Leading abortion rights campaigner Marge Berer explains how the US Supreme Court’s decision could encourage others to turn back the clock on abortion rights, including in the UK
On 2nd May 2022, a headline in US magazine Politico said: “Supreme Court has voted to overturn abortion rights, draft opinion shows”. It was as if a bomb had been dropped, not by an enemy, but from another planet. The most publicly expressed reactions were of gloom and doom, panic and hysteria. The worst had happened. Unbelievably, many hadn’t expected it.
As in the 1935 dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here by American author Sinclair Lewis, the US has often seen itself as a place where nothing seriously bad can happen – the richest, most democratic, important country in the world! In 1935, Lewis predicted Hitler. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected US president. A man who did not support human rights. A man who saw women as beneath him, in more ways than one. Looking for troops to follow him, he saw that the right-wing anti-abortion movement, like him, rejected human rights, which he could co-opt for his own ends. Together, they took control of much of the Republican Party. Trump also created an international religious freedom alliance and one on “unalienable rights” to rewrite human rights conventions, whose vision of “woman” was only as “mother”. Following three Trump appointments to the Supreme Court, the end of Roe v Wade should not have been a surprise to anyone.
Post-Trump, in the first four months of 2021, Republican lawmakers restricted both voting rights (360 bills) and abortion rights (536 bills) at state level. In April alone, 28 new restrictions were signed into law in seven states, including bans challenging Roe v Wade: bans after 6, 15, 20 weeks of pregnancy, a ban on abortion for non-lethal genetic anomalies, and restrictions on access to abortion pills. This has rightly been described as a civil war about abortion, with laws banning abortions in Republican-controlled states, and laws protecting abortion being passed in Democrat-controlled states. The courts are also busy hearing challenges from all sides. Great for lawyers; absolutely insane if the end point is public health and human rights law, protecting women’s autonomy.
In August, in Republican-controlled Kansas, a referendum to amend the Kansas constitution voted to maintain protection of abortion rights by a 60-40 majority. With state-level elections across the country in November, this has shocked Republicans. Reflecting pro-choice majority opinion across the US, this result says that killing Roe v Wade is not the end of the story. “We, the people” includes a lot of women who have needed abortions and even more who know why. What a difference a day makes!
Fallout in the UK?
In Northern Ireland, the DUP’s refusal to accept international and national human rights judgments and UK law requiring they provide legal abortions is old news. At Westminster, however, the Conservative government is “suddenly” showing serious anti-abortion tendencies:
In relation to an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill in March 2022, Boris Johnson came out against making telemedical consultation for early medical abortion permanent, instructing Tory MPs to vote against it. He had to withdraw the instruction because abortion is a conscience issue, allowing a free vote. The amendment passed, possibly because so many Tory MPs stayed away on the day. Public health minister Maggie Throup, also apparently anti-abortion, who ran a public consultation on whether to make telemedical abortion permanent, opposed the pro-choice outcome of the consultation on very spurious grounds.
Most importantly, in July 2022, Liz Truss, who chaired an inter-governmental, inter-ministerial conference of more than 22 countries’ representatives and others on Freedom of Religion or Belief, altered the agreed text of one of the eight agreed policy statements, on gender equality. Fiona Bruce MP, longstanding anti-abortion advocate, was made the ‘Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief’, and was closely involved in preparing the conference. The change of text removed the mention of support for sexual and reproductive health and rights and bodily autonomy. When asked why by the Guardian, Truss said the meaning of the words was ambiguous. Johnson himself couldn’t have lied better. The explanation was later changed to say they sought to achieve more consensus. This failed. From 22 signatory countries, the number dropped to 8.
The extent of anti-abortion participation in the conference only emerged in mid-August. The act of altering the statement appeared to be the FCDO’s, but as head of the FCDO and chair/convenor of the conference, the responsibility is Liz Truss’s.
Johnson, Bruce and Throup have come out as anti-abortion. Is Truss anti-abortion too? Will the UK be shocked to find out now that she is PM? Caroline Nokes, Tory MP and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, as well as a number of pro-choice conference participants, called Truss to account for this. But Truss has failed to reply. A letter to Truss by 25 UK NGOs on 22nd July demanding that the original wording be reinstated also got no reply.
Abortion is mostly or completely illegal in many countries. Why get more upset in sympathy with the US than with so many other countries? Some have said, “But the US is a referent for others: if they condemn abortion, it encourages others to do the same.” There are grounds for scepticism. Abortion has been legal in the US since 1973. If the US is such a referent, why is abortion still mostly illegal in so many countries? And don’t forget that every Republican president has imposed the global gag rule on the rest of the world since 1975, only recently rescinded by President Biden. To conclude:
“In June 2022, a majority of justices on the United States Supreme Court egregiously denied that there is a constitutional right to access safe & legal abortion. But this was not a unique act of violence against women. In October 2021, China who for many years forced women to have abortions after only one child, imposed a new law to force them to have more children by restricting abortion for “non-medical purposes”. Indeed, violations of women’s rights… are enshrined in many unjust laws and are widespread in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and Europe too…
“The unprecedented attack on women’s abortion rights in the United States, as in every country where such attacks occur, denies us our rights as citizens, discriminates against us on grounds of sex, removes our right to privacy and bodily autonomy, violates the separation of church and state, and destroys the rule of law. Most importantly, it allows states to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, with lifelong consequences. This is a form of involuntary servitude based entirely in biology. It criminalises one in four women globally for refusing to have children we do not want and cannot care for.”
From: Second Call to Action on 1st July 2022 to celebrate International Safe Abortion Day on 28th September.