US Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade – AEU Statement

On Friday the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, immediately ending the federal constitutional right to an abortion which had been settled law in this country for 50 years. At a stroke the Court has removed a constitutionally protected right from millions of Americans, threatening their control over their own bodies and putting their health, and even their lives, at immediate risk. This decision reverses progress that many generations of people in this country had fought and even died for: the right to control their own bodies, their sovereign right over their very own flesh.

The American Ethical Union has for decades supported a person’s right to choose if they become or remain pregnant. A resolution passed in 1991 affirmed that “the ultimate decision to terminate a pregnancy … must be the sole responsibility of the woman” and that “it is an erosion of civil liberties for each state legislature to have the authority to deny women free choice on a very personal decision regarding their own reproductive functions.”[1]

This position was reaffirmed in a statement of 2019 in which we opposed the passage and signing into law of the Alabama “Human Life Protection Act.” We noted then that such a law “profoundly restricts the bodily autonomy of pregnant people; is a bill of rights for rapists and abusers; puts the lives of pregnant people at risk; upends basic moral principles; and continues an assault on reproductive freedom which has been waged for decades.”

Now, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, countless such laws have been and are poised to be passed. In the wake of the Court’s decision so-called “trigger” laws went into effect in 13 states, banning or severely restricting abortion. In another 10, laws are already in effect which will or will likely restrict access.[2] On Friday, then, this country became less free and less safe for all women and all people who can become pregnant, especially those roughly 80 million women who live in one of the 23 states which now limit abortion access.

We know from history and from international comparisons what these new restrictions will mean. They will mean more back-alley abortions, the terror of a twisted coat hanger, herbicides forced down throats. They will mean more domestic abuse, as men pressure partners they have impregnated to end their pregnancies. They will mean more forced pregnancies, people handcuffed to gurneys to prevent them from making their own choices. Overturning Roe v. Wade is a catastrophe for women’s health. The impact will fall disproportionately on those who are poor and on pregnant people of color.

Moreover, many of the laws now restricting the right to an abortion in the USA do not even have exceptions for rape or incest. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas now prohibit abortion even in the case of rape, a form of anti-abortion extremism which puts these states in contravention of internationally accepted human rights norms.

Multiple United Nations bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee against Torture, have spoken out against abortion bans, which do not have exceptions for rape and incest, recognizing the extraordinary trauma caused by forcing a person to carry to term their rapist’s baby.[3] Yet many states have now passed an effective bill of rights for rapists, giving those who rape more rights over their victims’ pregnant bodies than that person has themselves.

If the health consequences of this decision for millions of people were not bad enough, the truth is that abortion restrictions do not in fact prevent abortions. Indeed, evidence suggests that the abortion rate is at least the same, and perhaps even higher in countries that restrict abortion access than those that do not.[4] Making abortion illegal does not make it go away: instead, it makes abortion more dangerous, as people are forced into unsafe abortions, leading to more injuries and more death.[5] The new restrictions on abortion currently unfolding across the USA are therefore not only evil, but irrational.

We note that most of the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade said in their confirmation hearings that the decision was settled precedent. That justices would signal during their confirmation hearings that they would respect the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, and then vote to overturn it, is dishonest and cowardly. Such behavior shows contempt for the public and brings the whole court into disrepute.

We note that these new restrictions on abortion occur against a backdrop of increased agitation against the rights and dignity of trans people, and we are aware that many trans and nonbinary people – a group already at special risk in our society – will be harmed by the Supreme Court’s reckless choice.

We note that the majority opinion overturning Wade was crafted by four cis men, people who cannot and never will become pregnant, and therefore have bodies that will not personally be affected by the legal decision they made.

That millions of people in the United States should have their right to bodily autonomy stripped away by people who will never have to face the choice of whether to get an abortion is a moral outrage and a disgrace, one more sorry chapter in the ages-old story of men’s attempts to control the lives of women.

We note, finally, that this decision is the culmination of decades of campaigning primarily by conservative religious groups, who have viewed ending the right to an abortion as their primary crusade. These groups have now succeeded in forcing much of the USA to live by their own religious views, ramming a sectarian religious agenda down all our throats. This decision is thus an assault on religious liberty and the freedom of members of religions such as our own to pursue our religious values.

The American Ethical Union opposes the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The right to end a pregnancy is simply a component of our bodily autonomy, a basic freedom that all people everywhere should enjoy. The court has no more right to limit access to abortion than it has to limit access to any other necessary medical procedure, and all attempts to limit abortion access are an assault on the dignity of pregnant persons.

Today we reassert, again, our total commitment to reproductive freedom, and call upon our member Societies to stand with the AEU and act in support of that commitment.

Actions of member Societies and individuals might include:

  • Support of organizations such as Planned Parenthood, National Network of Abortion Funds, and the Midwest Access Coalition, including through financial contributions and volunteering
  • Participation in social witness, even, where appropriate, civil disobedience
  • Expressing opinions directly to decision-makers
  • Submitting a version of this statement to local media
  • Hosting discussions and speakers in your community about sex education, contraception, and reproductive choices
  • Partnering with existing organizations to support evidence-based sex education in schools, full access to contraception and reproductive health care, and a person’s right to make choices about their own reproductive system in deciding whether and when to have a child