Few Supreme Court decisions are as emotionally charged as the Roe v. Wade ruling, decided on January 22, 1973, which guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.
Opponents have been chipping away at Roe ever since, with subsequent Supreme Court rulings and a broad range of federal and state laws limiting abortion access. Now, with Republicans in control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, abortion foes are emboldened to believe the end of Roe is near.
The courts have limited Roe
Although the Roe decision established limits on how states could regulate abortion, several Supreme Court rulings since 1973 have eroded Roe’s standards.
- Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989): A 5-4 ruling upheld a Missouri statute that barred abortions in public facilities.
- Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992): A splintered Court affirmed Roe’s core principle, that states may not prohibit pre-viability abortions, but gave the states more latitude in regulating abortion during the first trimester.
- Gonzales v. Carhart (2007): Another 5-4 ruling upheld the Federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, significant because the statute does not contain an explicit exception in cases in which a woman’s health is in danger.
Given the ideological split on the current Supreme Court, with five conservative justices to four liberal ones, President Donald Trump is one Supreme Court appointment away from shaping the Court for years and jeopardizing the legality of abortion.
Moreover, many of the president’s judicial appointments to lower federal courts have espoused anti-abortion positions. Actress and activist Kathleen Turner, in an opinion piece published in The Guardian, spoke directly to Trump’s influence on the judiciary, calling it a threat to reproductive rights for generations to come.
Attacking Roe by attacking Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood, which provides health care for men and women as well as abortion procedures, has long been a target of the anti-abortion movement. Conservative legislators continually seek to limit federal funding – made primarily through Medicaid reimbursements – for the services Planned Parenthood offers, even though an existing federal law prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for almost all abortions.
The animus toward Planned Parenthood has also prompted widespread picketing of its facilities and numerous violent acts, such as the 2015 attack at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic that left three people dead.
Congressional attacks on Roe
On the legislative front, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, now under consideration in the U.S. Senate, would criminalize abortion if the probable post-fertilization age of the fetus is 20 weeks or more. The bill provides exceptions for abortions that either are necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House is considering the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act “to prohibit a health care practitioner from failing to exercise the proper degree of care in the case of a child who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.” And on the extremes of anti-abortion legislation is the Heartbeat Protection Act, a bill proposed in the House that would make it illegal to abort babies whose heartbeats can be detected.
These are just some of the dozens of anti-abortion bills that were introduced in Congress in 2017. Even the House appropriations bill, H.R. 3354, contains a provision that would prohibit federal funding for policies supporting abortion in the nation’s capital (Congress must approve the budget for Washington, D.C.).
States’ restrictions on Roe
But federal lawmakers seem like laggards when compared to their counterparts at the state level. The Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive health and rights, tracked more than 400 abortion-restrictive provisions introduced in state legislatures in 2017. Among those enacted were new abortion restrictions that:
- Ban the use of a common and safe method for second-trimester procedures (Arkansas)
- Ban all abortions at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization (Kentucky)
- Impose requirements to preserve the life of a fetus delivered during an abortion procedure (Arizona)
- Impose ultrasound requirements for a woman seeking an abortion (Kentucky and Wyoming)
More than 40 states prohibit some abortions at certain points during pregnancy, with about half banning abortion at about 20 weeks.
Restrictions impact real people at one of life’s worst moments
For Colorado state legislator Dafna Michaelson Jenet, the right to an abortion is of paramount concern. A long-time advocate for women’s rights, Jenet faced a wrenching personal decision after her fetus’s heart stopped beating. She was left with the difficult choice of waiting until the fetus would be expelled naturally or having it removed.
Jenet, her husband, and their doctor collectively opted for a medical procedure, but because she was just beyond 20 weeks pregnancy, Jenet found herself caught in the maelstrom of Colorado’s legal obstacles to abortion. Colorado law prohibited her doctor from performing the procedure, and she was forced to go to a clinic, where she couldn’t use insurance to cover the cost.
Aside from the steady stream of anti-abortion legislation, Jenet said rhetoric is one of the biggest threats to women’s access to abortion. “The rhetoric of abortion as birth control is not the story,” Jenet said. “There is not one abortion story.” Citing her own experience, she said the complexities of abortion cannot be distilled into simplistic, uninformed reasoning. And oft-used phrases such as “partial-birth abortions” are misleading, Jenet noted, because there’s no such medical term.
In response to the rhetoric, Jenet said, “I’m asking people to tell their stories. Now more than ever, we better be engaged and telling the stories so we can protect the access.”