Today marks the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic decision that protects the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion across the country. This year’s commemoration of the anniversary comes at a time of mounting attacks on abortion rights. In March, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will be considering an important case, June Medical Services v. Gee, the first case on abortion to be heard since Brett Kavanaugh’s seating on the court. Moreover, there are 16 other abortion cases that could make their way to the conservative-leaning court and ultimately lead to Roe’s demise.
The Roe anniversary is a time to reflect on the compelling public health reasons necessitating legalized abortion. The years leading up to the 1973 landmark case were plagued by maternal deaths caused by botched or self-induced abortions. In fact, according to a Guttmacher Institute report, in 1965, “illegal abortion accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year.”
In 1970, some progress was made when Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington repealed their anti-abortion statutes. However, in some of these states, those seeking abortions needed to:
- establish required residency in that state;
- obtain approval from a hospital committee established to review abortion requests and get additional exams by a physician;
- have a police officer certify that a rape/sexual assault had been reported, if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest; and
- undergo examination by a psychiatrist to assess the pregnant person’s mental health and determine whether or not an abortion was indeed necessary.
Despite these excessive and intrusive bureaucratic requirements, those desperate for care often made the long, arduous journey to one of these states. In 1972 alone, approximately 50,000 women traveled more than 500 miles to obtain a legal abortion in New York City, including some from states as far away as Arizona and Idaho.
Following the SCOTUS decision in Roe the next year, maternal mortality cases associated with abortions plummeted because safe and legal abortions became easier to access for thousands across the United States.
Still, that wasn’t the end of the fight to protect the legal framework for abortion in the U.S. Over the years, anti-choice activists and legislators have ignored the frightful history of illegal abortions and have further ignored the opinions of 77% of the population who oppose overturning Roe.
One such law, enacted in Louisiana, requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. If all nearby hospitals refuse to provide admitting privileges – which can easily happen when hospitals are sponsored by anti-choice religious entities or are otherwise opposed to abortion – then doctors are unable to meet the legal requirements for providing abortions. That is the law at issue in the June Medical Services v. Gee case that will be heard by SCOTUS in March.
New poll results released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans (67%) believe such state laws and regulations are designed to make access to abortion more difficult, rather than protect women’s health and safety, as proponents of those laws claim.
The reproductive rights and justice movements have fought and will continue to fight back to keep and expand access to safe and legal abortion care, no matter what decisions might be rendered by the SCOTUS. If Roe were to be overturned, abortion would remain legal in 21 states; however, it would likely be prohibited in 24 states and three territories. Last year, four states – New York, Illinois, Rhode Island and Vermont all passed legislation codifying Roe at the state level. More proactive legislation is being proposed this year in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia.
This widespread attack on Roe by conservatives is not only an attack on law and on reproductive rights and justice organizations; it is also a personal attack on those who currently need access to abortion care, or may need it in the future.
It is an attack on people of color. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2014, white patients accounted for 39% of abortions while Black, Hispanic and patients of other races and ethnicities accounted for over 60%. Yet, states with high populations of Black women and with the worst health outcomes for minorities, including Kentucky, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia are fighting to implement some of the most cruel abortion bans in the country. These series of attacks have resulted in only one abortion clinic remaining in operation in Missouri, Mississippi and four other states.
It is an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. The conversation around abortion often centers on cisgendered heterosexual women. However, members of the LGBTQ+ community, including transgender men also need access to safe and legal abortions. In 2014, 4% percent of patients who accessed abortions said they were bisexual, while 0.3% identified as lesbians or gay women.
It is an attack on poor communities. Increases in travel distances to a provider would likely prevent 93,500 to 143,500 individuals each year from accessing safe and legal abortion. Long distances would be an additional burden for people who are poor, which in 2014, accounted for approximately 75% of abortion patients (they were earning below $15,730 for a family of two); transgender people, who are approximately three times as likely to be unemployed as the general population; and women of color who earn $0.61 or less for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.
It is an attack on refugees and immigrants. In 2014 alone, approximately 16% of patients who obtained abortions in the US were immigrants.
What can you do?
Community Catalyst and our partners are urging you to tag your legislators on social media and show support for Roe. Tell them #WeWontGoBack and to #ProtectRoe. If you are a state or local advocate, step up to fight abortion bans or restrictions when they are proposed in your state legislature.