U.S. Supreme Court turns clock back 50 years

July 18, 2022 10:02
Photo: Reuters

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, by six to three, to ban the right to abortion by overturning a law passed by the same court in 1973, known as Roe vs. Wade.

This ruling has profound significance and opens a legal route to ban contraception and marriage and intimate relations between people of the same sex.

Of the 50 states in the U.S., 13 banned abortions immediately after the court ruling, with a further 13 planning a ban within the coming weeks. Nearly 30 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 live in these states, where 290,000 legal abortions were performed in 2020.

The U.S. becomes only the fourth country in the world, after El Salvador, Nicaragua and Poland, to revoke abortion rights that had previously been granted.

About 18 per cent of pregnancies in the U.S. end in abortions and about one quarter of American women have abortions before the age of 45.

The ban will especially hit women who are poor, illegal, black or belong to ethnic minorities and do not have the means, money or knowledge to terminate their pregnancies by going to the 24 states where it remains legal.

“The disruption of Roe and Casey will be profound,” wrote three of the judges in a dissenting opinion – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “Abortion is a common medical procedure and a familiar experience in people’s lives. People today rely on their ability to control and time pregnancies when making countless life decisions – where to live, whether and how to invest in education or careers, how to allocate financial resources and how to approach intimate and family relationships.

“We dissent with sorrow, for this court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection,” they wrote.

The decision had an immediate impact. Fearing criminal prosecution, abortion clinics in the 26 states closed and doctors in those states declined to provide medical advice to women asking for it.

The options for those women are to travel to one of the 24 states where it is legal, such as Illinois, Kansas and Florida, or purchase over the internet drugs which cause an abortion. For middle-class and wealthy women with money and a support network, this should be available. It is possible that the 26 states pass laws that would enable them to prosecute the women themselves who seek an abortion, in addition to the clinics and the doctors.

Yamelsie Rodriguez, president of Planned Parenthood in St Louis, Missouri, said that, in the coming weeks, they expected more than 14,000 additional patients from states in the Midwest and South which have banned abortions to go to clinics to Illinois. This surge in demand will lengthen waiting times and put pressure on their financial resources.

Not so fortunate are the poor who cannot afford to travel, take the time off work or find care for existing children. The University of California, San Francisco, published the Turnaway Study conducted over 10 years; it followed over 1,000 women who either received or denied an abortion.

It found that women denied abortions were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to live in poverty than those who received abortions. The majority of those seeking an abortion did so because they could not afford to care for a child – a financial, not a moral, question.

The mastermind behind the Court’s decision is Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving Justice, appointed in 1991 and only the second black member of the court. He is the most conservative in his views. In his opinion on the case, he wrote: “the court could perhaps go further and reconsider its decisions on contraception, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage.”

His was originally a minority opinion until President Donald Trump appointed three like-minded conservative Justices between 2017 and 2020. Now there are five conservatives, three liberals and Chief Justice John Roberts, a moderate conservative. With the three new Justices born between 1967 and 1972, a conservative majority is guaranteed for at least 10 years.

One of the many controversial aspects of the judgement is that it is contrary to public opinion. A Pew Research Centre survey published in June found that 61 per cent of U.S. adults – and 63 per cent of women -- said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, against 37 per cent who said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

In their judgements, the six justices did not refer to public opinion, the enormous changes in American society since 1973, nor the effects of their decision on the lives of millions of women.

Another point of controversy is Virginia Thomas, wife of Clarence. A long-time activist of the Republican Party, she is an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and, in the weeks after his election defeat in November 2020, urged his lawyer Mark Meadows to overturn the result and supported the march by Trump supporters on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 that resulted in violence and death. Traditionally, the Justices and their families stay far from politics, to show their impartiality and neutrality.

In February, she told former law clerks of her husband that she was sorry for a rift that developed among them after her election advocacy of Trump and endorsement of the January. 6 rally. “I owe you all an apology,” she wrote.
For many Americans, politics has infected the court and the judgement reflects the opinions of the radical wing of the Republican Party, rather than the justice and equity for which the Court should stand.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.