The Normalization of Abortion Restrictions in the United States

Erika A. Christensen is a patient advocate for reproductive rights. At 32 weeks, Christensen discovered the fetus she was carrying was unviable – it was “incompatible with life. ”The laws in the state of New York meant that Christensen could not have a third-trimester abortion, even though the fetus’ diagnosis was terminal. And so she was forced to fly to Boulder, Colorado, to get a shot that would start the process of a third-trimester abortion, before flying back to New York to finish the procedure. While Christensen’s case is horrifying, it is by no means unique. Instead, it is a classic example of how state restrictions on abortion access dehumanize women, limit their undeniable human rights and affect their mental and physical health.

Pat Thompson displayed a sign supporting Roe v. Wade at a rally, held by Planned Parenthood, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. The 1973 landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to have an abortion. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In recent decades, it has become normalized for lawmakers and states to introduce restrictions on abortion access and rights for women. In the last five years alone, states have enacted 334 abortion restrictions. What has changed since the election of Donald J. Trump, a candidate that pledged his presidency would bring an end to Roe v. Wade, is that the culture enabling and justifying these attacks on abortion rights feels much stronger. For instance, in October, the Trump administration formally backed a House bill that would have led to the banning of abortions after 20 weeks. The administration “applaud[ed] the House of Representatives for continuing its efforts to secure critical pro-life protections.” In November, the United States Congress held a hearing on a bill that would ban abortion after six weeks’ gestation. This bill, the ‘Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017’ would be dangerous for American women as it severely limits their access to a termination, makes no exceptions for the health of the mother or those pregnant from rape or incest, and criminalizes doctors who perform the procedure after the six week mark. While the bill did not pass, it did have 169 cosponsors in the House, and all but one were Republican.  

Currently, federal funding cannot be used to cover the cost of abortion except in rare circumstances. Funding is not allowed through a “rider” attached to other bills that Congress must approve annually. Under this administration, the rider, otherwise known as the Hyde Amendment, could become permanent law, the result of which would ban abortion services through Medicaid, federal government heath plans, and plans covered by the Affordable Care Act. And if Trump were to appoint two anti-choice justices during his presidency, then Roe could be overturned. When the president campaigned on the basis that he would put an end to safe, legal, abortion on demand for American women, it is no surprise that under his administration, we are seeing more emboldened attacks on Roe v. Wade. This is despite the fact that many of these restrictions undermine Roe v. Wade, which found that the constitutional right to privacy is “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision on whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

Trump’s vision would ensure that abortion became a privilege only for the rich, but millions of American women – even with the provisions enshrined by Roe – are already living in this dystopian reality. Today, many American women are having to travel long distances to access abortions. Women are subject to mandatory waiting periods that require unnecessary trips, sometimes across state lines, to the few clinics that are open. Costs related to travel and the procedure can be dangerous for women who are poor and live in rural areas, or in states with only one abortion clinic. And women in the United States, women like Jennifer Whalen, a mother who bought abortion pills online for her teenage daughter because the closest abortion clinic to her was 75 miles away, have already been charged with crimes relating to pregnancy and abortion.

Pro-abortion and anti-abortion protestors rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Thousands of abortion opponents are facing wind chills in the single digits to rally and march on Capitol Hill to protest legalized abortion, with a signal of support from Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Earlier in June, Delaware’s Governor signed into a law a bill which ensured abortion remained legal in the state and codified at the state level the provisions outlined in the 1973 historic Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. The decision taken by Delaware’s Governor to codify Roe v. Wade is particularly significant given the current US climate where the normalization of abortion restricts for American women continues with more energy under this administration. It was a landmark case and the first of such since President Donald Trump was elected on a promise to overturn the aforementioned ruling during his term. The law, as Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute which tracks abortion policy said, “says to [women] that you are important, you have the ability to decide when to have a child and the state supports you in making the decision that is best for you and your family.”  

While Delaware’s Governor is working to protect abortion access for women within the state, state representatives like Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma are on a crusade to save “unborn children,” and to send strong moral messages about the wrongness of abortion. Activists, lawmakers, the public and the media frame the discussions around abortion access and rights as being two-dimensional – as being black and white. But, as scholar Michelle Oberman, author of Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma argues, the issue is much more complicated. In an interview with the New Republic, Oberman says, “[o]f the many things dividing the United States, none seems more salient than the divide between pro-life and pro-choice forces. At the heart of the dispute is the assumption that, if Roe is reversed and abortion becomes illegal, things will change. We talk about banning abortion as if we all understand how things will change if abortion becomes a crime.”

It remains a remote possibility that Roe could be eroded; but abortion rights will continue to be under attack during this administration. In the meantime, it has become the norm for laws, states and abortion opponents to continue to attack the affordability and availability of abortion, rather than its legality. The focus needs to be on preventing the incremental erasure of every America’s woman’s constitutional and human right to a legal abortion.



June Eric-Udorie is a T’21 Undergraduate and a 2018 Human Rights Scholar at the Institute.

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