Since the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, I can’t stop thinking about the things that are prioritised, and those that are not. I can’t stop thinking about the things that are deemed to matter.
That day, like many others, I watched speechless at the news that the right to legal abortion was no longer protected by the highest court in the US. I felt rage and incredulity. Something monumental had happened and it felt direct and personal. On my WhatsApp groups, female friends spoke of fear. We were watching this moment of regress in feminist progress like a car crash.
No, the US is not the centre of the world. Yes, abortion rights have been rolled back in Poland and Hungary – and even in the UK abortion is not freely available to all. It’s also true that there is no end of other countries where women’s rights are trampled on. However, the US is the most significant influencer as far as nation states and democracies go. Women’s rights there are part of a bigger story, of feminism and progressive rights in general, that includes us, too. While the data on attitudes to abortion in the UK points to overwhelming support, that doesn’t mean that the right-wing Christian narrative that subjugates a woman’s rights to those of a foetus has no influence. The MP Danny Kruger casually commented on a woman’s right to “bodily autonomy” (such a cold, detached phrase) and later apologised for possibly having been misunderstood. He had no sense of the impact those words could have on the very bodies he was referring to.
It seemed to me, and every woman that I have spoken with, that Roe vs Wade is the issue that matters now. We felt it viscerally, in our bones. But I increasingly wonder whether that visceral response, perhaps for obvious reasons, seems to be particular to women.
In the US, according to a poll by YouGov, there is a stark difference between how men and women see the Supreme Court decision. While 54 per cent of women said it was a “terrible” or “bad” moment in US history, only 38 per cent of men said the same. Data from the Centre for American Women and Politics shows that women in the US are more supportive than men of access to abortion. Women also favour policies that require employers to provide paid leave to new parents by 12 percentage points more than men.
Given that men dominate politics, media and leadership across industry, they tend to decide what is deemed to matter. Every once in a while there is an outcry from women about something that seems so obvious, or terrifying, a sign that equality is still out of reach. But these things fade into the background unless we keep up the noise. Access to abortion, like domestic violence, like period poverty, is ultimately sidelined as a “women’s issue”. It is only a symptom of the more important things, such as the breakdown of Western civilisation or major financial crises. Women are always a sub-plot.
And even when we do “kick up a fuss”, there is is no guarantee of enduring priority. It’s what happened with the #MeToo movement. Remember the reactions to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, how they put women firmly in their place? It’s what happened after Sarah Everard’s murder, when policymakers responded to the atrocity with a series of headline-grabbing announcements – more undercover police in clubs anyone? – that wouldn’t make any woman any safer.
We have to open up space in the order of the day for so-called women’s issues – we need a slot in the important and serious things that make up the real world. If people listen to how scared women are right now, for themselves and for other minorities whose rights are on the line, they might realise women are on to something.
[ See also: The Roe vs Wade decision is resonating in Europe ]