U.S. facing ‘summer of rage’ over abortion
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AMERICAN pro-choice advocates are promising a “Summer of Rage” in response to the leak of a draft Supreme Court decision that may overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark case that made women’s right to choose abortion legal in the United States. And why wouldn’t they? A constitutional right that women have enjoyed for almost 50 years is under serious threat.
The impact of this leaked decision is already spilling over into Canada. There are reasonable fears that anti-choice advocates and lawmakers here will be emboldened.
It is a basic democratic principle that citizens have a role in shaping the laws that will govern them. But clearly, in lawmaking, the voices of women are too often missing.
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the leaked decision that it’s time to return this issue to legislators, he is completely ignoring the history of the struggle to get abortion decriminalized in the first place. Challenging restrictive laws in the courts was often the only way to force change. Even in states where the majority of citizens support women’s right to choose, restrictive abortion laws get passed because there are not enough women and people who support reproductive justice elected to office.
Consider the state of Texas, where some of the most restrictive abortion laws have been passed — the vast majority of elected members are white men. Women make up only 27 per cent of the legislature, despite the population of Texas being 40 per cent Hispanic and 50 per cent women.
If we really want to know what the impact on American women will be, we need only look to other countries where restrictive abortion laws persist: Poland, El Salvador, and, until recently, Mexico, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In these states, women have had to travel to obtain a medical procedure that is, in many other places, legal and safe. Where there is no legal access to abortion, women have to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or risk their lives and health to take matters into their own hands.
American women seeking an abortion will have no choice but to seek abortion services in Canada and elsewhere. Cross-border abortion traffic is not a new phenomenon, but it is likely to intensify as access becomes more restricted under new state laws.
Around the world, if we want better, more equitable judicial decisions and better laws and policies, we need greater gender parity in our judicial and representative bodies. Only then will there be the critical mass necessary to get diverse women’s voices heard, and not just on abortion and reproductive justice.
Greater representation of women and gender-diverse people will increase the likelihood of developing better public policy all round. Even a lone woman or a few women at the table can have an impact.
Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister, tells the story of sitting at the cabinet table earlier in her political career, listening to male colleagues discuss the need for women to learn more about birth control so they wouldn’t need an abortion. She seized the moment and began to list the number of fraught and flawed birth-control methods she had had the misfortune of using in her time.
As minister of justice, Campbell brought forward the no-means-no sexual assault law that contained a new rape-shield provision (protecting women making a sexual assault allegation from interrogation about their sexual past). This law was far from popular and received a lot of public ridicule for the emphasis it placed on consent.
Another Canadian pioneer, Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman on the Supreme Court, made the vital link between a woman’s ability to choose whether or not to reproduce and her basic liberty and human dignity.
In the Mortgentaler decision that decriminalized abortion on the basis that aspects of the law violated a woman’s security of the person, Justice Wilson offered her own concurring judgement. She argued that not having reproductive choice makes a woman a means to an end which is not her own. This would make her subject to the control of the state, a passive recipient of a fundamental decision about her own body.
Justice Wilson asks, “Can we imagine anything that comports less with human dignity and respect?”
The Summer of Rage is rightly focused on abortion rights, given what is about to unfold in the United States. That rage should also be directed at the need for gender parity in all of our political institutions — in Canada, too.
Joanne H. Wright is a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick. Her research examines gender and politics and the history of women’s citizenship rights.