Watson experts weigh in on the overturning of Roe v. Wade

Nadje Al-Ali
Director, Middle East Studies
Robert Family Professor of International Studies Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies

More nuanced discussions in the Middle East than in the U.S.

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade brings into sharp relief what many of us have tried to articulate for a while now: the U.S. is not a beacon of women’s rights and women’s freedom. Nor is the U.S. an exception to the increasing onslaught against women --  particularly poor women and women of color. Denying women the right to and choice of abortion, that is, denying them their bodily autonomy, is part of a larger global struggle for control and domination by authoritarian regimes and extreme right-wing political groups. 

My own research and activism on gender issues in the Middle East reveals the close relationship between political repression and marginalization of minorities with patriarchal heteronormative attitudes and policies. The more intense the crackdown on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, the stronger the rise of authoritarian and often militant and sectarian forces. In many contexts, this goes alongside a wider erosion of democratic and civic rights. In the Middle East and North Africa, similar to what we will be seeing in the U.S., women with financial resources find access to safe abortions while it remains a huge challenge to those women without financial means.  

Yet, despite the parallels, it is obvious that discussions about abortion are far more nuanced in the Middle East than in the U.S. We do not, for example, see the same level of violence and extremism against women seeking abortions or against providers. Nor do those in government or religious authorities that engage different interpretations of Islam focus on fetal rights. Instead we find that ideas of women’s physical health and mental well-being are central to both legislation and discussions within Islamic thought and jurisprudence. 

My work, and that of many other scholars and activists in and on the Middle East, suggests that it is not only women that need to mobilize against the fervent attempts to control their bodies and their sexualities. Currently in the Middle East, feminists and LGBTQI+ activists are mobilizing in solidarity against the encroachments by authoritarian regimes. But many men, especially young men in the region, have also understood that their vision for more equal, fair, just, and democratic societies needs to center gender-based rights and claims and not marginalize them. However unique and particular the current situation in the U.S., a global perspective might not only be useful but may serve as a model and provide insights into effective mobilization and resistance strategies.

Richard Arenberg
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science

A deeply flawed process

The decision by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overruling Roe v. Wade takes it place among the least principled actions of the Court in its history.  Millions of American women will suffer the consequences of the Court having stripped them of their Constitutional right to an abortion.

The verdict is an act of judicial activism by a deeply politicized majority. It is the culmination of a campaign by America’s right wing made possible by three  justices who should not be serving on the Court. The selection of these justices by former President Donald Trump was pursuant to his campaign promise to outsource judicial selections to the right wing Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation. He further promised that the litmus test he would apply would be that his appointees would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the then-Senate Republican majority in a stunning unprecedented act refused to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland made by President Barack Obama.  This opened the way for incoming President Donald Trump to nominate Neil Gorsuch.  The Republican majority then acted to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations to facilitate the confirmation by a 54-45 vote on April 7, 2017.

Two years later, President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Court.  During his confirmation hearings, he was accused of a sexual assault as a teenager.  Had the filibuster still existed for nominations, the Democrats would very likely have blocked confirmation at least until a full FBI investigation was conducted.  Without it, Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed 50-48 on October 6, 2018.

Finally, Amy Coney Barrett was nominated on September 26, 2020 and confirmed a month later on October 26, days before the election of President Joe Biden. Had the filibuster been in place, Democrats would have been able to prevent the vote from occurring. She was confirmed 52-48. 

Although each had assured Senate Democrats that they viewed Roe as settled law, the three Trump justices acted to overturn the 50-year precedent.  

This action comes at a time when American democracy is facing an existential threat fueled by the continuing insistence of former President Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.   That “big lie” led directly to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The damage done by the Dobbs decision to confidence in the Supreme Court and faith in its decisions is another blow to the strength of our democracy. 

Michael Kennedy
Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs

Harming women and democracy in the name of divine authority 

It's important to acknowledge the normative question at start but it can’t be where we end.

Debates about abortion’s morality recur, and while deeply polarizing politically, sincere conversation, especially among women, can acknowledge the nuance and complexity of the matter. This New York Times discussion is not unusual. It illustrates that while some may debate the priority of a first-trimester fetus vs. a woman’s health and bodily autonomy, the former’s association with other political forces ought trouble those who believe democracy matters. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat acknowledges that anti-abortion politics is mostly linked to a punitive, cruel, patriarchal politics. He dreams of a more loving pro-life politics, but that pipedream is a smokescreen for misogyny’s politics.

This decision follows years of anti-abortion mobilization to pack the Supreme Court, first with Clarence Thomas, but then, most ominously, by Trump appointing another three who turned their judicial assembly into a supermajority with particular religious devotion. Trump’s party engineered this outcome, the same party that lives in denial about his attempted coup against a legitimate election. This is the most horrid of devil’s bargains – saving fetuses at the cost of women’s lives, and of democracy too.

