Abortion laws in the US – 10 things you need to know

In 2019 several US states have passed laws which effectively ban abortion, and others have taken steps to drastically restrict abortion access.

Here are 10 key facts about this frightening crackdown on reproductive rights.

1. This has been a long time coming

In 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in the landmark case Roe v. Wade. Anti-choice activists and politicians have been working to overturn this decision ever since, and we’re now seeing the fruits of that labour. The attacks on Roe also ramped up when President Trump appointed two new judges to the Supreme Court, both of whom have expressed anti-choice views.

But it’s important to recognize that the law is not the only factor that determines whether people can access abortions.

Since 1973, anti-choice activists have been steadily chipping away at abortion access. They have done this partly by creating financial and logistical barriers which make it difficult or impossible for people to get abortions – despite what the law says.

2. It’s already hard for many people to get abortions in the US

Take Alabama as an example. In May, Alabama’s governor signed into law a draconian bill that could punish doctors who perform abortions with life in prison. But in practice abortion is already inaccessible for many people in Alabama.

The Guttmatcher Institute found that in 2014, 93% of Alabama counties had no clinics that provided abortions. This means many people in Alabama have to travel to other states to access abortions. Even then, many people simply cannot afford to end their pregnancies.

This is because Alabama, like many other states, does not include abortion in the list of healthcare services that people with low incomes can access through Medicaid (government-assisted health insurance). Currently all states have to provide public funding for abortions in cases of rape, incest or threat to life – but in many places these exemptions will be irrelevant if harsh new laws come into effect.

3. There are nowhere near enough abortion clinics in the US

There are six states in the US which have only one clinic providing abortion. Twenty-seven major US cities and much of rural America qualify as abortion “deserts”, where most people live more than 100 miles away from an abortion provider.

One way that anti-choice activists force essential services out of existence is through targeted regulation of abortion providers, known as TRAP laws. TRAP laws are unnecessary licensing requirements which can make it difficult for abortion service providers to stay open. 

For example, state authorities might specify how wide the corridors can be in a building where doctors carry out abortions, the size of parking spaces, or how far away from schools the premises must be. These requirements have nothing to do with patient safety. Instead they are used as a way to put so much pressure on abortion services that they are forced to close.

4. Some states have effectively banned all abortions

Alabama’s new law bans all abortion from the time a “woman [is] known to be pregnant” – with no exceptions. This is the harshest law yet.

Five states – Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana – have passed bills which prohibit abortion after about six weeks – before many people even realize they are pregnant.

5. But it’s not just outright bans we’re worried about

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 42 abortion restrictions were enacted between 1 January and 15 May 2019 alone. This includes measures like prohibiting certain common types of procedure and requiring parental consent for teenagers who need abortions.

6. These new laws will cause deaths and injuries

Anti-abortion laws do not stop or reduce abortions, but they do make them dangerous.

When carried out with the assistance of a trained health-care provider in sanitary conditions, abortions are one of the safest medical procedures available. But when abortions are restricted or criminalized, people are forced to seek unsafe ways to end pregnancies.

Worldwide,an estimated five million women are hospitalized each year for treatment of abortion-related complications and about 47,000 women die.

The US has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and states with more restrictive abortion laws already have higher rates of both infant and maternal mortality. That’s why these new laws are a recipe for disaster for women’s health.

7. These laws are discriminatory

People with low incomes – teenagers, people of colour, migrants and refugees – are hardest hit by abortion restrictions because it is more difficult for them to pay, travel or take time off work.

African-American women are three or four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women in the US, and this shameful inequality will likely be entrenched by new laws making pregnancy more dangerous.

These laws are also another blow to LGBTI people, who have suffered a sustained attack on their rights under the Trump administration. Trans people in the US already face huge barriers to accessing reproductive healthcare, and this raft of new laws will further exclude them

8. Trump’s anti-abortion agenda doesn’t just affect people in the US

In 2017 President Trump reinstated and expanded a policy called the “global gag rule”.  This rule states that any overseas organization which receives US global health funding cannot even mention abortion as part of their counselling or education programs—even if the money for these particular programs does not come from the US.

Even if providers think that a pregnancy will put a woman’s health at risk, they cannot tell her that abortion is an option or direct her to a safe provider. A recent study found that this policy is making a broad range of services less accessible, including contraceptive services, HIV/AIDS testing and treatment, cervical cancer screening and support for survivors of gender-based violence

9. 73% of Americans want abortion to remain safe and legal

The lawmakers putting these extreme restrictions on abortion access do not represent the views of most Americans.

An independent pollreleased in January 2019 found that two-thirds of Americans think abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases, and 73% are opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade

10. The fight is not over!

None of the abortion bans passed this year has yet taken effect, and abortion is still legal in all 50 states (as of 11 June 2019).

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and others have vowed to fight back and lawsuits have already been filed in several states.

On 31 May Planned Parenthood won a court order to keep Missouri’s only abortion clinic open on the day it was due to close. Kentucky’s “six week” bill has been temporarily blocked.

Previously, similar bills have been struck down as unconstitutional in states including Iowa and North Dakota.

In May thousands of people took part in coordinated rallies, calling on states to #stopthebans, and people all over the world continue to raise their voices in defence of reproductive rights.

For more information on why access to abortion is a human right, see Key Facts on Abortion.