Abortion Rights: What Is Roe V Wade And Why Does It Matter?

New leaked documents suggest the US Supreme Court may soon remove a person's right to have an abortion.

Leaked documents caused an international uproar on Monday night, as they suggested the Supreme Court plans to remove the national law protecting the right to have an abortion in the US.

The landmark ruling, known as the Roe vs Wade case, was first established in 1973 and legalised abortion for the whole country.

If the Supreme Court does strike this ruling down, America’s reproductive rights will be taken back to the 20th Century.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Roe v Wade?

The ruling guarantees the federal constitutional protection of abortion rights. This means states could not ban abortion.

So, since 1973, all women in the US have enjoyed the absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of their pregnancy.

Abortion is partially permitted in the second trimester too, up to the point when the fetus could survive outside the womb – this is usually between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Why is it in the news now?

POLITICO obtained a leaked an initial draft majority opinion – labelled “1st Draft” – from the US Supreme Court on Monday night about Roe v Wade.

If the document is accurate, it suggests Justice Samuel Alito wants to pull apart the federal constitutional protection of abortion rights, and that he has the majority backing from his peers on the US Supreme Court.

This means 36 million people women could lose abortion access, according to Planned Parenthood organisation.

In the document, Alito wrote: “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences.

“And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe [has] enflamed debate and deepened division.”

He claimed that the “Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision”, adding: “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

According to POLITICO, four of the other Republican-appointed justices voted with Alito back in December when Mississippi first called for the case to be overturned and for abortions to be banned after just 15 weeks.

This means five out of the nine justices in the Supreme Court supposedly back removing Roe v Wade now.

Protesters in Washington DC pushing to protect Roe v Wade this week
Protesters in Washington DC pushing to protect Roe v Wade this week
Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

What could the ruling mean?

Abortion could become illegal in 22 states if the landmark case is dropped, as individual states could regulate the laws around abortion instead.

There are already 13 states which have passed “trigger laws” – meaning they would automatically ban abortion if the law is overruled in the coming months – while other states are expected to act only once Roe v Wade has definitely been dropped.

It would not necessarily become illegal in all states.

As California governor Gavin Newsom tweeted: “We can’t trust [the Supreme Court] to protect the right to abortion so we’ll do it ourselves.”

However, there’s no doubt that it would have a substantial impact on the attitude towards abortion rights in the US, and beyond.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a joint statement with fellow leading Democrat Chuck Schumer that if accurate, the court was “poised to inflict the greatest restriction of rights in the past 50 years”.

Protests have already begun

The leak triggered passionate demonstrations from pro-choice activists on Tuesday, as crowds called on the Democrats in Congress to protect abortion rights.

There are concerns that abortions will still happen, even if Roe vs Wade is overturned, but they will not be legal – and so will be unsafe.

While it would be possible for people to travel to states where abortions are still legal, not everyone can afford such a trip, meaning the ruling would affect the poor the most.

Taking away the autonomy for people to decide what happens to their bodies is yet another pressing concern, while such a ruling from the Supreme Court may embolden anti-abortion activists all over the world, too.

This wasn’t out of the blue

The clamour against reproductive rights in the US has been growing in the last few years.

It really began to pick up pace when Donald Trump appointed three right-leaning people to the Supreme Court during his time in the White Office, making it more conservative than it has been in its entire history.

Calls to restrict abortion in Republican states, most recently Oklahoma, have simultaneously been mounting.

In 2021 alone, close to 600 abortion restrictions were brought in across the country. Of these, 90 were enacted into law. According to the BBC, that “is more than in any year” since the Roe ruling.

However, just because it was clear this was where the legislation was heading doesn’t make it any less shocking.

Here’s a round-up of how some UK-based commentators feel about the leak:

What will happen next?

It is not apparent if the document represents the final opinion and justices have changed their minds in the past.

The Supreme Court justices are expected to make a decision in late June or early July around the case.

Six of the nine justices who currently sit on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republican presidents. The court only needs a majority to come to a decision.

At the moment, five of the Republican appointed justices have backed the move to remove Roe vs Wade, while the three Democrat-appointed are opposing it.

Only Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts’ vote is unclear at the moment.

The Supreme Court and the White House have not yet commented.

The leak itself is also alarming, because the Supreme Court is the most secretive of Washington’s establishments and so trust among justices – and staff – may now be significantly weakened.

How could this impact the UK?

No.10 has already slapped down any claims that it will reconsider abortion rights here in the UK.

On Tuesday, prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the decision was “a matter for the US courts”, but added: “The UK fully supports women’s reproductive rights globally and including the right to access safe and legal abortion.”

However, there are usually concerns that the similarities between UK and US culture mean they can influence each other more than people realise.

As leader of the Women’s Equality Party Mandu Reid told HuffPost UK, the news is “chilling”.

She continued: “It is an outright assault on the rights of American women, threatening to deny 50% of the population their bodily autonomy.

“It has ominous consequences for women everywhere and is a reflection of the global backlash against reproductive rights.”

Reid also pointed out: “Make no mistake, abortion access is not watertight in the UK, and has been under threat for years, as we’ve seen with recent threats to at-home abortions, the requirement for two doctors to sign off on an abortion, and the fact that it is still not a legal right.”


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