Roe’s Ripples Continue to Stretch Far and Wide

Few will have missed the scenes of raw emotion in recent days after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a 1973 judgement that said the ‘right to privacy’ was constitutionally protected, meaning so was a woman’s right to abortion. Both within and outside America, people celebrated or mourned this seismic shift, depending on what they thought about this most thorny – and deeply personal – of issues.

That 1973 judgement, known throughout the world as ‘Roe vs Wade’, had for years been the hero and villain of the abortion-rights and anti-abortion movements respectively. Overturned, it has quickly come to represent the half-century in which all women across the United States were able to choose whether to halt the life of their unborn child.

In some U.S. States, women will still be able to choose, because the Supreme Court has essentially devolved the decision to the nation’s elected representatives, some of whom are ardently conservative and ‘pro-life’, others of whom are passionately liberal and ‘pro-choice’. But is it, in fact, a woman’s right to choose?

That is a key and controversial question thrown up by this week’s legal tornado, and a question each individual State must now answer. Put another way, at the very core of this issue of abortion is the question of whether the right to decide lies with the parents of the unborn child, or with the child itself. If it lies with the child, then they have a default right to life, and the mother has no right to the privacy needed to abort.

Amidst the noise and chants and banners, it can help to go back to basics to understand an argument.

For the most part, becoming pregnant and giving birth are joyous and welcome moments in a woman’s life. The overwhelming feeling of excitement and hopefulness when they find out that they are expecting has been written about, sung about, lauded, saluted, and celebrated for centuries. For many first-time mothers, it is one of the most amazing feelings that they will ever experience and it can often be the answer to a couple’s prayers. The fact that life passes on through them, through the woman’s body, is - to many religious and non-religious people - a miracle.

But…

For some women, that rose-tinted bluebird-singing image bears no resemblance to reality. What do we say to the women who did not plan on getting pregnant, who cannot give birth without having their life plans dissolve before their eyes, whose genuine reaction to the news is not one of joy and hope but of sadness and despair? For some women, pregnancy is not something to be lauded, saluted, or celebrated. It is the very worst thing that could have happened, at that time.

Moreover, what do we say to the woman filled with anxiety, fear, shock, disbelief, who feels she cannot cope, whose circumstances simply mean that things will fall apart once she has another mouth to feed, another soul to care for? Separately, what do we say to the woman who has become pregnant through an act of violence?

There is still a huge stigma around unwanted pregnancies, and much prejudice when a woman admits that she cannot – for whatever reason - bring her pregnancy to term. That stigma and that prejudice often result in feelings of desperation. To these women, gone is the image in their mind’s eye of the future they had mapped out, planned, strived for, hoped for. For them, here instead is an unwanted and ill-timed insertion that – with Roe overturned – they cannot avoid. 

Yet what, I wonder, of the feelings of the unborn child, this little soul that has – through no fault of its own - not been welcomed into the world by its parents? What issues will it have as a result of that, perhaps for the rest of its life? There are some who believe that a soul chooses its parents. Whether this is true or not we will never know, but regardless, what rights does an unborn baby have, and can their existence - or the ending of it - be decided by their mother or father? In other words, is being ‘unwelcome’ reason enough not to live? Do rights only begin at birth, or do they begin at inception? Does a foetus always deserve to see the world?

The American activist Norma McCorvey, better known by the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’ in the eponymous court case, became the plaintiff in one of the world’s most famous legal battles in 1969, while living in Texas and pregnant with her third. Court proceedings took so long that her child – a daughter by the name of Shelley Thornton – was born before the judgement. She was given up for adoption and years later McCorvey sought her out following a public appeal. 

Thornton’s reaction towards her mother was telling. “What, I’m supposed to thank you for getting knocked up and then giving me away?” she asked. “I would never, ever thank you for not aborting me.” In Joshua Prager’s ‘The Roe Family: An American Story,’ she recognises that “when someone is pregnant with a baby, and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted”.

For former First Lady Michelle Obama, the right to choose lies with the mother, because it is her body, and because the consequences of unwanted pregnancies forced to term can be devastating. Everyone, she said, “should be given the fundamental right to make informed decisions about their own bodies,” adding that it is “heart-breaking that women are forced to move forward with pregnancies they do not want, then abandon them once their babies are born”. 

On both sides, this then becomes an issue of legacy, of ‘having to deal with it’. This applies equally to the knowingly unwanted child as to the mother who ended her pregnancy. Moral discomfort, psychological distress, and/or feelings of regret and guilt, can resurface in later life.

With so many lives, so many ways of living, and so many sets of values and beliefs, it is tempting to simply judge each individual case on its own merits, because each family’s set of circumstances will be so vastly different. Yet from all this subjectivity, there is one universal truth: people seek to live their life in the best way that they can.

In an ideal world, every soul would be allowed to grow up in a healthy, welcomed, and loved environment, and there would be less judgement when such a scenario did not or could not come to pass. But as the campaigners on both sides of this argument have shown, there is not just one ‘ideal world’.