It’s an election year so discussions about abortion and Roe v. Wade are abundant. Republican candidates promise to repeal Roe v. Wade, making abortion illegal again. Most recently, when cornered in an interview Trump said he believes women receiving abortions should be punished. He quickly backpedaled the statement after public outcry, but the damage is done. His statement shows that regardless of his personal beliefs, a Republican candidate for President has to be vehemently anti-abortion.
The issue of legal abortion has also been active in the Supreme Court in the recent weeks. Texas’ continued efforts to make abortion less accessible forced a decision from the Supreme Court on what constitutes as an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions. This language comes out of a 1992 SCOTUS decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that stated that restrictions could be placed on access to abortion if “undue burden” was not placed on the woman seeking the abortion. The language “undue burden” is, of course, maddeningly vague. Many of the cases regarding abortion around the country today hinge on whether or not placing further restrictions on access to abortions constitutes an undue burden. Advocates of a woman’s right to choose understandably argue that requiring a woman to cross state lines for an abortion is an undue burden. Critics of abortion say that this is not unreasonable.
Appallingly, anti-abortion advocates have started to adapt their arguments for placing restrictions on abortions by saying that their number one concern is the health of the mother. They claim that the additional requirements they are asking for clinics to meet are necessary to ensure the safety of women receiving abortions. Of course, the Internet has seen through this sparking #stopthesham, which calls out the fact that this argument is obviously ridiculous.
With all this controversy swirling around abortions I started to think about the Constitutional Law course that I took in my last semester of college. The text for the class was called “Constitutional Law Stories” and instead of just dryly explaining the details of the SCOTUS case and the players involved, the text took a narrative approach and told the actual stories surrounding the decision. This had the effect of humanizing the case as well as explaining in personal detail why the case was so important. It was a powerful approach to explaining Constitutional Law and the stories of each case made an impact. This is especially true of the stories told about Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
I had never really thought much about these SCOTUS decisions. I knew that they made abortion legal and protected the right to abortion, respectively, and I knew that I supported a woman’s right to choose what she wanted to do with her own body. As a young woman in the 21st century this just seemed like a given. I never imagined what women had to go through to get these decisions passed through the Court. As I reflect on the current debates about abortion I realize that this aspect is what’s missing. Sure, it’s really important to discuss how access to abortion is essential to women’s equality, because it is. And it’s really important to talk about how women’s right to control their own bodies should be undebatable. This is also true. But I think that a lot of women of my generation, who grew up in a world where abortion was always legal, are too far removed from the stories of women who actually fought to legalize abortion and the pain and suffering they had to experience. We need to be reminded that access to abortion is actually an issue of life and death.
If you can get your hands on the book “Constitutional Law Stories” (if you’re local I’ll lend you my copy!) or find the chapter on Roe v. Wade somewhere online I encourage you to read it to truly understand what life was like for pregnant women before abortion was legal. I’ll summarize here, but I can’t do the stories justice the way that book does. The essential message is that before abortion was legal women died, in large numbers, trying to exercise their fundamental right to control their bodies.
Women who want abortions are going to get them regardless of the legal status of the procedure. The reasons they choose abortion are none of my business. They’re none of anyone’s business. Women will always have reasons to terminate a pregnancy and they will always seek out this procedure. Before abortion was legal the only way to do this was to seek an illegal procedure. Some of the people performing this procedure were doctors operating out of safe facilities, but these doctors risked losing their licenses for performing abortions and the hospitals they performed them at risked losing their accreditations. Some doctors branched out and performed abortions in less than ideal facilities, including their own homes where it was virtually impossible to ensure a sterile environment. In the worst cases the people performing the abortions were not doctors at all. Since the procedure was illegal anyway it was easy to lie about credentials and make a quick buck by performing abortions with little experience. These procedures were almost always performed in non-sterile environments.
As you can probably guess, women who underwent these illegal procedures experienced a horrifying amount of suffering. The ones who were lucky enough to have their procedure performed by a licensed doctor in an adequate facility often experienced infection and were unable to seek follow up treatment because the doctors were too scared to see them again after the procedure. Because the procedure was not subjected to any sort of safety regulations it was often botched and women experienced permanent infertility and chronic health problems. These are of course minor outcomes when compared to the number of women who died during the procedure, or from complications after the procedure. Planned Parenthood estimates that 17% of women seeking abortions before they were legal died from the procedure, and of course this number is probably low because many were unwilling to have the death of a loved one attributed to an illegal procedure. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of women were irreparably damaged or lost their lives because of illegal abortions.
It may seem overly dramatic to say that access to abortions is a matter of life and death, but for the women seeking abortions this is a reality. If this country succeeds in overturning Roe v. Wade women will die. Please, please consider this the next time you think about this controversial topic, and please consider this when conservatives say they are “trying to protect the health of women”. If they actually gave a damn about women’s health they would never consider limiting access to abortion.