Overturning Roe Is One Part of a Global War on Abortion Rights

The attack on Roe v. Wade in the United States is only the latest battle waged by powerful reactionaries against abortion rights – and we must be prepared to fight them in Britain too.

Pro-choice activist Lisa King holds a sign in front of the US Supreme Court during the annual 'March for Life' event on 22 January 2009 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

This morning, the world woke up to the news that the US is about to plumb new depths in its attack on reproductive rights. POLITICO has published a leaked draft of a majority opinion from the US Supreme Court which sides with Mississippi its attempt to ban most abortions after fifteen weeks. In doing so, it overturns Roe v. Wade, calling the ruling that has protected abortion rights in the US for half a century ‘egregiously wrong from the start’.

In Roe—a 1973 decision that Joe Biden has promised several times to codify into federal law—and Casey, which followed in 1992, the Court ruled that state laws preventing abortion before the point of foetal viability (usually understood to be twenty-four weeks) interfered with a woman’s right to privacy and were therefore unconstitutional. This new SCOTUS decision won’t be binding until after its publication, expected in about two months, and crucially, it could still change in that time—but if it doesn’t, an estimated twenty-six states are ‘certain or likely’ make abortion illegal. Many are standing by with ‘trigger laws’ ready to be implemented automatically.

This step has been a long time in the making. The Mississippi fifteen-week law is only one among a slew of state-level measures concentrated in the South and Midwest and bolstered by the Trump administration’s support. The influence of the anti-choice movement has been growing for years, thanks in large part to funding from billionaires including the Koch brothers (despite pro-choice claims) and fracking magnate Farris Wilks and a host of other anonymous rich. Last year Open Democracy revealed that the conservative groups behind the Mississippi abortion law had received almost $100 million from anonymous donations funnelled through the National Christian Foundation (NCF) and Fidelity Charitable.

The legislators masterminding anti-abortion laws have themselves been funded with money from household names. One open letter written by campaign group Equity Forward and reported on by Forbes named brands like Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. Capital has no problem bankrolling the attack on abortion rights (and proclaiming feminism while doing it); the political right is often happy to join the anti-abortion bandwagon if it means access to power and cash. As a result, campaign groups might start with attacking abortion, but won’t stop there: they’re already involved in broader anti-democratic efforts that benefit the powerful at the expense of the public, not least through assaults on voting rights.

This coalition between capitalism and the religious right was epitomised by the Trump and Pence partnership, which made three appointments to an inherently political Supreme Court (uninterested in the post-ideological fantasy of the judiciary liberals on both sides of the Atlantic entertain) in a single term, and whose candidates comprise three of those voting with today’s leaked opinion. While the opinion frames itself as a democratic act that hands decision-making back to the representatives of the people, an outright majority of members of the US public polled consistently want Roe upheld.

The consequences of those campaigns aren’t confined to legislation. More than a third of independent or non-Planned Parenthood abortion clinics closed in the US in the eight years up to 2020, according to VICE. The Dobbs challenge was brought by the only healthcare clinic still providing abortion care in Mississippi, and five other states—Missouri, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia—are in the same boat. While Roe’s overturning would be a catastrophe, many in America already live without abortion access in any meaningful sense of the word.

And while all eyes have rightly been on the US since the Dobbs hearing began, the phenomenon isn’t confined there. The Open Democracy report notes that $28 million has been spent by anti-abortion groups funded by the NCF and Fidelity Charitable on campaigns around the world. In October 2020, Trump cosponsored the anti-abortion ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family’, which was signed by leaders from thirty-four countries including Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. In the same month, Poland banned abortion almost entirely. Even in England, the government attempted earlier this year to roll back the telemedical abortion that had been introduced during the pandemic, despite the evidence being vastly in its favour, apparently with little justification beyond a vague moralistic notion that having an abortion should be difficult.

In the ensuing campaign to protect telemedical abortion, many pointed out that the consequences of rollbacks of abortion rights invariably hurt working-class women the most. In both Britain and the US, poorer women are more likely to get abortions. They’re also less likely to be able to afford trips across state lines—let alone abroad—or the time off work and childcare needed to make them. This is why reproductive rights have historically been a key issue for socialists and trade unions, which have been at the forefront of the fight for abortion access in the twenty-first century: they’re a question of universal healthcare, equality, and workers’ rights.

In March, after the campaign, British MPs voted for a Lords amendment to the Health and Care Bill which overturned the ministers’ decision and made telemedical abortion in England permanent. But today’s news proves how easily future attempts to roll back abortion access—even in this relatively minor way—could turn out differently. We should be prepared for the changes coming down the line in the US to deepen a right-wing war on abortion rights that has already gone global—and as socialists, we should be raising our voices the loudest against it.