The past four years have been nothing short of devastating for reproductive rights in the United States. From 2011 to 2014, 231 abortion restrictions were enacted nationwide, leaving the majority of American women in states that are considered hostile to reproductive healthcare. And with the recent gains made by Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections, attacks on reproductive rights are only getting worse: In the first three months of 2015, Republican lawmakers introduced 332 provisions to restrict access to abortion — that’s an average of nearly four a day.
Anti-choice activists have never hidden the fact that they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and they’re using abortion bans to lay the groundwork. In thirteen states, Republican lawmakers have enacted bans on abortion at or before 20 weeks, some without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the pregnant person. In fact, states like Alabama and North Dakota have passed bans at 12 and six weeks, respectively – a point at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant. And while they couldn’t get it done earlier this year, congressional Republicans are eager to pass a federal ban on abortion at 20 weeks. These laws are all designed for one purpose: to force the anti-choice majority Supreme Court to consider a challenge to Roe.
While many of these laws are held up in legal battles, they are not just harmless judicial test cases. They have a real-world impact and do immediate, lasting damage while they wait out their day in court. These bans are wrong, dangerous, and should be roundly opposed. Here are five reasons why:
1. They violate women’s constitutional and human rights
Simply put, women have a constitutional right to have an abortion. In its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court established a right to personal privacy that includes a woman’s right to determine whether or not to bear a child. The Court ruled that states cannot restrict a woman’s access to abortion prior to the point of fetal viability – the point at which the fetus can survive outside of the womb.
Banning abortion at any point prior to fetal viability violates women’s constitutional right to an abortion. No wonder these state-level bans continue to be overturned in court. This is deliberate, however; anti-abortion advocates want to force the Supreme Court to take a case challenging the constitutional right to abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade. While laws from North Dakota’s six-week ban to Arkansas’ 12-week ban continue to be struck down in federal court, abortion bans continue to pass through Republican-dominated state legislatures like West Virginia.
Access to safe and legal abortion isn’t just a constitutional right; it is a human right. The United Nations has been overwhelmingly clear that women have a right to safe abortion, and that denying them access to safe abortion care is a violation of their human rights. The U.N. has warned countries with draconian abortion bans, like Chile and Ireland, that they may be in breach of international human rights treaties. In fact, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that banning safe abortion care is tantamount to torture. The United States has ratified the Convention Against Torture, but state and federal bans on abortion stand as a form of torture against Americans seeking safe abortion care.
2. They disproportionately harm poor and minority women
As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted earlier this year, the harmful impact of abortion restrictions disproportionately affects poor and minority women. This is in part because of pre-existing disparities in access to care: Research shows that low-income women and women of color are more likely to face significant financial and physical barriers to reproductive health care — including birth control, family planning, and routine gynecological care — which puts them at higher risk of unintended pregnancy and delayed detection of pregnancy. Forty-two percent of women obtaining abortions have incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level and 60 percent of women who had abortions in 2000 had incomes of less than twice the poverty level–below $28,000 per year for a family of three. While unimpeded access to safe and affordable abortion could address some of these disparities, restrictions on abortion care only magnify them.
So-called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws have closed safe clinics and have left millions of women hundreds of miles from a safe clinic, like in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In 2008, nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties did not have a clinic that performed abortions — but that’s just the starting point: Between 2010 and 2013, TRAP laws resulted in the closure of one in 10 clinics across the country. That’s in addition to mandatory waiting periods of 24, 48 or even 72 hours, which force women to make two separate trips to an abortion clinic within a short period of time. This may necessitate taking unpaid time off from work, making childcare arrangements, paying for lodging and traveling long distances. And onerous restrictions on medical abortion, like those in Oklahoma, force women to have costlier and sometimes unnecessary surgical abortions, often later in their pregnancies.
The result is that it is harder for women — particularly poor, minority, and rural women — to access a safe, legal and affordable abortion early on in their pregnancies. While abortion restrictions are an attack on the constitutional and human rights of all women, regardless of their socioeconomic status, the reality is that wealthy women will always be able to access safe abortion. Even in the unlikely event that Roe v. Wade is overturned one day, affluent women in states where abortion is outlawed will still be able to travel to states where it remains legal. Unfortunately, that won’t be a reality for poor women. When abortion is outlawed, they are the people who suffer the most. And we know that when women are left with few or no safe options, they will turn to unsafe measures to terminate a pregnancy. We’re already seeing this in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where abortion is banned at 20 weeks and safe clinics have been eradicated from the region. Instead of accessing a safe healthcare clinic in their community, poor women are now crossing the border into Mexico in order to have an abortion, with no guarantee that these procedures are safe.
3. They are based on junk science and deception
Abortion bans purposefully use inflammatory, medically-inaccurate language to mislead people about their intent: 20-week abortion bans refer to “fetal pain,” and six-week bans are termed “heartbeat bills,” while recently-enacted bans on the safest method of second-trimester abortions are described as bans on “dismemberment” or, in the case of surgical abortion, bans on “partial birth” abortion. This wording is meant to confuse people about what abortion actually entails, while also giving the appearance that the laws are based on established science. But they’re not. Not at all. These bans are based on junk science – unproven, untested, and even disproven scientific theories that are misrepresented as facts. Junk science underwrites much of our modern anti-abortion legislation, with some state “experts” lying in court about the scientific veracity of their statements.
In truth, the scientific community is roundly opposed to these bans because they have no scientific basis. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a national leader on gynecologic health and science, has denounced bans on abortion, specifically calling for an end to:
- The federal Hyde Amendment and other restrictions on public and private insurance coverage of abortion;
- Bans on telemedicine-based medication abortion;
- Mandatory pre-abortion counseling;
- Mandatory waiting periods;
- Mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds;
- TRAP laws;
- Attacks on abortion clinic buffer-zone laws;
- Restrictions on abortion training programs in medical education; and
- Other legislative interference with patient care, medical decisions, and the patient-physician relationship, as well as other legislation aimed at reducing access to safe, legal abortion in the U.S.
