What’s at Stake: Access to Abortion

It’s just days until Election Day, and women’s votes are more crucial this year than ever. We must have not only the will, but also a firm grasp of what we need to hold candidates at all levels accountable for policies that work toward social justice and equity for women.

What’s at Stake is a new bi-weekly series of abbreviated excepts from Ms. money editor Martha Burk’s book “Your Voice, Your Vote 2020-2021.” Using an intersectional approach of gender, race and class to issues ranging from health care to Social Security, violence, pay equity, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, the ERA and everything in between, Your Voice, Your Vote is a must for arming activists with the facts for meaningful change. A signed copy benefiting Ms. can be ordered here.

What's at Stake: Access to Abortion
The right to reproductive choice and medical privacy is the single biggest issue at stake for women’s lives and health in the 2020 election and beyond. (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

Abortion was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived, until states began to criminalize it in the 1800s. By 1910 it was illegal in all but one state, unless in a doctor’s judgment needed to save the woman’s life.

Since very few abortions could be certified as necessary to save a woman’s life, women were forced into the back alleys. In the years before the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade ruling, estimates of illegal abortions ranged as high as 1.2 million per year—some resulting in death.

Immediately after the Roe ruling, the anti-choice forces mobilized, and have never stopped working to prevent state funding for the procedure for poor women, eliminate abortion counseling, impose onerous regulations, and mount lawsuits to make abortion very difficult to obtain. Clinics have been bombed or burned to the ground, doctors and patients routinely harassed, and some have been murdered. 

What's at Stake: Access to Abortion
Anti-abortion extremism hasn’t let up, even during a pandemic. Pictured: In April, religiously-motivated Portland anti-abortion extremists stood outside a clinic—seen here informing a patient’s waiting partner of his sins. (Wesley Lapointe)

Clinic violence occurs regardless of which party is in control of the government, continuing to rise under President Bush and President Obama as well as under President Trump.

The Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Violence Survey released in 2019 reported the overwhelming majority of clinics (87 percent) experienced anti-abortion activity, with 23.8 percent getting severe threats, including death, stalking and blocking clinic access.

Nearly half  (45 percent) had at least one incident of severe violence and/or severe harassment—like break-ins, robberies and vandalism—in the first half of the survey year. Anti-choice forces also continue to mount concentrated legal attacks and ballot initiatives including restricting pre-viability procedures, mandatory waiting periods, biased counseling, and parental involvement. 

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The fight to keep abortion legal seems never-ending.  Here are some 2020 statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, and this list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Various laws that would ban or severely limit abortion are in place in 43 states if Roe is overturned.
  • Twenty-one states require abortion facilities or their clinicians to have unnecessary and burdensome connections to a local hospital.
  • Targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP laws—medically unnecessary regulations designed to shut down clinics—are now in place in 23 states.
  • Twenty-two states mandate counseling before an abortion including erroneous information a link between abortion and breast cancer (five states), the ability of a fetus to feel pain (13 states) or long-term mental health consequences for the woman (eight states).
  • Twenty-six states require waiting periods before an abortion can be performed.
  • More than a third of states have successfully passed what are termed “20-week abortion bans.” These bans are based on the unfounded assertion that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks post-fertilization.

A new and frightening trend has developed since Trump‘s election—deceptively named “fetal heartbeat bans” which outlaw abortions once a pencil-tip sized pulsing of cells that will later develop into a heart is detected. Doctors say such bans could be as early as five weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. 

Though so far blocked from taking effect by lower court challenges, abortion opponents hope one of the many such bills will make it to the Supreme Court and be upheld, overturning Roe.

What's at Stake: Access to Abortion
An attendee of a January 2012 D.C. March for Forced Motherhood. (Debra Sweet / Flickr)

Not only do the zealots want to ban abortion; they also want to criminalize women. A horrific bill debated in the Texas state legislature in 2019 defines all abortions as murder, punishable by death in Texas.  Such extreme bills are not passing – yet.  But the numbers are frightening: 446 people testified in favor of the measure, only 54 stood against it.

Bottom line? While abortion remains legal, it is increasing harder to obtain—89 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and the number rises to 97 percent in rural counties. With mandatory waiting periods and the inability of many women to miss work, this puts abortion out of reach.

Nevertheless, support for Roe v. Wade remains extremely high, with 77 percent saying the Supreme Court should uphold Roe; 26 percent want it to remain in place with more restrictions; 21 percent want it expanded, and 14 percent want some Roe restrictions reduced. Just 13 percent say it should be overturned.

The right to reproductive choice and medical privacy is the single biggest issue at stake for women’s lives and health in the 2020 election and beyond.  It is not only relevant to young women who may be faced with the abortion decision, but to all women who value their autonomy and privacy. In the pipeline are at least 20 lawsuits, in various stages of judicial review, that have the potential to be decided in ways that could significantly change the rights laid out Roe

It is uncertain whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned outright in the next few years, but it is looking increasingly likely with the new conservative Supreme Court majority against abortion rights. And because federal, state and even city bans are on the rise, it is particularly important that candidates at all levels be confronted as to their views and intentions.

Questions for Candidates:

  • Do you support a woman’s right to abortion as embodied in Roe v. Wade
  • Do you oppose appointments to the Supreme Court of people who would overturn Roe v. Wade?
  • Do you support a ban on abortion before 24 weeks, which would be in direct contradiction to Roe v. Wade?
  • Do you support any restrictions on the right to abortion?  If yes, which ones?
  • If Roe v. Wade is overturned, would you support a federal Freedom of Choice Act guaranteeing a woman’s right to privacy in medical decisions, including whether or not to have an abortion?

This piece was excerpted from Ms. money editor Martha Burk’s book “Your Voice, Your Vote 2020-2021.” A signed copy benefiting Ms. can be ordered here.


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.