Absence of Roe v Wade won’t just impact the US

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Right to privacy

Mains level : Paper 2- Abortion rights

Context

The leak of an initial draft majority opinion of the US Supreme Court voting to overturn the decision in Roe v Wade has sent shockwaves across liberal and conservative quarters alike, globally.

Background of the Roe v Wade case

  • Right to abortion: While locating the right of privacy within the guarantee of personal liberty enshrined in the fourteenth amendment of the American constitution, Roe embodies a supervening constitutional right to abortion emanating from this right of privacy.
  • The right to abort was held to be a constitutionally protected right within the right of privacy.
  • Roe, the 1973 outcome of an unmarried woman’s crusade for bodily autonomy, had declared overbroad, and consequently unconstitutional, a provision of the Texas Penal Code which permitted only those abortions that were “procured or attempted by medical advice to save the life of the mother”.
  • The decision simultaneously recognised the state’s interest in protecting the life of the foetus as also the life of the mother. 
  • Roe is not only relevant as a progressive trailblazer for reproductive rights in the United States but is also fundamental to constitutional jurisprudence globally for the interpretative tools it employed.

Implications of overturning Roe v Wade

  • Political considerations vs judicial responsibility: The overturning of Roe is more than the mere abdication of the judicial responsibility to protect individual rights — it signals a dangerous trend of courts making long-standing determinations of legal rights based on transient political considerations.
  • Incursion into women’s right to abort: It would also mean legitimisation of state incursions into women’s right to abort and consequently their right to bodily autonomy and liberty, in addition to forcing them to move to states with enabling laws to procure abortions, leading to issues of access and affordability of abortions.
  • While the impact of Roe’s absence would most profoundly be felt in the US, it is likely to embolden conservative anti-abortion voices across the world.
  • Limits of judicial activism: It will inevitably also raise fundamental questions on the limits of judicial activism aimed at protecting the rights of persons and classes, which do not find explicit mention within a country’s constitutional framework.
  • Possibility of a conservative approach to abortion cases: In 2021, the abortion laws in India underwent substantial changes, with the introduction of the Medical Termination for Pregnancy (Amendment) Act, 2021 which, in addition to destigmatising pregnancies outside marriage by introducing the nomenclature of “any woman or her partner”, also increased the upper gestational limits within which pregnancies are legally terminable.
  • The Act, however, carries ambiguities and leaves room for both judicial and executive interpretation.
  • As cases of subjective determination arise, the Indian judiciary will be called upon to reconcile the right to privacy recognised in Puttaswamy with the permissible limits of abortion in the Act.

How does Roe v Wade apply in the Indian context?

  • In KS Puttaswamy v Union of India, Justice Chandrachud referred to Roe and Planned Parenthood while reading the right to privacy into the existing framework of constitutionally protected fundamental rights subject to “just, reasonable and fair” restrictions.
  • Recognising derivative rights: In the lifetime of the Indian Supreme Court, recognising derivative rights within the existing framework of fundamental rights has been regularly witnessed — be it rights during arrest and detention, the right to express one’s sexual and gender identity, or rights against harassment at the workplace, to cite a few.
  • Setback to transformative constitutionalism: In the Indian context, the overturning could be seen as a setback to the celebrated doctrine of transformative constitutionalism, which sees the Indian Constitution as a “living document” that moulds, adapts and responds to changing times and circumstances.

Conclusion

The likelihood of the overturning of Roe leading to more conservative approaches to judicial interpretation in abortion rights cases, cannot be ruled out.

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