The phrase Roe v Wade has taken on an emblematic quality in the struggle for abortion rights around the world, and with the landmark 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court under threat, it’s a reminder that reproductive rights are both hard-fought and not guaranteed.
What is Roe v Wade?
The landmark decision was handed down by the US Supreme Court after a mother of three from Texas (dubbed Jane Roe by the court to protect her identity) took the State – in this case its representative, local district attorney Henry Wade – to court over her right to choose to terminate the unwanted pregnancy.
The legal victory was based on the interpretation of the right to privacy as enshrined in the US Constitution.
But all that may change: following the move by several US states to severely restrict abortions, in a leaked draft majority opinion, the conservative-majority Supreme Court appears likely to wind back this historic ruling. Some states have so-called trigger legislation in place which will immediately restrict the right of people to have abortions.
Let’s be clear: abortion is a human right. Safe abortion access is essential for realising the full range of human rights and achieving gender, social, reproductive and economic justice and Amnesty International calls for universal access to safe abortions for all people who need them.
What we know is that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop it, it just makes them unsafe.
What are your rights in Australia?
Abortion was decriminalised entirely in Australia in 2021 when South Australia was the last jurisdiction to strike the procedure from the criminal code. NSW only decriminalised abortion in 2019.
In most jurisdictions, abortion is available on request up to 24 weeks gestation at which point two doctors must approve a termination. But each jurisdiction has different laws:
ACT – no gestational limit, but must be provided by a medical doctor
NSW/QLD – freely available until 22 weeks and then with the approval of two doctors
NT/VIC – available until 24 weeks and then with the approval of two doctors
SA – freely available until 22 weeks and 6 days and then with the approval of two doctors
TAS – freely available until 16 weeks and then with the approval of two doctors
WA – freely available until 20 weeks and then with the approval of two doctors
The protection of people’s reproductive rights have been further strengthened by the establishment of so-called safe zones around clinics providing abortion services making it illegal to harass people using those services. These are in place in all jurisdictions.
Implications of Roe v Wade for Australia
It’s worth remembering just how recently abortion was removed from the statues and there have been many attempts by Federal politicians over time to restrict people’s access to safe medical termination. The abortion drug RU486 is still subject to major restrictions, due to a deal done by conservative politicians in the 1990s.
Any regression in protection of the right to abortion would not only stand to damage the global perception of the United States; it would also set a terrible example that other governments and anti-rights groups could seize upon around the world in a bid to deny the rights of women, girls and other people who can become pregnant. Overturning Roe vs Wade would become the symbol of a major backlash all over the world, putting recent progress at risk and endangering the health and lives of millions.