On Friday 24 June, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overruled the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, essentially outlawing abortion in the country. The Roe v. Wade decision was monumental in American society and politics, ruling that the Constitution of the United States generally protects a woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion.
The Supreme Court’s overruling of this landmark decision critically reverses any societal progress made in the United States in the last few decades on this particularly pertinent issue, once again making it very difficult for women to legally terminate their pregnancy.
This article will explore the history of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, outlining its significance in the pursuit for social justice and equality for women in the United States. It will then consider the real tragedy of the Supreme Court’s most recent decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, scrutinising some of the potential motivations behind the ban on legal abortion, and assessing some of the broader implications for women and families in the United States and the wider Western world.
The Roe v. Wade Decision, 1973
The Roe v. Wade case was brought by Norma McCorvey who, under the legal pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’, filed a lawsuit in the US Federal Court against her local district attorney, Henry Wade, alleging that Texas abortion laws were unconstitutional.
At the time, McCorvey was pregnant with her third child, and was denied access to a legal abortion in the state of Texas, where the procedure was only, and even then sparingly, afforded to women whose lives would be endangered by giving birth or carrying the pregnancy to term.
The three judge panel of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in McCorvey’s favour, declaring the relevant Texas abortion statutes unconstitutional.
This was a naturally monumental decision in the pursuit for equality and rights for women in the United States, at last declaring and ratifying the legal bodily autonomy they had fought for for years following the social and societal upheaval that the Second World War had catalysed.
Of course, this was an incredibly agitational decision in the eyes of a number of prominent politicians and religious leaders in the United States. With the rhetoric and doctrine of Christian theology being so strictly tied into the United States Constitution and their national culture, this decision that supposedly undermined the word and message of God sparked a substantial and lasting debate between proponents and opponents of legal abortion in the country that would continue to be just as fierce in the modern day.
The 2022 Decision
Since the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, prominent opponents of legal abortion in the United States have worked to undermine the decision, in a way that would eventually lead to its overturning, and the return of a pro-life, conservative agenda in American social politics.
It is important to note that the majority of the political efforts to prohibit legal abortion in the United States have been directed towards the overruling of the Roe v. Wade decision, rather than an entirely separate endeavour to ban legal abortions outright.
In the context of the American political system, it would be simpler for pro-life advocates to attack the legislation that introduced legal abortion to the country, than to create entirely new legislation that could be passed on its own merit.
Donald Trump, in a manner inconsistent with the conservative Presidents who preceded him, successfully managed to appoint three judicial conservatives to the Supreme Court (Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett), essentially ensuring a prolonged pro-life presence within the Supreme Court even after the end of his presidency.
With this in mind, it seems only natural that the practice of legal abortion in the United States would once again be pushed to the forefront of social and political imagination in the country.
On Friday 24 June, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, presided over by a council of mostly men, Roe v. Wade was overruled, on the grounds that the right to an abortion was not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history or tradition”.
An almost 50 year period of bodily autonomy for American women had come to an end, as the result of a decision made by a body consisting largely of white men.
But what does this mean for American women? And how will the tremors of this monumental decision be felt in the wider world when it comes to women’s rights and bodily autonomy?
The Consequences of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation
The overruling of Roe v. Wade is a monumental step backwards in American social politics, however the rumblings of this landmark decision can be traced back throughout the large majority of the period since legal abortion had been introduced back in 1973.
Pro-life advocates within the American political community have worked tirelessly to gradually deteriorate women’s reproductive rights in the United States, making this decision essentially the nail in the coffin for the pursuit of comprehensive legal abortion across the country.
This gradual erosion of abortion rights has been mostly felt by ‘people who were already poor, victimised by racism, or otherwise disempowered in the American political system’.
The organised deterioration of women’s reproductive rights in the United States made getting a legal abortion before the concrete overruling of Roe v. Wade far more difficult for those left socially and politically disenfranchised by the ruling political system, encouraging them to begin and expand families that they were not able to effectively financially sustain.
More than just an attack on women’s rights and liberty, the overruling of Roe v. Wade disproportionately impacts the socially and economically vulnerable in the United States, further expanding the margins between rich and poor in the country, and restricting power and authority to the mostly white men where intend to keep it for themselves.
Furthermore, scientific communities estimate that maternal mortality rates in the United States will increase by over 20% once bans on abortion are in place. In a country where maternal mortality rate is outrageously high compared with nations of similar socio-economic prominence in the Western world, and especially high among Black women, ‘we will see these deaths and disparities increase if Roe v. Wade is overturned’.
Condemning the actions of the US Supreme Court, Sarah Compton and Scott L. Greer note that ‘while legislators could invest energy into reducing the United States’ disgraceful maternal mortality rate, or improving policies and programmes that would make raising childcare in [the country] easier, they are enacting legislation that will do neither’.
This is compounded by the absence of any effective pregnancy and parental support in the United States, which is itself an indictment of the country’s goal of social equality and justice.
The overruling of Roe v. Wade will force those on low incomes to choose between paying to travel to get an abortion in a state that may have a more lenient stance on abortion, or adding another child to their lives, a choice that will likely ‘doom many families to worsening poverty’.
When it comes to Western culture and geopolitics, the United States is largely considered an example for a lot of North American and European countries to follow.
The civil rights activism that consumed much of the country’s domestic political attention throughout the 1960s and 1970s, while not necessarily representing the first example of radical action in the pursuit of racial equality globally, has largely motivated many Western countries to address the racial injustices within their own borders.
With the intentions of the United States’ Supreme Court and their political system at large being all too clear in the restriction of women’s reproductive rights, there will naturally be minor fear that this is a political stance that more countries will look to adopt.
For the most part however, the great majority of North American and European political leaders have spoken out, condemning the actions of the US Supreme Court, and asserting that abortion will always remain legal practice.
Although this is a dark day for American politics, the great majority of people across the world, on social media platforms, and at large-scale social events, like the Glastonbury Festival which took place in England this weekend, have come together in support of women’s wights and bodily autonomy, and in condemnation of this truly regressive decision.
It is hoped that, in the very near future, we will be able to return to a world where women across the world are universally able to decide what to do with their own bodies.
For more of our content, check out one of our articles on the rise of video streaming platforms here!
- Compton, Sarah, and Greer, Scott L., ‘What Overturning Roe v. Wade means for the United States’ in The BMJ (2022).
- Thiessen, Marc A., ‘For the Fall of Roe v. Wade, Thank Donald Trump’, in The Washington Post (2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/06/24/roe-v-wade-abortion-overturned-trump-supreme-court-appointments/.