University of BristolRoe v. Wade and the ongoing fight for reproductive justice

Roe v. Wade and the ongoing fight for reproductive justice

For almost a decade, researchers at the University of Bristol have been working towards decriminalising abortion, challenging laws that are archaic and out of kilter with modern values. They have also sought to establish reproductive rights as universal human rights.

In contrast, on June 24 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade legislation that protected access to abortion under the Constitution of the United States, eroding legal protections and giving rise to the potential for individual states to ban abortion entirely.

For Bristol’s researchers, this reinforced the continued need to fight for reproductive rights and ensure that decades of progress are not lost − and that despite the Supreme Court’s decision, momentum continues to gather behind the right of women and pregnant people around the world to control their own reproductive health choices.

In many countries, the right to abortion is controlled by decades-old laws to the detriment of women.  Until recently that was the case in Northern Ireland where the issue of abortion has long been divisive and controversial.

Research by Professor Sheelagh McGuinness and Dr Jane Rooney (now Assistant Professor in International Law at Durham University), has been instrumental in shaping abortion law reform in Northern Ireland where previously women were forced to seek solutions outside the legal and healthcare systems or to access abortion services elsewhere.

The research of McGuinness and Rooney has supported the successful campaign to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and help realise the demands of decades of activism and campaigning.

Drawing on their research, McGuinness and Rooney provided expert advice to MPs on abortion law in Northern Ireland and its human rights implications. Most crucially, they provided detailed advice to Stella Creasy MP, who in July 2019 tabled a successful amendment that became Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

When the amendment was passed, it decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland and required the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make provision for abortion services.

Meanwhile, Professor Sally Sheldon (formally of Kent University) had also been providing legal expertise to influence parliament and support the reformation of abortion law in the UK.

Her research focused on shifting the debate away from considering abortion as a criminal law issue and locating it firmly within a health law framework. 

Sheldon’s research informed two House of Commons Private Members Bills that played a fundamental role in raising the possibility of decriminalisation.

Professor Lesley Regan, then President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, described the first Bill as the ‘first sign’ of a significant shift’ towards seeing abortion care as an integral part of women’s health care, which should be treated and regulated accordingly, noting that it‘really lit a touch paper among like-minded MPs’.  

The fight for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland, the UK, and globally aims to establish a universal framework of reproductive justice. Dr. Sandra Duffy, as an active member of Lawyers for Choice, has been advocating for reproductive justice since 2015.

Lawyers for Choice, including members McGuinness and Sheldon, seeks to raise awareness and improve abortion laws through public legal education. Dr. Duffy has actively participated in its campaigns using social media to explain Irish legal system and abortion laws.

In a Conversation article, written in response to the US case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, which overturned Roe v. Wade, Dr. Duffy discussed the history and importance of reproductive justice in ensuring the right to control one’s body, considering individual backgrounds.

Given the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the concept of reproductive justice continues to hold significant global relevance.

Read the full article and find out more about the significant role our academics have played, and continue to play, in abortion law reform.

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