‘It is a terrifying time’: Legal right to abortion in US faces direct challenge at Supreme Court

·4 min read

The landmark US Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion across America almost five decades ago could be overturned following the latest abortion case before the nation’s high court, campaigners warned.

On 1 December, the Supreme Court will hear Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could lead to Roe v Wade – the 1973 decision that established the nationwide constitutional right to abortion – being rolled back.

The case challenges a Mississippi law that blocks almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, directly contravening Roe, which specifically stipulates states cannot ban pregnancy terminations before around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Mississippi has requested the Supreme Court to overturn both Roe and Planned Parenthood v Casey – a separate decision made in 1997 which bolstered the right to an abortion.

Tarah Demant, Amnesty International USA’s Interim Senior Director of Programmes, told The Independent maternal deaths will greatly rise if Roe v Wade is overturned due to women being forced to resort to dangerous backstreet abortions.

She said: “We anticipate a further erosion of the right to abortion. This will have an enormous impact on the rights and lives of many. This means a huge uptick in unsafe abortions and a huge uptick in women being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

“Ultimately what this means is not just a total roll back of abortion for a huge population of the US but a health crisis.”

Ms Demant said if Roe v Wade is rolled back, it will be up to individual states to make their own laws on abortion, as some 12 states have automatic “trigger” laws that would automatically ban abortion, while at least 14 other states are likely to follow their lead, the campaigner said.

She added: “We are looking at 26 states. We are talking about land sizes that are thousands of miles. It is a really scary time to be here and see this happening in real-time.

“For many of us activists, Roe has always been the floor, not the ceiling. It was never a good enough law. But to see that about to be cut away is really scary. You can’t have gender equity without access to safe and legal abortion.”

Ms Demant noted abortion has not been accessible to many people in America since pregnancy terminations were legalised – adding that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, indigenous communities, low-income people, or those in rural areas have long already “lacked meaningful access” to abortion.

But she warned the situation “will get much, much worse” with Roe v Wade overturned – creating worse “health care deserts” across the US. While wealthier people will be able to afford to travel to another state to have an abortion, many others will not be able to afford to make the trip, she said.

“This is part of a decades’ long strategy by anti-rights actors in the US who view abortion as a political tool and this is the end game to fully overturn Roe v Wade and to pull the United States back into a space where people don’t have safe access to abortion,” Ms Demant added. “It is not surprising we are here. The Supreme Court was specifically stacked for this reason. It is a terrifying time.”

Three new conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – all appointed by former president Donald Trump – are now sitting on the Supreme Court, which means it has a six-three conservative majority.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents in states across the US have been emboldened to attempt to provoke new legal battles that could lead Supreme Court justices to revisit Roe.

Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the US, warned “more than 36 million women, plus people who can become pregnant, including trans men and gender-nonconforming people, could very soon be left without access to abortion.”

The organisation, which also provides other reproductive health services, said Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming are the states most likely to ban abortions.

“It’s been the worst year in US history for reproductive rights with more than 100 state abortion restrictions enacted nationwide and nearly 600 introduced in state legislatures,” Planned Parenthood said.

The organisation added: “26 states could quickly move to ban abortion if the court uses this case as an opportunity to overturn Roe. In many of these states, abortion access is restricted so severely, it is already a right in name only for far too many. People are forced to navigate stigmatising and unnecessary restrictions in addition to financial and logistical barriers.”

A ban on abortions carried out after six weeks of pregnancy – a point at which many women are not even aware they are pregnant – in Texas was imposed back in September.

Mini Timmaraju, NARAL Pro-Choice America president, said: “The constitutional right to abortion faces a terrifying and unprecedented threat. This moment of crisis is the culmination of the anti-choice movement’s decades-long efforts to undermine the will of the overwhelming majority of people in this country who support the legal right to abortion.”

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