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Moves to overturn Roe v Wade shows women’s rights must never be taken for granted

4 min read

Once over my disbelief, then anger, at reports indicating the United States Supreme Court is on the cusp of removing women’s right to access safe, legal abortion, I drew three lessons from the move.

Firstly, that the UK and US are more than an ocean apart. Whatever one’s views on abortion, it is inconceivable for us that, as with guns, this issue could become the major political determinant of voting in the next presidential election.

Secondly, that women’s rights – hard won – can never be taken for granted.  Whether over safe spaces, employment opportunities, fairness at work or in the courts, the need to both protect and enlarge life chances for women must remain our objective. Forcing a woman to carry a child she can’t support undermines her most basic human right, viewing her as a womb of convenience rather than a full person in society.

Three men in their 80s are deciding the future of women in their 20s

Thirdly, and of importance this side of the pond too, is the role of the law in democracy. Americans talk about the separation of powers, but in fact it is political appointments to their Supreme Court who decide these great issues of freedom and human rights. They may not be directly elected, but have no doubt that it is their political beliefs, not jurisprudent expertise, that guides their decisions on such issues.

There is an unhealthy composition of the court. Judges are appointed for life, so currently there are three men in their 80s deciding the future of women in their 20s. Supreme Court justices tend to remain in office until a President of their persuasion is in the White House to nominate a successor or, alternatively, they may choose to resign at the point in which an incumbent and docile Senate will ensure the right political successor.

The independence of judges and lawyers are vital for all democracies, including our own. Over Brexit we saw them described as “enemies of the people”, and now we see The Mail alleging that the government’s plan to send asylum claimants to Rwanda is “at risk from left wing lawyers”. No. It may be at risk of being against the law, but it is not left wing nor right wing lawyers who would argue that if true. It is the job of independent lawyers to uphold the rule of law and ensure our ministers do too.

Our law is not made in the courts, though its enforcement takes place there. In contrast, and as is the case with abortion in the States, the law there is decided by justices – not elected politicians. Whatever side of the argument one takes on abortion, assisted dying or any contentious issue, it is only right that elected politicians, answerable to the people in whose names they act, take such decisions. 

In the case of abortion, women surely have a special right to be heard. The idea that, in the States, the penalty for aborting an embryo conceived by rape is higher than the penalty for the act of rape must offend us all. 

Women do not easily opt for an abortion, but they know intimately what it means to carry a child for nine months and the impact this will have on their life – and on their other children – for the coming decades.

Mothers are capable of such great love, of giving devotion to a child, that no-one without a deep empathy for that can determine what is right or wrong for any woman, her health, and the wellbeing of the unborn child. 

As I look to America, I wonder how – with the conflict, poverty, starvation and killing in warzones of born and unborn children – the most important question to ask their highest court of the land is whether women unable to carry an embryo to term may legally have an abortion. 

Given the high maternal morbidity among the poorest in the States, especially for BAME women, perhaps law makers should turn instead to the state of the nation’s health care, and bring justice to the babies yet to be born.


Baroness Hayter is a Labour peer.

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