New Blog: The Transnational Significance of June Medical

I was grateful to the Petrie From Institute at Harvard for inviting me to contribute to their symposium on the recent US Supreme Court case June Medical on the constitutionality of certain abortion restrictions. The post is reposted below, and originally published here.

By any ordinary standard of comparativism, one might suggest that the abortion jurisprudence of the United States is so particular to its own circumstances that it ought to be considered sui generis.

But U.S. Supreme Court abortion law decisions always attract international attention, not only because of the (perhaps peculiarly) combative nature of U.S. abortion law, but also because the United States is something of a bellwether for abortion law reform.

This is, in truth, rather undesirable. U.S. abortion law is shaped by the idiosyncrasies of at least three power struggles playing out in particular ways in the American politico-legal landscape: contestations between anti-abortion and pro-choice politics and activism, constitutionalist struggles between judicial and legislative decision-makers, and constitutional tensions between states and federal authority.

The fomented tensions of perpetually-contested authority in this multi-level constitutional system create contrived disputes; restrictions are sometimes introduced at the state level in an attempt to provoke federal judicial intervention and, ultimately, a reorientation of the constitutional landscape within which municipal abortion regulation must operate.

However, at least two factors mean that decisions such as June Medical do have international relevance.

The first is that the hyperactive production of restrictive abortion laws — motivated by a desire to create and exploit space in the politico-legal regime — combines with the disproportionately wealthy research base in the Global North to produce a raft of empirical, quantitative and qualitative research on the clinical, economic, aspirational, and legal implications of these interventions, some of which originate in and are almost completely limited to the United States. This research base has the capacity to dominate the international research landscape, not least given the dominance of the “systematic review” as an evidence-gathering approach in public health, and the high volume of U.S.-based abortion law research captured within such systematic reviews, often to the complete or substantial exclusion of research from the rest of the world.

The second reason for June Medical’s international traction is the long-standing and continuing norm entrepreneurship and transnational activism of proponents of many of these (mooted or promulgated) legal interventions.

As well as working to create legal barriers to safe abortion in their home countries, these anti-choice activists are often embedded in transnational networks of norm entrepreneurs through which such provisions can be exported to other jurisdictions.

In some cases—as Máiréad Enright and I found to have been the case in the legislative debates on a new abortion law in Ireland—anti-choice politicians and activists in a particular jurisdiction can and do take a “copy and paste” approach to provisions developed in the United States in an attempt to limit abortion law reform in their home country.

In addition, these networks of activists also exert influence on some donors on whom the health systems of at least some countries (largely in the Global South) are reliant, so that the regulatory disruption to abortion provision at home is exported as aid conditionality.

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of such interventions are, thus, of interest to those seeking both to restrict and to protect or expand access to safe abortion worldwide. The same interventions under consideration in the U.S. may well be making their way across borders in opposition or private members bills and amendments, private healthcare facilities’ codes of practice, and rogue pregnancy counselling agencies activities. They may ultimately need to be opposed through politics, activism, and possibly litigation.

Taking this into account, what succor—if any—might the transnational abortion lawyer committed to protecting and expanding access to safe abortion take from the Supreme Court’s decision in June Medical? The answer, regrettably, is very little. Although the top line outcome – the striking down of the admitting privileges requirement impugned in June Medical – is welcome, Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion shows very clearly that the regulatory disruption sought by proponents of such interventions is close to being realized.

In Whole Women’s Health, the Court made it very clear that the correct interpretation of the test in Planned Parenthood v Casey is that a court must consider the benefits and the burdens of an abortion restriction, which can survive constitutional scrutiny only if the benefits outweigh the burdens. However, in June Medical Chief Justice Roberts suggests rather a different approach to Casey. For him there is no need to balance benefits and burdens. Instead the question is whether a restriction imposes a substantial obstacle on accessing abortion and cannot be justified under a “rational basis” review. This is a much lower standard, from the perspective of the rights and reproductive agency of the abortion seeker, than the Whole Women’s Health approach.

