On 24 June, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that has guaranteed the federal right to an abortion in America for almost 50 years. That was not all that was lost. In handing down a ruling that many consider to be driven by the political and religious beliefs of the conservative justices who now form a 6-3 majority on the bench, the court has undermined its own legitimacy and its reputation as an institution that is supposed to be above politics.
Once viewed as one of the most trusted institutions in the US, public support for the Supreme Court has plummeted in recent years, reaching an all-time low in June (before this decision was formally announced), when only one in four Americans said they had confidence in it. During oral arguments in this case in December 2021, Sonia Sotomayor, one of three liberal-leaning justices, questioned whether the court would “survive the stench” of a ruling to overturn Roe that would be seen as a political act.
The early indications are that it will not. There have already been calls for two of the conservative justices who ruled in favour of the decision – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – to be impeached over claims they misled the Senate about their views. “They have burned whatever legitimacy they may still have had,” Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, said of the court as a whole on 26 June. “They just took the last of it and set a torch to it.” National polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans favour abortion rights. There have been large demonstrations in major cities since the ruling, as Katie Stallard and Emily Tamkin write.
The court’s decision has implications beyond Roe vs Wade. The conservative justice Clarence Thomas argued in his concurring opinion that the reasoning used to overturn Roe should be applied to reconsider the cases that established the right to contraception and same-sex marriage. And this was not the only controversial Supreme Court ruling in June. The day before the abortion decision, the court decided a case that will expand gun rights, despite a series of recent mass shootings. And on 27 June, the court ruled that school officials had the constitutional right to lead students in prayer. Any one of these cases would have attracted attention by itself, but the justices’ decision to take up all three in a single term suggests an activist court that is working quickly to move the nation’s jurisprudence to the right.
Why does what is happening in the United States matter to the rest of us, especially in Britain? America purports to lead the free world but it is in a state of disintegration. Darkness has fallen. Anti-liberal, anti-democratic Republicans are on the rise – note, for example, the transformation of the once-venerated JD Vance, author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, into a Trumpist stooge.
The fracturing of American society and its perilously divided domestic politics is also significant for every state that depends on the United States as its security guarantor, as Jeremy Cliffe writes. This applies equally to European countries threatened by Vladimir Putin’s aggression as it does to the US allies in Asia standing up to an increasingly assertive China: Australia, South Korea, Japan. “Biden’s presidency does not spell a return to business as usual for transatlantic affairs,” writes Cliffe. “In truth, his tenure is closer to the last gasp of a passing era of Atlanticist Cold Warriors in Washington with the geopolitical instinct and the domestic political capital to prioritise Europe. Day by day, that era is fading.”
This is not America, but we cannot escape the influence of American cultural imperialism. The crisis there is also a parable of the fragility of liberalism. Progress is not inevitable, as we repeatedly warn our readers. Liberal gains can easily be overturned or lost, as in the case of Roe vs Wade. There is nothing exceptionally American about conservative political movements targeting reproductive or same-sex rights, and it would be naive to believe that avowedly non-partisan institutions elsewhere could not be captured by a minority with a reactionary political agenda. The message is simple: liberals should not take hard-won rights for granted but must work harder to entrench them. Democracy, after all, is not an endpoint, but a value that must be repeatedly defended.
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness