Last week, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the nation’s most restrictive abortion law – a total ban on abortions from the point of conception, with no exception for rape or incest. The law makes it a felony to provide an abortion, punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
Alabama’s total abortion ban is part of a trend sweeping across the south and midwest. Since March, four states – Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia – have signed into law bans on abortions at six weeks, a point at which many don’t even know they’re pregnant. Immediately after Alabama passed their ban, Missouri passed a ban on abortions at eight weeks, sending it to their anti-choice Governor’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law. And now, Louisiana is poised to pass its own six-week ban.
If these bans are allowed to go into effect, much of the southeast will be an abortion desert wherein legal abortion simply no longer exists, a frightening possibility when you consider how far we have come, and how much is at stake.
Roe v. Wade At Risk
Since 2010, more than 400 abortion restrictions have been enacted in state legislatures across the country. As legislation like TRAP laws, short for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, have gone into effect, legal abortion clinics began closing at an alarming rate. After Texas passed its infamous TRAP law in 2013, between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women between the ages of 18 and 49 tried to terminate their pregnancies themselves. Some clinics reported women calling, asking what they could use in their kitchen or bathroom to induce an abortion. With or without a legal clinic, pregnant people will still find a way to have an abortion.
These bans may seem to be out of nowhere, but they are, in fact, a calculated escalation from previous TRAP laws. All of these total and near-total abortion bans are designed to be blocked, ruled unconstitutional, and appealed, all the way up to the Supreme Court. And there, abortion opponents are hopeful that their long-awaited pipe dream could become a reality – that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and end legal abortion.
We all know Roe v. Wade, or, at least, we’ve heard of it. In this landmark ruling in 1973, the Supreme Court established the constitutional right to an abortion. The ruling forbade states from restricting abortion before the point of fetal viability – which variest is typically considered between 24 and 28 weeks. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the Supreme Court again upheld the constitutional right to an abortion, with one important caveat. They ruled that states could restrict abortion before the point of fetal viability, as long as they didn’t impose an “undue burden” on the person seeking an abortion.
The Court gave no indication as to what an undue burden is, and for the past 27 years, both pro- and anti-choice supporters have been locked in a tight battle, trying to determine where the line is.
The Ongoing Battle for Abortion Rights
The right to a safe and legal abortion has been under attack ever since it was decided in January of 1973. Somehow, over the past 46 years, we’ve grown accustomed to that fight. It became normalized, natural, almost expected. We came to accept protesters at abortion clinics as “free speech” and shrugged it off as a freak accident when abortion providers were shot and killed. We allowed abortion to become siloed, separate from the entire continuum of reproductive health care into which it essentially fits. And we dismissed the growing alarm that advocacy groups and even some politicians sounded that abortion restrictions were piling up, that access was eroding, that Roe v. Wade was in danger, until it was almost too late.
That moment is now. Emboldened by Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment in the fall and a Trump administration that is fervently anti-choice, abortion opponents believe this is their moment to not only get a case to the Supreme Court, but finally overturn Roe. It’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen to the landmark ruling (which more than seven in 10 Americans want to see upheld), but we do know what will happen to abortion access, because it’s already been happening.
What’s At Stake
The supporters of these draconian abortion bans claim that they don’t want women punished. But we know the ultimate effect of these bans – they disproportionately harm women of color. Data show that black and Latina/Hispanic women are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy and lack access to broader reproductive health care. Even recent history has shown that they are more likely to be criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes.
And in the end, pregnant people will still need abortions. They will still have abortions. They just might not be legal or safe. That is what we are facing here. This isn’t a political issue; it’s a medical issue. It’s a health care issue. It’s a human rights issue. Everyone has the right to determine what happens to their own body, and everyone has the right to a safe and legal abortion. Bans like these aren’t about “women’s health” or about protecting life; they are about restricting the ability of pregnant people to determine the outcomes of their own lives.
The fate of Alabama’s abortion ban is unclear, but we know this: no law will ever stop abortion, not in Alabama, or the United States, or anywhere in the world. You cannot legislate away abortion; you can only end legal abortion. It’s up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen.