The US Supreme Court recently overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade sentence which made the right to abortion constitutional for women in the United States. This latest judicial decision poses a gender equality issue of major global significance for what has happened in the USA will embolden those who continue to curb women’s rights. It represents a serious blow to the exercise of democracy and to democratic aspirations worldwide.
According to this latest Supreme Court decision, legislation on a woman’s right to choose is now, in principle, devolved to each of the 50 United States. Following the announcement of the sentence, it took the state of Missouri just an hour to ban abortion. Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin, quickly followed suit, making the right of U.S. women to decide about their bodies and to have access to safe and legal abortion in their country the exception, rather than the rule. Planned Parenthood, which has the largest network of reproductive health clinics in the United States, and the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute have warned that, based on the recent Supreme Court decision, a total of 26 states are likely to quickly ban abortion. This will affect the lives and the rights of an estimated 36 million women of reproductive age in the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision is a serious step backwards for women’s rights in the U.S., setting a dangerous and controversial precedent that shakes rights till now taken for granted.
The reversal has undoubtedly opened the door for other such actions and to much debate around the process. Already, in a separate opinion in the same sentence, Judge Clarence Thomas asked the high court to reconsider other precedents, such as the right to contraception or to same-sex relations while Judge Samuel Alito noted that “It is time to abide by the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the representatives of the people, to the legislative chambers of each state”.
We stand with millions of women across the U.S. and with UN Women – the United Nations body for gender equality and the empowerment of women – when in a statement following news of the decision, it noted that “to be able to exercise their human rights and make essential decisions, women need to be able to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to information, education, and services”.
Democracy is based on fundamental rights and on respect for the rule of law. The full exercise of these values largely depends on respecting the views and decisions of others. In this sense, no cherished democracy can deny women the right to freely decide about their bodies. A democratic society must respect their decision and allow them to fully exercise their right to decide. If the right to safe and legal abortion is restricted, women will be forced to turn to other less secure and even life-threatening methods. This will be a particularly crude reality for women in poverty and marginalisation, limited in their capacity to move to less restrictive states to abort.
This regression in terms of individual freedoms is another painful example of democratic and social contract backsliding across the globe. It is also evidence of the increasingly severe challenge of polarisation worldwide, in this case, even in a prosperous, industrialized, democratic country where a woman’s right to decide about her body will depend on the state in which she lives or her capacity to travel to another state where she can freely exercise her right to choose – a divide, not only within US society but between US society and the laws that govern it.
The protests following this Supreme Court decision show the level of dissatisfaction and raw disappointment with the institutions and processes that are supposed to serve and protect both men and women in their rights, to serve and protect democracy. The discrediting of institutions and processes is a risk to democracy. With democracy increasingly endangered, the world as we know and want it is in peril.
Chief Engagement Officer at World Justice Project & Senior Non-resident Fellow at Brookings Foreign Policy