Supreme Court of the United States

Roe vs Wade and the Implications for Scotland

Nicola Biggerstaff – 30th June 2022

Last week, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) overturned their historic Roe v Wade ruling from 1973, which allowed for anyone seeking the termination of their pregnancy constitutional protection to do so under the 14th Amendment. The news has sent shockwaves across the globe, with respective feminist movements rightfully in uproar over the threat this poses to bodily autonomy and individual liberty. I find myself feeling utterly helpless and heartbroken for my American sisters. Banning abortion will have lethal consequences, and are such a nuanced issue that no one without medical expertise should be ruling on their use. Furthermore, we should be more aware now than ever of the implications of a wealthy western state taking on an anti-choice stance, and how this will embolden the political and religious anti-choice movements both globally and here in Scotland. 

Of the many reasons to be angry over the ruling, we can start with the timing of the decision. At a time when the previous President is on the cusp of being charged in relation to the January 6th riots at the Capitol, and just before the first appointed Justice of the Biden Administration, Ketanji Brown-Jackson, will take her seat on the Court, it seems to be a matter of urgency to strike down the legislation, a last hurrah of Trump-era governance, a final ‘screw you’ to the liberal left. The composition of the Court which decided to rule against adequate healthcare provision for their people should also be questioned. In a Court made up of six men and three women, and which voted 6-3 in favour of striking down Roe v Wade, five of these six votes came from men. One man voted against, one woman in favour. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump-era appointment whose rushed confirmation came just over a week before the 2020 Presidential Election, has previously publicly stated that a legal career should be ‘a means to an end of serving God’. Before the people she legislates over? Before her fellow women?

I’m left wondering if all my ranting in my university seminars about the lack of female representation in government was really worth it. Descriptive representation, the act of simply having a minority demographic in a position of power in the hope that they will automatically legislate in favour of issues pertaining to that demographic, simply does not work in certain circumstances such as these. Substantive representation, in which all views are represented equally regardless of demographic, were also at play in the Court, but not to the extent of successfully cracking down on the majority dissent. Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton-era appointee, should be applauded for his decision to uphold Roe, to listen to the needs of his people over a plight he could never fully understand. It’s a shame some of his colleagues couldn’t do the same. 

Organised religion has no place in a representative democracy, put in place to serve all, and not just those who follow said religion. Many have already begun their misguided comparisons between the recent ruling controlling women’s bodies and sharia law. This is an ignorant view, failing to recognise that wealthy, Christian fundamentalists are just as capable of oppression as their misguided interpretation of Islam. Furthermore, it ignores an important point: Sharia itself does not outright ban abortions, it is the interpretation of Sharia by the states which observe it that does. In fact, no religion does directly. The Christian belief that life begins at conception, the go-to dog-whistle of the US-Christian conservative, can coexist with the belief in bodily autonomy, that our bodies were created in God’s image, and that no legislature has the right to intervene in the relationship between the body and God; and free will, the ability to freely make these decisions pertaining to our bodies; concepts which are also laid out in the Bible. What is also missing from the religious arguments is perhaps the most fundamental purpose of religion in the first place: showing compassion for others in time of grave need or suffering. This gap in the religious arguments only polarises the debate further, with non-religious, pro-choice campaigners now mistakenly thinking that anyone whose morality is guided by their religion must be hateful and full of spite for those who make ‘immoral’ choices, which is simply untrue of the silent majority.

Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion, it means having the freedom to make your own choice in terms of your own healthcare, without infringing on the choices of others. In order to do this, all forms of healthcare should be available and accessible to all, including termination services. It also does not mean pro-murder, since the majority of terminations in Scotland occur when a foetus is not viable outside the womb, at around 81% at under nine weeks’ gestation, rising to 99% by 17 weeks. Terminations after 24 weeks can only be performed under extraordinary circumstances in the UK, such as in cases of sudden, severe illness threatening the life of the mother, or in a tragic late term miscarriage where the foetus is no longer viable outside the womb. Whether a pregnancy is planned or not, the decision to terminate is never taken lightly, and should not be interfered with by outside forces who think it is their business to intrude upon such an emotionally exhausting situation.

