You are here

Abortion in the United States

Many are saddened and angry at the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization
case. As can be expected most of the anger has justifiably been directed on a principle of natural justice - the idea that a woman actually has control of her own body. Whilst this direction has broad appeal, because there is an intuitive sense that adults of adult reasoning do have an ontological command of themselves, it also does illustrate strength of Bentham's famous attack on assertions of "natural rights" as "Nonsense on Stilts"; it is ultimately the government that does determine what rights individuals have, positive and negative because "rights" exist as permissible social conduct. One may very well ask Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and John Roberts, whether they would agree to a "post-natal" abortion against their own body if it were legal to do so. Of course, if they would find such an arbitrary law a threat to their life, perhaps they would gain an inkling of how many women in the United States feel today.

Because for all practical purposes, the United States already has the worst level of maternal deaths among advanced economies. Overturning Roe vs Wade will inevitably make matters much worse, as some thirteen states had already enacted "trigger laws" to heavily restrict abortion rights when Roe vs Wade was overturned, which add on to existing laws for mandatory waiting period laws, mandatory ultrasound laws, mandatory counseling laws, and mandatory parental notification laws, all of which has significantly stronger enforcement following the Supreme Court decision, as it is not commonly understood that Roe vs Wade did not "make abortion legal" as Federal law, but rather that the Due Process of Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provided a right to privacy, which would therefore protect a woman's right to access abortion (e.g., through interstate travel). In the past states have attempted to circumvent this decision (e.g., Texas's statutes making it a crime to procure abortion).

The effects of the overturning of Roe vs Wade have quickly become evident. In Arizona, where abortions are now banned unless medically necessary to save a mother's life, Chloe Partridge is being forced to carry an unborn child whose medical condition is "incompatible with life", even though carrying the pregnancy to the full term could cause life-threatening complications. In Ohio, laws prohibit abortion after an embryonic cardiac activity is detectable (approximately six weeks into term), regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy. When it was revealed a ten-year-old girl who had been raped traveled from Ohio to Indiana, Jim Bopp, the general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, said that the girl should have been forced to bear the child. It should also be noted how Facebook gave Nebraska police data on how a 17-year-old was allegedly trying to procure an abortion.

Several states have never repealed their pre-Roe vs Wade abortion laws, including Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, even though they were not legally enforceable; but now they are. Several other states had trigger laws, designed to be enforced when Roe vs Wade was overturned; including Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. In Kentucky however, supposedly a conservative state, an attempt to prevent abortion rights from being removed from the state's constitution was overwhelmingly defeated. The result raises an interesting challenge for the Republican Party, which now faces a conflict greater than ever between the religious fundamentalists and those of either libertarian or even "individual rights" conservatives. The scene is thus set for a series of vicious campaigns across the aforementioned states. In response, President Biden released an Executive Order directing the Department of Health and Human Services, to "assure access to "the full range of reproductive health services", including "emergency contraception", within the birth control coverage of the Affordable Care Act.

It is important, in any political debate, to understand the arguments of one's opponents. The anti-abortion movement will often deem itself pro-life, or "right to life". A great deal of this has to do with a concept of personhood often with the claim that this begins at conception, a position which is particularly promoted in Catholicism. As this position is reliant on the notion of a personal soul acquired at conception it cannot be rationally debated and relies on violence to enforce its ideology; terrorist organisations such as Army of God can be included in this category, although it is usually individuals who engage in anti-abortion violence. An alternative, more rational view, attempts to argue from the perspective of fetal pain; according to best current knowledge, however, a fetus is unlikely to feel pain until after six months of pregnancy, most abortions occur under general anesthesia.

On the other side of the debate, the pro-choice position argues that regardless of matters of fetal pain or speculative claims of souls, or even personhood or individuation (that the fetus is an individual separate from the mother), or even future deprivation, is that self-regarding acts toward one's body are politically inviolable. This principled position is further backed by evidence that where abortions are restricted in law, the number of unintended pregnancies increases,s and, counterintuitively, so does the proportion of unintended pregnancies that are terminated with abortion. Others have noted a greater reduction in criminality where abortion is less restricted.

Ultimately the debate is over who should, as a matter of political rights, have control over a pregnant woman's body. For rights are not axiomatic on assertion; they have to be won socially, and every person who describes themselves as not interested in politics or apolitical, they will certainly encounter situations where their own position will depend on political decisions. Despite the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, it seems evident that as much as the US has a democracy even conservative regions respect the claim of individual self-governance and choice to a greater extent than even their own personal beliefs. From here the campaign to protect and expand reproductive control for women can succeed even if the political structure of state's rights over individual rights gives an advantage to the anti-abortion lobby.


We have also had from Ipsos a global poll on attitudes to abortion, which finds 45% of Australians believe abortion should be legal in all cases and 25% legal in most, compared with 6% for illegal in all cases and 9% for illegal in most. The respect combined results for the 27 countries surveyed were 30% and 29%, and 10% and 16% – Australians were roughly as liberal as those in most European countries except Sweden and France, and more so than Americans, Latin Americans and Asians.