When Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement this week, one of the first questions that came to mind for abortion rights advocates was how a new makeup of the high court could affect American women.
President Donald Trump has said since the beginning of his campaign that he is committed to appointing conservative justices to the court, who could overturn or cripple Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that ruled that state laws restricting or criminalizing abortions violated a woman’s right to privacy under the 14th Amendment and thus were unconstitutional.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Mike Pence, now the vice president, said, “We’ll see Roe vs. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.”
In other parts of the world that don’t have blanket rulings like Roe that bar criminalizing abortion, there are tight restrictions and outright bans of abortions. Abortion rights advocates fear that an overturning of Roe could make laws in some United States look more like those that exist in foreign countries.
The debate is the same around the globe as it is in the United States. Antiabortion advocates – many who hold the view that life begins at the moment of conception – see the procedure as murder of the unborn child, and they stand on their moral and religious beliefs. Abortion rights advocates see the issue as one of an individual’s right to choose as to what happens with her own body.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that advocates expanding abortion access, announced that Kennedy’s retirement meant the right to have an abortion in the United States was in “dire, immediate danger.”
“It’s not rhetoric, it’s not hyperbolic, it’s exactly the situation we’re in,” Leslie McGorman, deputy policy director for NARAL, told The Washington Post.
Research from recent years show that regardless of a country’s abortion laws, such procedures continue to happen everywhere – they just become less safe in places where they’re illegal.
“Abortion incidence is pretty consistent across legal environments,” said Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute. “Whether you’re looking at the U.S. or at Nigeria or a country where abortion is highly restricted, the incidence of abortion is quite often very similar.”
Until May, Ireland had a near-total ban on abortion, although the procedure has more recently been allowed when it was necessary to save the mother’s life. Ireland’s law against abortion was considered one of the most restrictive and punitive in the entire developed world: Those who sought or provided abortions in Ireland faced up to 14 years in prison.
In Ireland, the antiabortion campaign asked voters to “love both” the mother and her fetus and vote against legalizing the procedure. “At 12 weeks the baby can be seen sucking its thumb and wiggling in the womb,” the group posted on Twitter. “Don’t deny the humanity of this baby.”
But on May 26, Irish voters in a landslide referendum chose to legalize unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. In cases that pose serious risk to the mother or fatal fetal abnormalities, abortion will also be accessible beyond the first trimester.
“Before changing that law, women who were wealthier traveled . . . to Britain to obtain their abortions,” Boonstra said. “You could see something similar happening in the U.S. where people have to travel further, with more of a patchwork of accessibility and availability.”
Because Roe v. Wade allows states to regulate abortions as medical procedures in efforts to protect patients’ health, including that of the unborn child, some legislatures have passed increasingly restrictive measures as to what point an abortion can be carried out in a pregnancy and what procedures can be done.
Carol Sanger, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of “About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century,” said that in the coming years, some U.S. states will probably be more emboldened to place such obstacles in the way of abortion access, such as preventing certain clinics from providing abortions or implementing waiting periods between when a woman first asks her doctor to terminate a pregnancy and when she can actually go through with it.
Already some legislatures are pushing measures that could effectively end access to abortions in their states. A bill introduced in Ohio in March suggested banning abortions there and equating an “unborn human” to a living person, meaning under Ohio’s criminal code, doctors or women who provide or receive abortions could potentially be charged with murder. The proposed Ohio measure, as well as others already signed into law in other states, could result in future cases before the Supreme Court.
“They can do a lot of damage without overturning Roe,” Sanger said.
Around the world, abortion rights organizations have had to find ways to offer women from places that ban abortion opportunities to terminate their pregnancies.
Last year, the Guatemalan army seized a Dutch vessel run by Women on Waves, a group that takes women early on in their pregnancies out to international waters and offers them an abortion pill. In Guatemala, abortion is illegal unless it will save a mother’s life.
Advocates have also used drones to deliver “abortion pills” to some places that ban abortion, including Northern Ireland and Poland.
In El Salvador, which has one of the world’s strictest abortion policies, the procedure is banned under all circumstances. Even women who miscarry can be accused of attempting an abortion and face up to 30 years in prison.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the United States “could become El Salvador,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, director of Latin American initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, a group that supports reproductive rights campaigns around the world.
El Salvador is an extreme example of abortion restriction. But some activists think it’s not too far of a cry from what parts of the United States could look like if states are empowered to roll back abortion rights.
“They’ve shown us where we will go as a country if it is not available or legal,” McGorman said of El Salvador. “It’s not a mystery about where we’ll end up.”