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CNA Explains: Why is the overturning of the Roe v Wade abortion ruling in the US so significant?

CNA Explains: Why is the overturning of the Roe v Wade abortion ruling in the US so significant?

Demonstrators marched down Broadway pass Federal Court where they held a rally in front of the Hall of Justice on Jun 24, 2022 in downtown San Diego. (Photo: Nelvin C Cepeda /The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

SINGAPORE: The landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognised a woman's constitutional right to an abortion and legalised it nationwide in the United States was overturned by the US Supreme Court last Friday (Jun 24). 

According to news reports, the decision handed a “momentous victory” to Republicans and conservatives wanting to limit or ban the procedure. 

Heated responses to the decision were felt on social media around the world. Why was the ruling’s overturn so significant? And what happens next?

CNA looks at what the decision means. 

WHAT IS ROE V WADE? 

Roe v Wade recognises that the right to personal privacy under the US Constitution protects a woman's ability to terminate her pregnancy. 

In 1969, Norma McCorvey, known by her legal pseudonym “Jane Roe”, became pregnant with her third child. She wanted an abortion but lived in Texas, where abortion was illegal except when it was necessary to save the mother’s life. 

So, her attorneys filed a lawsuit on her behalf against her local district attorney, Henry Wade, alleging that Texas’s abortion laws were unconstitutional. The courts ruled in her favour and, even after parties appealed the initial ruling, continued to uphold a pregnant woman’s right to abortion in 1973.  

The ruling was further reaffirmed in a 1992 ruling, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey.

HOW DID ROE V WADE GET OVERTURNED? 

In a 6-3 ruling on Jun 24 powered by a conservative majority, the US Supreme Court upheld a Republican-backed Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. 

On the same day, a vote of 5-4 overturned Roe v Wade. 

The justices held that the Roe v Wade decision that allowed abortions performed before a foetus would be viable outside the womb (i.e. between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy) had been “wrongly decided” because the US Constitution makes no specific mention of abortion rights, stated news reports.

Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) told CNA that the decision was “expected”. 

“Part of the conservative electoral support behind Donald Trump and politicians like him was to facilitate the appointment of Supreme Court justices who could reverse the decision on Roe vs Wade and remove federal constitutional protections for women to choose abortion if they want,” he said. 

“That is exactly what happened and the judges whom Trump appointed made the decisions expected of them. A draft decision was leaked earlier as well.”

This leaked version of the ruling written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito had indicated the court was likely to overturn Roe v Wade – and the eventual ruling largely corroborated the leaked draft. 

Similarly, Professor Elvin Lim, who teaches political science at the Singapore Management University (SMU), suggested that the court had been "waiting for when a majority of states stood against Roe v Wade, so that its decision would not stand too blatantly against the court of public opinion". 

He also pointed out that Democrats "will try to use abortion as a national election issue for the 2022 and 2024 elections". However, the overturning of Roe v Wade is also a "victory for Republicans in office who will use the issue in state and local elections to remind voters of the need to keep Republicans in office".

IS ABORTION NOW ILLEGAL IN THE US? 

Abortion and the right to choice remain legal in a number of US states, especially liberal states. More than a dozen states currently have laws protecting abortion rights. 

However, by erasing abortion as a constitutional right, the right to abortion will now be determined by individual states, unless Congress acts, reported CNN

There are 26 states that are seen as either certain or likely to ban abortion now, while 13 states have existing “trigger laws” designed to kick in to ban abortion if Roe v Wade were overturned. This means that some states now already ban abortion after last Friday's ruling. 

For example, South Dakota and Kentucky had a trigger ban that took effect immediately. No waiting period or certification were required in these states, reported The Washington Post.

Similarly, Missouri and Arkansas had a trigger ban that kicked in on Jun 24 itself when the state's attorney general certified the Supreme Court's decision. 

HOW HAVE PEOPLE REACTED?

Following the ruling, thousands of protestors defending abortion rights thronged the streets outside the US Supreme Court. At the same time, anti-abortion politicians, activists and religious groups have celebrated the move.

Politicians and groups on both sides of the debate are preparing for challenges to the ruling.

News reports suggested that women with unwanted pregnancies “in large swathes of America” may face difficult decisions: Travel to another state where abortion remains legal and available, buy abortion pills online or have a potentially dangerous illegal abortion.

The court's three liberal justices issued a jointly authored dissent in light of the ruling.

"Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today's decision is certain: The curtailment of women's rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens," they wrote. 

US President Joe Biden called the decision “a sad day for the court and for the country”, saying it took the country back 150 years. The Biden administration has indicated it will seek to prevent states from banning a pill used for medication abortion

At the same time, several large US companies – such as Yelp, Airbnb, Amazon and Tesla – have weighed in by pledging to offer health coverage for out-of-state abortions. This includes offering to pay for trips to states that legalise abortion if someone wants to get an abortion. 

Outside the US, some world leaders have slammed the ruling. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the ruling “horrific”, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the decision "a big step backwards", reported AFP. 

French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned the ruling, saying it was a challenge to women's freedoms. 

HOW IS THE DECISION BEING SEEN INTERNATIONALLY? 

Allies of the US "may be concerned at the growing cultural rift within the United States", and "have doubts about its ability to build a consensus on such matters like trade, human rights, or foreign policy", said Prof Lim from SMU.

On the other hand, Assoc Prof Chong from NUS noted that the political significance of the decision is largely confined to the United States. 

“Domestic developments in the United States capture significant attention overseas, given that it is a centre of media attention. (However,) this particular decision on overturning abortion rights does not have practical implications outside the United States,” he told CNA. 

The decision is unlikely to have a significant impact in the Asia-Pacific region as well.  

The “unique legal and political system and a tradition for conservative Christian religious political mobilisation” in the US are typically not strong features of politics and society in the Asia-Pacific region, said Assoc Prof Chong. 

“Christian religious conservatives in Asia may be energised by the decision … but it is less likely to have broad reverberation across Asia, perhaps except for some conservative quarters of Catholic Philippines.”  

WHAT IS THE LARGER SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DECISION? 

The reversal of Roe v Wade means that women who do not wish to carry their pregnancy to full term might run afoul of the law in some US states, and they “may seek illegal, non-medically safe, and dangerous abortions instead”, said Assoc Prof Chong.

The ruling is thus likely to hit poor and minority groups the most, suggested Assoc Prof Chong. 

Roe vs Wade has become “a symbol for the right of women to choose what to do with their own bodies and pregnancies, given the deep social and religious conservatism associated with parts of the United States”.

The court’s decision “marks a continuing wave of deep conservatism in US politics that rides on the prominence of such views in a number of US states, notably in the South but also parts of the Midwest”, despite these areas being less populated than the more liberal East and West Coasts. 

The ruling is a “phenomenon” that also reflects the deep divisions in US politics more generally, he added. 

It permeates into other areas such as gun control and healthcare, for instance. The areas that “push for the removal of the right to choice for women also oppose greater gun control and public healthcare”.

Assoc Prof Chong suggested that the US Supreme Court’s decision “marks an erosion to the separation of church and state in the US”. 

“This distinction is historically key to preventing religious conflict in societies, since different religions and different denominations of the same religion can have strongly-held theological positions that seep into political preferences,” he explained. 

“Corrosion of the distinction between church (i.e. religion) and state can bring greater contentiousness into politics and society.”

Source: CNA/gy

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