Anti-Abortion Laws are the Real Risk to Women’s Health

Political and religious conservatives love to talk about the so-called health risks of abortion. They perpetuate scientifically disproven myths about “post-abortion syndrome” (depression caused by having an abortion) and a nonexistent link between breast cancer and abortion, and pass Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers—or TRAP laws—that, for instance, require clinics (unnecessarily) to meet the building standards of ambulatory surgical centers.

This despite the fact that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, “a first-trimester abortion is one of the safest medical procedures” you can have. Major complications that could send a woman to the hospital occur at a rate of less than 0.5 percent. Dr. Jeanne Conry, the former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) told Kaiser Health News that “the mortality rate associated with a colonoscopy is more than 40 times greater than that of an abortion.”

A protestor dresses like a Handmaid at the Stop the Bans rally for abortion rights at the Supreme Court. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Why aren’t conservatives talking about the health risks U.S. women really face—the complications from pregnancy and childbirth? Pre- and postnatal depression is well documented: ACOG warns that up to nearly one in four women suffer from perinatal depression. Other risks of pregnancy include anemia, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, infection and death. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that each year in the U.S. about 700 women die of pregnancy-related problems. More women are dying of pregnancy complications in the U.S. than in any other developed country, and 60 percent of these deaths are preventable.

This health crisis is particularly acute for women of color. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women. Conservatives are putting more lives at risk by shutting down clinics with TRAP laws, restricting access to reproductive care with the Title X gag rule, passing near-total abortion bans and enacting laws based on junk science and right-wing politics. Laws that restrict access to reproductive health care and impose unnecessary clinic regulations have nothing to do with improving health care and everything to do with an anti-abortion political agenda.

States are passing such inflammatory bills as the “born-alive” legislation that addresses the imaginary situation of doctors committing infanticide following a failed abortion, which would already be illegal. In Georgia, the same “heartbeat” bill that banned abortion as early as six weeks also allowed state taxpayers to claim an embryo as a dependent.

But at the same time, other states are moving to protect women and advance reproductive health care. New York recently passed a package of legislation on the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that included the Reproductive Health Act, which codifies Roe and, according to a Senate press release, “treats abortion as health care, not a criminal act.” New York also enacted the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which requires insurers to cover all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and the Boss Bill, which prevents employers from restricting women’s health care decision-making by imposing their own personal religious beliefs over the religious beliefs and moral authority of their women workers.

More states must take similar actions to protect Roe, expand access to reproductive care and ensure abortion care is available through Medicaid for women with lower incomes.

These issues also need to be front and center in next year’s elections. When conservatives try to hijack the debate over pregnancy, abortion and women’s health, we’ll call them out.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Ms.

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Toni Van Pelt is a longtime feminist activist and president of the National Organization for Women. Spurred to action by attacks on reproductive rights in her home state of Florida, Toni has served in leadership positions at all levels of NOW since 1989; she was previously president of Florida NOW, director of NOW’s southeast region, a national board member and treasurer of the Upper Pinellas chapter. Toni is co-founder, president and public policy director for the Institute for Science and Human Values and former vice president and public policy director of the Center for Inquiry.