Abortion in the US: Regressing Half a Century

The Supreme Court eliminates the legal protection for terminating pregnancies and sends a sinister message to all democracies

On Friday [June 24], the United States Supreme Court — in a ruling with dramatic consequences that will define that country for generations to come — eliminated the federal protection of the right to abortion that was established half a century ago. June 24, 2022, is a historic milestone in a democracy that was founded on the rights of the individual. In this way, this democracy takes a sinister step back on women’s rights (more than 60% favor legal abortion) that was unthinkable at the start of this decade.

Abortion in the U.S. used to be under the protection of a 1973 opinion known as Roe v. Wade. That doctrine meant that pregnancy terminations could not be restricted before the 23rd week. In the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion, which already occupies a place in the history of infamy, the Supreme Court sided with the state of Mississippi and allowed it to restrict abortion at 15 weeks. In order to do this, it completely eliminated precedent, went back on its doctrine and gave free rein to the states to regulate abortion. In 26 of them, controlled by the Republican Party, this implies imposing restrictions unheard of since half a century ago. Half of these states will immediately activate laws that, in practice, will turn abortion into a crime for millions of women.

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised that he would only appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the doctrine on abortion. That promise garnered him the votes of a religious right who despised him, a minority group that is nevertheless indispensable in order to win the presidency by a narrow margin. The ruling is a dream for a religious far right that, after decades of struggle within the Republican Party, has finally imposed its fanaticism by way of an unelected institution in a disastrous victory the polls would never have allowed. The United States is the democracy by which all others are measured. Today, its message is devastating: Through the manipulation of institutions, extremist policies that no democratic majority would legitimize can be enforced.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has ignored the warnings that such a radical change in doctrine would destroy the prestige of the institution, whose main source of power is the perception of impartiality. If constitutional rights and freedoms can change at the whim of majorities, interpreters of the Constitution are not needed. The Supreme Court hardly ever rules against its own jurisprudence, and it has always done so in order to extend individual rights, not restrict them. Samuel Alito, the justice who wrote the opinion, believes that abortion is not a right because it is not explicitly stated in the Constitution. The new doctrine leaves the door open for overturning other civil rights that were also nonexistent in the 18th century, such as same-sex marriage. Yesterday’s decision implies an unprecedented regression in American constitutional history.

In the short term, very little can be done. In the following months, Democratic governors and attorneys general can set an example of what life is like in states in which religious fanaticism is not assaulting women’s bodies. As the religious right did, it is time for moderation and common sense, with which the vast majority of Americans identify, to mobilize at the polls. This assault is just the start. The lesson is that, if left undefended, every freedom is one generation away from disappearing — in the United States, and everywhere else.

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