Advocates demonstrate against restrictive abortion laws in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 21st, 2019. ©Matt Rourke / AP
Authors: Erdem ÖZGÜNAY, Luna PERRUCHI, Lola PIHAN
Women’s rights have always been a triggering topic, and abortion is still a virulent one in this year’s electoral campaign of the United States. A majority of powerful White men have decided the fate of thousands of women across the country by preventing them from aborting. In the « land of the free », the topic of abortion has become a very controversial issue. It is both concerning and horrifying that even in 2020, women do not have the freedom to make choices concerning their own body. There are many reasons for a woman to decide to abort and at the end of the day, what they do with their body is down to them and them only. So, why is the topic of abortion that intensely disputed in the United States?
In 1973, the Supreme Court was handed the case of Roe v. Wade and the consequent ruling opened debates about the question of abortion. Jane Roe sued the district attorney of Dallas, Henry Wade, in Texas as she was refused the right to terminate her pregnancy. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who was a leaning Conservative, led the majority opinion, in which the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that States have to guarantee women’s right to terminate pregnancy, and declared this as being a constitutional right. The main idea to be taken away from this ruling is that the right to abort is protected under the constitutional right of privacy. In other words, whatever women do with their body, in this instance terminate a pregnancy, is a private matter which no State should interfere with.
Consequently, the right to abortion is protected under federal law, and States have to provide for up-to-standards abortion clinics in order to facilitate abortion and ensure women can benefit from appropriate care. The reality is quite different: even though the Roe v. Wade decision was supported by Conservatives (though not the majority of them), Red States (see endnote 1) are making it as difficult as possible to provide the required care for women desiring to terminate their pregnancy. The challenge for anti-abortion lawmakers is to avoid breaking the law while preventing women from getting abortions. For example, the State of Alabama passed a bill in May 2019 that would sentence doctors who perform abortion to life-long jail, the loophole being that abortion is not banned, it is just impossible to perform it safely whether for the doctor or the woman willing to abort.
As a result, many women decide to get abortion outside of their States, due to financial and/or opportunity restrictions. A reported number of at least 276,000 women ended up crossing state borders to get an abortion between 2012 and 2017, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Christina A. Cassidy gathered for the Associated Press in her article « Women seek abortions out of state amid restrictions » published on September 9, 2019. Hevan Lunsford was one of them, as Alabama law prohibited abortions after 5 months of pregnancy. She went as far as 180 miles (= 290 kilometers) to get an abortion in Atlanta, Georgia. The road to abortion is made difficult by regressive laws and restrictions, and the future is not getting any clearer as Trump’s cabinet has been working on overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade.
The main issue about anti-abortion laws is that a majority of politicians who vote on these laws are men. Why would men control women’s bodies and lives? They should not have the right to rule on an issue that only impacts women. In 2019, several US States have passed laws which ban abortion or drastically restrict abortion access. As mentioned before, in May 2019, Alabama’s governor, signed into law a bill that punish doctors who perform abortions with life in prison. Alabama passed the harshest law of the United States, banning all abortion from the time a « woman is known to be pregnant », without exceptions. Not only is this law alarming for women’s rights, but it is even more outrageous to know that men represent 85% of Alabama’s lawmakers, according to the article « Alabama abortion ban: Should men have a say in the debate? » published by BBC News in May 2019 (see endnote 2). In Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, a pregnant woman cannot abort after about six weeks of pregnancy. This restriction seems lighter than Alabama’s law on banning abortion but in reality, they are almost similar because a woman rarely realizes she is pregnant in the first six weeks of pregnancy.
Anti-abortion laws are discriminatory and dangerous for pregnant women. Even when abortion is legal, it is, in many cases, inaccessible for low-income women and women of color. Indeed, African American women are more likely to rely on Medicaid than White women. Without this help, they usually do not have enough resources to have access to abortion because in many States, you need to travel hundreds of miles or even to other States to access abortion. According to Amnesty International’s book Deadly Delivery, African American women are three or four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women in the US. On top of that, restricting abortions often leads to abortions being carried out in unsafe conditions, making it dangerous for pregnant women. According to the article « U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world » published by the National Public Radio (NPR) in May 2017, maternal mortality is rising in the U.S. as it declines everywhere else. In 2015, the U.S. had 26.4 deaths per 100,000 live births when the figure was down to 7.8 in France. These numbers show how dangerous anti-abortion laws are for pregnant women. Moreover, politicians who pass anti-abortion laws have paradoxical arguments. Pro-life politicians usually think that human life begins at conception and therefore a fetus has a right to life. However, their laws do not save human lives, but rather kill thousands of women each year.
Despite the fact that abortion rights, established in 1973, are being jeopardized, 2020 has also demonstrated some victories for women’s right to dispose of their body. The election of Joe Biden as President of the USA is a sign of hope for younger generations of women. Initially a supporter of the Hyde Amendment that banned federal funding for abortions, Biden has changed his opinion on women’s right to abortion. He said during a speech on Monday, 5th October in Miami, that he would protect abortion rights if the Supreme Court wanted to reexamine on Roe v. Wade. If the 46th President of the USA defends and improves the Affordable Care Act, it would be a major turning point regarding women’s access to abortion.
In Maryland, a federal district court stated that the restriction on access to abortion’s medication was unnecessary and dangerous during the Covid-19 health crisis, revealed an article published in August 2020 by the Center For American Progress. Before that, patients had to visit a hospital in order to get their medication and fill in a form, which would expose them to the virus. In the same article, it is said that in Georgia, a district court cancelled the ban on abortion over six-week pregnancy. This six week deadline would not even allow most women to know that they are pregnant. These small steps are not much compared to the wave of « pro-life » decisions taken by the Trump administration. However, it shows that changes can still be made and that the fight is not over.
Protests already took place in May 2019 in order to defend women’s right to control their own bodies. These demonstrations gathered thousands of women in front of the Supreme Court building to protest against new restrictions on abortion. It was a way to make women’s voices heard and share the fight with younger women, to enlighten them about their rights that are being threatened. During these protests, the feminist slogan « my body, my choice » was shouted by the crowd, a slogan first used in the late 1960s by feminists who were fighting for the same cause. In order to achieve more and better change, American citizens need to elect younger representatives, more involved in today’s issues regarding access to quality healthcare and abortion. A new generation determined not to be led by conservative men is gaining more and more power. Above all, much more open-minded women need to be elected because men cannot continue to hold power over choices that do not concern them.
Abortion bans and restrictions are not only dangerous for pregnant women, but they also increase racial and social inequalities. Awareness must be raised and the fight must be intensified to achieve legal abortion and equal access to it for all women in every State. American citizens must impose their fight for gender equality and elect many more women as heads of authorities in order to achieve real change. Electing representatives from diverse social and economic backgrounds, and especially women involved in feminist movements, would lead to fairer laws and equitable discussions towards progress. Yet, figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are targeted by white Republicans because they threaten the power these latter have, and they do not want to share it. Thankfully, the new generation is just getting started and is here to stay and fight.
1American States that have a history of voting predominantly for Republicans.
2Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48262238 on the 16th of December, 2020
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