The US war on reproductive rights should concern women everywhere

Women in the UK and across Europe will also suffer as a result of the political and legal gains being made by the anti-choice movement in the US.

US abortion protest
Women's March activists hold signs outside the White House in the wake of the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision in Washington, DC, US, July 9, 2022. [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

In the United States, women’s reproductive rights, gained through half a century of feminist struggle, are rapidly being replaced with reproductive wrongs.

In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 ruling that gave women the constitutional right to abortion. Since then, in 28 states access to abortion has been restricted depending on gestational age, with bans ranging from six weeks to more than 24 weeks. Abortion is almost completely banned with limited exceptions in another 14 states. In Idaho, for example, abortion is allowed only in cases of rape or incest that have been reported to police, or where necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman. A similar ban is in force in Indiana, while in Kentucky and Louisiana, it is banned except in the case of a medical emergency or if the pregnancy is “medically futile”.

There are also efforts to establish not only the rights of foetuses but even those of embryos frozen in labs as superior to the rights of women.

Just last month, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos have the same rights as children under state law. The perplexing decision was issued in relation to a “wrongful death” claim made by three couples whose frozen embryos were accidentally destroyed at a fertility clinic.

Judges, citing verses from the Bible, ruled that a 1872 state law called “the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act” that allows for parents of deceased children to seek punitive damages where “the death of a minor child is caused by the wrongful act, omission, or negligence of any person” could be applied to “all unborn children, regardless of their location”. The ruling will have overreaching implications on the legality in the state of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), which is problematic in itself as it feeds the surrogacy trade. More importantly, however, this ruling has wide-reaching implications for women’s bodily autonomy. It implies that any man who impregnates a woman – even through rape – could sue that woman under the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act for seeking an abortion at any point in gestation.

This blatant war on women’s reproductive rights and bodily anatomy in the US should concern not only Americans but also feminists in Europe, and especially those of us in the UK. This is not only because we should expose and challenge threats to women’s rights wherever they appear, but also because the cultural norms and political perspectives gaining traction in the US will have a significant effect on British politics, and consequently rights and wellbeing of British women and girls.

Indeed, in the past few decades, as the anti-abortion movement started to make legal and political gains in the US, we have started to witness a similar trend in the UK.

Since 2015, the Pro-life All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been working to dial back abortion rights across the UK. For the past four years, the country’s leading anti-abortion charity, Right To Life UK, has served as the Secretariat of this cross-party group.  In 2021, as feminists were campaigning to fully decriminalise abortion, this same charity ran adverts calling on supporters to prevent Parliament from introducing “extreme” laws that would “introduce abortion, for any reason, up to birth”.

Since October 2022, Maria Caulfield, the Conservative MP for Lewes, has been serving as the Parliamentary undersecretary of state for women, as well as for mental health and women’s health strategy. Caulfield supports cutting the abortion time limit and voted against buffer zones outside abortion clinics. She is vice chair of the Pro-Life APPG, and has voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland.

The very fact that such an open and proud opponent of abortion rights was appointed minister for women is horrifying in and of itself, because it communicates the government’s sympathy towards efforts to restrict British women’s rights and freedoms.

Caulfield has called the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in Great Britain on certain grounds by registered practitioners, “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world”. But this is untrue; Britain has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world, and is still sending women to prison over “illegal” abortions.

Indeed, as recently as in June 2023, a woman in Britain was sentenced to 28 months in prison for having an abortion after the legal limit of 24 weeks gestation during a COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Following an appeal, her sentence was reduced to 14 months and suspended – but the case was a clear warning to all women that this could also happen to them.

Feminist campaigners are now demanding an overhaul of the out-of-date laws the 44-year-old mother of three was sentenced under. These laws date back to the1861 Offences Against the Person Act, under which all abortions were criminalised – except those undertaken to save the mother’s life, a caveat introduced in 1929. The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortions with an authorised provider, but this was a mere amendment to the 1861 act, which was never repealed. Thus, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy remains illegal in the UK unless certain conditions are met.

The Abortion Act originally allowed terminations up to 28 weeks, though this was reduced to 24 weeks, the point after which the foetus is accepted as viable outside the womb, in 1991. Today, a woman in the UK may be allowed to abort after 24 weeks only if her life is at risk, or the child she is carrying would be born with a severe disability. Crimes under the Offences Against The Person Act carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Prosecutions are rare, but according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in England and Wales, 67 women were tried for “procuring an illegal abortion” between 2012 and 2022.

While the overturning of Roe v Wade did not directly affect UK abortion law, it certainly emboldened anti-choice campaigners, many of whom have joined forces with their US counterparts to pedal propaganda to the public. We have also witnessed an increase in anti-abortion activism outside some abortion clinics. I think this is because, after the largest democracy on the planet abandoned federal abortion rights protections, many anti-abortion activists here started to feel more optimistic about their chances of effecting change in the UK.

Many battles remain to be won in the UK, before we can claim to be on the side of women’s reproductive health and choices. Until very recently, abortion was only permitted in Northern Ireland in the most exceptional of circumstances. And even though it is, in theory, now permitted, the Department of Health regularly refuses to commission abortion services, leaving many women still having to travel to England to exercise their reproductive rights. This problem is not limited to Northern Ireland either – according to pro-choice group Back off Scotland, many women there are forced to travel to England for second-trimester abortions, between weeks 13 to 26, because no health board in Scotland actually provides abortion care up to the legal limit of 24 weeks. Between 2019 and 2022, a minimum of 170 Scottish abortion clients were referred by their doctors to travel to England for an abortion.

Women seeking to access legal abortion in the UK face bureaucratic nightmares, and loud, very active anti-abortionists keep a constant buzz of anti-choice rhetoric alive in the narrative.

This is why, when Roe v Wade was overturned, many in the UK reacted with rage. And this is why, we are watching the constant backpedaling of reproductive rights there with fear and concern. We do, of course, support our sisters in the US in their fight to protect their rights, but we also know that what happens there will have consequences for us in the UK.

The US presidential election in November will be one where abortion rights is at the top of the agenda. That election will decide whether American women will face further attacks on their hard-earned reproductive rights, or have the opportunity to work with an administration that is committed to try and repair the damage done by the reversal of Roe v Wade. Whatever the result of that election, however, women in countries around the world, including those of us in the UK, will continue to suffer from the ripple-down effects of the US Supreme Court’s fateful decision not to afford constitutional protections to abortion rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.