BY SERENA UPPAL
While Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing and ultimate confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States sparked a heated national conversation about sexual assault and violence against women, fears have now shifted to what his presence in the Supreme Court could mean for other aspects of women’s rights, namely legal abortion. During his hearings, Kavanaugh consistently dodged questions directed towards his stance on abortion and a woman’s right to choose. He repeatedly referred to the precedent that Roe v. Wade set forth, calling the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ‘precedent, on precedent,’ seeming to imply that he would respect and defer to these previous rulings, despite the controversy in his appointment. Though it may be tempting to speculate about the direction Kavanaugh might be heading regarding abortion, the broad ramifications of striking down Roe v. Wade for abortion access and women’s health and rights remain relevant and warrant further discussion.
Overturning Roe v. Wade would be disastrous for women’s health. Women might be forced to revert to unsafe methods of abortion which pose a huge risk for their health, and would result in needless deaths and medical complications. Though some states did allow for legal abortion pre-Roe v. Wade, access to these areas was limited by a woman’s income and employment situation. After New York legalized abortion in 1970 — the first state to do so — an estimated 400,000 procedures were performed within the first two years. While there were a few clinics in Kansas and Oklahoma that helped reduce travel expenses for some, many women simply could not afford to take time off work in order to make the trip to New York. As of 2017, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 49 percent of abortion patients are below the federal poverty level. The issue of income disparity remains prevalent today; similar access issues may arise in present day if Roe v. Wade is overturned. It is that lack of availability that forces some women to resort to the unsafe methods practiced before abortion was legalized.
The threat to Roe has been building as our current administration progresses, even before Kavanaugh, and is reflected in a February report by Guttmacher researchers. During a month-long period starting in May 2017, more than 200,000 Google searches were conducted for information on self-abortion, and a reported 62 percent of the respondents were pregnant and did not want to remain so. Even though the data shows that abortion rates are at an all time low in the U.S., they are still quite common, with one in four women having an abortion by the age of 45. The research seems to indicate a growing fear of the disappearance of abortion rights among predominantly young women in the U.S., and fear can easily cause a woman to turn to unsafe abortion methods out of desperation. Before Roe v. Wade, it was common to have large septic abortion wards in hospitals, with women suffering from infections that stemmed from at-home abortions. While some doctors risked their careers to perform illegal abortions on patients, many procedures were not carried out by medical professionals. These experiences were often traumatizing.
Many states are prepared for the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. While some states will uphold legal abortion, many states across the South and Midwest will already have anti-abortion laws in place. The Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade would allow upwards of 22 states to reinstate their previous anti-abortion laws. Known as ‘trigger laws,’ these pieces of legislation were passed before the Roe v. Wade ruling, and were “designed to make abortion illegal immediately.” Even more troublingly, President Trump has suggested that women who get illegal abortions should be subject to punishment. This kind of sentiment sends a message to every woman, regardless of whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, that their body is not their own. Overturning Roe v. Wade may have massive repercussions on this implied ‘zone of privacy’ that limits the government’s control in an individual’s personal decisions. This can include limiting access to contraception as well as criminalizing homosexuality.
What does this massive retrograde movement show to the rest of the women around the world fighting for their reproductive rights? Countries with highly restricting abortion laws tend to have higher rates of abortion while increased availability of birth control is associated with a lower rate of abortion. Despite these statistics, the U.S. has started to enact stricter abortion regulations, as well as reversed previous policies that make contraception freely accessible. As a country that once helped set the standard for progressive reproductive policies, it is ironic and disappointing that the U.S. changed its course to go against the wave of pro-choice movements stirring in countries such as Argentina, Brazil , Ireland, and the Dominican Republic. The disappearance of Roe v. Wade is a terrifying threat against women’s health and reproductive freedom.