With news of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s imminent retirement from the Supreme Court and the likely appointment of a justice who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, abortion could soon be illegal in large parts of the country.
Women and gender minorities would no longer have the right to choose when to have a child — that’s a given, no matter how one thinks of it. We already know what that looks like, since it’s a reality in many other countries.
Paula Avila Guillen, a human rights legal expert and the Director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center told ThinkProgress that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the United States would be going in the opposite direction of the progress being made in people’s access to reproductive health, including abortions.
She pointed to the legalization of abortion in Ireland, the consideration of a new law decriminalizing abortion in the Dominican Republic, and the protests in Poland, where activists are pushing back against the latest restrictions.
“The United States will be going backwards, against that global trend,” she said.
But what would it look like, health-wise, in this country to make abortions totally illegal?
“The number of abortions aren’t actually reduced, what is increased is the number of unsafe abortions and the number of maternal mortalities related to abortion,” she said. “That is a fact all over Latin America and even some countries in Europe.”
In some countries, such as El Salvador, the total ban includes prosecuting those who are even suspected of having abortions. That means people who seek obstetric treatment and are suspected of having had an abortion will have to actually prove that they did not terminate the pregnancy.
“It converts something like a miscarriage or a stillbirth into a possible crime,” said Avila Guillen. This creates such a stigma around reproductive rights, she added, that other services start being banned.
“Honduras, for instance, has a total emergency contraception ban because the government believes emergency contraception causes abortions, even though they are told that is not the case,” said Avila Guillen.
Emergency contraception can work for up to five days after intercourse. It will not work if one is already pregnant. “It just works as a highly concentrated contraception,” she said. The moment a person becomes pregnant, “the pill becomes ineffective.”
In the United States, some anti-choice advocates have for years been conflating emergency contraception with abortion, making it hard for people to access. There have been several cases over the years where pharmacists have refused to provide emergency contraception to those seeking it, even when they are under a legal obligation to do so. In fact, sex education and access to emergency contraception can also be in jeopardy, said Avila Guillen, if the Supreme Court lineup skews far right.
Those who have access to resources and money can get their abortion, whereas the poor die as they only have access to unsafe abortions, she said.
“They can travel to other countries, they can travel to the United States, in the same way that here, where there are no clinics left, they end up going to another state… they will find providers and find the process safer for a very expensive amount of money,” she said. Or they end up buying pills online if they have access to the internet and have the cash.
But those who can’t afford to do so end up resorting to all kinds of horrific remedies to abort the unwanted pregnancy.
“In El Salvador, there’s a lot of venom [rat poison] used, with a lot of teenagers in the hospital where they they’re trying to kill themselves. But after they’re interviewed, we realize that they weren’t trying to kill themselves, they were trying to terminate a pregnancy,” said Avila Guillen.
The World Health Organization estimates that the average rate of unsafe abortion is “four times higher in countries with more restrictive abortion laws than in countries with less restrictive laws.” Restrictive abortion laws are also associated with higher levels of maternal mortality.
“We already know what works and what has been working all over the world in order to reduce the health care indicators that affect women [and other gender minorities] so there’s no real reason to try to improvise. If the only goal to restrict abortions is to try to reduce the number of abortions, well we already know that that doesn’t work.”
But even allowing states to create their own laws on abortion — as is already the case in the United States — isn’t a model for success.
Mexico is a country with a patchwork of state laws, where some states allow abortion in certain cases (such as rape or major fetal genetic defects), and in others, even a miscarriage can come with criminal charges. Mexico City remains the only place in the country where abortion on demand is legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“The problem is that when you create all these restrictions and you don’t have a safe, sound policy that is clear, you’re letting each state do what they think is right, and what should be permitted or not,” she said.