The decision last week by the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 judgment known as Roe v Wade is a worrying sign on many levels, including that Australia and its closest ally may be heading on divergent political and social paths.
Since the 1960s, the US has often served as an example to democracies, including Australia, of progressive change. The civil rights movement in the US inspired the campaign that led to recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution in 1967. Australian feminists and supporters of gay rights in the 1970s looked to the US for inspiration and ideas.
Yet that sense of shared values seems to be fraying in a number of areas as the US sinks deeper into division and intractable culture wars.
The Supreme Court, which found by a majority of 5-4 that the US Constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion, is one sign of that divergence. The decision allows individual states to ban abortion. Nine states with a total population of 40 million triggered legislation that banned the procedure as soon as the judgment was handed down, and 16 more could bring in bans.
The decision means that for the first time since the 1970s, women in the US who choose to terminate a pregnancy will face the threat of jail. Doctors who provide the service will face prosecution. Some states may try to punish women who travel interstate to have the procedure.
In Australia, the debate over women’s reproductive rights has largely been settled. In Victoria the procedure was decriminalised in 2008.
While some women’s rights activists in Australia have expressed concern that the Supreme Court decision will inspire conservatives here to try to reopen the issue of abortion, it seems unlikely they could gain much traction.
The balance in Australia has swung in favour of secular values over religious ones, not just on abortion but also on LGBTQ rights and voluntary assisted dying. Women have growing political power, not only on abortion but on issues from childcare to domestic violence.
It is not just the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion that raises questions about whether the US and Australia are still aligned in their views of the world.
Australians cannot understand the US’s failure to control gun ownership, even though its citizens are gunned down in mass shootings routinely.
While Congress seems likely to pass some minor gun control measures in response to the shootings in Uvalde, Texas, this month, the Supreme Court ruled last week that the US Constitution guarantees the right to carry guns in public.
Many Australians also recoil from the Republican Party’s refusal to condemn former president Donald Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021. The recent hearings on the insurrection in Congress point to a country so riven by partisan hatred that it cannot even agree on the most fundamental processes of democracy.
It is likely that divisions within the US will deepen in coming years. The new conservative majority that Trump created on the Supreme Court could soon turn its attention to same-sex marriage or the US federal government’s power to take action on climate change.
The court could decide the outcome of contested congressional or presidential elections, including a potential run by Trump in 2024.
Australia must hope that the US can put its house in order. Its leadership is needed on issues from climate change to the war in Ukraine. American democracy has bounced back from crises in the past, from the Civil War to Watergate. It is to be hoped it can do so again.
Gay Alcorn sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.