Abortion and the Supreme Court: How the religious right uses abortion to dictate morality
Abortion rights activists rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by Robin Bravender, States Newsroom.
Abortion positivity is more essential now than ever as the fight over abortion access in the U.S. reaches an inflection point. On Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the 2018 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case out of Mississippi, a case that will determine the future of legal abortion access in our country.
If allowed to take effect, the state of Mississippi would ban abortions after 15 weeks gestation, about two months earlier than the point of viability established in landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973. This would set a 15-week precedent for abortion access in many conservative-led states where access to abortion care is already tenuous to unnecessary and cruel abortion restrictions, including in Ohio.
More concerning, it is possible the conservative-leaning court could overturn the Roe decision, upsetting almost fifty years of precedent that has consequences beyond abortion, including privacy rights and health care decisions.
Overturning Roe would be a win for anti-abortion advocates. Their movement has long been chipping away at abortion access in the states and the courts, with efforts rooted in the ultimate goal of restricting bodily autonomy, using religious doctrine to dictate morality, and controlling others’ reproductive decisions. Anti-abortion groups have organized against reproductive freedom since before Roe v. Wade.
Conservative white women, especially, established crisis pregnancy centers that discouraged abortion as early as the 1960s and mobilized against contraceptives. However, it was not until anti-abortion organizers’ constructed ‘post-abortion syndrome’ that abortion started to be viewed as a moral issue, thinking that still infects the Supreme Court and national discourse from anti-abortion advocates today.
In featuring anti-abortion physicians in marketing materials, organizations like American Citizens Concerned for Life constructed abortion as a harmful procedure. Next, anti-abortion organizations encouraged women who had abortions and regretted it to speak about their experiences at meetings and through newsletters. False narratives that abortion was harmful mentally, physically, and emotionally became ‘post-abortion syndrome’ and were coupled with the rising political power of the anti-abortion movement in the 1970s and 80s.
The marketing campaign was so effective that even mainstream pro-choice movements adopted language like ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to describe abortion. From this point on, abortion was warped from a safe and routine health care procedure to be incorrectly viewed as reflective of morality.
Turning to the present-day Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor put it best when she asserted that Mississippi was only pushing forward their unconstitutional law “because we have new justices” on the court. After blocking President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 supposedly because it was an election year, a Republican-controlled Congress rammed through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in 2020, also an election year. In total, President Donald Trump appointed three justices with anti-abortion records: no accident. The anti-abortion movement and the Republican Party have waged an assault on reproductive freedom for decades at the state level, and now the court appears favorable to their extremism.
States in the South and Midwest, including Ohio, have faced continued assaults on abortion access from conservative, anti-abortion lawmakers. Ohio’s current restrictions include laws that dictate who can perform an abortion, when they can be performed, what procedures are allowed, a mandatory waiting period, and parental consent laws. Unconstitutional restrictions like a six-week ban on abortion gained national attention in Ohio. However, the bill is held up in the courts.
Three bills would further restrict abortion access in the current legislative session. Senate Bill 123 is a ‘trigger ban’ that would immediately outlaw abortion if the court overturned Roe v. Wade.
The second piece of legislation, Senate Bill 157, which has been passed and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, requires providers to medically intervene and transport a fetus to the hospital if alive after a pregnancy loss, interfering between a doctor and patient. Failing to do so, even against the family’s wishes, would result in a felony charge. An amendment also forbids abortion clinics from working with doctors who teach at state-funded hospitals and medical schools. The new law also looks likely to close the only clinics in Cincinnati and Dayton.
Finally, House Bill 480 would outlaw abortion at any point, including banning anything that could be used or sold to end a pregnancy and promote citizen vigilantism through the enforcement of the law, allowing citizens to sue anyone suspected of being involved in an abortion.
Authors of these bills and those who offer proponent testimony use harmful, medically inaccurate language meant to shock and shame to talk about safe and effective abortions to convey moral outrage and establish those who have abortions and provide them as either in need of patronizing help or as morally inept. This is an intentional, cruel narrative that has been woven throughout the anti-abortion movement to shame and stigmatize individuals who receive and perform abortion care.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Mississippi case will result from seventy years of manipulative and falsehood-laden anti-abortion organizing and state legislation. However, Roe is the floor, not the ceiling, in the fight for abortion access. It is past time for pro-choice people to become abortion-positive people. Abortion is a safe and effective health care procedure. It is a hard decision for some. However, for many, it is not, and that is valid. Abortion is not a moral issue; it is a health care one, and it should be free and accessible to everyone.
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