US Supreme Court attacks abortion rights

In the latest move against the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalised abortion in the US, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 on April 18 to uphold the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The act was signed into law by US President George Bush in November 2003.

The medical procedure misnamed by anti-choice advocates as "partial-birth abortion" — intact dilation and extraction — is generally used after the first trimester. It accounts for less than 1% of abortions in the US, however in certain circumstances it is the safest option for women requiring abortions after the first trimester. The ban fails to even provide an exception in cases where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman's health.

In a statement by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America following the decision, PPFA's Eve Gartner said: "This ruling flies in the face of 30 years of Supreme Court precedent and the best interest of women's health and safety. Today the court took away an important option for doctors who seek to provide the best and safest care to their patients. This ruling tells women that politicians, not doctors, will make their health care decisions for them."

Gartner referred to the comments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the judges who voted against the decision, who said that upholding the ban "deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety".

The ruling follows Bush's appointment of two anti-choice justices to the high court, shifting the balance against those who support women's right to choose abortion. Bush, whose commitment to protecting life is exemplified by the deaths of more than 650,000 Iraqis since the 2003 US-led invasion of their country, said the decision was an "affirmation of the progress we have made over the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life. We will continue to work for the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law."

The day after the ruling, pro-choice Democrats, supported by women's rights organisations, reintroduced the Freedom of Choice Act in Congress, which aims to codify the Roe v. Wade decision in federal law, guaranteeing women's right to access abortion. Similar laws are currently in place in seven states. However, not all Democrats in Congress are pro-choice and many voted for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

The Supreme Court ruling has fuelled the efforts of those opposed — including violently — to women's rights. On April 25, a bomb containing nails was placed outside the Austin Women's Health Center by an opponent of abortion. A man was arrested over the incident.

A statement by the Susan B. Anthony list, which campaigns for the election of anti-choice members of Congress, said the ruling "will likely inspire increased support for more common-sense restrictions on abortion across the country". Further battles over state legislation are expected.

In more positive news for women's rights, the Mexico City legislature legalised abortions in the first trimester on April 24. The law requires public hospitals to provide the procedure and ensures low-cost abortions are available for poor women with no health insurance. In the rest of Mexico, abortions are only legal in cases of severe birth defects, rape or to prevent the pregnant woman's death.

On April 29, Mexico's Roman Catholic Church called on Mexico City doctors not to perform abortions, and spokesperson Hugo Valdemar Romero claimed that health professionals who performed abortions, and members of the Legislative Assembly who supported the new law, would be excommunicated from the church.

Portugal has also taken a major step forward — on April 10, President Anibal Cavasco Silva ratified a law making abortion legal up until 10 weeks of pregnancy. The law follows a February referendum in which 60% of voters supported liberalising that country's abortion laws. The results weren't legally binding, however, as fewer than the necessary 50% of eligible voters participated, hence the president's decision to introduce legislation into parliament. The new law is expected to dramatically reduce the 10,000 illegal abortions that take place in Portugal annually, many of which cause serious injury or even death.