The term historic may have become exceedingly tiresome through overuse, but the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last Friday is deserving of no less than such a qualifier to describe it.
On that day, the outpouring of emotions in cities across the country was high, and that included Washington, where thousands of abortion rights activists, shouting slogans and waving placards, gathered near the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the ruling, a ruling that in their view erased the right of women to their reproductive autonomy, a right that had been on the books for the previous five decades and that had drawn the support, according to polls, of a majority of Americans.
The ruling may well usher in a world that this majority will not be happy to inhabit.
“For the first time in the country’s historic march, the Supreme Court has taken away a previously enshrined constitutional right”, wrote CNN political commentator Stephen Collinson on Saturday. “The starkly liberal reading of the Constitution by the court’s Conservative majority in this case beckons an era of social upheaval”.
Vehement responses from the Western world
Even President Joe Biden chose to dip his toes in the waters of the public debate about a branch of government separate from and independent of his own. “Make no mistake: The decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort [by the conservative movement] over decades to upset the balance of the law”, he said. “It is the realisation of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court”.
So impassioned was the commentary in the liberal media about the prospect of similar rights being nullified in the near future that it seemed as if never before in the whole history of the Western intellectual tradition — ever since theories of law were formulated and jurisprudence had its birth in Ancient Greece — have individual rights been subverted by a court of law.
The Scrapping of Roe v. Wade elicited equally vehement responses from leaders across the Western world, where in all but two nations (Poland and Malta) abortion is legal. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson considered the ruling “horrific”; Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that it was “one of the of the darkest days for women’s rights in my lifetime”; and French President Emmanuel Macron told legislators he addressed in chamber that he was “appalled” by how the US failed to “protect the fundamental rights of women” to free choice.
Even Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) felt it necessary to have his say. “I am very disappointed,” he told Reuters. “I would’ve expected America to protect such rights”.
You seem to consider the Supreme Court as the ultimate interpreter of all constitutional questions — a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.
Beyond what it says about the question of abortion rights, this impassioned global reaction attests to how the world views the critical role that the US plays in shaping international affairs — even as the country goes about conducting its domestic policy.
All well and good.
But this issue, after all is said and done, is not, I say, about where one stands on the battle lines fought by pro-choice and pro-life advocates — for, at the end of the day, each to his own — but about whether the Supreme Court should be allowed, and allowed in a democracy, to overrule the rulings of that other court, the court of public opinion.
The traditional image we have of the US Supreme Court — “the court of last resort”, as it were — is one of dignified justices who embody proper judicial restraint and impartial interpretation of the constitution. This image needs a makeover.
Sorry, folks, the nine justices you see on the bench are not individuals voted into office as are other mortal public servants. They are appointed, for life, and answerable to no one, not even to the president who had cavalierly appointed them. They make decisions of crucial import that impact the lives of Americans everywhere — decisions about matters that range from health care to race relations, from freedom of the press to women’s reproduction rights, and from gun control to school prayer, along with a host of other deeply significant rulings. They are expected to be neutral, apolitical and non-partisan jurists whose job is to “dispense justice for all”, as the words inscribed on the entrance to the Superior Court building indicate.
The crude reality is that these nine individuals don’t fit the image. They are expected to be loyal to the views of the presidents who had nominated them when it comes to interpreting the law of the land. In short, they are not in fact neutral, apolitical and non-partisan. And that, as we say, is where it’s at.
Never before does an image of the Supreme Court appear as vivid as the one painted by Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), who observed: “You seem to consider the Supreme Court as the ultimate interpreter of all constitutional questions — a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy”.
When that same oligarchy last week took away one of the American people’s long-held constitutional rights, it raised very serious questions about the status of liberty in the United States of America in our time.
And if the United States of America is indeed leader of the free world, as it is self-styled, then this development is of great concern to the entirety of the global dialogue of cultures.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile