The future of abortion access in the United States

By Anu Kumar, President and CEO

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Protester with sign reading Keep abortion legal

Well, now we know—President Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill Justice Kennedy’s U.S. Supreme Court seat. When Justice Kennedy announced he’ll retire at the end of July, there was a collective panic attack on the part of thousands of us who work to protect reproductive rights.

Kennedy was seen as a centrist and a critical “swing vote” on the court. In the early 1990s and again in 2016, he voted to preserve Roe v. Wade. What’s burning in my mind and the minds of so many of my colleagues and compatriots is Trump’s vow to ensure the Court has another justice who’s against abortion rights.

While we don’t totally know how Kavanaugh will vote on various issues from the bench, we do know what abortion looks like when it’s illegal: it’s bad.

At Ipas, we work across Asia, Latin America and Africa to train abortion providers, connect women with vital information so they can access care, and advocate for safe, legal abortion. In many of the countries where we work, legal access to abortion is restricted and we have seen the consequences.

Look first at Nepal, where, prior to a law change in 2002, induced abortion, and sometimes even spontaneous abortion, was misclassified as infanticide, willful killing or murder. Women were convicted of a crime and sent to jail. A 1997 nationwide survey estimated that 20 percent of the women in Nepali jails had been convicted on charges of abortion or infanticide.

And look at El Salvador, where abortion is totally banned, even when a woman’s life is in danger and in cases of rape. My colleague at Ipas, Dr. Guillermo Ortiz, has seen the grim impact. Among many cases he oversaw while working as a doctor in that country was that of Beatriz, a woman with life-threatening medical conditions who was denied an abortion by El Salvador’s Supreme Court. She was made to wait for weeks by the government before she finally received an early cesarean section that saved her life. El Salvador is also the focus of a global campaign to free “Las 17,” a group of 17 women who were given jail sentences of up to 40 years after reported miscarriages.

Look too, at Rwanda, where a 2015 study by Ipas and the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development found that hundreds of women and girls were being unjustly harassed, arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned each year on abortion-related charges, even though the penal code permitted abortion for some indications. Some women were serving sentences of up to 15 years.

The health consequences of restrictive abortion laws are well-documented. When abortion is criminalized, women turn to unsafe methods and risk serious injury or even death. Before the law change in Nepal, one study found that 20 percent of maternal deaths there were due to illegal abortion. Another found that more than half of admissions for obstetric complications in some Nepali hospitals were attributable to clandestine abortion.

So what does abortion look like when it’s illegal? It looks like women in jail, more women risking their health and lives to end unwanted pregnancies, and abortion going underground because we know it’s not going to go away. The United States isn’t Nepal and things won’t look exactly the same but are we really going to accept that American women will not be able to legally make their own decisions about their reproductive lives? Is this the future that Americans want?