29 November 2020

Terry Conway (Islington North CLP) sounds the warning.

October 27th, 2020 was a bad day for civil liberties, LGBT, and women’s reproductive rights in the US. On that day Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died on September 18th, 2020, was confirmed as a Supreme Court judge.

During his presidency, therefore, Trump appointed three of the Supreme Court’s nine members, with Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh preceding Coney Barratt. Appointments are for life and judges are only replaced when they die or retire – so Trump and Senate Republicans seized a rare opportunity to tilt the balance rightwards.

The US Supreme Court has a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of working-class Americans than comparable judicial bodies elsewhere. The focus on the court’s make-up was even greater with speculation that it could rule as in 2000 on the outcome of the presidential election itself – so securing a conservative majority before 3rd November was critically important to Trump and his enablers. It has already reviewed cases on counting votes in some states and deadlines for mail-in votes.

The court also holds crucial power when it comes to abortion rights – a target for Trump and many of his supporters on the evangelical Christian right. Since his election, many states have accelerated their decades-long campaign to end abortion services by adopting a morass of restrictions and outright bans.

Between January 1st 2011 and July 1st 2019, individual states enacted 483 new abortion restrictions, amounting to nearly 40% of all the constraints imposed by states in the decades since 1973 and the Roe v Wade ruling. Some of the most common require:

» parental notification or consent for young women;

» limitations on use of public funding;

» mandatory counselling designed to dissuade individuals from obtaining an abortion;

» compulsory waiting periods before an abortion;

» and an array of burdensome regulations on facilities providing safe abortions, including making it practically impossible for doctors who come from other states to perform abortions.

A number of states for example have introduced what they call ‘fetal heartbeat laws’, which severely restrict access to abortion after six weeks gestation. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is very clear that term does not “reflect medical accuracy or clinical understanding”. According to Ted Anderson, the college’s president, “What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.” Another restriction is the Congressional Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act which has severely undermined the safest procedure for late-term abortions.

These types of gruesome, emotive and anti-scientific moves are familiar to campaigners for a woman’s right to choose across the globe. They seek to value a potential life against the reality of women’s actual lives – and may often result in desperate women dying from backstreet abortions.

Laws constructed on such a basis are exactly what the religious right – of all denominations – campaign for everywhere. But whether it’s antievolution nonsense or attacks on women’s reproductive rights, this current has played an increasingly significant role in US politics under the consciously antirationalist President Trump. Even more so, Coney Barratt’s refusal to accept the ruling of Griswold vs Connecticut, which enabled married couples to use contraception without government restriction, was very concerning.

There are already dozens of cases heading toward the Supreme Court. Some are test cases to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision or to render it meaningless by upholding laws that make abortion impossible to access.

In that famous case, the court ruled that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected under the US Constitution – but it has been under assault from forces that don’t support a woman’s right to control our bodies ever since. Most significantly, the 1976 Hyde amendment – which prevents the use of federal funds to pay for abortion unless there is a threat to the mother’s life or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape – has apparently forced one in four low-income women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term in some states. For those dependent on federal funds for their medical care this has made exercising their right to abortion extremely problematic. As pro-choice campaigners always point out, such restrictions do not prevent abortion – but they do force many women into the backstreets.

Developments in Poland – where abortion has been made illegal except in the most limited circumstances – and the appointment of Coney Barrett, emphasise that we need an international campaign to fight, under slogans such as Not the church, not the state, Women must decide our fate.

This article was written by Terry Conway and originally appeared on the Labour Briefing website.

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