“After today, young women will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had. The majority accomplishes that result without so much as considering how women have relied on the right to choose or what it means to take that right away.”
Dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
Until June 24, 2022, the right of women in the United States to decide whether to continue their pregnancy prior to viability was constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision by the United States Supreme Court. In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the right to liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes a right to privacy under which women may end a pregnancy before viability of the fetus. Roe v. Wade meant that states in the United States could not ban abortions before viability of the fetus.
In a grave setback to women’s rights, federal constitutional protection for the right to abortion—that existed in the United States for over fifty years—has now been removed. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ruling that that the decision was wrong to hold that the Constitution protects the right to abortion.
The impact of the decision for women in the United States will be devastating. The Center for Reproductive Rights anticipates that up to half of all states will move to ban abortions outright, leaving millions of people without access to care in their communities.
One in four women in the United States makes the decision to end a pregnancy in the course of her life. Evidence from jurisdictions around the world shows that legal prohibitions on abortion do not stop abortions. Bans on abortion in U.S. states will force people to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to access care or carry pregnancies against their will, a grave violation of their human rights. It will also force women to carry pregnancies in spite of health risks, leading to higher rates of maternal deaths and morbidities.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the Constitution’s liberty right does not protect the right to abortion relies on reasoning that subordinates the status of women. As emphasised by the three dissenting Supreme Court justices: “Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain; the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.”
Abortion in Pakistan is currently permitted to save the life of the mother and for ‘necessary treatment’ in the first 120 days of a pregnancy.
There is a genuine concern that the Dobbs ruling could pave the way for withdrawal of other rights previously recognised by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the right to contraception and the right to choose intimate partners.
This decision is in stark contrast to international human rights and the overwhelming global trend towards liberalisation of abortion laws. In the past 25 years, nearly 60 countries have liberalised their abortion laws. Earlier this year, a constitutional court in Colombia decriminalised abortion and in 2018, Ireland repealed a constitutional amendment that prohibited abortions. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Nepal declared that women have a fundamental right to access safe abortion services.
In Pakistan, the Penal Code was amended in 1997 to expand the exceptions to the criminal prohibition on abortion. Abortion in Pakistan is currently permitted to save the life of the mother and for ‘necessary treatment’ in the first 120 days of a pregnancy.
Anti-abortion lawmakers and organisations in the United States waged a long campaign against Roe v. Wade and are determined to further attack reproductive rights. Reproductive health, rights, and justice organisations are committed to making sure that this retrogression will not embolden anti-abortion lawmakers around the world to reverse the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls.
In the United States, human rights defenders will continue the fight for women’s right to health and their right to access abortion. They have already been advocating for federal legislation that protects the right to abortion throughout the country and improvements to state constitutions and laws.
The US Supreme Court decision should galvanise rights defenders and organisations around the world to fight for stronger legal guarantees and protections for the right of women to access abortions.