Furthermore, abortion is not just used for the termination of unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. It is a healthcare procedure, used for the treatment of, among other things: ectopic and septic pregnancy, miscarriage, and/or any negative physical and psychological impacts of pregnancy. Termination services will still be available in the US, but they will be unregulated and highly unsafe. Vulnerable people, some of whom will already be at risk as a result of any of these conditions, will be put at an even higher risk of complications, illness, and death from seeking so-called ‘back alley’ procedures out of desperation, in which the risk of infection or botched procedure skyrockets. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal death globally, attributed to up to 13.2% annually

Luckily, here in Scotland, without an official, written Constitution, the judiciary does not have the legislative powers to overrule current Scottish Government legislation out of the blue, legislation which currently makes abortion accessible through our NHS up to 24 weeks gestation, thanks to vague interpretations of law which allows for a termination in cases where the person’s wellbeing is at risk, but it is not wholly decriminalised. However, this does not mean services here do not cause controversy. Despite YouGov polling which shows that 85% of UK adults believe women should have the right to an abortion, Scotland’s anti-choice movement has been ramping up in recent years, causing pro-choice charities and organisations to counter by ramping up their own support to protect those seeking abortions in the country, such as supporting the introduction of legislation to provide buffer zones outside clinics and hospitals, which have become notorious hotspots for anti-choice protestors to harass vulnerable people seeking treatment and the healthcare workers who provide it. Particular attention over the past few weeks has been paid on social media to protestors outside the Sandyford clinic and the QEUH in Glasgow, as they have drawn significant numbers of protestors since the memo leak hinting at the Roe v Wade ruling a few weeks earlier. The Scottish Government working group on the matter have begun to see some success, having gained the support of the First Minister this week, who promised that the legislation brought forward by Green MSP Gillian Mackay, will receive Scottish Government backing. This will prevent the clinics from becoming a political battleground, like the images we see outside clinics across the pond, in which grievances are aired, and provide some basic protections for those seeking the services, who will already be in a vulnerable emotional state, from any further harm by having to witness it. 

However, American anti-choice influence runs deeper in Scotland than mutual sentiment. Funding to Scottish anti-choice organisations from fundamentalist Christian organisations in the US is once again proving that in Scottish politics, money talks. While many claims in the media remain unsubstantiated, it would not be wholly surprising from personal experience. The difficulties I ran into through my university days at the Feminist Society from anti-choice societies on campus causing distress to our own members was frightening. Using their freedoms of speech, religion, and expression, they were able to organise and spread their message on campus, and were open about the support they received from similar organisations in the US, even going as far as to travel to Washington DC to participate in rallies alongside them. However, it was equally encouraging to see other students standing up for our firmly pro-choice stance in opposing their campus activities. In this country, using our freedoms as our rights, also comes with responsibilities to use it wisely to prevent active harm. It may sound like snowflake talk, but we must be a little kinder to each other, a little more compassionate of our individual circumstances, and a little more respectful of our individual choices. 

These organisations will be further emboldened still by Scottish politicians who also hold anti-choice views, some of whom are in government. At Westminster, when voting on expanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland during the shutdown of Stormont, 100 MPs voted against the motion, including two SNP MPs. In Holyrood, some SNP MSPs have been speaking in recent days in light of the news from the states. John Mason, MSP and man, called the decision ‘pretty positive’ and is now using it to call for a reduction to the 24-week limit in Scotland. The decision clearly has global ramifications, with the US leading by example to encourage those who would rather we had no voice, would rather we be reduced to mothers with no agency. No longer. Never again.

So, what can we do? To support those in the US who face having their fundamental rights to adequate healthcare taken away from them, you can consider donating to such organisations as the ACLU or Planned Parenthood if you have the means to do so. Continuing to spread the word on social media is also important, seeing the international condemnation of the actions of the Court should empower the federal government to act. Here in Scotland, donating to local charities such as the ARCS and Back Off Scotland if you have the means will support the fight to keep Scotland a pro-choice nation and support extensive buffer zone campaigning respectively. You can write to your local MSPs and councillors asking them to support the expanded protections for healthcare providers and vulnerable people in this country by supporting legislated buffer zones. Furthermore, we should ensure that the anti-choice movement has no place in our political system. Speak up against anti-choice politicians, find out if your representatives are among them, and vote, vote, vote. Not sure where to start? Sign up to our Campaign Centre for courses and tips from us and our volunteers on how to effectively campaign for change, and make the connections with campaigns and campaigners in your local area.

Fighting to ban a medical procedure will endanger our nation’s health, and once again, politicians have no right to decide whether they should be used. Common Weal have never felt the need to take a stance on this issue before, with us being so privileged in this country that we believed full access to reproductive healthcare services in an independent Scotland would be a given. However, we clearly have a lot of work to do to ensure that our healthcare is fair, robust, and accessible to all, without fear of intimidation for using it from our own. Deep down, we all want what is best for each other. 

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