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Explainer: US court's abortion ruling sparked outrage beyond America. What does it mean for this part of the world?

SINGAPORE — A decision by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the landmark Roe v Wade 1973 ruling that recognised women's constitutional right to abortion has sparked outrage far beyond America's shores.
Anti-abortion activists celebrate outside the US Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 after the court overturned the Roe v Wade decision which had given constitutional recognition to women's right to abortion. Pro-choice activists also gathered to oppose the ruling.
Anti-abortion activists celebrate outside the US Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 after the court overturned the Roe v Wade decision which had given constitutional recognition to women's right to abortion. Pro-choice activists also gathered to oppose the ruling.
  • The US Supreme Court struck down the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognised women's constitutional right to abortion on Friday (June 24)
  • The decision was condemned by leaders from Britain, Canada, France, New Zealand and Denmark, among others
  • Since 1973, abortion has remained a deeply divisive issue in the US, and the end of Roe v Wade followed decades of work by conservatives
  • Experts said that overall, the discourse on abortion is different in Southeast Asia, where abortion policies had sometimes been used as tools for population control
  • The US is not the moral benchmark for the rest of the world, said one academic

SINGAPORE — A decision by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the landmark Roe v Wade 1973 ruling that recognised women's constitutional right to abortion has sparked outrage far beyond America's shores.

The decision, delivered last Friday (June 24), means that various US states are free to outlaw abortion while the practice remains legal in some states such as New York and California.

Various world leaders condemned the decision including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called it "horrific", and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said it was a loss for women everywhere.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark said her “heart cries for girls and women in the United States” and called the decision “a huge setback”, the New York Times reported.

Already, more than 20 US states are making moves to limit access to abortion while others are introducing bans at six or more weeks, the BBC reported. 

US President Joe Biden criticised the ruling, adding that it was a "sad day for the court and for the country". 

He said that the move makes the US an outlier among developed nations on the protection of women's reproductive rights. 

TODAY takes a deeper look into what this ruling means for the US, possible implications for other countries and how this could shape the discourse on abortion elsewhere. 

WHAT IS ROE V WADE ABOUT? 

In 1969, 21-year-old Norma McCorvey, better known by the pseudonym "Jane Roe", challenged Texas' abortion law when she was pregnant with her third child and could not afford to travel to another state for an abortion. 

The state allowed women to get an abortion only when the mother's life was threatened. 

The district attorney for Dallas County was Mr Henry Wade, who was defending the anti-abortion law — hence the case became known as "Roe v Wade". 

Ms McCorvey's lawyers, who were both women's rights activists, turned her case into a class action suit demonstrating "the case for the constitutional right of all Americans" to determine the path of their own lives. 

In January 1973, the Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of seven to two, that state regulation of abortion was unconstitutional, effectively legalising abortion across the US. 

However, overturning Roe v Wade does not mean that abortion is illegal in the US. Instead, it has ruled that abortion is no longer a constitutional right, thereby leaving it to the states to legislate on the issue. 

WHY WAS IT OVERTURNED NOW? 

Abortion has remained a divisive issue in the US and has split Americans along partisan, ideological and religious lines. However, the end of the Roe v Wade ruling was the result of decades of work by Republicans and conservatives. 

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who were among the judges who formed the majority to overrule Roe v Wade, were picks by former president Donald Trump. 

Prior to their appointment, the nine justices of the court were seen to be fairly evenly split between four conservatives and four liberals or progressives, with one judge regarded as a "swing vote". Following retirements and deaths, these three appointments moved the balance to a six-three "super-majority" of conservatives.

During his presidency, Trump had declared his wish to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v Wade, even though the decision had been reaffirmed as binding precedent on various occasions since 1973.

Speaking after the decision was announced on Friday, Mr Biden said: "It was three justices named by one president — Donald Trump — who were the core of today’s decision to upend the scales of justice and eliminate a fundamental right for women in this country."

It was three justices named by one president — Donald Trump — who were the core of today’s decision to upend the scales of justice and eliminate a fundamental right for women in this country.
US President Joe Biden

The same court also ruled on Thursday — a day before the Roe v Wade ruling — that New York state's limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home violated the US Constitution's Second Amendment, which is the right to keep and bear arms. 

Despite the abortion ruling, which was foreshadowed in a leaked earlier draft of the decision earlier this year, public opinion is split on the issue.

A survey conducted by Pew Research in March this year, which sought the views of over 10,400 Americans and weighted to be representative of the population, found that 61 per cent of Americans polled say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Fewer than four in 10, or 37 per cent, said that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 

Many are also concerned that the precedent's reversal could see backsliding on legislation on same-sex marriage, the right to contraception and other issues whose court rulings were legally related to the reasoning behind overturning Roe. 

