Today marks the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade as settled law—and it comes after a whirlwind year of attacks on women’s health care, from the states to the Supreme Court.
Despite the hostile climate facing them, feminists are not backing down. On Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi has reclaimed her gavel as House Speaker, and a record-breaking number of women have been elected and sworn in to Congress. And across the country, abortion rights advocates are doubling down on fighting for our health care and reproductive rights: Planned Parenthood has announced plans to expand reproductive health services, despite the relentless attacks and hostility to birth control and abortion that continue from the Trump administration; NARAL is also digging in their heels, shifting focus from fighting their opponents to advancing policy to protect women’s rights.
The shift in focus comes from renewed urgency around the issue. Just one day after the election, the Trump administration announced two policy changes that would allow employers to deny women no-cost birth control based on their religious and “moral” beliefs. These attacks on the women’s health provisions in the Affordable Care Act came on the heels of major proposed changes to Title X, the nation’s family planning funding program—which could stop women from being able to access care at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s most trusted family planning center, forcing them instead to see less experienced providers who wouldn’t even so much as mention abortion when reviewing their full range of reproductive health care options.
If the Trump administration wants us to believe that these proposals will change women’s minds about abortion, they’re going to need better data to prove it. Studies show that making reproductive healthcare and contraception harder to access increases rates of unintended pregnancy, leading to greater demand for abortion access. Further research has also shown that limiting abortion care leads to poorer health outcomes for all women. Plus, abortion is already as limited as ever—in just my own state of North Carolina, 90 percent of counties had no abortion provider in 2014.
The Trump administration’s attempts to further attack abortion access present even more of an acute danger to women in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh would be the fifth vote necessary to overturn Roe, opening the door to criminalizing women for the reproductive decisions they make (and the doctors who provide the care they need) after also denying them the health care and contraception they rely on to prevent pregnancy.
But the present danger to women in losing Roe isn’t limited to risks to their health—it would also mark a direct attack on their freedom. Advances in medical technology are replacing traditional methods of DIY abortion care with medical alternatives, which means that overturning the landmark decision could leave women facing handcuffs, not looking for coat hangers.
Right now, nearly half of all abortions are conducted not via surgery, but with FDA-approved medications. Studies show that medication abortion is incredibly safe, resulting in complications in fewer than 0.4 percent of cases—but terminating a pregnancy, even with a very safe method like medical abortion, could become a criminal act subject to legal punishment like incarceration without a legal framework guaranteeing women abortion rights.
Women of color face the greatest threat in this scenario. They already have limited access to contraception and affordable health care and collectively face the highest rates of unintended pregnancy. (This is especially true in the south, where very few states have implemented Medicaid expansion programs under the ACA to provide the health coverage that low-income women need.) Women are also the fastest growing population behind bars, particularly women of color, who are the most likely to lack the resources necessary to avoid incarceration, or to pay the fines and fees to get out of jail once they’re locked up.
Roe v. Wade ensures that women have the right to not have children, and it protects those who do have them. The decision provides basic protections to pregnant and parenting women, who are now facing increased criminalization for addiction to controlled substances during pregnancy, miscarriage or stillborn births due to the war on abortion being waged by lawmakers across the country.
Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman, was imprisoned for a stillborn birth. Pennsylvania resident Kasey Dischman was prosecuted for a premature delivery while addicted to opioids. These cases are examples of a growing trend that strips women of their civil rights if they are deemed a danger to unborn fetuses. Without the protection of Roe, that trend could accelerate—especially given the context of the anti-women agenda we see from politicians currently in power. In Alabama, voters recently passed a measure that endows fetus’ with “personhood” rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.
There’s no better time for women to follow the lead of Planned Parenthood and NARAL and step up, get off the sidelines and go on the offense to protect and expand on women’s basic abortion rights. The stakes could not be higher, and the time is now.