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The Impact of Overturning Roe v. Wade: Understanding the Global Perspective on Abortion Rights 

A woman with scales of justice in place of a uterus, representing the complicated and entangled nature of abortion politics.

The landmark decision of Roe v. Wade once provided a constitutional right to abortion in the United States. Its recent reversal has not only affected American lives but also sent shockwaves through global policies on reproductive rights. 

This article delves into the far-reaching consequences of this pivotal change. As we examine the implications of this legal shift, we are reminded of the broader ethical and philosophical questions surrounding reproductive rights, which have long been debated in courthouses worldwide and among various stakeholders.

When we reflect on the predicament of a premature baby and the caregiver’s responsibility, we are confronted with a profound question: which holds greater importance?

Jane’s spark: A movement’s birth 

In the records of American legal history, one name stands out: Jane Roe. Although unfamiliar to many, the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’ became synonymous with the landmark case Roe v. Wade, a pivotal moment in the fight for abortion rights in the United States during the 1970s. 

At the centre of this historic case was Norma McCorvey, a former activist, who at the age of 22, found herself pregnant with her third child, mired in addiction, unwed and facing poverty. Given the circumstances, she did not want to pursue her pregnancy further and was desperate for a way out. 

A portrait of Norma McCorvey during Roe v. Wade. (Source)

Quick history detour: back in the ’70s, therapeutic abortions were done  underground like some kind of covert operation. Women had their doctors in their corner, ready to navigate the murky legal waters with them. Favouring the woman’s interests, a doctor would deem her ‘mentally unstable’ or ‘suicidal’. This , in turn, allowed the doctor in charge to abort the child, thus saving the mother’s mental and physical wellbeing. 

Now, our Jane Roe here needed money, perhaps to help her with such an abortion. Coincidentally, two American lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, were actively pursuing pregnant women who were willing to become claimants for their abortion litigation lawsuit when they happened to stumble upon Norma’s case. Jane was paid a huge sum to appear as the claimant and be a part of what turned out to be the biggest media uproar in the ’70s.

Later, when she was asked by the media why she in particular was needed for the case, McCorvey recounted being told by the lawyers, soon after, the lawsuit was filed in 1970 in the U.S. district court for the northern district of Texas on behalf of McCorvey, Jane Roe. 

Unfortunately, due to the extensive media attention the case received, McCorvey was unable to obtain the abortion, ultimately giving her daughter up for adoption, who later came to be known as ‘Baby Roe’.

Lawyers Linda Coffee & Sarah Weddington, respectively.
Lawyers Linda Coffee & Sarah Weddington, respectively.

A nation divided

Since the filing of the case, controversy swirled, drawing in people from all walks of life — from common folk to mums and dads, even teenagers. The air of summer ’72 was filled with a mix of excitement, rallies and campaigns as the news of the case spread far and wide. 

People very quickly realized that this wasn’t just another court case, but one that would profoundly impact the lives of countless individuals across different age groups and backgrounds for years to come. The state of Texas bore witness to a sudden rift in communities. The air was shifting as communities solidified their opinions, leading even the smallest friction to erupt into rallies, protests, and, at times, violent attacks. An immense challenge loomed ahead for the nation. 

In the summer of ’72, a Gallup poll asked the American public to answer the question, “Do you believe that abortion should be a  matter between a woman and a doctor?” Interestingly, 68% of the Republicans said yes. 

Doctors were divided too. The ones who believed abortion to be a sin shut down their clinics, or were made to (yeah, it was pretty intense back then). The others (possibly a larger number) paid no heed and, along with nurses, tirelessly laboured to offer a haven for women in pursuit of safe abortions. 

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, very quickly established that they were pro-life and that abortion was against the core beliefs of Judeo-Christian heritage. Men and women of that community condemned the practice of abortion and sought justice for the innocent and voiceless. 

A holy war was brewing and medical professionals were on the frontlines of the incoming violence. Doctors who continued to keep their clinics open were targeted for their beliefs. 

Dr. George Tiller in Wichita was shot, injuring him in ’73. Two women were killed in Boston. Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola was killed. A doctor and his escort were killed in Florida. Abortion clinics became targets for bombings. The numbers increased rapidly as Atlanta bore the 16th bombing and Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw the 18th.

Late Dr. George Tiller

Image Source: The Guardian

The FBI released a tape recording of a male caller who claimed responsibility for two abortion clinic bombings in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The man said, “Yesterday, I firebombed your abortion clinic. Next time, I’ll blow it clean off the map. Me and my buddies are out to get you. You better tell your employees it’s going to get dangerous.”

