Forty-three years ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its watershed decision in Roe v. Wade, holding that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to access an abortion. By guaranteeing women the right to determine whether to continue a pregnancy, Roe has had far-reaching implications for women’s rights beyond the medical procedure itself. The ability to control family planning and their own bodies for the last two generations has played an invaluable role in helping women determine the course of their own lives, decide when or whether to have children, earn higher degrees, advance in the workplace, and attain more equal rights.
Still, the journey from Roe has not been an easy one. Four decades after Roe recognized the constitutional right to an abortion, there are more attempts to limit access—and ultimately ban—abortions than ever before. Between 2011 and 2015 there were nearly as many restrictions on abortion access enacted across the United States than in the prior fifteen years combined. In 2015 alone, lawmakers considered 396 bills that would have restricted access to abortions in 46 states. Though many were defeated, 17 states enacted a total of 57 new abortion restrictions. Many of the bills, though not explicitly about religion, have religious undertones, with legislators citing scripture during debate and seeking to enshrine their own particular religious view into law.
The latticework of state abortion restrictions now includes counseling requirements that force doctors to give women often scientifically questionable—and sometimes downright inaccurate—information about the procedures and their possible side effects. Other laws impose waiting periods that require women to come back to clinics days later, creating particularly onerous obstacles for women who sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles and lose hourly wages while away from work. Still others create restrictions on insurance coverage that make abortions almost impossible for poor people to access.
Other types of restrictions, which create what doctors widely agree are medically unnecessary requirements for clinics, are also thinly veiled attempts to shut down reproductive health centers. Such laws have become so widespread that they have their own term: targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. In Texas, for example, the law, among other things, requires clinics that provide abortion services to meet the same building, staffing and equipment requirements as “ambulatory surgical centers,” even though the procedures there do not require such things by medical standards. The law also requires doctors providing abortion services to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do in areas that largely oppose abortion rights or where there are only religiously-affiliated hospitals nearby. The law could shutter all but 10 abortion clinics, including every clinic west of San Antonio. Combined with Texas’ mandatory waiting period between seeing a doctor and having the procedure, that would effectively put abortion access out of reach for millions of women in Texas, who would often have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic and stay at least overnight.
A challenge to that Texas law is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, could have dramatic implications for women’s abilities to access abortion all around the country. The Supreme Court has said clearly and definitively in the past that states cannot place “undue burdens” on a woman’s ability to access an abortion before fetal viability, and that such burdens include “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.” If the Court finds that the ability to shutter clinics with technical and medically unnecessary restrictions does not qualify as an undue burden, however, states around the country could make abortions inaccessible to all but the most privileged who can afford to take time off work, travel long distances, and pay out of pocket for procedures to which they have a constitutionally guaranteed right.
On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the right to safe and legal abortions for many women hangs in the balance. We must all work to safeguard that fundamental constitutional right so that all women— regardless of where they live, what type of insurance they have, where they work, or how much money they have—can access the safe abortion services that have been so critical in advancing women’s rights and equality.