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Wednesday 12 June 2019

10 minutes read time

tortoise take • opinion

The unravelling of Roe v. Wade

America’s war over abortion never ends, but it may be entering a new, more dangerous stage

By Giles Whittell and Alfie Fletcher

There is nothing foreordained about abortion rights in America. They were hard-won after 150 years of criminalisation, first at state and then at federal level. The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought the first mass demands from women for legal recognition of their reproductive rights. The US Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade trumped state laws banning abortion, dragging it into the political mainstream. It has divided Americans ever since.

Anti-abortion activists, the loudest of them men, have always regarded Roe v. Wade as a challenge rather than the final word. They have mounted a coordinated, decades-long campaign to overturn it by eroding its authority in state legislatures and campaigning for conservative Supreme Court justices.

President Trump’s successful nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court last year was more than a Beltway power play. For evangelical pro-lifers it creates an anti-abortion majority on the court – a prize sought for two generations. Legal challenges by the pro-choice activists against a new rash of state anti-abortion laws play into conservatives’ hands: they put the issue back on a legal ladder to the Supreme Court.

In most of Europe, women’s access to abortion services is well defended. But Northern Ireland is an exception; and even in the rest of Britain what is generally thought of as a right is legally only a “defence”, dependent on the approval of two doctors. Beyond Europe’s borders, respect for women’s reproductive rights is threadbare at best.

The decision to have a child changes everything. To be denied the freedom and responsibility to take that decision in a modern, secular society is not acceptable. Yet that is what happens when the abortion debate is pulled away from a firm foundation in science and reproductive rights. That is what has happened in the US.

Thankfully, it has not happened in the UK. Even so, Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative leadership contender, has said his preference would be to shorten the legal defence for women seeking abortion in Britain from 24 weeks to 12. Hunt says he would leave MPs to vote with their conscience on the matter, and a good thing too. On abortion the role of Britain’s next prime minister will be simple: keep it out of politics.


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