The story so far: Roe v. Wade was a historic judgment passed by the Supreme Court of the U.S (SCOTUS) in 1973 that ensured federal constitutional protection to the right of abortion. In the light of the overturning of this landmark verdict, here’s a look at how abortion rights became such a polarising issue in the U.S.
Before political leaders, it was mainly the different religious factions which had a strong vocal opinion against abortions. The Roman Catholic Church has always viewed abortion as equivalent to killing. Not just the Catholic Church but even the Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Protestants are opposed to abortions as these denominations believe that life begins at conception. Therefore, abortion is equivalent to murder.
However, just before the famous Roe v. Wade judgment, abortion started becoming a political issue. The year before Roe was an election year where Richard Nixon won the Presidency. The Time magazine featured an article titled “How Nixon Will Win,” and in it was mentioned that the Democratic candidate would be attacked for his views on legalising marijuana, leniency for draft dodgers, and liberalism on abortion. It was then that the Republican Party took a moral high ground on abortions and propagated that legalising abortions would lead to a breakdown in traditional family roles and values. The Republican Party initially supported the equal rights amendment and women’s reproductive rights. It cultivated their current pro-life stance to snatch the urban Catholic voters in the north from the Democratic Party. For example, in 1967, Ronald Reagan (former U.S. President from the Republican party) signed a bill as governor of California that decriminalised abortions. This shows the political indifference of the conservatives around abortions.
After the Roe v. Wade judgment, the issue of abortion became the paradigmatic centre of mainstream U.S. reproductive politics. The choice-centric discourse interpreted the judgment as a woman's right to choose. Post Roe, the U.S. allowed women to access reproductive healthcare, learn about self-managed abortion care, and prevented surveillance on their bodies. An abortion industry emerged, and an unfettered right to abortion appeared on the Democratic Party's platform in the 1980 elections.
Against this, the Republican party in the same year had a point of banning abortions through constitutional amendment. President Reagan's campaign itself was a form of conservative backlash that campaigned around the idea of banning abortions despite he himself signing a bill which legalised abortion. Later on, President Reagan would clarify his stance in an essay published in the Human Life Review that abortion was concerned with two lives — the life of the mother and the unborn child.
It is to be noted that opposition to abortion as a movement is a distinct aspect of American society. Conservatives across the globe are united on issues like limited government, respect for traditional values, low taxes, and robust implementation of laws. However, protecting an unborn child is unique to American conservatism.
Proponents of racial reproductive justice, which is rooted in black feminism and intersectionality, argue to move beyond the polarisation of the pro-choice/pro-life debate. They advocate a woman's right to have children and not to have children. They also emphasise on raising children in safe and sustainable communities.
The overturning of Roe has robbed women of the freedom to choose what to do with their bodies. This will further lead to an increase in illegal, unsafe abortions and ultimately risk women's lives. The most vulnerable groups of the verdict will be black, Hispanic, and minority women in the U.S. They will have to cover long distances to those states where they could avail abortions. Moreover, as per the statement given by the conservative judge Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court is all set to 'reconsider' its previous rulings on the right to contraception and same-sex marriage. This statement poses a serious question on the rights the U.S. assumes to be constitutional.
As per the health statistics data released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which takes into account the health system reports of 37 high-income countries like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the U.K., etc. in the year 2020, the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries. This can be attributed to the over-representation of obstetrician-gynecologists (ob-gyns) compared to midwives. There is an acute shortage of maternity care providers (both midwives and ob-gyns), and primary care is absent. There is also a lack of comprehensive postpartum support. The report stated that women in the U.S. have more chances of dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications. A relatively large share of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. occurs after birth compared to other developed countries.
Banning abortions will not stop the practice; it just makes it unsafe and illegal.
Priyanka is a research scholar at the Centre for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.