Roe-deer-inspired activists around the world who could rethink the strategy

the draft Judgment of the Supreme Court overturning roe deer v. veal That leaked Monday night it is not yet final. But when the dust settles, American women may conclude that they have lost the right to abortion in the same way that an Ernest Hemingway character said it failed: gradually, and then suddenly.

If something like the leaked bill becomes law, it will be the result not only of decades of campaigning, litigation and conservative judges appointments by anti-abortion groups and their Republican allies, but also of a single decision overturning the institution. of a constitutional law law that had inspired abortion rights activists around the world.

So the opinion also raises a relevant question for activists around the world: seeking protection for abortion rights through the courts, rather than building the kind of mass movement that can fuel legislative victories, is a riskier strategy than it is. it once seemed?

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time Roe v. Wade decided in 1973 that abortion was not a big deal for the American right, nor for evangelical Christians.

In fact, two years before Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention voted for a resolution asking for the legalization of abortion. And although both parties were divided on the issue, opposition to abortion was mainly associated with Catholics, who tended to vote Democrat.

But only a few years later, things had changed. The change was not stimulated by abortion itself, but by desegregation. After the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools in the south, many white parents withdrew their children from public schools and sent them to private white-only schools known as segregation academies. After further litigation by black parents, the IRS revoked tax-exempt status at those schools, causing widespread anger among white evangelical Christians and catalyzing their new role as a powerful conservative force in American politics.

Public opposition to desegregation was not really socially acceptable or appealing to a broader coalition. But opposing abortion was. And abortion rights had followed a procedural path similar to that of Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases, using impact litigation to gain constitutional protections in the Supreme Court to override state laws. So criticizing Roe has become a way of talking about “overriding government”, “rights of states” and the need to “protect the family” without having to actively oppose civil rights or desegregation.

Over the years, the backlash has built up more steam. But the right to abortion still seemed relatively safe, particularly after the Supreme Court reaffirmed it in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. The fact that the right to abortion remained protected in the United States, even in the face of growing political opposition, seemed an argument in favor of seeking protection through the courts.

Activists from other countries have sought a similar path. In Colombia in 2006, Monica Roa, a lawyer for the feminist group Connecting women around the world, obtained exceptions to the country’s general ban on abortion by arguing that Colombia’s international treaty organizations, and hence its Constitution, required exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to the life or health of the mother. This year, in a subsequent casethe court went further, decriminalizing all abortions before 24 weeks of gestation.

Pursuing the issue through the courts has allowed activists to partially circumvent the controversial politics around the issue, said Julie Zulver, a political anthropologist who has studied reproductive rights activism in Colombia. “During the peace process, everything polarized,” she said.

In 2016, the government held a referendum on a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group. To undermine public support for the deal, conservative politicians, including former president Álvaro Uribe, have sought to associate the draft deal with abortion, gender education in schools and other controversial social issues.

“As soon as the referendum for peace started, it was as if, if you vote yes in this referendum, you vote to make your children gay, you vote against the nation. Vote against the idea of ​​the nation and the family. And on top of that are issues like women’s rights or access to reproductive rights, ”said Dr Zulver said.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been fiery in his opposition to the Mexican feminist movement, which he sees as hostile to his populist administration. But after years of grassroots organization by the movement, the country’s Supreme Court has decriminalized abortion in 2021.

But just as Roe’s passage and ability to resist opposition to chart a path to abortion protection appeared, his likely downfall now highlights a potential weakness in judicial protection: it is inherently dependent on the composition of the courts. And over time, this can change.

In the U.S., Republican voters’ opposition to abortion has helped fuel a decades-long effort to appoint and elect Conservative judges at all levels of the justice system.Today, the result is a conservative supermajority in the Supreme Court that not only looks set to do so. to overturn Roe, but also swung sharply to the right on other issues, including voting rights.

In Poland, when the far-right nationalist government failed to get a restrictive abortion law through parliament, it turned instead to the constitutional tribunal, which was filled with judges who were friends of the ruling party of law and justice. In October 2020, the court effectively sanctioned the failed legislation in constitutional law.

Sometimes the litigation just fades away. In 2010, many thought that a challenge to Irish restrictions on abortion at the European Court of Human Rights could become a roe deer for Europe. But the court instead it only issued a restrictive procedural decision.

Eventually, after all, it could be down to activism, and a pattern has emerged around the world: Successful campaigns view abortion as part of broader issues of national identity and rely on an organization backed by experienced activists. .

In Ireland in 2012, the Death of a young woman named Savita Halappanavar who was denied a necessary medical abortion a rallying cry for the abortion rights movement. In 2018, the country held a referendum to amend the Constitution to legalize abortion, which was approved with over 66% support.

As in Colombia, Irish activists have tried to frame the abortion issue as a question of national and social identity. But this time, the dynamic was reversed: in Ireland, the most successful identity argument was supported by the side discussing in favor of the right to abortion, framing reproductive rights as part of Ireland’s European identity.

“The framing around the abortion rights campaign in Ireland was about compassion and how Ireland must be the compassionate face of Europe,” said Marie Berry, a University of Denver political scientist who has studied the campaign. Irish. “Which is more compassionate than the UK, as the UK has become increasingly conservative, especially under the Tory government. That we are in the EU, we represent a progressive Europe “.

But the key to the movement’s success may have been the combination of that attractive message with the organizational experience of more radical feminist groups. “What shocked me when I was doing research with activists was that actually, the organizing node of the entire ‘Repeal the 8th’ abortion rights campaign came from the anarcho-feminist movements, which were more rooted in environmental movements. than the liberal women’s rights movement, “Dr. Berry said.” Most of the people who voted for him, of course, weren’t affiliated with the more left-wing organizational nodes. But this was really the heart of the movement that has made it possible”.

In Argentina, the Ni Una Menos (“Not a Less Woman”) movement has also combined a sustained, long-term organization with framing that places the right to abortion in the broader context of a just society, presenting the lack access to safe and legal abortion as only part of the larger problem of violence against women. A 2018 bill to legalize the procedure failed, but in 2020 the country legalized abortion, making it Argentina the largest country in Latin America to do so.

In the United States, by contrast, legal abortion has been the status quo since the 1973 Roe decision, making it a difficult target for that kind of sustained mass organization.

“I think that the indigenous mobilization, some of the more progressive types of racial justice, Occupy, all the left nodes within those movements, did not center abortion in their defense because it was, constitutionally, more or less a problem. solved by the 1970s, “Berry said. And for other organizations focused on the intersection of reproductive rights with race and class, “abortion has always been there, but it’s not the only demand,” she said.

Centrist organizations and democratic politicians, by contrast, have often framed abortion as a matter of unfortunate but necessary health services that should be “safe, legal and rare” and have focused activism on access issues. This was often vital for women in rural areas or states whose stringent regulations had made abortion essentially unavailable in practice, but it did not generate the kind of identity-based mass attraction that has been effective in countries like Ireland. .

And so today, with Roe seemingly on the brink of falling, American activists are considering what it will take to build their own Ni Una Menos-style mass movement – and what they can accomplish before it’s too late.