A Democracy in Decay: A Further Look at Roe v Wade
© Photography by INJECTION - Sinead
Protestors responded with outrage to the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, marking a socio-political crisis in the US.
After almost half a century since its original ruling, Roe V. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court late this June, triggering bans and restrictions on abortion access across the US. The decision, which was leaked a month prior, comes at a time of increasing evangelical Christian conservatism in the US. It was met with harsh resistance as many immediately gathered in protest against the ruling.
Having attended the protest in New York City the day the overturning of Roe was announced, I marched alongside a crowd of thousands from Washington Square Park to the New York County Supreme Court. The anger was visceral among the individuals who came out in thousands, and their sentiments were clear.
What the Roe V. Wade overturning appeared to signify for its opponents was more than just a restriction on access to abortion. It represents the ramping up of state violence and disenfranchisement of bodily autonomy, explicitly targeted at those racially and economically marginalised. More so, the ruling brings to the surface an accelerating distrust in both the government and the democratic process as a whole. Unnervingly, these implications paint the picture of the present, somehow set back 50 years into the past while echoing the conditions of a dystopian future.
Though the right to abortion was deemed constitutional under Roe v Wade in 1976, the abortion debate has become a driving political ploy, splitting bi-partisan divisions and acting as fuel to the culture war, resulting in the law’s undoing. The defence of the overturning stems predominantly from two main arguments. Firstly, that abortion is unlawful under moral guidelines as it authorises the killing of human life - believed to exist at the moment of conception. Secondly, the right to abortion should not be held in the constitution but left to the authority of elected state governments.
For many at the protest, the ethics question becomes most prominent when access to abortion is restricted or denied. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 58% of women of reproductive age in the US live in states with laws hostile to abortion. Moreover, the country’s limited provision of universal healthcare places a large demographic of people seeking abortions in a precarious position.
As heavily expressed by protesters, the decision to overturn Roe will not prevent abortions from taking place but will only cease to increase the occurrence of unsafe and unregulated procedures. More than this, the protestors adamantly acknowledged this paradigm’s intersectional scope. This was summed up in the chant reverberating throughout the streets that evening: ‘abortion is a human right, not just for the rich and white.’ The ability to cross state lines and seek the care and resources of a safe abortion is cost-dependent, placing poor people, specifically black and brown people overrepresented in this economic class, at a higher disadvantage.
The language used in conversations on abortion was also a concern for the protestors. Many repeatedly stated that reserving the discussion to the category of ‘women’ excludes transgender men and non-binary identities, who are also able to become pregnant and thus may require abortions. Such a grievance aims to eradicate the erasure of experience and ultimately de-stigmatise discussions surrounding abortion for all groups of people. An effort to include identities often unacknowledged in the abortion debate allows for the understanding of Roe as a piece in the puzzle of a larger state attack on bodily autonomy.
The overturning of Roe arrives at a time of increasing legislation, particularly affecting transgender youth, with increasing restrictions on gender expression in schools being implemented across states. The increase in such restrictive legislation does not come as a shock to protestors. Echoing an America of the past, it’s almost an expected symptom of a kind of ‘moral panic.’ It’s an overblown narrative audible in both conservative and mainstream media outlets in which the predatory framing of trans people and those seeking abortions is somehow a result of a threatening ‘woke’ culture that aims to corrupt American ‘values.’ Thus, the overturning of Roe is facilitated by the illusion of social deviance and moral decline.
However, the presence of queer and trans activists was heavily felt at the protest, taking place the same week as Pride celebrations swept across the city. The intersection of concern for pro-abortion and LGBTQ+ activists alike exists in their refusal to be myopic about the situation at hand. The urgency in their outrage is underlined by the necessity to protect not only themselves, but future generations from enduring further disenfranchisement of their bodily rights. For both groups, the current role out of restrictive legislation paints a dark future ahead, but one not free from dispute. But whether this dispute comes through democracy or revolt is yet to be clearly deciphered.
© Photography by INJECTION - Sinead
Understanding the political climate prior to the overturning of Roe v Wade
Though abortion has not been outright banned constitutionally in America, 29 states will enact trigger laws that are hostile to abortion, 12 of which will implement outright bans.
Interstate solidarity was rampant at the protest in New York, one of 12 states with generally supportive legislation on reproductive rights. The crux of their anger directed fervently toward the failure of the democratic process as a whole, ‘abort the court’ features as a common slogan on protest signs and social media hashtags. As it stands, the democrats, winning the election in 2020, currently hold a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives, yet the decision of nine people in the republican-dominated Supreme Court trumps the electoral altogether. More so, those appointed to the supreme court hold their positions for life, creating a power play in which the current electoral is governed by a political cohort made up of appointees from past presidencies.
Such a conundrum is maybe best exemplified by anti-Roe Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Nominated under the Trump administration, Kavanaugh was put on trial for allegations of sexual assault however, after facing intense backlash and protest his position was ultimately kept in tact. Even the response of pro-abortion politicians has proven to be equally underwhelming with figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris urging those outraged to get out and vote, expressing her own dismay at the decision as if she was merely a helpless onlooker rather than a second in command to the entire political establishment. It seems that the dissonance between what is promised and what is received is on full display here. Undeniably, we exist in a climate where the link between active resistance and concrete effect lacks synchronicity, leading many to question whether it is worth participating in a system seemingly defunct and beyond reform. With this, the disillusionment with the political process appears to be unanimous amongst the protestors - what they want is a system that represents their interests, not one which betrays their votes.
But amidst their discontent, what to do next and how to do it are still questions elusive and unanswered. Many speakers addressed the crowd with the rhetoric of revolution - that the ruling only served to uphold the legacy of the US as a staunchly authoritarian power. References were made to anti-imperialist movements in South America and the history of reproductive regulation as a form of eugenics (one of the protestors even donned a Che Guevara-style hat).
The solution is, visionarily, to ‘burn the system down,’ and to build it anew.
Other more moderate speakers urged the crowd to ‘take it to the polls and if that doesn’t work, then to the streets,’ mirroring the sentiment of politicians and displaying what might be the last remnants of trust towards a democracy in decay. Does the split reflect the age-old debate, revolution or reform? Maybe, in the current state of the socio-political climate - where the will of the people is dwarfed exponentially by the power of the elite - a more potent question is: to what extent is either even possible, and if so, then how?
As the case in favour of Roe continues to develop, incidents such as the Kansas referendum pose examples of how the supreme court decision can be challenged and successfully overridden, notably through democratic means. Caught in a catch-22, those seeking to revoke the supreme court ruling must decide whether to participate in the system that legislated it. With the midterm elections approaching in November, abortion is at the forefront of the electoral psyche now more than ever. Perhaps, it is possible that this will create an opening in which voters can gain back control of their reproductive freedoms.
With each new detail and development, the current moment appears crucial, while the bigger picture cannot be ignored. In the shadow of the Supreme Court, and in their flexing of ‘absolute authority,’ there is a sense of powerlessness amongst people.
Still, the need to reinstate Roe V Wade by any means remains immediate in the minds of the protestors. Thus, a cloud of malaise hangs over a generation, one that entails a feeling of helplessness and hope. What the protestors know for sure is that they are angry, they are tired, and that something needs to change.
It’s often said that history repeats itself and the current moment in the US certainly feels like a cruel permutation of the past. But there is a visceral belief in the future, one in which reproductive freedom and human rights are accessible to everyone.