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Lisa Smyth: The Current State of Abortion Rights in the U.S.

Updated: 3 days ago

Prof. Lisa Smyth is currently a Senior Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, where she has been shaping minds since July 2003. Her academic journey began with a BA in Sociology and Politics, alongside Legal Science, from the National University of Ireland Galway. She then advanced her studies with an MSc in Econ (Politics and Sociology) from Birkbeck, University of London, culminating in a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Warwick.



Her research delves into the nuanced dynamics of abortion, motherhood, and the associated social politics. She has a keen interest in exploring norms and emotions linked to long-term social changes, particularly through the lenses of gender, reproduction, and family life. Her recent publication, "Gendered Families: States and Societies in Transition," is indicative of her focus on critical social transitions and the role of family in contemporary society.

 

The question of how to best defend access to safe and legal abortion is a longstanding one. In 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the nearly half-century-old decision on women's constitutional right to abortion known as "Roe v Wade," ruling that abortion is not a right granted by the Constitution— a decision that could immediately lead to abortion being illegal in 22 states. On this topic, SPCIS interviewed Prof. Lisa Smyth to discuss women's rights to bodily integrity, as well as the varying views on women's abortion rights across the United States.


The Current State of Abortion Rights in the U.S. after Roe v. Wade and Related Social Dynamics


Feminist theoretical supports for abortion access have been carefully reformulated in recent decades, emphasizing the gendered issues of justice and autonomy at stake (e.g., Ross 2017). However, these theoretical arguments have evidently not undermined the legitimacy of anti-abortion claims in the political arena. The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade demonstrates the vulnerability of rights to contextual political forces.

 

The affirmation of human rights, whether in international conventions or national laws, is clearly a vital support for freedom and justice. However, rights are complex, requiring not only careful formulation and concrete interpretation, but also often some prioritization to resolve conflicting claims. Rights, and legal norms more generally, are often a focus of moral conflict. Which rights should and should not be recognized, and which rights should take priority in the event of a clash, are usually resolved through political struggles.

 

Feminist efforts to draw attention to the issues of gender justice at stake in abortion access have attempted to reorient the political debate away from a popular belief that abortion access rests on rights to privacy and choice. This reflects a critique of the idea that market relations should frame reproductive experience and entitlement. Instead, feminists have sought to develop justifications for abortion access that instead place obligations on states and international bodies to defend women and girls against domination by compulsory pregnancy, birth and motherhood, as well as by compulsory abortion, contraception and sterilisation.

 

However, the power of such ideas in market societies such as the US, where individualism has been described as the ‘first language’ (Bellah et al., 1996:viii), and social protection tends to be regarded with some suspicion, is less certain. It should perhaps be no surprise that abortion tends to be treated as a private matter of individual choice in such societies. This framing has in fact generated significant support from populations who might not otherwise endorse the more demanding right to reproductive justice (Pew Research Center, 2008). Of course, treating abortion as a matter of private choice limits the obligations of states to ensure access for all women and girls across the social gradient. Instead, access is expected to be managed by market forces.

 

Moreover, framing abortion access as a matter of private choice has in turn provoked individualistic responses from opponents. Those who claim to speak for the voiceless ‘unborn’ argue that embryos and foetuses should be regarded as rights-bearing citizens from the moment of conception, morally equivalent to pregnant, or potentially pregnant, women and girls. In Ireland, the constitutional assertion of this equivalence allowed for bans on contraception, information on abortion, and even travel to obtain an abortion outside the state, during the 1980s and early 1990s (Smyth, 2016). It is not surprising that anti-abortion campaigns rely on the iconography depicting the foetus as an astronaut, floating in space attached only by the umbilical cord to the missing mother-ship (Duden, 1993). The implication in this powerful imagery is that recognising ‘the unborn’ as individual rights-bearers, morally equivalent to pregnant girls and women, places no burden on those girls and women, but instead simply protects human life in its supposedly most vulnerable form.