It is hard to imagine an anti-choice judge reading and appreciating these laws, passed off as medical interventions, as imposing sufficiently substantial obstacles to women’s health to be deemed unconstitutional.

To an outside observer, then, June Medical seems to signal the Court’s openness to affirming the constitutionality of an abortion restriction that presents an opportunity for a determinative application of such an approach to Casey. 

Indeed, as Gretchen Borchelt has written, it may even be an invitation to anti-choice legislators to promulgate a law that would result in a wholesale revisiting of Casey. That would be a real crisis for constitutionally protected access to abortion in the United States, but also lower the bar in ways that might well migrate across the legislation, regulation, and practices of other jurisdictions, ultimately making safe abortion even less accessible than it already is to pregnant people far beyond the United States.

New Book: China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?

More than two years ago now, my friend and colleague Cora Chan (HKU) and I sat down to discuss something we might be able to do together. We have a shared interest in security and constitutionalism, and of course being one of the foremost public lawyers in Hong Kong Cora has an interest in the various dynamics of the Basic Law and ‘one country, two systems’.

Combining these interests we decided to apply to the British Academy/Leverhulme small grants scheme to support a project on national security, the rule of law, and the specific constitutional position of Hong Kong. We were successful with that application which meant that, combined with generous support from the HKU Centre for Comparative and Public Law, we had sufficient funds for two major workshops in Hong Kong.

The product of these workshops and of the subsequent work of authors and editors was a new book, just released from Hart Publishing, entitled China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law? (2020). Here is the book description:

All states are challenged by the need to protect national security while maintaining the rule of law, but the issue is particularly complex in the China–Hong Kong context. This book explores how China conceives of its national security and the position of Hong Kong. It considers the risks of introducing national security legislation in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s sources of resilience against encroachments on its rule of law that may come under the guise of national security. It points to what may be needed to maintain Hong Kong’s rule of law once China’s 50-year commitment to its autonomy ends in 2047.

The contributors to this book include world-renowned scholars in comparative public law and national security law. The collection covers a variety of disciplines and jurisdictions, and both scholarly and practical perspectives to present a forward-looking analysis on the rule of law in Hong Kong. It illustrates how Hong Kong may succeed in resisting pressure to advance China’s security interests through repressive law. Given China’s growing international stature, the collection’s reflections on China’s approach to security have much to tell us about its potential impact on the global political, security, and economic order.

When we undertook this project we had no idea that the book would be so timely. As has been widely reported the Beijing government has announced its intention to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. This is in spite of Article 23 of the Basic Law which makes it clear that such a law is for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong to pass. Previous attempts to do so gave rise to significant protests in Hong Kong; the only place in the People’s Republic of China where such protests are realistically imaginable. Since then there have been other instances of the Hong Kong people standing up for their autonomy and for the integrity of the ‘one country, two systems’ pledge, most recently against a proposed extradition law in the law year. It may well be that Beijing’s patience with this is coming to an end.

Our collection contextualises the present moment, whether by explaining the constitutional terrain within which Hong Kong and its national security are located or the ways in which China conceptualises and pursues its national security (quite different to what one might be used to from a liberal constitutionalist perspective). It also considers the sources of resilience that might be available to Hong Kong people: the common law, civil society, international human rights law and so on. Whether any of these sources of resilient will be sufficient to resist the most recent manoeuvres from Beijing or, indeed, to maintain autonomy in its face is a different question, but what our collection does offer is a range of expert perspectives from lawyers, sociologists, politicians and practitioners in and beyond Hong Kong.

The collection is currently available for the reduced price of £59.50 on the Hart website.

The introduction is available for free online here.

New article on non-execution of ECtHR judgments

In 2015, Klaas de Vries prepared a PACE report on the implementation of ECtHR judgments in the contracting parties. In it, he suggested that Article 46(4) of the Convention–the infringement proceeding–could usefully be turned to in order to address non-execution. This provision, which has never been used, provides:

If the Committee of Ministers considers that a High Contracting Party refuses to abide by a final judgment in a case to which it is a party, it may, after serving formal notice on that Party and by decision adopted by a majority vote of two thirds of the representatives entitled to sit on the committee, refer to the Court the question whether that Party has failed to fulfil its obligation under paragraph 1.

