The right to choose to have an abortion has been recognized as a constitutional right in the United States for nearly fifty years since Roe v. Wade. However, states have the right to impose restrictions on abortions until the vague point of “viability,” as long as the restriction does not present an undue burden to those seeking an abortion. For as long as the right to choose has been established, many states have persisted in efforts to chip away at abortion access by imposing a variety of restrictions. Since Roe, more than 1,000 restrictive laws have been enacted across the United States to limit abortion access. These efforts are gaining momentum, and more than a quarter of abortion-restrictive laws were enacted between 2010 and 2015. The trend has continued, and 2021 was the most restrictive year on abortion in American history.
Abortion access has a long history of being weaponized as a political tool in the United States, and with increasing political pressures, more abortion restrictions than ever, and a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, this trend continues today. At the center of the current fight is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that was argued before the Supreme Court in December 2021. The case is regarding a Mississippi ban on abortions prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy, and will be the first case since Roe in which the court will determine the constitutionality of pre-viability abortion restrictions. The ruling, which is anticipated by the end of the Court’s term in June 2022, has the dangerous potential to overturn Roe and establish that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the United States.
The consequences of the Dobbs ruling will be severe, whether Roe is overturned entirely, or if states are permitted to expand restrictions to abortion access. Approximately half of states are considered likely to completely outlaw abortion, or limit access to the point that abortions would be virtually inaccessible, following the ruling in Dobbs. Only fourteen states and the District of Columbia protect the right to abortion in their state laws or constitutions, and just five states protect both the right to abortion and have policies in place to enhance access to abortion. The stark contrast between states that will ban abortion and the few that will protect the right will create barriers to access in the nation where approximately 1 in 4 *women will have an abortion by age 45. It is important to acknowledge that lack of access to abortion has a disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and People of Color.
In recognition of the importance of abortion access and the increasing threats to the right to choose, recent attempts to protect abortion at the federal level have made it farther than ever before. The Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021 would have enshrined the right to abortion in national law; however, after it passed in the House it failed to pass a Senate vote in March 2022. While this outcome is disappointing at a time when abortion rights are more at risk than ever, it is encouraging that the majority of American voters supported the WHPA, and marks important progress as the first time the Senate voted on legislation for the federal right to abortion.
The right to abortion in the United States faces some of its most challenging obstacles to date. While the depth of the hill we continue to climb is to be determined by the outcome of Dobbs, regardless we must persist until abortion access for all is realized.
*This post refers to “women” when the data being referenced refers specifically to women. It is important to acknowledge that abortion access impacts all people who may become pregnant, including trans and non-binary individuals.