Another doctor in 1998 was killed. Dr. Tiller faced another cold-blooded assassination attempt in his Lutheran church in 2009 but didn’t live to fight another day this time.  

The moment had arrived. Everyday people from both sides flooded the streets outside the courthouse, eagerly awaiting the decision. Owing to multiple case studies and a review of the abortion laws placed in Texas in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Jane Roe.

This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether to terminate her pregnancy.

And that settled it. Women would now always have the right to get an abortion, regardless of their social standing, and wouldn’t need permission from anyone beforehand. Or would they?

The political chessboard 

Political timeline; Republicans are denoted with red, Democrats with blue.

The abortion wars have been progressing since 1970, and looking back, we find ourselves left with a breadcrumb trail of the political timeline of the U.S. intertwined with this war. Let’s see how politics plays a role in this issue.

The 1980 election is when we see the abortion issue become an out and out political issue, particularly a Republican issue. Evangelical Christians were the heart of the pro-life movement, and much like a perfectly controlled experiment, the election result the following year was dictated by the presidential candidate’s stance on this contentious issue. 

The anti-abortion debate seemed to be a substantial piece in the political chess game — a golden ticket of sorts to getting the presidency. Governors would pass bills and presidents would appoint new judges, tipping the scales on the issue drastically.  In fact, McCorvey herself admitted to feeling used like a pawn in the lawsuit.  

 The history of the anti-abortion movement is significant and complicated. 

White evangelicals in the 1970s did not mobilize against Roe v. Wade, which they considered a Catholic issue. They were, in a sense, preoccupied with defending racial segregation. According to Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and architect of the Religious Right, the movement began in the 1970s. 

Initially, it was sparked by concerns over the IRS wanting to remove tax-exempt status from certain racially segregated schools and institutions like the Bob Jones University. However, Weyrich’s genius played out when he realized that racial segregation was not likely to rally enough evangelical voters. In any case, “religious freedom” didn’t prove to be the galvanizing issue that the leaders of the movement had hoped it would be. 

Eventually, abortion became a central issue for the Religious Right. It gained traction among evangelicals just before the 1980 presidential election, thanks to the efforts of Weyrich, Falwell and other leaders, especially after the 1978 midterms. Opposition to abortion, therefore, was a godsend for the Religious Right leaders because it allowed them to distract attention from the real genesis of their movement: the defence of racial segregation in evangelical institutions. 

Finally, they were able to conjure up righteous fury against legalized abortion,  thereby legitimizing their concealed racism with political activism.

Operation Rescue

Operation Rescue leaders Randall Terry and Reverend Terry Schenk demonstrate against abortion

In the image, Operation Rescue leaders Randall Terry and Reverend Terry Schenk demonstrate against abortion.

The simmering political war saw the coming of one Randall Terry, who founded Operation Rescue in 1986, the slogan for which read: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” 

Operation Rescue’s initial tactics involved obstructionist sit-in demonstrations to block the doors at abortion clinics in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and select boroughs of Metropolitan New York, a strategy co-opted from decades-earlier civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Terry spoke to The Independent about his plans, comparing it to the D-Day of World War II. “We will make it to Berlin and we will make it a crime to kill innocent babies from conception ’til birth in all 50 states,” he said. “Every abortionist here in America should be tried for the killing of innocent babies.” 

Randall Terry encouraged anti-abortion activists to blockade clinics by chaining themselves to entrances. New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor supported the actions and urged nuns to direct all their attention to ending abortion.

The final nail in the coffin

Institutions like Operation Rescue dealt a major hand in converting thousands of people by sparking compassion for the unborn. This further paved the way to Reagan’s presidency — who had decided to turn pro-life to capitalize on the public’s sentiment on the issue — marking a pivotal shift in the dynamics of the Republican party. 

Efforts were made by senators to withhold the bill, including filibustering in Austin. The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require abortion clinics to meet the same standards that hospital-style surgical centres do, and mandate that a doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. People took to the streets to protest both for and against the bill. Political figure Wendy Davis argued in her final speech,  “No woman should be judged by someone else because these decisions are never easy nor made casually or quickly and, thus, those of them in the Senate should not make such a decision casually and quickly.” 

On June 25, 2013, Wendy Davis conducted a 13-hour filibuster to block Senate Bill 5.

