The abortion rights movement has been rocked by the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, although the full effects of it are yet to be felt. Brigid Purcell takes a look at the background to the decision, including the rise of the Christian Right, the weak response of the Democrats, and the need for solidarity from below to push back against this attack on bodily autonomy.
Over a month after the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the impact is already being felt in red states in the US. Abortion has already been banned in at least eight states, as laws that were passed before the Supreme Court decision can now be enforced. Another four states have banned abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. The battle to introduce bans and gestational limits in other states is ongoing, as the Right seeks to make the most of its victory in the Supreme Court. A referendum in Kansas resoundingly rejected the new laws on Tuesday as people voted to protect abortion rights by a margin of 58.8% to 41.2%. A glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim picture.
If this sweeping attack on reproductive rights feels sudden, it has been decades in the making. The Christian Right has been preparing the ground for this assault for years, and now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, it is seeking to ram home its advantage.
Supreme Court Battleground?
Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court that ruled that a woman’s right to have an abortion was protected under the American Constitution.
“Jane Roe” became pregnant with her 3rd child in Texas, where abortion was illegal except in the case of saving the mother’s life, in 1969. Her attorneys filed a lawsuit on her behalf in federal court against local district attorney, Henry Wade, based on the argument that Texas’ anti-abortion laws were not constitutional. The District Court ruled in Roe’s favour, but the decision was appealed and brought to the Supreme Court, where it was won in 1973.
The Supreme Court decided 7 – 2 that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution bestows a “right to privacy”, and a person’s right to have an abortion fell under the umbrella of that Clause.
In June of this year, the decision made in 1973 was overturned. This was made possible in the end by Trump’s appointment of three right wing judges – Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch. The establishment narrative paints a picture of a battleground around the Supreme Court, an institution that wields massive power over US society. But while the Court is hugely important, the singular focus on it ignores the broader forces at play – how the Christian Right has made abortion a wedge issue over the past few decades, and how the Democrats have been utterly impotent in defending against their attacks.
The Rise of the Evangelical Right
The religious right, including those in Ireland, have not been quiet in their celebration of this decision. They have lost much ground over the years: we have the right to divorce, the right to contraception, the right to same-sex marriage. Needless to say, society’s march toward progress has been seen as an existential threat to those who believed that “unnatural” behaviour was straying from God’s light. They view the Supreme Court decision as the first of many dominoes that will set the world on the correct course once again.
While this is the narrative today, evangelical opposition to abortion is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 1970s, evangelicals were not concerned with a woman’s right to choose, nor with politics in general. Evangelicals did not have a dedicated party.
For example, Southern Baptists, not known for being particularly laissez faire, passed resolutions supporting women’s right to abortion at their convention in 1971, 1974 and 1976. Abortion was predominantly an issue for Catholics, not for them.
This began to change in 1971, when Green v. Connally, a case regarding the desegregation of schools, came to the Supreme Court. This would be the case that would draw white evangelicals into the world of politics.
Green v. Connally saw religious schools that continued to be segregated after 1954 have their tax exempt status revoked. The result was that 111 segregated private schools had their non-profit status stripped.
With the funding of his segregated evangelical academy gone, Jerry Falwell, Baptist pastor and founder of the Moral Majority, turned his eyes towards Roe v Wade as the wedge issue to mobilise his parishioners behind, blazing his path to political power. He leaned into the fear of the “disintegration of the traditional American family” that a world with burgeoning civil, gay and women’s rights movements threatened.
During the midterm elections of 1978, Catholic anti-abortionists mobilised against the popular Democratic candidates in New Hampshire, Iowa and two races in Minnesota. In an election with a very low turnout, anti-abortion Republicans defeated the favoured Democrats.
Now, Falwell and other leaders of the religious right had their “respectable” issue that garnered results and energised white evangelicals.
Ronald Reagan would go on to profess himself as an evangelical candidate and win the presidency. The evangelicals, whose leadership suddenly declared that abortion was their main issue, became a voter base to be won. From then on, opposition to abortion would be wedded to evagelicalism.
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overruled Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization because as abortion was not a right when the above mentions Due Process Clause was ratified in 1868, it was not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history or tradition”. The right to contraception and gay marriage were also mentioned in the decision as they too were not considered rights in 1868.
