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29 June 2022

The message from the Supreme Court: do not get used to having rights

Overturning Roe vs Wade means some women’s bodily autonomy will cease at the moment of conception.

By Pippa Bailey

I had written a different column for this week’s issue, on the joys of blockbuster season. But then the US Supreme Court intervened, and, overwhelmed as I am by the scale and apparent futility of my anger, Tom Cruise’s particular brand of thrusting male American hubris no longer seemed the right subject.

On 24 June, the same day that Roe vs Wade was overturned, Andrea Prudente was flown from Malta – where she was on holiday – to Spain for a life-saving procedure after suffering an incomplete miscarriage at 16 weeks. Doctors in Malta, where abortion is illegal, had refused to carry it out. When Prudente returns home to the US, she will find a country that is fundamentally changed, where her experience in Malta may now be replicated.

Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas – these are the states in which “trigger” laws exist to ban abortion automatically in the event of Roe vs Wade being overturned, some with immediate effect. A further 20 states are expected to enact bans in the coming weeks and months. Today, women in pregnancy crisis wake up without the rights they were guaranteed only days ago; some were turned away from clinics in real-time as the news broke.

[See also: Roe vs Wade and the land of lost liberty]

Making abortion illegal does not prevent it from happening. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in countries where abortion is most severely restricted the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 women; in those where it is least restricted, this figure falls to 34. Around the world between 5 and 13 per cent of maternal deaths are attributable to unsafe abortion.

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The Supreme Court not only ended nearly 50 years of legal precedent, it made one of the most agonising and intensely private decisions a woman will ever have to make even more dangerous and desperate. It ensured that, in some cases, a woman’s bodily autonomy ceases at the moment of conception. It ushered in an era of state surveillance of pregnancy, in which any that ends before term can be investigated as a potential crime. It is the most significant and damning regression in women’s rights in the history of the US.

It does not appear to matter to the conservatives who dominate the Supreme Court that their ruling is at odds with the will of the American population, 61 per cent of whom support abortion with some or no exceptions. And Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, suggested that it will not end here: rulings related to same-sex rights and contraception could also be reconsidered on the same basis that Roe was overturned. The message from the Court is clear: don’t get too comfortable with your rights.

[See also: The new era of American darkness]

President Joe Biden said that he will “do everything in [his] power” to ensure women remain free to travel between states to seek care. But for those who remember stories of trauma from Irish women, forced to travel abroad to access abortion, this pledge is of little reassurance. And we in the UK should remember that while abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, it remains inaccessible for many as the necessary services have not been commissioned.

If anti-abortion ideologues truly cared about the lives of babies, they would lobby for comprehensive sex education; universal access to free contraception and pre- and post-natal care; higher conviction rates for rape and criminal penalties for men who remove a condom without consent; accessible childcare and strong parental leave policies; and a welfare state that prevents children from growing up in poverty. They would welcome the 400,000 children in the care system in the US into their homes. Such policies would be far more effective in reducing the incidence of abortion than criminalising it, and should be enshrined in the US, UK and beyond to ensure women’s equality is preserved.

A pregnancy, when hoped for, is undoubtedly a wonder, but when unwanted it is a torment. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, many thousands of women will undergo abortion alone and afraid, risking not only their physical and mental health but arrest – all this in “the land of the free”. It took five justices to overturn Roe vs Wade. There are many more of us.

[See also: The end of Roe vs Wade: what is there left to write?]

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness