As Americans struggle to decide the fate of reproductive rights state by state, the U.S. government has imposed a “Gag Rule” that would remove U.S. federal funding from any country or international organization that provides abortions or even advises women that abortion is their choice
TAYA GRAHAM: The current wave of restrictive abortion laws represent an existential threat to women’s reproductive rights. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio are just a few of the states that have all but banned abortions, and it’s no secret that the conflict over those laws are headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s because the reason abortion is legal in the country is because of a landmark Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. In this decision, the court carved out what’s known as the right to privacy to protect a woman’s right to choose. And it’s this precedent hese states are seeking to void.
In order to explain this decision and how the right to privacy might be overturned, and how it can be defended, I’m joined by Chinyere Ezie. She’s a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where she advocates for racial and gender justice, LGBTQ rights, and where she challenges governmental abuses of power. Chinyere, thank you so much for joining me today to help us understand some of the legal nuances of this push to ban abortion.
CHINYERE EZIE: Thank you for inviting me.
TAYA GRAHAM: So let’s dive right in. Can Roe v. Wade be protected? Or does Roe v. Wade even matter when so many states are attacking abortion rights in their own state legislatures?
CHINYERE EZIE: Roe v. Wade is very settled law. It’s been around since 1973, at which point the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, recognized that mothers, that women, have a fundamental right to autonomy with respect to their bodies, and that these rights derive from basic notions of privacy, liberty, autonomy that cannot be abridged by the state. And so Roe v. Wade held at that time that women had a right to choose whether to proceed with the pregnancy, or so forth, until the point of viability. And that precedent remains largely protected. Supreme Court cases in subsequent years have re-examined that core holding, and it hasn’t been abridged. And so what we’re looking at right now is really a wave of what I think can fairly be described as judicial activism, or at least efforts to court judicial activism by the right.
TAYA GRAHAM: Can you talk a little bit about the legal case Casey v. Planned Parenthood? I think it can be argued that the case opened the doors for Missouri, Mississippi, as well as North and South Dakota, to almost singlehandedly eliminate abortion providing clinics in their states. Can you explain how this case began to erode women’s reproductive rights?
CHINYERE EZIE: Sure. So in the Casey decision, the court did re-examine the scope of abortion rights protections. And what it found is that states do have some leeway to pass laws that regulate abortion with respect to clinic requirements, with respect to certain aspects of the procedure and its availability. But it’s still held nonetheless that any restrictions that were passed by the states that substantially burdened in any manner the right to choose by women, and anyone who sort of has childbearing capabilities–I do want acknowledge that there are nonbinary and transgender individuals that have the ability to also carry and conceive–nonetheless, the court found that states cannot pose undue burdens. And so I would respectfully argue that no, that the laws are being passed right now by states like Alabama and Missouri, they go far beyond what the court has previously permitted with respect to the regulation of abortion in this country.
TAYA GRAHAM: So how can women, activists, and organizations effect change when President Trump is actively misinforming voters? Let me play a clip so we can listen.
DONALD TRUMP: The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby. I don’t think so.
TAYA GRAHAM: So our president’s saying that newly born children are being swaddled by doctors and mothers, and then executed. How can people push back against misinformation like that?
CHINYERE EZIE: I think it’s critical that we insist that we have facts, not legal fictions, that are used to play in this debate. There’s just no accuracy to the notion that, you know, of Trump’s statements. And quite point of fact, the right to choose is, again, important because of all the variety of circumstances in which people might seek to terminate a pregnancy, including the viability of the fetus, including cases of rape and incest, and far beyond. And in Alabama it’s quite notable that there’s no exception being made for those circumstances, such as, you know, rape and incest. And it’s really quite shocking. And even Alabamians are speaking out that these laws are passed not in their name, but in pursuit of this this ideological mission by the part of just a handful of legislators in that state.
TAYA GRAHAM: Can you talk a little bit about those restrictions on abortion, like the six-week ban or heartbeat bill? How do you think those restrictions on abortion will impact women?
CHINYERE EZIE: The impact is going to be tremendous. And in point of fact, these bills are seeking to abolish the procedure in just about every circumstance that arises. It’s not often the case that people are even aware that they’re pregnant six weeks, eight weeks along the way. And the idea that there is just no autonomy left for people who are, you know, have childbearing potential; in effect they will be forced to conceive children, complete pregnancies to term. It’s really an unprecedented moment in our constitutional democracy that, you know, the conservatives are trying to enshrine these types of restrictions into law.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, recently, Georgia, Mississippi, and Ohio have enacted controversial laws that ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But Vermont’s taking a different stance. The state legislature has passed Proposal 5 to amend the state constitution to protect personal reproductive liberty, and guarantee the right to an abortion. Is this the only way to protect reproductive rights in the U.S.?
CHINYERE EZIE: I certainly hope not. That would basically be conceding that we are going to return to a time where the rights of women and people with childbearing capacities are matters of state prerogative, not of constitutional magnitude. And so the idea that you can, you know, wake up in New York and have full access to reproductive choices and reproductive health services, but then board a plane, find yourself in Atlanta, and suddenly you’ll be criminalized if you seek to access the very same procedures you could have a plane ride away, we’re really looking at more divided union than we’ve ever experienced; at least in my lifetime. And I really hope that that’s not what becomes enshrined into law.
TAYA GRAHAM: You know, it’s interesting that you pointed out that people in the state of Alabama are pushing back, because Alabama has the largest number of Black women than any other U.S. state, and often Black women are minimum wage earners. How do you think these restrictions will specifically affect Black women and women of color?
