Today marks the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: the landmark Supreme Court decision, made in 1973 by an overwhelming 7-2 majority of Justices, that set a powerful precedent and opened new, safe opportunities for legal abortion in America.
In the decades since, as conversations around liberal ideas have changed, abortion is increasingly viewed as a common-sense legal right. According to a recent Gallup poll, half of Americans now believe that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, with an additional 29 percent saying that it should always be legal. These numbers have remained steady over the past few years, suggesting that reproductive choice may be becoming more widely accepted.
However, just because nearly 80 percent of the country thinks that abortion should be legal in some or all cases doesn’t mean that our state laws reflect those beliefs. And just because the Supreme Court decided that having an abortion is a legal right doesn’t mean that state lawmakers have stopped trying to erect barriers against people trying to exercise that right.
In 2016 the GOP made major gains in state legislatures, flipping 138 seats from blue to red. Those gains, along with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, have shown us an emboldened party making good use of its power to enact policy changes on key Republican issues. One of those issues is the right the choose an abortion.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 2017 was a record year in enacting policies that restrict abortion access, with 58 new restrictive proactive measures passed in 21 states. For comparison’s sake, the previous year saw only 28 similar measures being passed nationwide. While state-sponsored restrictions aren’t anything new (indeed, such tactics have escalated since the Roe v Wade ruling), the steep incline means that 29 of our 50 states are now considered hostile to women seeking to exercise their legal right to abortion.
Some of the restrictions are pretty straightforward. For example, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia, and Mississippi all passed laws that focus on either outlawing particular abortion methods or prohibiting abortion after a particular point in pregnancy. Many of these restrictions are tied up in court and aren’t yet in effect. Others may seem innocuous, or even helpful. These kinds of laws are often presented as ways of helping women make informed decisions, such as mandatory counseling or compulsory ultrasounds or enforced waiting periods of up to 72 hours. Another example of a misrepresented barrier law is the requirement of abortion clinics to adhere to singularly stringent codes. Another is the stipulation for minors seeking an abortion to prove parental consent. These barriers are not helpful. They’re harmful, in fact. They fail to take into consideration the real-life challenges that women seeking abortion face.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 49 percent of women who seek abortions live below the federal poverty level, and 59 percent already have children. Are those women expected to have time for mandatory ultrasounds, counseling, and 72-hour wait periods? Furthermore, the draconian and costly requirements that abortion clinics face, often requiring them to be on par with surgical institutions such as hospitals, force many to shut down. In Kentucky, only one clinic remains after being kept open by a federal court in 2018. How are women expected to travel hundreds of miles to the next nearest location? Are they meant to take their children with them? Or perhaps pay for childcare with the money they aren’t earning on the days they are forced to take off work as they must travel, often crossing state lines, to find a place to exercise their legal right? And why is the burden of navigating this labyrinthian mess placed on individual women?
Perhaps most troublingly, many of the laws passed in recent years have little or no basis in actual science. Many state laws incorporate erroneous assumptions into the mandatory counseling—telling women that having an abortion can lead to mental health issues, to breast cancer, or to future infertility. None of those claims is substantiated by scientific evidence. Other women are told that their fetus can feel pain regardless of the stage of their pregnancy, although this is only true of a fetus after 24 weeks of gestation. These are just a few examples of the blatant falsehoods that women are subjected to, all of which result in unnecessary strife in an already trying situation.
I recently spoke with Danie, a full-spectrum doula, whose work supports people in every part of their reproductive life and cycle. This includes working as a sex educator for teens and adults, providing support to those who have experienced stillbirth or miscarriage, assisting people through labor and postpartum, and helping those who choose to have an abortion. They spoke of a plethora of complications faced by those seeking an abortion.
“Even in New York,” Danie said, “there are only a select amount of places that offer the service of abortion… and [travel] time can be very prohibitive, especially if you’re working-class.” They also spoke of “prohibitive, restrictive guidelines for clinics” and the fact that, even in states that have mandated sick days and employee protections they have seen these laws ignored time and again, especially to the detriment of working-class women. This can result in women being penalized and risking their jobs if they take a day (or more) off to get an abortion.
Throughout our conversation, Danie came back to two issues more than any others: shame and access to unbiased information.
“Shame plays such a huge role in our society, in how we behave and do things.” they explained, “We shame people for getting pregnant in the first place, and then we shame people for getting an abortion. We even shame people for keeping babies!” In their view, it’s absurd to block access to birth control and comprehensive sex education and then shame people for unwanted pregnancies and the resultant consequences. “Access to comprehensive, unbiased sex education…we must have this!” they exclaimed, “it’s mandatory. If you don’t understand how the most basic issues of reproduction work you don’t know how to prevent it.” They went on to describe their own sex education, when they were a teen, as “not the worst, but it was abstinence-only.”
Currently, 37 states include information about abstinence on their sex education curricula, with 26 of these mandating that abstinence be heavily stressed. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between states that stress abstinence-only and those with the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
This avalanche of disheartening information is enough to make a person throw up their hands in defeat. Fortunately, it’s not the whole story. Even within this typhoon of restrictive laws and policies, there continues a strong counter effort—and it shows.
According to the Gallup poll cited above, a record number of Democrats (71 percent) now heartily identify as pro-choice. Which is good news, since in 2018 the Democratic party flipped six state Senates or Houses of Representatives from red to blue. They gained a total of 308 seats nationwide in that election, while Republicans lost almost an equal amount (296 seats total). Not to mention that the Democratic Party took back the U.S. House of Representatives. Think of all those pro-choice legislators, who are now poised to make changes in all those states.
There are also organizations that continue to work for our right to choose. The National Network of Abortion Funds, for example, does astounding work to distribute information about how and where to safely get an abortion across the country. Provide is another organization that focuses on training health and social service providers to respond supportively and to give accurate, appropriate information to people with unwanted pregnancies. Cycles and Sex is a website offering unbiased information about sex and reproductive cycles that is available and easily accessible.
Abortion by medicine (the Abortion Pill) is also become increasingly available (if not financially viable for all, especially in states where federal funding for abortion is denied). This innovation allows women to have abortions on their own terms, even at home, without having to suffer through the gauntlet of a picket line outside a clinic. The abortion pill isn’t new (it was approved in 2000), but as states continue to outlaw certain other abortion procedures, it’s growing in popularity and becoming more available through insurances and clinics.
Today we commemorate the anniversary of Roe v Wade, and it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come as a nation. We’ve had an unbelievable and inspiring journey since January 22, 1973.
It’s also important to take a look at the road ahead. With the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, tilting the ideological balance of the Court, Roe v. Wade is now threatened at the federal level. Kavanaugh represents a possible fifth and decisive vote to overturn the historic precedent. The good news is we’ll never stop working towards a future that ensures an individual’s right to choose.