Roe versus Wade is known as the abortion law of the USA. It is not just a court decision. It is a talisman; the result of hard-fought battles of countless women for their own bodily autonomy and the freedom to make decisions about their own futures. Roe v Wade is not just a feminist issue, it is a religious, political, human rights and civil liberties issue. It has been so significant that I remember using the citation for a Moot Court competition in India back in Law College.
In 1973 this matter came up before the American Supreme Court. Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) became pregnant with her third child. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy but this was illegal in her state of Texas. So the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on the matter and Roe’s right to terminate her pregnancy was upheld. Recently conservative judges being in the majority on the Supreme Court, there is the apprehension; the expectation in fact, that Roe v Wade will be overturned and abortion will become illegal in half of all American states.
One of the legal principles here is the concept of person or personhood. Anti-abortionists (who call themselves pro-life) believe that a foetus is a person as soon as a zygote is formed by the union of an egg and sperm, or that life starts when the heart starts to beat, which is at about 7 weeks gestation.
However, the counterargument is that a foetus is not a person. it is a part of the mother's body and not an independent person because it cannot survive outside of the mother's body. There is the concept of viability here – a foetus cannot be called a ‘person’ since it is not independently viable. Since the foetus is a part of the mother's body, it is up to the mother to decide whether to carry her pregnancy to term or to terminate it.
The fact is that a pregnancy will have permanent and far-reaching consequences for a woman, her family and her future prospects. Early motherhood restricts a woman's ability to become educated and financially independent. Since it is the woman who has to live with the consequences of her pregnancy it should be her decision whether or not to give birth or to opt for abortion.
Most people who are against abortions tend to be politically conservative and have religious reasons for their beliefs. The Church has long frowned upon not just abortion but also contraception. Those who oppose abortion often also oppose contraception and sex education in schools; believing that children should be taught only abstinence-oriented forms of birth control. Methods of contraception are also seen as somehow promoting promiscuity and immorality. Hence they are viewed through a disapproving moral lens.
The anti-abortion stance is also tied to the general disapproval of sexual freedom and assertion, particularly among women. The puritanical and patriarchal desire to limit women's choices and control their bodies is very much a part of this mindset. Various religious texts/philosophies are put forward to justify these beliefs and forms of control. Women contemplating abortion are counselled, made to wait and often shamed, made to feel guilty and threatened with eternal damnation.
These religious beliefs do not remain limited to those that believe in them but impose themselves upon the body of women who may or may not share those beliefs. They also run counter to the concept of reproductive justice, which is "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities."
Statistics show that when abortion is made illegal, this prevents women from accessing proper medical care; leading to an increase in illegal procedures that endanger women's lives. The mental health outcomes of women are also seen to be poor when they are denied legal access to medical care. Women denied abortions could suffer serious pregnancy complications. When women have access to abortion, their own physical health, as well as the health of their subsequent children, is seen to fare better.
The USA prides itself on being the ‘land of the free’ and flatters itself that it shows the way to the rest of the world when it comes to modernity and progressiveness. Right now a leaked document suggests that the American Supreme Court is planning to overturn the history Roe v Wade case law. If this does happen, abortion will overnight become illegal in as many as 26 American states.
It was American women, who led the global feminist movement; who wrested significant rights for women at great cost. I'm mindful of the fact that many doors are open to women such as me thanks to their efforts and the efforts of other courageous women all over the world.
While all around the world, liberties and freedoms are being expanded, in America they are poised to become narrower, more constricted and regressive. If Roe v Wade is overturned – and it seems as though it is only a matter of time before this happens – America will have regressed to a darker, illiberal and anti-woman space and time. The rights of women all over the world will have suffered a setback.
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