The Precarious Nature of Abortion Access in the United States and the Americas

Jane Doe, a 17-year old undocumented immigrant, trekked to the United States from Central America. Known as Jane Doe in court proceedings only, the teenager dreamt of “studying nursing, and someday, caring for senior citizens.” Doe was detained at the US-Mexico border and it was there, after undergoing a medical examination, that she discovered she was pregnant. The 17-year old asked for an abortion. In 1973, under Roe v. Wade, The Supreme Court of the United States found that the constitutional right to privacy is “broad enough enough to encompass a woman’s decision on whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Yet, the Trump administration blocked Doe from accessing an abortion by keeping her as an undocumented immigrant in federal custody. It would take weeks of delay and a federal appeals court ruling before Doe could exercise her constitutional rights.

In this May 14, 2015 photo, a 13-year-old girl holds her one-month-old baby at a shelter for troubled children in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The girl said she was raped by her stepfather from the time she was 10 and became pregnant when she was 12. Another pregnant girl, age 11, whose case drew international scorn when Paraguay’s government denied her an abortion, gave birth on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. The girl was allegedly raped and impregnated by her stepfather when she was 10. In Paraguay, abortion is banned except when the mother’s life is in danger. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz, File)
This treatment of women and girls in relation to abortion access is in no way unique to the United States. In 2015, an 11-year old Paraguayan girl – a child – was raped by her step-father and denied an abortion. The case first came to light in May 2015, when the girl in question was 10-years old and 22 weeks pregnant. The young girl in question gave birth by C-section at just 11 years old. According to government figures, 684 Paraguayan girls aged 10-14 gave birth in 2014, and that number is likely to be higher today, most of them victims of sex abuse and rape. 

If you consider the wide attack on women’s access and right to an abortion in the United States and in the Americas, then these cases no longer seem unusual. Since 2010, states in the U.S. have introduced 231 abortion restrictions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the US and globally, as of 2014, 5-7 per cent of American women lived in states classified as hostile or extremely hostile to abortion. This includes the entire US South and much of the Midwest. Despite conventional wisdom that abortion access and rights is entrenched in the United States’ constitution, the future of abortion in the United States is bleak. While the situation at home in may not be as extreme as that in Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States is heading in the direction of a total dismantling of policies and structures that protect women’s access to abortion.

Abortion access and rights for women has over time turned from a private matter into a public issue. The debate around the issue of legal abortion remains complicated. Only 25 per cent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all cases, compared with the 33 per cent of Americans who believe it should be legal in most, but not all cases. Nearly 20 per cent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

A man walks past the former site of a clinic that offered abortions in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Abortion services for many Texas women require a round trip of more than 200 miles, or a border-crossing into Mexico or New Mexico after federal appellate judges allowed full implementation of a law that has closed more than 80 percent of Texas’ abortion clinics in 2014. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Increasingly, pro-choice advocates are framing abortion as a basic medical procedure that should be a human right for all. Yet, there have been an increasing number of legal challenges to abortion rights in the United States. Rights Advocates, legislators, religious leaders and the public, amongst others, have a huge stake in whether or not abortion continues to be legal for American women. President Donald J. Trump, for instance, vowed to appoint an anti-choice justice on the Supreme Court in order to override Roe v. Wade. With both a Republican majority in the House and the Senate, legislators are threatening to defund Planned Parenthood and introduce a 20-week ban on abortion. Last year alone, 18 states introduced 50 new restrictions on abortion access. Anti-choice groups are using more propaganda and employing arguments around fetal viability being as early as 24 weeks. When you consider all this, and that abortion doctors in providers in the United States are often subject to deadly attacks carried out by anti-choice advocates, and the number of states with only one abortion clinic is rising, the future of abortion access and rights in the United States becomes very bleak. 

Looking further away from home reminds us that yet again, the situation around abortion access and rights in the United States is similar in Latin America and the Caribbean. There, 97 per cent of women of childbearing age live in a country where abortions are heavily restricted or banned. Abortion remains illegal under any circumstances in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haití, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. But there is hope for the region. This summer, Chile passed a bill to make abortion legal in instances of rape, fetal abnormalities and if the mother’s life is at risk. And in Argentina, the legislature has adopted a number of reproductive right reforms in recent years. While the Catholic Church remains one of the most vociferous anti-choice advocates, the number of organizations working to influence public policy in the region has increased significantly. These organizations are adopting new strategies, using social media, targeted political action and placing pressure on judicial institutions.

It might appear like there are some promising changes to come about in Latin America and the Caribbean. But, the issue around unsafe abortions remains an issue of grave concern. In Latin America, where strict restrictions are placed on abortion access or banned altogether, 6.5 million women had induced abortions every year between 2010-2014. Annually, an estimated 760,000 women of the 6.5 million who had unsafe abortions were treated for complications related to the unsafe procedure, and at least 900 of these women died.

The danger in placing heavy restrictions on abortion access, as numerous studies have shown, is that these restrictions do not prevent abortions from happening, but rather, endanger women’s health. In regions where women cannot access safe, legal, abortion on demand, they are more likely to employ illegal, unsafe methods. These unsafe procedures which are often not carried out in accordance with the recommended guidelines, put women’s lives and their well-being at risk. Abortion access and rights for women is a human right’s issue and an urgent matter. We should not live in a society where women die because they do not want to conceive – and that is why this important fight continues.

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

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