Fast forward to 2022, Donald Trump appointed conservative judges who were sympathetic to the anti-abortion movement. As conservative ideology gained a stronger foothold in the judiciary, the path to overturning Roe v. Wade became increasingly plausible.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights on June 24, 2022 removing the constitutional right in the U.S. to terminate a pregnancy. After nearly half a century of constitutional protections for abortion, the ruling fundamentally reshapes access to reproductive health care across the U.S., leaving each state free to determine the legality of the procedure. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in four women require an abortion during their lifetime, and the decision to have an abortion is typically motivated by multiple, diverse and interrelated reasons throughout all age groups. However, the legality and accessibility of abortion vary widely across states, with 21 states imposing heavy restrictions or outright bans on the procedure. 

The global dynamic shift 

The U.S. has long wielded soft power in shaping international political policies, setting a precedent for several countries to review and subsequently legalise their abortion laws. Take, for example, the abortion act of 1970 in Singapore, the MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy) Act of 1971 in India, the Veil Act of 1975 in France, the 1978 law of Italy, and so on. 

Of course, in 2022, in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women Health Organisation, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. The court’s decision overruled both Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), returning to individual states the power to regulate any aspect of abortion not protected by federal law. The SCOTUS essentially rolled back the legality of abortion making the country a stark outlier to the global trend towards liberalisation. 

There are still countries where abortion remains heavily restricted, namely, El Salvador, the Philippines, Madagascar, Egypt, Jamaica, Senegal, Honduras and Nicaragua. However, the international trend leans in the direction of easing abortion restrictions, not tightening them. Some countries took it as a warning to further cement laws protecting women’s health rights. France, for instance, moved to include the right to abortion in its constitution directly after Dobbs struck Roe down. 

The right of women to choose abortion will become irreversible.

President Emmanuel Macron 
The global dynamic shift
The global dynamic shift

We’re sending a message to all women: Your body belongs to you, and no one can decide for you.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal

The European Parliament condemned the Supreme Court’s ruling as well, adopting a resolution that stated regressions on abortion policies counter human rights, further affirming the United States’ isolation among its allies on the issue. 

The global outlook had been tipping towards abortion rights for nearly 30 years. Within that time, more than 60 countries, such as Chile, Ireland and Zambia, had pushed the needle for protection, expanding grounds for abortion and other reproductive health measures. But Roe’s repeal has since changed the discourse.  

In addition to the direct health benefits of quality abortion care, a world without abortion stigma would also afford several social and financial benefits to women, such as transparent healthcare information and affordable, ethical health care. For such a world to exist, the United Nations wrote in 2021 that abortion “must be taken out of the realm of politics.” 

The ultimate question

Some argue that abortion should be considered a personal medical decision, akin to procedures like liposuctions and colonoscopies, and they advocate for unrestricted access to abortion facilities. On the other hand, evangelical Christians view abortion as the taking of an unborn life and advocate for its prohibition. Organisations such as Operation Rescue, the 700 Club and Family Watch oppose abortion and work towards closing down abortion clinics, citing concerns about the morality of the procedure.

Whether it’s Roe v. Wade, Family Watch v. Planned Parenthood, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt or Dobbs v. Jackson Women Health Organisation, understanding the nature of the issue is crucial. Is it primarily a religious, social, political, economic or simply a medical concern?

Remember, George H.W. was pro-choice who later became pro-life. Ronald Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in the late ’60s but became a pro-life hero by 1980. So, all Trump had to do was play along. It was essential for a Republican victory at the polls. 

At her deathbed, McCorvey expressed regret for the pro-choice movement ignited in her name, before her conversion to evangelical Christianity. The 1992 Democratic National Convention brought both pro- and anti-abortion rights activists to New York City, as both sides used striking visuals to get their message out. Pro-abortion rights activists focused on women who died from illegal (or ‘coat hanger’) abortions, while anti-abortion activists presented images of actual (dead) foetuses. 

Protests for keeping abortion legal and Protests led by pro-lifers
Protests for keeping abortion legal and Protests led by pro-lifers

The enactment of laws like the Sonogram Bill, the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003 and the imposition of indirect psychological pressures,  serve as pivotal moments in the ongoing debate. Both sides vigorously advocate for their beliefs, shaping the legal landscape and impacting women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Amidst this legal tug-of-war, pregnant women find themselves facing increasingly stringent requirements, including mandatory sonograms and restrictions on late-term procedures. With the rollback of Roe v. Wade, any woman residing within a ‘red’ state will now have to carry her pregnancy to term regardless of any physical, psychological, or financial problems.  

In the end, it boils down to a singular conflict: between the foetus which is not capable of exercising its rights and those of the mother, fighting to have any whatsoever.

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