If Roe v Wade is overturned, as a leaked draft of a potential majority opinion would suggest, it will be an immense legal victory for the pro-life movement. It will also be a moment of great danger. Rolling back Roe v Wade has been the holy grail ever since the US supreme court legalised abortion in 1973.
Sometimes, when you get to what you thought was the end point, it turns out to be no such thing. Daniel Geary, a professor of American history at TCD, made the point recently that if Roe v Wade is overturned, it will lead to a "revitalised women's rights movement".
While I might demur at it being described as a women’s rights movement, given how many women are abortion abolitionists, Geary is right that abortion is not ultimately about laws.
People change their minds about abortion through hearing stories, or through experience. What people who oppose abortion want is a culture where abortion becomes unthinkable.
This is how change has come about on so many important issues. Slavery was eventually abolished because the humanity of enslaved people became irrefutable. It became unthinkable to suggest that a person’s rights depended on the colour of his or her skin.
Tragically, slavery still exists in many different forms but the cultural shift brought about by persistent advocacy means that for most people, it is inexplicable how it could ever have been seen as a right that you could buy and exploit another human being.
In slavery, however, unlike abortion, there is a clear oppressor and oppressed. When it comes to abortion, despite many fruitless attempts to normalise it, most women still choose it because it is the least bad option of a terrible set of options.
The US in particular has a very weak social protection net. The American Journal of Public Health published research in 2017 showing there had been a steady decline in abortions between 2008 and 2014, including in lower-income groups.
Nonetheless, women with family incomes less than 100 per cent of the federal poverty level accounted for almost half of all abortions in 2014 and had the highest abortion rate. Women of colour are also over-represented.
Anyone who is serious about opposing abortion also has to commit to personal sacrifices to enable others to have decent lives
Black women are 13 per cent of the US population but have one-third of all abortions. The BBC cited Dr Antonia Biggs of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health who says: “Structural inequities – including living on low incomes and limited access to health insurance – all contribute to the higher rates of abortions among people of colour.”
Conversely, women in the highest income groups had the lowest abortion rates. Women will continue to have abortions until there is a reasonable security net that allows them to have a real choice. (Some women would continue to have abortions simply as a choice, for sure, but the abortion rate would drop dramatically if it were only this group.)
Shunts the problem
Abortion does not solve poverty or structural inequities. It simply shunts the problem on to the individual woman and her family, and offers her a medicalised so-called solution that involves taking a human life.
But neither do legal abortion bans solve structural inequities. Anyone who is serious about opposing abortion also has to commit to personal sacrifices to enable others to have decent lives, the kind of lives that allow you to choose not to have an abortion. If we truly oppose violent solutions to crisis pregnancies, we have to offer non-violent solutions.
In a deeply unequal society such as the US, trying to achieve greater economic and social equality will be an epic battle, which will make trying to achieve the momentum to overturn Roe v Wade look like a walk in the park.
Abortion has profound ethical and philosophical dimensions. Who do we include in and exclude from our common humanity? How deeply do we value bearing children?
It is not that Roe v Wade was good law in the first place. Geary politely says the decision rests on “tenuous legal reasoning”. Justice Samuel Alito’s draft judgment is surprisingly readable, and he comprehensively shows that until the latter half of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. So how could such a right lie hidden therein?
Nonetheless, while returning the decision on abortion to the individual states will be better law, it is less than half the battle.
Abortion has profound ethical and philosophical dimensions. Who do we include in and exclude from our common humanity? How deeply do we value bearing children? Is the capitalist, consumerist exaltation of choice really the ultimate value on which we want to base our decisions about life and death?
If we truly had a woman-friendly culture, becoming pregnant unexpectedly would not be seen as some kind of career-ending disaster for better-off women, and a push off a cliff for women who are poor.
Many pro-life people are already involved in providing practical supports. They are telling the stories that our culture currently does not want to hear about the hurt and damage done to women by abortion.
Whether or not leaking the draft opinion achieves its presumed objective of preventing the overturning of Roe v Wade, the need for real, practical, sustained action, the kind of advocacy and sacrifice that has sustained every movement for justice throughout human history, will remain.