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By now, you have probably seen the news that access to legal abortion is under imminent threat in the US. Perhaps you've even seen the viral video of US Senator Elizabeth Warren storming out of Congress on May 3 shouting 'I am angry!' to throngs of Supreme Court protesters.
Their rage was a result of a draft document that was leaked and published by Politico showing the majority opinion of the US' Supreme Court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. This law protects the right to an abortion in the US up to the point a fetus can survive outside the womb. It came into existence in 1973, after a Texan woman (known by the legal pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’) started a lawsuit wanting an abortion when it was illegal except when saving the mother's life.
‘Preventing access to abortion doesn’t prevent abortion – it just puts women’s lives at risk,’ British MP Stella Creasy tells ELLE UK this week. ‘No one who supports overturning Roe v. Wade or restricting access to abortion can call themselves pro-life.’
‘This news from America on abortion shows the far right is gaining in its battle to control women’s bodies,’ she continues.
If the Roe v. Wade abortion law is overturned as planned, this could inspire the UK in dangerous ways. ‘What happens in America does not happen in a vacuum,’ says writer and editor Vicky Spratt* to ELLE. ‘I know that the anti-abortion lobby in the West is a coordinated effort. Their influence (and monetary power) cannot be under-estimated.’
‘The anti-abortion lobby in Britain is powerful and vocal - they are a huge reason that the government has been dithering on at-home abortion,’ continues Spratt. ‘There is some evidence that the people who stand outside abortion clinics in England harassing women are funded by anti-abortion churches and organisations which also operated in the US.’
So, what did the Roe v. Wade leak say?
‘Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,’ writes Justice Samuel Alito in the Politico article that was leaked. ‘It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.’ Alito also wrote that the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, should be struck down.
Where Roe focused on the rights of doctors to treat patients, Casey focused on the rights of women. Casey supports the idea that the government does not have unlimited authority to force a woman to carry an unwanted fetus. Striking down Casey is the start of the government having total control over a woman’s body, which leaves the question: what will women be forced to do next?
It's worth reiterating that this opinion is a draft, so the ruling could change when it is finalised in the next couple of months. But it indicates that a majority of the nine justices have the same view as Alito. How Chief Justice John Roberts will ultimately vote is unclear.
This is one of the most consequential cases before the Court in the last five decades.
And what could the overturning of Roe v. Wade mean?
Currently, abortion remains technically legal in every US state, but different states have varied restrictions. (At least 10 states have already passed anti-abortion laws with no exception for rape or incest, and Texas even offers £7,200 rewards to snitch to the government.)
‘If Roe v. Wade were overturned, women in a string of US states would lose access to abortion altogether or face even greater restrictions than they do already,’ says Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Clare Murphy to ELLE. A Guttmacher analysis found that 26 states are ready to ban abortion entirely the moment it happens.
‘Banning abortion does not remove women’s need to end a pregnancy. It simply makes it more difficult and more dangerous for women,’ continues Murphy. ‘It forces women to either make long journeys to access the care they need, or take matters into their own hands.’
According to more data from the Guttmacher Institute, the number of out-of-state women whose nearest provider is California would soar from 46,000 to 1.4 million.
Naomi Connor, co-covener of abortion rights charity Alliance for Choice, knows what it takes to make such a journey. She was forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion in 2013. ‘It’s degrading,’ she says. ‘I feel deep anger and deep empathy in knowing that women and pregnant people will now need to endure the degradation of forced travel.’
And for those who can’t afford to travel or are physically unable they’ll be forced down a road of forced reproduction, continuing unwanted pregnancies. ‘Enforced motherhood’ - as Caitlin Moran called it in a Times article last year - 'imposes the cost of motherhood on those who already know they can least afford it'. It changes the lives of women and families irreversibly, forever. This anti-abortion movement is not about the lives of unborn babies, it’s about controlling women’s futures. And keeping them trapped in poverty for generations.
