Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, women went great lengths to end unwanted pregnancies. Those with money traveled to countries where abortion was legal or persuaded their family physician to illegally perform the procedure. Other women were limited to self-induced abortions, using household items like hangers, knives, chemicals, and stairs. These unconventional methods often led to gruesome injuries or death, and reports indicate women of color disproportionately faced such complications. The right to control one’s body became the central tenant of the Women’s Rights Movement, and many compared the government’s control over a woman’s body to an authoritarian government.
In 1973, the Supreme Court heard Roe v. Wade and decided that abortion is a fundamental right subject to the strictest scrutiny. The Supreme Court held that a state can impose its interest of preserving life only after viability, except when it’s necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. After its legalization, abortion related deaths dramatically declined. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court invalidated restrictions that imposed undue burdens on the right to obtain an abortion prior to viability. This case is exceptionally critical as the Court emphasized stare decisis, commonly known as precedent, and indicated that to overrule the central tenant of Roe would undermine judicial legitimacy since the underpinnings of its decision had not changed. Notably, the Court stressed that the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation is dependent on the ability to control their reproductive lives.
Although Roe effectively legalized abortion, states continuously create barriers to abortion access by passing legislation regulating provider and patient conduct, even without benefit to the patient. These restrictions have led to detrimental impacts on access to abortion, for example leaving many states with only one abortion clinic.
On March 9, Arkansas passed a new restriction on abortion that is far more oppressive than other states’ restrictions. This legislation acts as a near-total abortion ban by only allowing it when needed to preserve the health of the mother or fetus. This statute is one of the nation’s most restrictive bans because there are no exceptions in instances of rape or incest and violators risk a $100,000 fine or time in prison. Within the last two years, courts have repeatedly blocked other states’ attempts to implement similar restrictions. Unfortunately, this Arkansas abortion ban is remarkably different. As the statute currently stands, it is unconstitutional for violating the framework laid out in Roe. However, Arkansas Governor Hutchinson’s goal with this restriction is to go before the Supreme Court and overturn Roe. This is especially concerning as it would be the first major opportunity for the Court to review Roe since gaining a conservative majority.
If the Arkansas statute is reviewed by the Supreme Court, Justices will be forced to decide whether or not to apply reinforced judicial precedent to a fundamental right, whose legal underpinnings remain unchanged. Women have been having abortions for decades and will not stop simply because it is illegal. The question is: will there be a safe abortion option for women in the United States or will we return to our inhumane past?