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On a sinking Roe boat

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Published on 28 June 2022

Abortion laws
Abortion laws

50 years of legal precedent has been overturned in the USA by the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse its original opinion that women have a constitutional right to an abortion. 

Here Dr Kat Langley, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sunderland, discusses how the decision may be the thin edge of an eroding human rights edge 


So, the United States Supreme Court has overturned the landmark Roe v Wade case, which granted women in the US the right to terminate a pregnancy.  

The decision in Roe v Wade has been law for nearly 50 years and has been a bedrock of abortion rights in the USA.  

It is very unusual for the Supreme Court to reverse their position, particularly on such a divisive issue. The extraordinarily unusual move will allow more than half of states to ban abortion, with an immediate and enduring impact on tens of millions of Americans. 

As a result of the ruling in a case called Dobbs, individual states will be allowed to ban or strictly limit abortions.  

Many American women, like women in most of the UK - not Northern Ireland - are used to life with access to abortion and pro-choice health services.  

The landscape of choice, personal autonomy and liberty has been significantly eroded in many US states with immediate effect. In some of the strictest pro-life states, the law will be harsher than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan which both allow abortion if it will protect the health of the mother.  

Whilst there are some democratic states where abortion will be permitted, and there is the possibility of a federal law which limits the impact of this decision, this is very dark turn for women’s rights, reproductive rights and human rights in general. 

Sadly, this erosion of rights is not something which is new or surprising in the USA. Many will remember the protests against police brutality, and for Black Lives Matter as a result of the death of George Floyd in 2020.  

George Floyd's death sparked protest marches in countries around the world, including the UK. Many of the protesters marched as part of the Black Lives Matter movement - a decentralised global network that campaigns for justice, equality and an end to racism. 

The outcome of the Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case this week, is just as wide reaching as the Black Lives Matter movement. The impact of what is happening in the US may feel a long way from the UK, however, there are ripples and waves of eroding rights clearly visible in UK politics.  

The Conservative government has long been aiming for a new Bill of Rights as part of their election manifestos in 2010. Boris Johnson also promised reform in his party’s 2019 manifesto, where he pledged to update the act to ensure “proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”. 

The British Bill of Rights placed before Parliament this week would see the end of the Human Rights Act, including a significant reduction of the influence of the European Court of Human Rights.  

The UK Government are trying to ‘sell’ this bill as a restatement of national sovereignty, something which seemed to help with gaining Brexit votes. The notion of ‘restating sovereignty’ feels like a step back to a time of King above all else, and where individual rights were unsupported and overlooked.  

Activists and leading lawyers have called out the Bill, saying the government was systematically eroding people’s rights to make itself “untouchable” by the courts. 

Whilst the British Bill of Right is not yet law, there have been a few recent changes in UK legislation and policy which impact individual rights in a similar way to the Dobbs decision. Notably, the assent of the Borders and Nationality Act which will see rights of asylum seekers,and vulnerable refugees limited. Further, the withdrawal of social security support, and the limitation on rights of peaceful assembly. 

These movements have a significant racial and religious undertone in a move which is more Gilead than governance.  

Those of us watching the developments in the US should be rightly concerned, but more concerned about the gradual undermining of our own well established, and hard fought for human rights. Seemingly we might all be in a sinking Roe boat.