The Democrats’ response to this has been pathetic. Nancy Pelosi read a poem by a Israeli settler about Zionism. A mass text was sent to implore people on the Democrats’ mailing list to donate to them. Their only answer is to “vote blue no matter who”, and to continue to use rights to drive their fundraising – despite already having control of the house, the senate and the presidency. They argue that as they don’t have a supermajority, they cannot overrule the Supreme Court. However, they can change the rule on requiring the super majority. They can change the rules on filibustering, which has killed many meagre attempts at progress. They have had every opportunity in 50 years to codify Roe into law, but they have refused to do so. Barack Obama ran in 2007 promising Planned Parenthood that abortion legislation would be his first act as president. In his 8 years as president, he somehow never got around to it.
The reality is that the Democrats offer no protection for ordinary people, in this or in anything else. Their approach is based around using the increasingly extremist Republican Party as a bogeyman with which to scare people into voting for them. But ultimately, their status quo politics cannot even protect the rights people already have, never mind providing a positive alternative for the future.
The result is an unmitigated disaster for women and pregnant people in America, as sweeping abortion bans and gestation limits are introduced across red states. Bills are being written to restrict travel between states for abortion.
We know how this goes because we in Ireland have been here before. Women will die. Women will be forced to carry the babies of their rapists. Children will be forced to give birth, as we are already seeing in Ohio as of writing. There is no way to tell the difference between abortion and miscarriage, so we will see people not only imprisoned for abortions but also not having a believable enough miscarriage.
Considering the unthinkable expense of having a child in America is – hospital bills alone are between $5,000 and $11,000, we will also see people plunged into absolute poverty.
The Roe v. Wade ruling shows us how easily rights that have been won by the movement can be undermined and taken away again.
Such is the case in Ireland. Repeal was a hard fought and won campaign that started from the ground up. The ruling class had to be dragged kicking and screaming in line with the rest of us. An overwhelming majority of the population is in favour of women having access to abortion, and although legislation is far from perfect, major strides have been made by a powerful people power movement.
However, it goes to show that we must be ever vigilant. The forced birthers have been bolstered and emboldened by this decision. We can never stop the struggle for reproductive justice. This could start with mobilising over the Repeal Review, demanding an end to the 3 day wait, the 12 week limit, the cruelty of forcing parents of pregnancies with fatal foetal abnormalities abroad for termination, etc.
There is also a danger that we may fall into the same trap that the US did regarding the National Maternity Hospital. While the government swears up and down that the NMH will provide all legal services, and the Minister for Health has a “Golden Share “ to ensure that those of us who are extremely concerned about the Vatican’s ties to the hospital are placated, what happens when we have a Minister for Health who is not pro-choice?
The scenes of international solidarity towards those in the states and the protests in America have been both heartwarming and frustrating to see. While the outrage at the states is warranted, some of the same liberals in Ireland grieving Roe have remained silent of the rollback of abortion rights closer to home in Poland. The EU Parliament voted 324-155 to condemn the US Supreme Courts decision on Roe v. Wade, all while one of their own member states has a near total ban on abortion and is planning a “pregnancy register”. The deaths of two Polish women who died after being denied abortions brought thousands of people out on the streets in Poland earlier this year.
And back at home, abortion access remains limited. Despite Westminster passing laws to legalise abortion in the North, infrastructure and services remain unavailable for many. Two years on, people in the Western Trust area have no access to early medical abortion. In the South, the story is similar – Kerry, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford, Donegal, east Galway, Cavan, Monaghan, and Laois have no available no abortion services. It appears that once Repeal was won, the government TDs who jumped on the bandwagon at the eleventh hour simply patted themselves on the back for a job half-way completed, never to be concerned with activism again.
Nevertheless, people are angry and energised. The assault on bodily autonomy has triggered a fightback from people across the United States and the world.
This dissolution of human rights may be enough to get Democrats to try to do something tangible to defend reproductive rights, but given how pathetic they have been on every front, but we shouldn’t hold our breaths.
There is a dire need for a people power movement from below to take their power back from the establishment, in the States and across the globe. Empowerment will not come from the Democrats. It will not come from elected officials. Empowerment must come from the people themselves.
There is a lot to learn from Roe v. Wade. Mainly, that the fight for reproductive justice can never stop, home and abroad. We can never rest. We see now what complacency achieves.