As ever, the poorest women will be hit the hardest. ‘This decision will impact black, brown, poor and disabled women the most,’ says Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Take My Hand, a story based on the real-life 1970s epidemic of enforced sterilisations in the US says to ELLE.
Essayist Roxane Gay agrees, writing on Twitter: ‘The biggest of many problems is that this disproportionately affects the poor and working class. Wealthy and middle class women can simply travel to a state where abortion care is available. And they will. They always have.’
The biggest of many problems is that this disproportionately affects the poor and working class. Wealthy and middle class women can simply travel to a state where abortion care is available. And they will. They always have.
— roxane gay (@rgay) May 3, 2022
‘There will be a rise in unsafe procedures and there will be a rise in maternal mortality rates, as well as other grave health consequences for women,’ continues Perkins-Valdez. Perkins-Valdez is also concerned that the government will extend Alito’s reasoning to revisiting other case precedents, such as contraceptive access and marriage equality.
If the population of America’s poorest doubles or quadruples in years to come, who’s to say enforced sterilisation won’t start up again in secret? We could see hard-won civil rights and social progress systematically dismantled. Several states are already trying to legislate trans people out of existence with laws banning gender-affirming health care for children and Missouri proposing a law that could extend that denial to adults. There is no knowing where the withdrawal of civil rights will end.
How could this impact the wider world?
‘There will be worldwide ramifications,’ says Perkins-Valdez, noting that it could affect recent global trends to liberalise abortion access, like in Mexico and Colombia. ‘The pandemic has taught us how connected we are as a planet, and this issue is no different.’
The abolishment of Roe v. Wade would send out a global message that it’s ok to deny reproductive rights access and justice, agrees Connor. ‘There are anti-choice decision-makers, parties, politicians and organisations, religious and otherwise, who will take lead from the US and seek to regress and deny abortion healthcare within their own communities,’ she continues.
While abortion in the UK is not illegal, it’s still restricted. In England and Wales, abortion is still technically a criminal offence (without two different doctor’s consent) due to an outdated Victorian law in the 1967 Abortion Act.
It took a global pandemic for women to be given at-home early medical abortion pills (also known as pills by the post) and even then, the government tried to scrap them in February, until a public petition pressured them otherwise. For the time being, the availability of at-home early medical abortions has been extended.
Is there a way to stop Roe v. Wade being overturned?
The court’s decision is not final. There is now two months for activists to make as much noise as possible. Now will be the time to mobilise. Now will be the time to act.
'I hope this enrages you,’ wrote essayist Roxane Gay on Twitter:
We knew this court would overturn Roe v. Wade but it is stunning though not yet official. Is this the first SC leak ever? The repercussions are severe, and far-reaching, for women/people with uteri. I hope this enrages you. I hope it motivates you to action.
— roxane gay (@rgay) May 3, 2022
Hundreds of abortion rights supports have already gathered in London, Washington and other major cities across the US. We need to make this hundreds of thousands. We need this all over the UK.
Creasy closes by saying; ‘This should be a wake-up call for anyone complacent about the threat to bodily autonomy worldwide.’
What are you waiting for?
How can we help?
Show up at a protest
Grab everyone you know and head to a march after work or on the weekend, or ask your boss to give you a few hours off if needed. There was one in London on March 3 outside the US embassy and there will certainly be more. Make signs, chant, spread it on social media.
Donate to a local abortion fund
While large national organisations might be the most visible option to donate to, there are also local funds on shoe-string budgets that need your help more. For the US, look on the National Network of AbortionFunds database to help identify local abortion funds in each state. For the UK and Europe, Abortion Support Network provides financial assistance to help with costs for those who need it.
Fundraise for a local abortion campaign group
Help US abortion seekers cross state lines
Keep your eye out for petitions like BPAS’s (sign here), which calls on the UK Government to condemn the draft opinion. Share them around to all your contacts.
Don’t stop talking about it
Keep talking about this outrage with friends, family and colleagues, long after another world catastrophe grabs headlines. Keep posting on your social media and filling people’s feeds. Keep the conversation going.
*Spratt is a writer and editor at Refinery29.
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