South Dakota’s recent ban on abortion is a devastating blow to peoples’ right to decide whether to terminate pregnancies. The new law, effective in June if it is not challenged in court, is the latest tactic in the Christian-conservative strategy to end abortion nation-wide. While hundreds of state laws already limit access to abortion, the very broad law in South Dakota — which bans all abortion even in the case of rape or incest — is designed to create a test case to reverse Roe vs. Wade, the long-standing court case that legalized abortion in 1973.
A court challenge would force the Supreme Court to either invalidate the South Dakota law under the rule in Roe, or overturn Roe. If Roe were overturned, each state would be free to pass laws to either ban, or permit, abortion. While some states like California and New York would probably preserve access to legal abortion, conservative states across the South and mid-West would pass laws like the South Dakota law to ban all abortions. With a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the wake of the confirmation of Justice Alito, it is highly likely that a lawsuit against the South Dakota law could lead to the end of Roe vs. Wade. Because of this, abortion rights activists have so far avoided filing a lawsuit to block the law, although they are pursuing a referendum campaign against the law and other measures.
The South Dakota case is the just the latest hurdle in the abortion obstacle course which already makes access to abortion very difficult even while it is “legal.” Urban residents often take for granted access to at least one abortion clinic, but for many people in rural areas, travel distance alone is an effective barrier to accessing safe services. With high costs, waiting periods, parental consent laws, social stigma, and inflexible work situations, access becomes daunting if not impossible. The threat of violence and harassment by anti-abortion activists adds to the fear of the procedure itself.
Imagine yourself in the situation of needing to terminate a pregnancy. It doesn’t matter why; the point is that you’ve decided that it’s best for you in your own circumstances. Now imagine that you have to travel four hours to get to the nearest abortion clinic. After braving a line of harassers (holding photos of fetuses, of course), you access the clinic. You’re screened by the doctor and told that the law requires you to wait twenty four hours before having the procedure. Remembering the lies you told your boss this morning (“no, I really can’t come in today, I’m puking my guts out and my cat just died and my mom got hit by a train….but I swear I’ll be there first thing tomorrow!”), you realize that “pro-choice” comes down to a decision between your job and your body. To finish off your experience, if you’re in West Virginia, Missouri, or Florida your doctor is required by law to tell you that the fetus will feel pain (whether or not it’s true). Your only consolation is the knowledge that thousands of other women share your experience.
Currently, only one clinic provides abortions in the entire state of South Dakota and the doctors have to be flown in from Minneapolis to perform procedures. Mississippi, Kansas and Missouri also have only one abortion provider, and according to the National Abortion Federation, 88% of all counties in the U.S. do not have a single abortion clinic.
In a recent development, women from the Oglala Sioux Nation have proposed opening a clinic to provide abortions on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Because the reservation is considered sovereign territory, the upcoming abortion ban would not apply there. Since European colonization, American Indian women have not only been denied quality health care, they have historically been murdered and forcibly sterilized in clinics. In the case of abortion provision on reservation land, “pro-choice” applies not just to abortion — it represents an act of self-determination.
A look at women’s access to health care in the United States reveals that denial of abortion rights is consistent with the national agenda to cut back health care for a wide range of groups. Seventeen million women who are U.S. residents do not have health insurance. Statistics released by health care giant Kaiser Permanente indicate that one third of low-income women, Latinas, single parents, American Indian women, and foreign-born women do not have health insurance. Legislation in congress would penalize health care workers from treating undocumented immigrants, let alone insuring them. Even among insured women, 19% of those surveyed postponed needed treatment due to cost. Women of color and those living in rural areas and Southern states have especially low rates of coverage. These patterns are reflected by low standards for abortion access.
The right to have abortions is only one aspect of a broader reproductive rights movement. In a country where millions of people lack medical insurance, low income women have little or no access to health care, and with a history of forced sterilizations of women of color, the goals of “reproductive rights” must prioritize the right to quality prenatal care, access to food and housing for raising healthy families, and the right to abortion without the fear of eugenics-inspired sterilization. We must also recognize domestic violence, sexual assault, and AIDS as widespread women’s health issues. Furthermore, laws concerning women’s health (including abortion) must be shaped by all of the people affected by them, not just by the Christian right and not by a narrow coalition of pro-choice NGO’s representing privileged women.
As someone who works at an abortion clinic, I see a wide range of people come in for abortion services. This includes people who think that abortion is no big deal, people who are pro-choice but have a difficult time terminating their own pregnancy, and people who think abortion is wrong and feel that they’re killing a living being. They have one thing in common: they have decided to have an abortion because it’s the best or only option for them. It’s time to recognize that the best option for all women is quality health care, regardless of income, race, nation, or religion; the ability to choose whether or not to have an abortion follows logically.