By Alex Callinicos
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Roe v Wade is just the beginning, our side must be as ruthless as our enemies

The United States Supreme Court decision to reverse Roe vs Wade may be just the beginning of attacks on hard won rights
Issue 2811
Pro-choice protest

Pro-choice protesters rally in Minnesota, United States to win back abortion rights. (Picture: Fibonacci Blue)

The decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to suppress the constitutional right to abortion recognised in the 1973 Roe v Wade case is more than a vicious attack on women’s freedom. It’s yet another sign of the different times we are now living in.

We can see this at various levels. First, there is the how of the decision. The right in the US have been working for this for decades. One of the many ways in which the US is less than a full democracy is that constitutional law is made, not by elected representatives, but by the nine “justices” of the Supreme Court, appointed for life by the president. So the right worked to remake the court. 

The liberal historian Tim Snyder argues the Republicans are “a coalition of two types of people—those who would game the system… and those who dream of breaking it”. 

Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the US Senate, and Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice president, are gamers. Trump and his followers are breakers. They worked together to take over the Supreme Court. McConnell sabotaged Barack Obama’s typically feeble attempt to fill a vacancy in the court towards the end of his presidency. He helped Trump appoint three ultra-conservative judges. All Trump’s nominees, when they were seeking confirmation from the Senate, lied solidly, swearing they would respect “precedent”.

The Republican right now have five out of nine votes on the Supreme Court, which they have used decisively. This is an example of the ruthlessness with which both gamers and breakers operate. They have, for example, implemented gerrymandering and voter suppression at the state level to entrench Republican control. By comparison, the Democrats are feeble, whining about their opponents’ refusal to respect the rules of the game.

Secondly, this is only the beginning. Clarence Thomas—the longest serving right wing judge—filed a concurring opinion in which he said the court should reopen other precedents. He named three cases which upheld the right to contraception, same-sex intercourse and same-sex marriages

Thomas, whose wife is under investigation for her support for the far right assault on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, was announcing a counter-revolution. Between the 1950s and the 1970s the Supreme Court made a series of judgements that extended individual liberties. Like the cases supporting black people’s demands for real equality, Roe v Wade was an attempt to accommodate the pressures from the huge mass movements for emancipation that were sweeping the world.

These victories survived into the neoliberal era. From the 1980s onwards, governments championed economic liberalism, which swept away obstacles to capital making profits. But they also respected, and sometimes extended, what is sometimes called social liberalism—that is, individual freedom in people’s private lives. 


Big corporations and banks were happy to pay lip service to the values of equality and diversity, even while they were widening real economic inequality. The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-9 blew this contradiction apart. The suffering it caused unleashed the discontent that had been building up over the previous 30 years. 

This gave an opening to the breakers—not just Trump but the far right that we have seen advancing in Europe and indeed on a world scale. The breakers want to reverse the limited steps towards a genuinely emancipated society that were made thanks to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. And they have plenty of enablers. 

Liberal opinion in the US has lionised Pence because he refused to do Trump’s will on 6 January and overturn Joe Biden’s election. The Supreme Court decision leaves it up to states to decide to allow or proscribe abortion. But Pence is calling for a national ban on abortion. This assault can be halted and reversed only by the most determined and massive movement that is ready to be as ruthless as its opponents.

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