Abortion Bans in the US: Conservatives’ Hopes Will Be Dashed

The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated a return to the past with respect to abortion. That past meant more suffering for women, not fewer abortions.

The end of liberal abortion rights in the U.S. is no longer a surprise. In May, a draft opinion on a case involving abortion rights was leaked, and it was foreseeable that this unprecedented scandal would simply strengthen the Supreme Court’s view. Any other decision would have made the justices vulnerable to accusations they were buckling to pressure, and thus, fortify the already prevailing opinion that the court had become politicized.

Even though the first shock wave hit the country weeks ago, the definitive ruling is an earthquake. First, it is notable that the Supreme Court is striking down, for no clearly apparent reason, a landmark ruling that is almost 50 years old and has been affirmed several times. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, precedent rulings have great, almost legislative significance — overturning a decision usually requires the relevant circumstances to have changed dramatically.

That in no way applies to abortion. The procedure has become safer and is conducted much less frequently than in 1973, when the Supreme Court liberalized abortion access in Roe v. Wade. In addition, public opinion over the last several decades has changed astonishingly little. A clear majority of the population supports the right to abortion.

Almost As Many Abortions, but More Risk

Of course, the Supreme Court has on occasion overturned its opinions. In one of the most significant landmark cases, it abolished racial segregation in schools in 1954 (in the case of Brown v. Board of Education) and thus departed from a decision that had been laid down some six decades before, a decision that had explicitly justified segregation and is now considered one of the most shameful opinions in the court’s history. But in each case, the court expanded individual rights; it did not restrict them, as the current ruling does.

The decision on abortion has dramatic consequences for many parts of the country. As many as half of the states in America are likely to prohibit abortion in the near future and thus force those who become involuntarily pregnant to travel long distances or pursue illegal options. It is doubtful that conservatives’ hope for fewer abortions will come to pass. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the procedure was banned across the country, the number of abortions is estimated to have been at least as high as today, and that occurred among a population that was half its current size.

Women who want to end a pregnancy will find a way — but in some cases will face much greater risk. According to official statistics, about 200 women died as a result of illegal abortions in 1965. At the time, they accounted for 17% of maternal deaths related to pregnancy and birth. When abortion was legalized in 1973, the numbers plummeted immediately, and they remain negligibly small today. The Supreme Court’s ruling is thus a step backward not only in women’s rights, but also in public health.

The Conflict Is Revived

One could still argue that the ruling ends the bitter conflict over abortion that has carried on for decades. The decision to allow or ban abortions is now in the hands of local state governments and, by extension, their constituencies. Abortion will still be legal in places that want liberal regulations; it will be banned in those that do not.

In today’s U.S., which is deeply divided and incapable of compromise, one could see this result as the solution offered by democratic politics. But this illusion also does not hold up — culture war issues have become too important for mobilizing constituents in both ideological camps. Conservatives will not rest until abortion has been banned across the entire country; progressives, on the other hand, are already working on ways to circumvent abortion bans. The conflict over abortion is not over; it is just getting started.

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