In a truly egregious example of how far anti-choice advocates are willing to go to deceive women, a growing number of laws actually force doctors to lie to their patients about abortion. The most recent of these laws, enacted this month in Arizona and Arkansas, require doctors to tell women undergoing medication abortion that the procedure is reversible — a claim that is not backed up by any evidence and which has come under fire from doctors and leading medical associations. Similar laws already exist in states across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 12 states, doctors must lie to patients about the ability of a fetus to feel pain early in pregnancy, even though the scientific consensus is that a fetus does not develop the the ability to transmit and interpret sensory information until at least 29 weeks’ gestation. In four states, doctors must say that an early abortion may cause infertility — a statement not supported by any scientific evidence. In five states, they must say that abortion may increase the risk of developing breast cancer, which is also completely untrue. In seven states, they must stress only potential negative emotional responses after an abortion—and in a couple, even warn patients that they may experience suicidal thoughts or the fictional “post-abortion traumatic stress syndrome.” In reality, research shows that the vast majority of women express relief after an abortion, and the supposed link to mental health problems has been debunked time and time again. The American Psychological Association also released a statement reaffirming that there is no credible evidence that abortion causes mental illness, but that the stigma and lack of social support surrounding abortion can have a negative effect on mental health.
4. They address a problem that doesn’t exist — while making real problems even worse
Contrary to what anti-choice activists might have you believe, America does not have an abortion crisis — quite the opposite, actually. The annual incidence of abortion in the U.S. fell from a rate of 29.3 per 1,000 women in 1981 to 19.6 in 2008. Between the years of 1973 and 2005, the abortion rate consistently dropped each year — a trend that researchers and women’s health experts say is the result of improvements in women’s access to contraception, increased knowledge and awareness of effective pregnancy prevention methods, and funding for programs like Medicaid’s family planning services.
And despite claims that abortion restrictions “protect” women’s health, the truth is that abortion is already one of the safest procedures in modern medicine. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 0.3% of all abortion patients have subsequent complications; in fact, giving birth is more dangerous and more likely to cause death than having an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute also reports that “abortions performed in the first trimester pose virtually no long-term risk of such problems as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”
In reality, abortion is simply a symptom of the real problem, not a problem in itself. The need for abortion is directly linked to unplanned pregnancy — a largely preventable problem caused by factors such as poor sex education curricula (e.g. “abstinence-only” education), underfunded (and defunded) family planning programs and public health clinics, and limited access to affordable contraception. But instead of addressing these factors through proven strategies shown to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, anti-choice activists continue to push for “solutions” that end up increasing the need for abortion while simultaneously reducing access to it.
5. They endanger lives
Research within the U.S. and around the world confirms that restricting women’s access to abortion is directly linked to higher rates of unsafe abortion and associated complications including infertility and death. But that’s only one of the ways that abortion restrictions endanger women’s lives.
Victims of intimate partner violence are among those most at risk. Women in abusive relationships are more likely to need abortion services, often because they are victims of reproductive coercion — a type of abuse characterized by behavior intended to maintain power in a relationship by taking away a woman’s control over her own reproductive health. According to the ACOG, examples of reproductive coercion include birth control sabotage, refusing to use condoms, threatening to end a relationship if a partner doesn’t have sex, and controlling abortion-related decisions. By restricting access to abortion, anti-choice laws put victims of domestic violence in grave danger. In violent relationships, abuse often escalates during pregnancy – in fact, homicide is one of the leading causes of death among pregnant women in the United States. Additionally, victims who are forced to carry a pregnancy to term due to lack of abortion access are often unable to leave their abuser; even if they do leave, studies have shown that batterers use their children to continue abusing the mother.
The broader movement behind the push for abortion bans has also introduced a disturbingly ugly element into political discourse. As it turns out, the mainstream anti-choice movement is quite closely linked to the extreme and often violent acts of more radical anti-abortion groups: protests at abortion clinics, for instance, are often organized by extremist groups such as Operation Rescue, Lambs of Christ, and the Army of God, while politicians have adopted the radical discourse of these groups. A current U.S. senator has called for the execution of abortion providers, and at least three states have introduced “justifiable homicide” laws—laws that are intended to cover killings committed in the defense of an “unborn child” but which have been interpreted by some law enforcement officials as legitimating the murder of providers. (None of these laws have passed to date.) After the murder of abortion provider George Tiller’s murder, abortion rights supporters in the U.S. Senate were unable to get enough votes to pass a resolution condemning this act. (So much for “pro-life”).
The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade paved the way for dramatic improvements in women’s health and lives. Since abortion was legalized in 1973, the safety of the procedure has increased dramatically. The number of deaths per 100,000 abortion procedures declined from 4.1 to 0.6 between 1973 and 1997, as women across the country gained access to legal abortion and were no longer forced to resort to unsafe, “back-alley” abortions. Additionally, Roe has improved the quality of many women’s lives. In the more than 40 years since the ruling, the variety and level of women’s achievements have reached unprecedented heights. In fact, the Supreme Court has observed that “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”
It is not abortion, but bans on abortion, that continue to threaten the health and safety of American women.
“It took tremendous courage for the heroes of yesterday’s civil rights battles to stand on the front lines of the struggle for full citizenship for blacks. It will take enormous courage for America’s pro-choice majority to face down powerful opponents of choice at the clinics and in the state houses, the Congress and the White House. But we can afford to do no less.” -Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).