The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Supreme Court turns the U.S. into a cautionary tale

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The American right loves to trumpet their nation’s “exceptionalism,” the myth that the United States’ political system and values are inherently unique and implicitly better than anything found elsewhere in the world. But whatever the merits of the belief, the United States in recent years has been seen by its closest partners as exceptional for all the wrong reasons.

The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol prompted myriad politicians in other advanced democracies to point to the relative health of their republics and the greater decorum and maturity of their transfers of power. The merciless toll of mass shootings in the United States reminds observers in places like Canada, Australia and Britain of the greater sanity of their nations’ gun laws.

And Friday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade — scrapping the constitutional right to an abortion — led to a host of world leaders from across the political spectrum holding the United States up as a cautionary tale, a warning to the world of how fundamental rights can be lost.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a center-left politician, described the ruling as “horrific,” tweeting that “no government, politician, or man should tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body.” Britain’s right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the decision “clearly has massive impacts on people’s thinking around the world” and called it a “big step backward.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, expressed his “solidarity” with those “whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court.” French lawmakers on Saturday proposed a law that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the French constitution.

“Nothing is impossible, and … the rights of women are always rights that are fragile and are regularly called into question,” Aurore Bergé, who heads Macron’s party in Parliament, told French radio, explaining that the U.S. Supreme Court’s move motivated this legislative push. “I think we must not take any risk on the matter and therefore secure [the right to abortion] by inscribing it in our constitution.”

The troubled paradox of U.S. democracy

On reproductive rights, the United States is now moving against the tide. “Over the past several decades, more than 50 countries have liberalized their abortion laws, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy group that supports abortion rights,” my colleagues explained. “Only the United States, Poland and Nicaragua have reduced abortion access in the 21st century. Now many U.S. states are poised to enact much more restrictive laws than those in most other developed countries.”

U.S. reproductive rights campaigners already are looking outside the country for sources of inspiration. “Across Latin America, feminist green wave organizers have sustained strategic campaigns — and won protections for these fundamental freedoms, despite intense opposition,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a leading social justice philanthropy organization, said in a statement. “We turn to their success as a roadmap for advocacy and a beacon for hope in the broader struggle for gender equality.”

At home, rights activists see a darkening picture. The conservative majority’s ruling overturning Roe, some worry, sets the stage for the possible further curtailing of other rights, including that of same-sex marriage as well as protections for racial and ethnic minorities.

“I think this is a perfect decision for the 18th century,” Rosalie Abella, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who retired last summer from the Supreme Court of Canada, told the Globe and Mail on Friday. In her interview with the Canadian newspaper, the former justice likened the new ruling to other infamous Supreme Court verdicts that deprived Americans of fundamental rights — such as Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, which said Americans of African descent could never become citizens.

“That to me is as inconceivable as what they did today,” Abella said. “And yet they did it. It’s a frightening precedent, and delegitimizes the integrity of a court.”

How abortion laws in the U.S. compare with those in other countries

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is now in the spotlight. The court’s weaponization by the American right is the end goal of decades of concerted effort and campaigning. “The conservative movement’s control of the Supreme Court, its success in skewing the electoral process through voting restrictions and gerrymandering, and the Democrats’ likely collapse in the coming midterms have bolstered Republicans’ confidence that they can drastically reshape American society on their terms without losing power,” wrote the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer.

It is clear now, Serwer added, that “the Supreme Court has become an institution whose primary role is to force a right-wing vision of American society on the rest of the country.”

In that regard, the United States finds itself in rather unflattering company. Analysts point to Poland, whose illiberal nationalist ruling party has spent years re-engineering the judiciary in its favor, much to the consternation of the European Union leadership in Brussels. Last year, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that made abortion, or abetting an abortion, a criminal act, with exceptions only for rape, incest and to protect the mother’s life.

Some Poles, like many Americans, saw its determination as an ideological act. “Many people in both countries perceive judicial institutions to be politicized,” said Courtney Blackington, an American Fulbright scholar affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Warsaw, to The Post’s Retropolis blog. “When the new abortion ruling came out last year, there were activists who told me that they could not respect it because they felt it emanated from an institution that no longer respected the law.”

In the emotional aftermath of Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, countless Americans expressed similar feelings.

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