The release of that report prompted me and Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou (Liverpool) to reflect on the potential usefulness of Article 46(4) and, indeed, the dynamics of non-execution per se. The result of that is a paper forthcoming in 2017 in the International and Comparative Law Quarterly. The paper’s title (at least for now, but we think we will stick with it) is “Mission Impossible? Addressing Non-Execution through Infringement Proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights”. In the paper, we focus on what we deem ‘principled non-execution’ and ‘dilatory non-execution’:

It is essential that any attempt to seriously address non-execution would recognise the dynamics and reasons for non-execution. It is only once the root causes have been identified and considered that solutions can be devised or, indeed, that the insoluble nature of some challenges can be recognised. Thus, we propose here that non-simple non-execution can be broadly said to fall into two categories: principled non-execution and dilatory non-execution. The former can be said to relate to cases where states refuse to execute because of a deep-seated disagreement not only with the outcome but, perhaps more significantly, with the principle of an international court’s decision ‘overturning’ a domestic, democratically arrived at position in respect of a particular matter. There are very few instances of this type of non-execution, which is ultimately related to the fact that disagreement about human rights and about the meaning of a human rights treaty is possible, even when parties truly believe in and are committed to the protection of human rights. The latter relate to cases where States are generally dilatory in their execution of adverse judgments from the Court, so that individual cases of non-execution might be connected to this general pattern of resistance to giving effect to the outcome of international judicial supervision in the area of rights. The vast majority of cases of non-execution would fall into this broadly defined category. Importantly, the same State might well be a principled non-executor in some cases and a dilatory one in others.

Building on this distinction we go on to argue that resorting to the Court to address and resolve non-execution is impractical, futile, and likely to attract backlash. Both common sense and a critical engagement with the dynamics of non-execution illustrate that non-execution is a political problem requiring political solutions. As we argue near the end of the paper:

Not only are the practicalities of using Article 46(4) ECHR so complex as to make its deployment seem unlikely but—and more importantly—the almost certain futility and possible backlash that would flow therefrom make this avenue one in which, we argue, extreme caution should be displayed. If the Council of Europe is serious about tackling non-execution, then it must focus its attention on politics. It must take seriously the reality that, in some cases and at some times, non-execution is the politically popular and advantageous thing for the State to do with an eye to the domestic polity, and that the politics of reputation and peer pressure within the Council of Europe are not sufficiently strong to counter the domestic political ‘payoff’ of non-execution.

We hope to have an open access version of the paper to share soon, but in the meantime do feel free to get in touch directly if you would a copy of the un-typeset, un-finalised version of the paper.

New Essay: Evaluation and Effectiveness of Counter-Terrorism

Last autumn I went to Antwerp to give a lecture at a symposium there about responsible innovation in security technology. I am pleased that many of the papers from that symposium are being brought together in a book, including mine. I have now posted the accepted version of the essay on SSRN where it can be downloaded for free. Here is the abstract:

In spite of their proliferation at national and supra-national levels, evaluation of whether counter-terrorist measures are actually effective is worryingly inadequate or, sometimes, simply non-existent. In this short essay I argue that the expansion of counter-terrorism in the past fourteen years has had, and continues to have, serious implications for human rights (not only of suspected terrorists, but of all of us), for democracy, and for the Rule of Law. As a result, part of assessing the justifiability of maintaining (and expanding) these measures must be to establish that there are not only prospectively necessary and designed with rights concerns in mind (the arguments made in justifying introducing them), but also actually effective and proportionate. In order for us to truly assess the effectiveness of a counter-terrorist measure and the robustness of the underlying necessity claim, we must assess the extent to which they meet both meta-objectives of security measures per se and the specific objectives of these measures in as comprehensive, rigorous, and open a way possible. Current practice is, however, not to do this in a systematic manner, meaning that counter-terrorism continues to expand on the basis of prospective arguments as to its necessity and appropriateness, claims for trust on the part of governments and, ultimately, shaky evidentiary bases.