What’s going on?
On January 22, 1973, a landmark decision was made.
A single mother from Texas won a lengthy Supreme Court battle over her right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy via abortion in a state that usually banned it. The Court ruled that abortion access was protected by a woman’s Constitutional right to privacy and gave women total autonomy over their pregnancies during the first trimester -- around 12 weeks.
Of course, some people were unhappy with the Roe v. Wade decision, but the huge wave of anti-choice ideology that we know today didn’t escalate until decades later.
Abortion issues began bubbling back to the surface when the Affordable Care Act prompted debate over whether federal funds should pay for abortions. Then, during and after the 2010 midterm elections, abortion became a political bargaining chip used by Republicans, who had just won more control in the state legislatures and opposed both the Obama administration and the ACA. They passed laws restricting insurance coverage of abortion, which brought the issue into the national spotlight again, and many of them emphasized late-term abortions (past 20 weeks), for which relatively few Americans show support compared to procedures in the first trimester.
More abortion restrictions were passed between 2011-2014 than in the entire previous decade; in fact, in 2014, state legislators proposed 335 new laws to that end. 15 states enacted 26 of these measures, bringing the count to 231 new abortion restrictions since the 2010 midterm elections.
Now, there are strict barriers to abortion access in nearly 30 states, and 57 percent of U.S. women of reproductive age live in places considered hostile (with 4-5 restrictive anti-abortion laws) or extremely hostile (6-10 laws) to reproductive rights.
And these laws are becoming more and more restrictive.
Most recently, Mississippi proposed banning abortion after 15 weeks except for in cases of medical emergencies, and the governor of Louisiana said that he would support a similar bill if introduced in his state.
In Idaho, abortion providers are now required to report how many procedures their patients seek as well as patients’ ages, races and number of children they have. This information will be compiled into an annual state report and released to the public. Although no identifying information will be included, it’s undoubtedly a move to intimidate abortion seekers out of following through with the procedure.
What’s more, Kentucky is currently debating banning dilation and evacuation, an abortion method used in 16 percent of Kentucky abortions, after just 11 weeks.
Meanwhile, in Ohio -- where the “heartbeat bill" would have prohibited abortions around six weeks, before many women even know that they are pregnant -- legislators have proposed banning the procedure altogether.
Their report says the state is seeking the “abolition of abortion in the state of Ohio and the protection of unborn humans" with no exceptions for medical emergencies, rape or incest. People who provide or have abortions could be charged with murder, a crime punishable by death in Ohio.
However, it’s important to note that some states, Ohio included, have been using this hyperpolarized and uniquely conservative political climate to establish a testing ground for laws that probably won’t get passed and definitely wouldn’t hold up in court if they did. Still, though, they are trying to determine just how far they can bend laws and restrict rights - a dangerous precedent with a worrisome outlook.
Why should we pay attention?
Restricting abortion access leads to several different types of injustices: aside from the obvious infringement of freedom and the right to bodily autonomy, public health and human rights are important factors to consider.
Regarding public health, one in four women will have an abortion before the age of 45. In states where women live far from abortion providers, or in countries where the procedure is completely prohibited, pregnancies still get terminated -- the same way that people still manage to find and use illegal drugs.
The issue then becomes how these illegal abortions are performed. Each year, about half of the 42 million women who terminate pregnancies undergo unsafe and often illegal procedures. Almost 70,000 of these women die, and 5-7 million of those who survive suffer long-term health complications. In fact, complications from unsafe abortions account for 13 percent of the worldwide maternal mortality rate.
This public health problem also gives way to a deeper issue of inequality and human rights. When a service is inaccessible, the already-disenfranchised communities suffer the worst from the restriction, and abortion is no different: young women, rural and low-income communities, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community have the most trouble accessing safe abortions in the US and around the world.
However, as the abortion discussion heats up politically, the nationwide need for abortions is actually declining. Rates of both abortion and teen pregnancies have hit an all-time low as access to contraceptives and sexual education has improved. If anti-choice politicians were to support comprehensive sex education and increasing women’s access to birth control, a stance opposing abortions would make more sense: it can be a sad, difficult experience, and many (though certainly not all or most) women who undergo the emotionally-taxing procedure suffer from social, familial and mental health repercussions.
Instead of making abortions inaccessible, though, opponents should focus instead on reducing the need for them. Nobody is advocating to increase abortion rates or to use the procedure as a form of birth control, but limiting access during a time when sex-ed and birth control access are continually threatened is extremely irresponsible.
What can you do about it?
As I wrote in my last column , contacting your representatives and voting for candidates who prioritize the issue are some of the most effective ways to engage in our democracy and promote positive social change. When it comes to the issue of safe, legal abortion access, there are a few more ways you can get involved.
- Start a club/organization on your campus.
One way to do this is through an organization called Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE)*. URGE is the only national reproductive justice organization exclusively working with young people and students, and they have a page on their website dedicated to helping students set up chapters on their campus.
At my university, there is a pro-life organization called Students for Life. I didn’t see any trace of an organization for reproductive justice and assumed that my private, historically-Baptist school did not allow it, but I eventually found out that another campus organization called Fighting for Our Rights and Gender Equality (FORGE) is an URGE chapter. So, even if you think your campus wouldn’t approve of a reproductive justice-specific organization, there’s never any harm in trying!
Even if you don’t start a chapter, URGE lists loads of ways to get involved with their organization regarding reproductive justice, parenting, health and wellness, sex and culture and civic engagement.
- Donate to or get involved with reproductive justice organizations.
Some are national and some international, and they all focus on much more than just abortion: other issues include education, HIV/AIDS, maternal health, contraception, young people’s rights, censorship, healthy pregnancies, LGBTQ+ reproductive issues, supporting women of color and indigenous women and holding fake pregnancy-crisis clinics accountable.
*These organizations have internship opportunities listed on their site.