The US supreme court has overturned Roe v Wade and, with it, nearly 50 years of women’s abortion rights in America.
The activism of the six ultraconservative justices – three of whom were appointed by former US president Donald Trump – shreds precedent in more ways than one. It is the first time in their history that Americans have woken up in the “land of the free” with fewer rights than they had the night before.
America is a society with political structures and dynamics that are not replicated elsewhere, yet shock waves from their supreme court’s radicalism are being felt around the world. Within the other liberal democratic states of the west, people aren’t waking to a loss of rights… but even in our faraway corner of the Pacific, we are reverberating with fresh and terrible fear.
That fear is not sparing our most powerful. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, responded to the news with a statement released to Facebook. “People are absolutely entitled to have deeply-held convictions on this issue,” she said, “But those beliefs should never rob another from making their own decisions. To see that principle now lost in the United States feels like a loss for women everywhere.”
New Zealand completed full criminalization of abortion in 2020. In Australia, where individual states legislate the issue, a decade of decriminalizing reform has even been enhanced by laws creating “safe access zones” around reproductive healthcare providers. These not only protect the legal, medical, and moral right of women to access reproductive healthcare, but their physical right to walk into clinics without abuse and bullying.
This has happened in both countries not because of activist lawmakers, but through relentless grassroots campaigning to represent overwhelming public demand.
Decriminalization was supported by 69.9% of New Zealanders – a higher proportion than even the final parliamentary vote. In Australia, support for abortion rights is even higher, with public backing at a staggeringly bipartisan 76%. The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was speaking for an Australian majority when he described what has happened in the US as “a setback for women and their right to control their own bodies and their lives”.
And yet for all this popular support, Katy Gallagher, Albanese’s minister for women, retained the same fearful tone as Ardern when she described the US events as “devastating”. She went as far as to instruct Australians “to remain vigilant because hard fought-for wins before our parliament can be taken away easily”.
Why the fear? Because what politicians understand better than anyone is the power of institutional capture. In America, also, most people support abortion rights; 60%, according to polls this week – including majorities in states with the most punitive anti-abortion laws. The exercise of power, even in a democracy, isn’t through a simple force of numbers – it’s about the channeling of the right force of numbers in the right place.
The anti-abortion cause in the US worked out long ago they didn’t need a popular majority to deliver their agenda. They just needed majorities in the places where the decision would be made.
It’s this revelation that terrifies – because the long, slow pace of abortion reform in New Zealand and Australia has had to navigate the disproportional presence of anti-abortionists in institutions of real power, causing obstruction and delay and deprioritisation of reform even when the weight of public opinion was with the other side. Even in progressive Australia, abortion still remains in Western Australia’s criminal code.
One hopes the American tragedy will spur the Western Australian government to realize the importance of immediate, unambiguous reform – as an act of solidarity, as well as an institutional example. Leftwing intellectuals once used to advise comrades to make the “long march through the institutions” to bring about social change, to shape the norms and forms that imprint the values of society. Turns out, it was the right who took their advice.
Could it happen here? America shows it can happen anywhere, when vigilance is lost, when numbers are channeled not towards power but towards shaming the powerful who feel no shame. No one who believes in the fundamental human rights of women in our country or others have any laurels to rest on now. Radical anti-abortion nuff-nuff MP Bernie Finn may have finally been ejected from the Victorian Liberal party for unhinged social media posts, but conservative LNP senator Matt Canavan remains. Canavan was posting anti-abortion tweets celebrating when the supreme court ruling was made, and he’s not alone in his opinions in his party.
One of the saddest realizations of this terrible moment is that Martin Luther King’s promise that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” has been denied. It is instead Julia Gillard’s 2013 speech warning of “an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better” that sticks in the mind today.
It is also Gillard who advised that there’s “a moment in every fight where you’ve got to choose whether you are daunted by it or energized”. The end of Roe in the US has shattered the illusion that the fight was ever over. The challenge now – for women everywhere – is to fight through our fear, and make our courage count.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism