US Supreme Court Delivers Blow to Women’s Rights

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Abortion-rights activists rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington DC, November 1, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

In disastrous news for women’s rights, the US Supreme Court decided today to allow an extreme anti-abortion law in the state of Texas to stand for now. This ruling is likely to further embolden several other states around the country, which may move to ban abortion, and means most pregnant people in Texas are without access to this essential health care.

This is the second time in four months the Supreme Court has refused to block the law, which bans abortion at essentially six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant. The law also permits anyone to sue and seek monetary damages from anyone they believe helps, provides, or “aids and abets” an abortion.

The court did rule today that abortion providers have standing to challenge the law in court, one of the questions pending before the justices.

The next big ruling on abortion in the US will be issued at the end of this term, likely June 2022, when the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of a Mississippi abortion restriction that could have significant implications for abortion rights nationwide. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Justice Center submitted a friend of the court brief that the United States’ international human rights obligations require the US to provide abortion access.

At oral arguments in that case earlier this month and in its ruling today, the Supreme Court appears to be signaling a willingness to overturn the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade, along with follow up cases, that has protected access to abortion in the United States for nearly fifty years.

From a global perspective, increasing abortion restrictions in several US states are going against the tide of other countries expanding access to abortion, including Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, Benin, and Ireland.

Human Rights Watch has spent nearly two decades documenting how restrictive abortion laws play out elsewhere, in countries where doctors cannot provide the best possible care to pregnant teenage rape victims, where women are prosecuted for miscarriages because they resemble abortions, and where hospitals withhold care for life-threatening illnesses for fear it will impact fetal health.

The consequences could be dire for young people, women living in poverty, migrants, and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who already face many barriers to abortion care. Additionally, banning abortion is likely to increase the US’s extremely high maternal death rates that make it an outlier among high-income countries. 

Today’s decision will go down in history as the first recent moment the Supreme Court chose to put women’s rights in the US in jeopardy. Sadly, we don’t expect it to be the last.

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