 

It seemed that the range of individual rights which secured access to abortion in the US through Roe v. Wade, specifically rights to privacy and freedom of choice, carried strong normative legitimacy, not only in law but also in social attitudes more generally (Pew Research Center, 2022). However, the overturning of Roe indicates the strength of misogyny in the culture. The legitimacy of abortion bans across states in the US depend on marking out conception and pregnancy as beyond privacy or free choice, those very norms which provide the foundations for market relations. This seems to be a major challenge.

 

The recent result of a referendum attempting to ban abortion access in Kansas, a predominantly Republican state, suggests that the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has intensified the political landscape (Noor, 2022). As struggles over abortion access in the US play out between judicial and legislative decision-makers, as well as electorates, the question of whether and how misogynistic norms might become further embedded across states and at Federal level remains in question. Kate Manne defines misogyny as an attitude which evaluates females as subordinate, expected to specialize in the self-sacrificing provision of moral, social, and emotional care (2018: xix). Entitlement to abortion as a right which women and girls can independently exercise violates this expectation, inciting political struggles to overturn it. Nevertheless, expectations of individual freedom to make decisions about one’s reproductive life, as well as to move across jurisdictions and to hold any or no religious beliefs, remain strong across the US (Chen et al., 2021; Ferree et al., 2002).

 

While similar in consequence, struggles over abortion access in the US are different to those which recently unfolded in the Republic of Ireland. An explicit constitutional affirmation of a right to life for what was termed ‘the unborn’ was repealed through a popular referendum in 2018 (Browne and Calkin, 2020). This followed repeated collective experiences of shame at the litany of cases which emerged since the right to life for ‘the unborn’ was recognized, involving girls and women being forced to remain pregnant and give birth, despite threats to their life, health, and welfare (Smyth, 2015). Some of these cases attracted repeated international attention, particularly in response to the death in 2012 from sepsis of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian citizen resident in Ireland, who was refused hospital treatment for a miscarriage (Pollitt, 2012). The slow liberalisation of attitudes to abortion access has been shaped by Ireland’s struggle for status in international politics. As Ireland’s economy, culture and society globalized from the mid-1990s, the legitimacy of the state’s actions in defending the right to life of ‘the unborn’ against the rights to life, health, welfare and autonomy for girls and women, was undermined. This opened the way for legislation on the provision of abortion as a form of healthcare in specified circumstances.

 

The United States, as a powerful political actor, has not struggled for international legitimacy through its treatment of abortion rights. Instead, the bitterness of abortion politics in that society reflects the depth of conflict over the relationship between individual liberty and misogyny. Advocates for reproductive justice have much work ahead.

 

 

References

Bellah RN, Madsen R, Sullivan WM, et al. (1996) Habits of the Heart: Individualism and

Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Browne K and Calkin S (2020) After Repeal: Rethinking Abortion Politics. London: Zed Books.

Chen C, Frey CB and Presidente G (2021) Culture and contagion: Individualism

and compliance with COVID-19 policy. Journal of Economic Behavior &

Organization 190: 191-200.

Duden B (1993) Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ferree MM, Gamson WA, Gerhards J, et al. (2002) Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy

and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Manne K (2018) Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Penguin Random House UK.

Noor P (2022) Kansas votes to protect abortion rights in state constitution. The Guardian

Pew Research Center (2008) Pro-Choice Does Not Mean Pro-Aboriton: An Argument for

Abortion Rights Featuring the Rev. Carlton Veazey.

Pew Research Center (2022) Public Opinion on Abortion.

Pollitt K (2012) Remember Savita Halappanavar. The Nation, November

Ross, Loretta J. (2017) Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist Activism.  Souls 19

(3):286-314.

Smyth L (2015) Ireland's Abortion Ban: Honour, Shame and the Possibility of a Moral

Revolution. In: Quilty A, Conlon C and Kennedy S (eds) The Abortion Papers

Ireland: Volume 2. Cork: Cork University Press, pp.167-178.

Smyth L [2005] (2016) Abortion and Nation: the Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary

Ireland. London: Routledge.


Contact: Luo Zhifen

Interview: Fang Yaoyuan

Editor: Chao Wei

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