14 per cent have miscarriages and 31 per cent have abortions.
President Biden was again disappointed with another Supreme Court’s decision and remarked that the decision of overturning Roe v. Wade verdict was “not a decision driven by the constitution” or the history of United States. On Friday (8 July), he signed an executive order on abortion rights, challenging state laws to safeguard the access to reproductive healthcare services across the US, including safer access to surgical and medical abortion and contraception, safety of patients, abortion providers and facilities, along with coordinating federal efforts to protect the reproductive rights of women.
On Monday (11 July), the Biden administration in a new clarifying guidance stated that “Federal law preempts state abortion bans when emergency care is needed and that the federal government can penalize institutions or providers that fail to provide abortions as needed to treat medical emergencies”.
However, President Biden’s power to protect abortion rights by an executive action is limited without Congressional action and he believes that the only way to restore women’s right to abortion is through voting; he, therefore, urged the American population to elect responsible legislators by turning out in large numbers to cast their vote in the November primaries.
While the decision of overturning of Roe v. Wade was rejoiced by anti-abortion groups, Christian nationalists and Republican law makers, many communities across America were overawed by uncertainty and fear. About 26 states are expected to ban abortions and low-income generating and African American communities are most likely to be disproportionately affected by these bans. With the advent of industrialization and economic growth, the abortion laws have evolved in the past five decades, particularly in the democratic and liberal countries where women have access to reproductive health services, with advances in the quality and safer abortion practices. Although the legal position on abortion varies considerably by region, most of the developed nations allow the practice without any restriction as the access to safe abortion has been established as a human right by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and various other international frameworks.
Since last two decades, 38 nations have altered their abortion laws. Thailand and Argentina legalized abortions in 2020, South Korea and Mexico have decriminalized abortions, Vietnam recognizes women’s unconditional right to abortion and decriminalized abortion in 1960’s and most recently, even Colombia made abortion legal. As these countries have taken legal strides to expand grounds for abortion, the United States which has been an ardent promoter of liberty, equality and democracy, and was the first nation to liberalize its abortion laws fifty years ago with the decision of Roe v. wade has now taken a conservative and authoritarian decision that fails to recognize the citizen’s right over their own bodies, which is a prerequisite for freedom for any individual.
By allowing the state to control the body of its citizens, obliterates women’s autonomy, jeopardies their reproductive rights and changes the definition of freedom for American women as it is a monumental blow to their human rights. At present, 40 million women of child-bearing age live in the oldest democracy of the world where abortion has become illegal.
The author is a doctoral candidate in US area studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
While the decision of overturning of Roe v. Wade was rejoiced by anti-abortion groups, Christian nationalists and Republican law makers, many communities across America were overawed by uncertainty and fear. President Biden’s power to protect abortion rights by an executive action is limited without Congressional action and he believes that the only way to restore women’s right to abortion is through voting in large numbers in the November primaries.