The United States Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, overturned the historic Roe Vs Wade and thus effectively ended women's Constitutional right to abortion after 50 years. This shift of power from one front to another questions the legitimacy of human rights, ethics and democracy in America. Let's take a look at the implications of this power move.
What is an abortion?
To begin with, let us first understand what an abortion really is.
An abortion is the removal or evacuation of an embryo or foetus that ultimately ends a pregnancy. Miscarriages, also known as 'spontaneous abortions' are abortions that take place naturally. These occur in 30% to 40% of pregnancies. An induced abortion on the other hand (or less often "induced miscarriage" or "unmodified abortion"), is the purposeful termination of a pregnancy.
Medical Care and Abortion
World Health Organizations' 2020 list of fundamental medical services include comprehensive abortion treatment. It is possible for a variety of healthcare professionals to treat abortions successfully, say with medication or surgery since it is not a highly invasive medical intervention. A medical abortion can also be fully self-managed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy by the expecting mother, either entirely or in part, away from a healthcare institution (such as at home).
This however requires women to have access to reliable information, high-quality medications, and assistance from a qualified healthcare professional (if she needs or wants it during the process). Unsafe abortions account for 4.7%–13.2% of the maternal mortality rates annually. In developed countries, for every 100,000 unsafe abortions performed there are 30 women who have known to be passed away. In underdeveloped countries, the figure rises to 220 fatalities for every 100,000 unsafe abortions. According to estimates from 2012, 7 million women worldwide annually require medical care for problems related to unsafe abortions (WHO).
Roe v. Wade
In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States passed a revolutionary judgement in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 case, declaring women to fundamentally have the right to abortions under the country's Constitution. The ruling invalidated a number of federal and state abortion regulations and reignited a nationwide discussion on moral and religious convictions in politics and abortion's overall permissibility. The ruling also influenced the discussion of the Supreme Court's constitutional review procedures.
Norma McCorvey, who filed the lawsuit using the legal alias "Jane Roe," found out that she was expecting her third child in 1969. McCorvey desired an abortion, but she resided in Texas, where it was against the law unless it was absolutely essential to save the mother's life. Her attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee booked a federal lawsuit on her behalf against the district attorney in her community, Henry Wade, claiming that Texas's abortion laws were illegal. A special three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas decided in her favour after hearing the case.
The Supreme Court heard the appeal from the parties over this decision. The Supreme Court ruled that the government's interests in safeguarding women's health must be weighed against the right of foetuses as they do not share an absolute right. By setting a timeline for each pregnancy trimester that would guide all abortion laws in the US, the Court was able to reconcile these conflicting interests. The right to an abortion was likewise deemed "basic" by the court to maintain the privacy of its citizens.
The historic Roe v. Wade ruling was reversed by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on June 24, 2022. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case was overturned by the court's conservative majority. In overturning Roe and giving state governments—rather than the people and their elected representatives—the power to control abortion, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the Constitution of the United States should not include the right to abortion. The court determined that neither the right to abortion nor a more comprehensive entrenched right to autonomy is profoundly ingrained in US history or culture.
Ethics of Abortion
Now that we understand what abortions fundamentally stand for let's look into the history and ethics of abortion.
Historically, abortions have been tied to herbal remedies, pointed objects, or vigorous massages. Around the world, there have been various abortion laws and cultural or religious perspectives on abortion. In certain places, abortion is only permitted under certain circumstances, such as rape, foetal deformities, extreme poverty, health risks to the mother, or incest. The moral, ethical, and legal implications of abortion are up for discussion. People who oppose abortion frequently assert that an embryo or foetus is a person with a right to life and as a result, they compare abortion to murder. Abortion advocates, on the other hand, make the case that it is a woman's right to make decisions regarding her own body and hence it should be a necessary public health intervention.
Many philosophers and advocates have actively reasoned on the ethics of abortion today. Mary Anne Warren, an American writer and philosophy professor, in her paper "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" (1973) argues that "unborn children are not people. All people have absolute moral rights, not just some. Because of this, a foetus does not have complete moral rights". She further argues that "whatever claim to live that may be acceptable to assign to a foetus, even a properly mature one, will always transcend a woman's right to maintain her health, joy, independence, and even her life, by terminating an unwelcome pregnancy". Thus, a pregnant woman has a moral right to an abortion.
Some critics like Michael Tooley further associate "personhood" with recognition of someone's right to life and thus open the doors to both infanticide and abortion debates. An infant or foetus lacks characteristics of personhood like possessing certain attitudes or beliefs about the environment around them. According to Tooley, the acquisition of a right to life begins with the attachment of personhood to the living being in question. This can be achieved when the being is individually capable of having the desire to live, be subject to experiences and other mental states and believe in themselves to be a continuing entity. Thus, abortion is considered ethically permissible.
Despite the trend toward changing laws to avoid harm, certain nations, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, continue to uphold harsh and discriminatory regulations that continue to outlaw abortion in almost all situations. The World Health Organization reports that 40% of reproductive-age women worldwide reside in nations with extremely tight abortion regulations or in nations where abortion is legal but neither accessible nor available. In these states, abortion is prohibited and authorised only under very severe conditions, or, even if legal, is not accessible because of several practical impediments.
Therefore, in the light of these comparative studies, one determines that there has been a harrowing gap between human rights and ethics and, politics. Attaining social and gender equality in any society requires it to have access to safe abortion and other medical and social interventions since they are intrinsically tied to defending and maintaining basic human rights.