WILL THIS SHAPE DISCOURSE FOR OTHER COUNTRIES, ESPECIALLY THOSE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA? 

Over recent decades, the discourse on abortions has tended to be different in at least some parts of Southeast Asia than in the US, with much less demarcation between those adopting a "pro-life" or "pro-choice" approach.

Currently, abortion is illegal in Laos and Roman Catholic-dominated the Philippines while other states like Thailand allow abortions with conditions. In 2021, Thailand allowed abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy. 

Dr Mathew Mathews, head of the Institute of Policy Studies Social Lab and principal research fellow at the institute, said: "Abortions became popularised in parts of Asia under very different contexts than the US, which explains why the discourse surrounding debates on abortion in Asia are considerably different.

"In some parts of Asia abortions became legal in response to the interests of governments to control population growth so that societies could better modernise." 

Abortion in Asia, though broadly legal in many places, remains "too far entrenched in demographics and social norms to be considered a measure of female autonomy", according to a report by Nikkei Asia.

It is unlikely that the ruling will have any material implication for Southeast Asian nations, said Professor Walter Woon, Lee Kong Chian Visiting Professor at SMU and Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore, and former attorney-general. 

The fallacy is to assume that the US defines morality for the rest of humanity. There is nothing in history or international relations to justify this delusion.
Professor Walter Woon, Lee Kong Chian Visiting Professor at SMU and emeritus professor at the National University of Singapore, and former attorney-general

He said: "The fallacy is to assume that the US defines morality for the rest of humanity. There is nothing in history or international relations to justify this delusion."

Prof Woon added: "Given the current state of the US it is perverse, to put it no higher, to believe that what the US decides is the universal standard."

WHAT IS SINGAPORE'S STANCE ON ABORTION?

Singapore was one of the first countries in Asia to legalise abortion, doing so in 1969. The laws here are generally regarded as quite liberal.

Abortions may be given to pregnant women by qualified medical professionals, with no age limit, generally up to the 24th week of pregnancy, with some caveats. For girls under 14, their parents will usually be informed as intercourse under 14 is classed as statutory rape.

In 2015, pre-abortion counselling was extended to all pregnant women seeking to end their pregnancies here. Previously, pre-abortion counselling was not mandatory for those who had passed the Primary School Leaving Examination and have no secondary education.

Speaking on the motion on women's development for Singapore in Parliament in April this year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that a woman's autonomy is given considerable weight. 

“The issue of a woman's right to medical procedure; the autonomy of her body versus her life — this is subject to laws in many countries, including Singapore, but it gets difficult when the issue becomes politicised and if you tilt too far away from giving autonomy to a woman over her own body,” he said. 

However, there has been some debate surrounding pre-abortion counselling.

Women rights advocacy groups in Singapore said that while research has shown that pre-abortion counselling rarely reverses people's decision to undergo abortion, mandatory counselling and waiting periods may create guilt and regret. 

Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of Aware, said: "Counselling may indeed be helpful to some people seeking abortion.

"However, we think that it’s important for every step of the abortion process to be as transparent as possible.

"Given how politically charged this issue has become, it would be reassuring if the Government could share with the public how their abortion counsellors are screened and trained, as well as the content of these counselling sessions."

Ms Lim said that given the "abundance of pseudo-scientific information around abortion", strong guidelines are needed to ensure an evidence-based approach.

She also noted that abortion is "not equally accessible to all individuals", adding that the group has encountered low-income women who have struggled to pay abortion fees, which may be up to S$3,000 depending on how far along a pregnant woman is.

WILL THE RULING CHANGE SINGAPORE'S STANCE ON ABORTION? 

Academics said any change here is unlikely as pro-life causes in the US are fronted by groups with strong convictions against abortion and that campaign on political platforms. 

Dr Mathews said: "In Singapore while some religious groups do not support abortion, they have chosen not to champion this cause publicly given the rather different context of how religious institutions and the state interact."

He added that there has been "much less debate on the topic" now compared to 50 years ago, when abortion was legalised in 1969. 

Prof Woon said: "Southeast Asia and Singapore are not affected by what the US decides. When we drafted the Asean Charter back in 2007, there was one thing that all 10 members agreed on: That the West, especially the US, could not create rights out of thin air and impose them on others.

"Each country decides for itself what it values and what is legal or illegal.''

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Donald Trump Singapore abortion US supreme court Jacinda Ardern

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