A SENIOR official in the Episcopal Church in the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to abortion rights, in response to a draft judgment that suggests that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn the legal right to abortion.
The document, published by the website Politico on Monday, is a draft ruling by the country’s highest court, written by Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of a majority of the court’s judges. In the draft, the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade — a case that has guaranteed abortion rights for US women for the past 50 years — is described as “egregiously wrong”.
On Tuesday, the Revd Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, released a statement reaffirming the Church’s support for access to abortion.
“Extremists are on the verge of making good on a half-century of threats,” she warns, and describes moves to outlaw abortion as “thinly veiled efforts to exercise theocratic control over a decision that should only ever be made by a pregnant person in consultation with their doctor and their conscience”.
In 1976, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution that committed the Church to “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them”.
Ms Jennings writes: “As Episcopalians, we have a particular obligation to stand against Christians who seek to destroy our multicultural democracy and recast the United States as an idol to the cruel and distorted Christianity they advocate.”
She concludes: “we must make our Christian witness to the dignity of every human being by insisting that we support the right to safe and legal reproductive health-care because our faith in a compassionate God requires us to do so.”
Roe v. Wade established a constitutional right to abortion up to the point at which a foetus can survive outside the womb. The ruling has prevented US states’ passing more prohibitive laws. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
The new judgment would, if confirmed when the court officially gives its ruling in early July, roll back these provisions and leave it to individual states to pass new laws governing abortion.
The US Chief Justice, John Roberts, confirmed on Tuesday that the document was genuine, though not definitive. He said: “Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.”
The draft judgment states: “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” It concludes that in Roe v. Wade: “The Court usurped the power to address a question of profound moral and social importance that the Constitution unequivocally leaves for the people.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights, a group that argues for abortion rights, projects that 24 of the 50 states are likely to ban abortion if permitted to do so. Between 13 and 22 states, it is estimated, have “trigger laws” that will make abortion illegal the moment that Roe v. Wade is overturned, without requiring further legislation.
There is little middle ground between the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps in the US. In May 2021, the Pew Research Center published a study suggesting that 59 per cent of adult Americans thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 39 per cent who said that it should be outlawed in all or most cases.
Justice Alito, who is a Roman Catholic, has long opposed the ruling in Roe v. Wade. The New York Times reports that, in 1985, he stated in an application for the position of deputy assistant attorney general, that he was “particularly proud” to have promoted the argument that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”
In recent years, the balance in the Supreme Court has been tipped towards a conservative majority, thanks to appointments to the court made during Donald Trump’s presidency.
One of the Trump appointees is Justice Amy Conney Barrett. According to Politico, she is one of the judges who has endorsed Justice Alito’s judgment. Her appointment to the court was opposed by senators from the Democratic Party, some highlighting her involvement with the Charismatic Renewal group People of Praise as evidence of her unsuitability (Comment, 2 October 2020).
President Joe Biden responded to the leak, saying: “If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose.”
President Biden, who is a Roman Catholic, has previously faced criticism from RC leaders in the United States over his refusal to ban abortion (News, 25 June 2021).
The leaked document has provoked strong reactions from both sides of the abortion debate in America. Barriers were erected around the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, minutes after the document was published. Activists from both sides gathered outside the court as officials arrived on Tuesday morning.
A Democratic Senator, Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate, opened the day’s business with a statement that called the apparent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade an “abomination”.
The Congressional leaders of the Republican Party issued a joint statement supporting the draft judgment, and expressing hope that none of the judges would change their mind. They described the decision as one that “protects our most basic and precious right: the right to life”.
Some organisations involved in the long-running debate about abortion have remained circumspect. The RC Archbishop of St Paul & Minneapolis, the Most Revd Bernard Hebda, said that he would “comment when the Supreme Court releases its official ruling”, the Catholic News Service reported on Wednesday.
Archbishop Hebda’s statement continued: “No matter the court’s decision, the Catholic Church will continue to work toward building a culture of life and supporting women and their children.”
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, was among the first in the UK to voice their reaction. On Tuesday morning, she posted on Twitter: “The right of women to decide what happens to our own bodies is a human right.”
The Revd Lizzi Green, a Church of England priest, also expressed opposition on Twitter, describing the decision as “deeply, deeply wrong”. By Wednesday lunchtime her post had attracted more than 20,000 likes.
Ms Green, an assistant curate in the diocese of Chichester, wrote: “abortion saves lives”, recounting her experience of having an abortion because “pregnancy was killing me”. She also wrote of having an abortion “incredibly early, after a rape that left me broken”.