The horrid thing is that their theological politics can justify it, by declaring the majority immoral, not quite American, perhaps both. But this is not an exclusively American theology.

One of my Polish friends, sociologist Aleksandra Gołdys, wrote me on the news of the decision to offer her commiseration, recognizing the commonality of our struggles. She recommended we read Polish feminist academics Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk who articulate our epoch as a time of attack on women’s rights, sexual minorities, and gender itself. They thought in 2013 Poland that this assault was fleeting, but it is now grounded among those who rule their country, and not just there. They also see this as a conjuncture in which neoliberal hegemony, across the world, is called into question by both left and right and that it’s time to stand with democracy without waiting for a middle that is increasingly irrelevant. I think they are correct.

Democracy can no longer be conceived as a contest according to hegemony’s rules. It’s now about figuring which hegemony will succeed a neoliberalism pretending to be color-blind and progressive. Will that successor be based on a particular theology grounded in racism and patriarchy, or one based on equality, dignity, and democracy’s promise? That choice is what ought to guide praxis in these times.

Rose McDermott
Director of the Watson Postdoctoral Program and David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of International Relations

Suffering our way toward autocracy

When I was in high school in Hawaii, the vast majority of my friends had one or more abortions. The standard deal was the guy had to pay for half (the going rate at Planned Parenthood at the time was $150) and give the young woman a ride to the clinic. I found out about these events because most of the guys never showed up for the ride. Although they were not proud of these experiences, my friends never had to confront the kind of fear or restrictions I encountered many years later during my first year teaching at Cornell. That year, a freshman showed up in my office to ask about taking a make up for an exam she missed. She was covered in bruises that were slowly yellowing, and looked like she hadn’t stopped crying for a month. As soon as I asked her if she was OK, the story came pouring out. She had been gang raped at a fraternity party. The university did nothing, except, as she said, “cover the asses of the guys who did it.” She was from a small southern town and her family were devout Christians. She was horrified when she found out she was pregnant and said she knew her family would completely ostracize her if they found out she was raped, much less pregnant. I met them a few years later and she was not wrong in her assessment. She had planned to go to the one upstate doctor who was still performing abortions, but the weekend before her appointment, he was shot dead with a bullet through his skull standing at his kitchen sink by a proponent of Operation Rescue. She had no money. So she took a bus to New York City, and because the law required her to wait 24 hours, she took the bus back and forth the next day as well. It was a horrible experience but she survived. I have absolutely no doubt that if she had been forced to bring that baby to term, she would have killed herself. 

The court has now clearly revealed, in a series of constitutionally contradictory decisions around guns and abortion privileging the rights of mass shooters over those of women, that they are not true judges but rather intellectually weak and inflexible ideologues.  As Clarence Thomas (who should be impeached for conflict of interest over the actions of his wife in the January 6 insurrection) signaled, this is the first of many long-established rights that will likely be repealed. The latest poll showed less than 25 percent of Americans retain any trust in the court, and that was before these last two abominable decisions. The court has proven not only that they are profoundly misogynistic, but also out of step with the majority of Americans, tone deaf to the world around them, and utterly lacking in empathy. But as with Congress, we are now subject to the tyranny of a conservative minority whose control of the court will further exacerbate the decline of democracy and civil rights and cause untold suffering to the most vulnerable in our society. Because, after all, how much do you want to bet that if any of their daughters got pregnant, they would get them an abortion? Hypocrisy, anyone?

Ashutosh Varshney
Director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia
Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences

America has taken another step towards democratic backsliding

In a democracy, can a right once granted be taken away? In the current international debate, this question has become part of the rising intellectual and political concern over “democratic backsliding,” a concept that depicts how democracies weaken and decline without collapsing fully.

As the world’s oldest surviving democracy, the United States has figured prominently in this debate, especially since Donald Trump rose to the presidency in 2016, engaged in a lot of anti-minority politics, and finally sought to overturn his 2020 election defeat. But after all is said and done, the American debate thus far has been about whether it is legitimate to put some restrictions on the exercise of franchise by racial minorities, who vote markedly less for the Republican party and considerably more for the Democrats. Strictly speaking, the debate has not been about the right to vote per se. 

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 24 to overturn a half-century-old right to abortion, granted by a 1973 Supreme Court decision in the Roe v. Wade case, the debate has now become wider, as it moves from how to engineer voter suppression to the larger realm of rights. With a 5-4 majority, the court has said that American women have no nationwide right to abortion. Rather, state legislatures should decide whether women can have that right in their respective states. In several states, within hours of the court’s decision, abortion was banned, for prior legislation existed. Though Democratic states would steadfastly protect the right to abortion, nearly half of the 50 states are likely to go the other way. In the new field of democratic backsliding, comprising the retraction of rights, the floodgates have opened.