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Why ending Roe v Wade strikes at the heart of liberal democracy

The US Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to an abortion has outraged people not only in the US but around the world, making the US an outlier in the developed world on this issue. Now 26 US states, more than half of the US, either have or shortly will halt legal abortion, while “Pro-choice” states will create safe places for those seeking an abortion. It’s reminiscent of how slavery abolitionists assisted escaped slaves before the US Civil War of 1861-65. Slavery split the US in the mid-19th century. The heirs of that conflict continue to fight it out by other means, one current form being the rights of women over their own bodies. This assault on women’s rights cuts straight across the efforts so many are making in the wake of #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. For a UK observer, this conflict has a global significance as well as those in the US, and for women in particular.

Symbolic of an attack on human rights

In the US, the assault on Roe v Wade has been a long time coming, with the rise of the radical and religious Right, particularly in the Republican party. The “Pro-life” movement is strong in the US and has its followers elsewhere too. While arguments over when to abort and for whom, especially in the light of medical advancements, have an academic as well as a political dimension, they are also subsumed into a broader ideological conflict that has split America along deeply partisan lines. Mostly recently it was the very divisive President Trump who appointed three very conservative judges that tipped the balance. For the non-US reader, the US Supreme Court is an independent body under the US system of the separation of government into three powers, executive, legislature and judiciary. The Supreme Court can by its judgements on the constitutionality of a measure effectively make policy. This has been most marked in the social sphere, a realm today where the US is riven by “culture wars”.

The risk that the Supreme Court judges are running with their decision is that it is radically out of step with a big swathe of public opinion. It is estimated, from polling that 85% of Americans favour some degree of abortion availability, with 61% in favour of retaining Roe v Wade. When such a gap opens up, questions arise over the Court’s legitimacy. In the past the judiciary has in time altered its judgements to make them more in line with public opinion, often with changes in the Court’s membership or an increase in the number of judges. In the current climate, this looks unlikely but still possible.

A deeply divided politics

For the non-US observer, the scrapping of Roe v Wade comes at a time of broad unrest in the US, where the country is deeply divided along partisan lines, and where democracy has been looking increasingly at risk. Now all three branches of government have acted in ways that heighten this sense of governmental deadlock, if not potential breakdown, and again of a questioning of democratic legitimacy. Congress has recently been in the hands of a party opposed to the President, and there has been legislative and budgetary deadlock. As President, Trump passed wildly controversial measures, and on his electoral defeat in 2020 appears to have acted in support of an attempted coup against Congress on 6 January 2021, now the subject of a Congressional enquiry. The US is currently subject to a spread of political violence spearheaded by armed militia, such as the Proud Boys who were involved in the coup attempt. As the midterm Congressional elections approach, Republican state legislatures have been passing laws to restrict the vote of their opponents, known as gerrymandering. Biden is not popular and the tendency of midterm elections is to strengthen the opposing party in Congress and this could replicate the deadlock under Obama and Trump.

Roe v Wade is also consistent with a bigger trend in US politics that fears the loss of “white supremacy” to what is seen as a “liberal” advance of ethnic minorities and “liberal” social policies. Significantly, many of the victims of scrapping Roe v Wade will be the poor and ethnic minorities. Thus democracy is being narrowed in its scope and access to rights restricted. Minority rule by a privileged male, white elite is being entrenched, backed by powerful and wealthy interests.

The rise of illiberal democracy

This brings us to the global significance of Roe v Wade. Many see the decision as part and parcel of a widespread threat to human rights. It is as though two versions, at least, of democracy are in dispute. In certain parts of the world, liberal democracy has been under attack, most notably in countries like Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Brazil, and Turkey. In Russia, the last vestiges of democracy have been destroyed by Putin and he has now attacked a neighbouring country, Ukraine, that seeks to assert its more than 30-years-old independence and right to self-determination, and he is effectively threatening other neighbouring countries. In the writer’s native UK, the powers of the judiciary, the right to vote, the rule of law, the power of the executive and human rights are all in question. Rights and liberties are being used in a number of countries to further the interests of certain groups at the expense of others, and the reinforcement of reactionary, right-wing and wealthy political forces in positions of power and privilege.

The ending of Roe v Wade, while a lethal attack on women’s rights, should therefore also be seen in the context of a broad trend that aims at the heart of democracy and human rights that have been understood at least in the last 50 years, if not since the end of World War Two. Ending Roe v Wade is just a start.

Featured image by Derek French on Pexels.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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