In June 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the 1973 landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade (Roe) which established that the US Constitution conferred a woman’s right to have an abortion. This move has received huge criticism both within the US and from people across the globe. The decision sparked riots and marches from those who claim that this goes against fundamental human rights and endangers millions of women. With this much controversy at play, how did the Supreme Court manage to succeed in overturning Roe?
The case of Roe v. Wade involved Norma McCorvey, a 25-year-old single mother from Texas, who was known throughout proceedings under the name "Jane Roe". She fell pregnant with her third child, whom she could not afford to look after, and was unable to access abortion care, as this was banned in Texas in all cases except for those in which it would save a mother’s life. Her lawsuit was filed in federal court against her local district attorney, Henry Wade. Norma was unable to win her case before she gave birth to her third child and put them up for adoption but she stated that she continued to fight her case “on behalf of herself and all other women”, leading to Roe’s appearance at the Supreme Court.
When Roe v. Wade reached the US Supreme Court, the Court’s ruling determined that the US Constitution protects a woman’s right to abortion due to the "right to privacy" established in the 14th Amendment. The Court argued that this right could be extended to protect a woman’s right to access abortion without unnecessary government intervention. Just a year prior to this decision, the Supreme Court held that
“in a Constitution for a free people, there can be no doubt that the meaning of ‘liberty’ must be broad indeed".
They thus decided that liberties must be extended to one’s control over their own pregnancies. The vote was revolutionary for women’s rights, with the 1973 Supreme Court voting in favour of Roe by a majority of 7-2. The June 2022 decision split the court much more clearly when Roe was voted to be overturned by a 5-4 majority in the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Clinic (Dobbs).
The decision by the Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the US was a huge shock, although not without its warnings. In May of 2022, a leaked Supreme Court document pointed toward this decision, containing comments from justices such as Samuel Alito, who stated that the original Roe v. Wade ruling was “egregiously wrong.” The document, leaked by Politico, was said to be written by Alito and was supposedly circulated within the court in February of this year.
After the document leak, worry brewed in the US. Thirteen states already had "trigger laws" in place, which would automatically ban abortion if Roe v. Wade was overturned, resulting in approximately 36 million people losing access to safe abortions. The report led leading Democratic politicians Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to agree that if it came to fruition, the Supreme Court would be “poised to inflict the greatest restriction of rights in the past 50 years.”
What remains clear is that a woman’s quality of life and her sense of autonomy depends greatly on her control of her own body and her reproductive health. For this reason, almost all of the 38 countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) allow abortion at least in the first trimester of pregnancy. This reflects the same principle referred to by the original judges in Roe v. Wade: a state which respects the true meaning of liberty must extend their definition of liberty to allow women true freedom over their sexual and reproductive decisions.
It is also known that Roe v. Wade did not actually have much of an effect on the number of abortions being performed in the US. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy NGO aiming to improve sexual and reproductive rights in America and worldwide, in the years before the Roe v. Wade decision, there were over one million abortions performed in the US. After Roe, the number remained around one million. The difference in reproductive rights was not in number but instead in the safety of a woman’s access to abortion. After 1973, abortions could be performed legally and much more safely; there was a dramatic drop in the mortality rate of abortion procedures in the years after the Roe ruling.
Similar changes can be expected now after the Dobbs decision. Abortion will not cease to exist in the states in which it is banned, but it will once again become an extremely dangerous procedure, one which will hurt the poorest in society the most. In the US, private clinics are the most common providers of abortions. Many of these small clinics will be forced to leave states with abortion bans in place, forcing women to travel across state lines for abortion access. Many working women and women from lower-income backgrounds who cannot afford to travel will be left "stuck".
Moving forward, the Dobbs decision will threaten many more lives than it will save. The case may have somewhat slipped from the headlines in the months since June as panic and protests have slowly died down but it is important to remember the immense consequences this decision will have on individuals and society. It ultimately shows a remarkable disrespect for the rights and freedom of American women as well as women worldwide and provides a threatening glimpse into a future where women’s rights continue to be disrespected so blatantly.