CHINYERE EZIE: There is no doubt that passing restrictions on reproductive rights will have a very disparate impact on people who are low income and often racial minorities. Even in states and even in moments in this country where reproductive rights have not been as fully protected, there have always been people with access who will travel to access the care they need. There are oftentimes–I’ve heard stories of this myself–people who will be protesting outside an abortion clinic and then go in to seek services themselves the next day, you know, with the resources and means that they have. And so what’s really going to happen is that there will be those people who are least able to travel, least able to sort of pick up and move there to a different location, to sort of, you know, to live and work, or just to even access healthcare procedures that they need, that are going to face the burdens of this rollback on reproductive rights.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Alabama’s new law will be enforceable in six months, and doctors could face up to 99 years in prison for performing an abortion. Do you think these laws will actually be enforced?
CHINYERE EZIE: I don’t think they will be. I think that Republican activists are counting on that. What I really do want to point out, so often we hear the phrase ‘judicial activism’ thrown around in the media. But this is really an unprecedented moment of judicial activism in this country. You have a conservative movement that has bubbled up, counting on and relying on the judicial activist in chief–Judge Kavanaugh, who’s newly been appointed–to basically roll back the rights of women and minorities and others who have childbearing potential in this country. So they are counting on judicial activists to unsettle Supreme Court precedent that has been on the books for more than a generation. And so I really hope that we appreciate what’s happening here, which is really nothing but, again, pure legal activism by the conservative right, and an attempt to sort of disregard the law, disregard the Constitution and what it requires when it comes to reproductive choice and freedom in this country.
TAYA GRAHAM: I think it’s really interesting that you brought up Justice Kavanaugh and the more conservative composition of the Supreme Court, because we’re looking at decades of this judicial activism that you’re referring to. What do you predict you’ll see in the Supreme Court in relation to reproductive rights in the future? What do you envision?
CHINYERE EZIE: I think there is no doubt that there will be renewed hostility to the rights of all minorities, and all [inaudible] who regularly seek the protection of the Constitution with respect to just having the promises of this country made manifest for them. I don’t think that reproductive rights activists are–that their concerns are unwarranted about the future of some of these steady precedents. But I think that if we have a faithful reading of the Constitution, of the concept of stare decisis, which treats Supreme Court cases that are long-held as settled law not to be disrupted on a whim, then there’s really no reason that Roe v. Wade should fall. But again, I think if you take a hard look at who’s on the court right now, there will be a lot of hostility, and perhaps a great deal of eagerness to to rewrite the law, in effect, with respect to these issues.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, there are recent examples of a pushback against legal abortion around the world, including a recent case in Argentina of an 11-year-old rape victim who was forced by the government to carry the child. Is this conservative pushback against abortion a worldwide phenomenon?
CHINYERE EZIE: You know, so oftentimes I think that we if we look at conservativism around the world there is a lot of global linkages. My organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, previously litigated a case where we found that a bill in Uganda that literally called for killing the gays have been pioneered and been drafted by a preacher, Scott Lively, right here in the United States. And so so often there are these really interesting transnational, international linkages of conservative activism. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if we are looking ahead to a global movement to roll back reproductive rights.
TAYA GRAHAM: There’s also a global gag rule that denies U.S. federal funding to any overseas organization that provides or even counsels women on abortion. How much influence does the U.S. have on reproductive rights worldwide?
CHINYERE EZIE: Certainly I think the United States has been looked to as a leader when it comes to human rights and civil rights. I fear that that moment is soon going to change. I think that this administration is openly hostile to the rights of women and other minorities. And I fear that our leadership on these and other issues is really going to begin to fade.
TAYA GRAHAM: Chinyere, I want to thank you so much for joining me and helping us to understand what the future of reproductive rights looks like in this country and around the world. Thank you so much for your time.
CHINYERE EZIE: I really appreciate it. Is it possible just to add a few more remarks?
TAYA GRAHAM: Oh, absolutely. Please go ahead.
CHINYERE EZIE: OK. One thing that I think is significant to point out is that of the eight states that have passed laws restricting the rights of women and other people childbearing capability to seek abortions, that of those states, you also have some of the highest rates of maternal mortality in this country. You also have almost a uniform refusal to adopt laws that would expand Medicaid protections so that more people, women and children, low income families, have access to life-sustaining healthcare when they get sick, so forth and so on. And so you have the same, the very same states that are claiming they’re trying to protect the right to life, protect the sanctity of life, ignoring the rights and abilities of their very own citizens to thrive once they’re here. You know, the ability of them to access the necessary healthcare to build and sustain rich and authentic lives. And so I really think that we have to reframe this debate to look more holistically at the types of policies and practices that can sustain life, and the types that just show cynicism for the constitutional rights of others.
TAYA GRAHAM: I think it’s really interesting you mentioned that, because the CDC just released a report showing that most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. And I was wondering how that pushback on reproductive technology was going to impact women.
CHINYERE EZIE: Absolutely. And the fact that people who are low income, who are, you know, mothers, who are children, are unable to access healthcare in states like Alabama and Georgia because the legislators of that state who are claiming now to care about the sanctity of life refuse to pass Medicaid expansion. I really think it reframes this issue, and shows you what’s really at play, which, again, is real cynicism towards the rights and bodily autonomy of women.
TAYA GRAHAM: I want to thank my guest Chinyere Ezie for helping us understand the impact that these reproductive rights struggles are having, not just in the U.S., but around the world. And I want to thank you for joining me at The Real News Network.