You wait decades for landmark reforms in America and then, like culture-war buses, two come along at once. Earlier this week, the Senate passed a gun control bill – the most significant firearm control legislation in US history. Now, the Supreme Court has voted 6-3 to overturn Roe v. Wade – as everyone expected since Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion was leaked on 2 May.
'The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives,' a syllabus of the opinion said.
There will be lots of anger all over the world – on social media and the streets. Attacks on offices tied to the Republican National Committee, GOP lawmakers, and pro-life groups have been going for weeks and will now intensify. Supreme Court Justices will receive more death threats. People are willing to kill for their right to abort.
'We should be concerned,' says Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican. 'Democrats here need to come out and speak against the violence.'
We’ll have to wait and see: the Democrats don’t have a great record at denouncing violence they regard as righteous. Remember how long it took senior figures in the Democratic party to speak out against the looting that took place during the Black Lives Matter riots?
Barack Obama has tweeted that the news is ‘devastating’ – and underneath the rather-too-public expressions of grief for women’s rights you can sense a certain excitement among political types that the religious right has gone too far this time. The hope among Democrats is that a massive backlash against the overturning of Roe will help them in the mid-terms and ‘change the narrative’ in their favour after months of terrible polling.
But the issue might not shake out in the way that American progressives hope. The truth is that abortion hasn’t been ‘banned’ in America. The issue has been returned to states, as Alito says in his ruling, ‘it is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.’ Yes, the ruling clears the way for more conservatives states to outlaw or severely restrict access to abortion. But Roe was always a badly argued ruling, even if it has now been established for half a century, as many pro-abortion legal scholars accept.
As with guns, it’s possible that politicians in Congress will now reach a legislative compromise that restricts abortions but doesn’t ban them. In Mississippi, following today’s ruling, most abortions will be illegal after 15 weeks – roughly in line with most European nations. A significant majority of Americans do favour abortion rights, however polling on term limits and the actual implications of Roe is more muddling.
Then again, when moral issues are not seen by politicians as matters of conscience but as occasions for ‘firing up the base’ – compromise seems unlikely.