Without Roe, women will die
My mother remembers those harrowing times before the U. S. Supreme Court validated a woman’s right to control her own body, before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. “I knew a lady — a school teacher — who died after a back-alley abortion,” she told me.
Back then, there were few options available for a woman experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. If the woman’s circumstances were dire enough — if she had been raped or if her health were threatened or if she simply could not care for another child — she may have made the decision to seek out an unlicensed practitioner of an illegal procedure. Often, she didn’t survive.
On Election Day, the voters of Alabama and West Virginia paved the way for their states to return to those awful times. They approved amendments to their state constitutions that would make abortion illegal if Roe v. Wade is thrown out. And those states are not alone. Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota had already passed similar proposals.
With the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, so-called pro-lifers are giddy over the prospect of overturning Roe. The amendments passed in Alabama and a handful of other states are meant to give them a fast lane to restricting reproductive freedoms. They won’t have to wait once Roe is history.
Several other states haven’t gone quite as far yet, but they don’t mean to be left behind, either. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research organization dedicated to reproductive health, 29 states have passed enough anti-abortion restrictions that they are considered “hostile” or “very hostile” to reproductive rights.
As those restrictions increasingly become obstacles to reproductive health care, “women will die,” said Staci Fox, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Planned Parenthood Southeast, which has clinics in Alabama and Mississippi as well as Georgia. “I think we’re going to be looking at a crisis. We are looking at a time where we revert to women taking these unplanned pregnancies into their own hands.”
The United States already has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world — a stunning fact in and of itself. The rate of pregnancy-rated deaths is certain to rise as a result of the all-out assault on reproductive medical care.
Abortions are a consequence of unplanned pregnancies; in 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half — 45 percent — of the pregnancies in this country were unintended. But here’s the good news: between 2008 and 2011, unintended pregnancies declined — as did abortions. Researchers say that’s most likely because of the broader use of better contraceptives.
Yet, the same rightwing forces that denounce abortion also undermine or cripple efforts to provide contraceptives. Consider their ongoing attacks on Planned Parenthood. While its clinics usually offer abortion services, that’s a very small part of what they do. Mostly, they provide routine gynecological care, sex education and contraceptives to women who can’t get them otherwise. If you wanted to curb abortions, you’d certainly support Planned Parenthood. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Planned Parenthood Southeast.)
Instead, so-called pro-lifers have waged a decades-long battle against a woman’s right to control her own body. They have never won the war for public opinion; according to polls, more Americans support Roe than oppose it. But conservatives’ control of the nation’s highest court may have given them all the firepower they need. So what might the future to which they aspire look like?
“In the 1950s and 1960s,” according to Scientific American, “between 200,000 and 1.2 million women underwent illegal abortions each year in the U.S., many in unsafe conditions. According to one estimate, extrapolating data from North Carolina to the nation as a whole, 699,000 illegal abortions occurred in the U.S. during 1955, and 829,000 illegal procedures were performed in 1967.”
Poor women, those without the resources to get to a safe facility in a state such as, say, New York, will suffer most. But there will also be deaths among the more affluent — teenagers afraid to tell their parents, professionals too overwhelmed to seek care in a distant state. The “pro-life” movement can’t wait.