It’s a strange time in the United States. On the one hand, unintended pregnancy is at its lowest rate in 30 years. On the other hand, the Republican frontrunner for the presidency just advocated "some form of punishment" for women who have abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the procedure is made illegal. Though he walked back his remarks only hours after uttering them, it doesn't change the fact that the climate on reproductive rights in the U.S. right now is particularly fraught.
The usual amped-up election year shenanigans aside, being accurate about the impact of restricting abortion access is crucial. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the last five years account for more than a quarter of all state-level abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade. In places like Texas and Louisiana, abortion restrictions have made the procedure inaccessible to millions. That dwindling access has meant desperate and dire times for many. As the New York Times reported, last year alone there were approximately 119,000 Internet searches in the U.S. for the exact phrase “how to have a miscarriage.” Other common searches included phrases like “how to self-abort.” Overall, in 2015 there were more than 700,000 Google searches looking into self-induced abortions.
Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed one of the most egregious anti-choice pieces of legislation that we’ve seen yet. The Republican-led state legislature passed a bill intended to cut funding to reproductive health clinics, including but not limited to Planned Parenthood-run clinics. Similar to Texas’ House Bill 2, which is currently under consideration by the Supreme Court, the Florida law taking effect July 1 requires that all doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. But that cumbersome and medically unnecessary requirement is not all; the law also requires annual licensure inspections for clinics and bans the purchase, sale or transfer of fetal remains. And it further upgrades the failure to properly dispose of fetal tissue from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor. The law also prohibits state agencies, including local health departments, from contracting with clinics for medical services when those clinics perform abortions, unless the abortions are performed because the pregnancy is due to rape or incest, or medically necessary for the woman's life.
The brunt of these restrictions is, as usual, borne by Florida’s poor. Officials with Planned Parenthood in the state said the measure will eliminate funding for 2,000 patients on Medicaid and 5,500 patients served through Title X federal funding for low-income and uninsured women. But don’t worry! The bill proactively enumerates where the legislators expect Floridians to get reproductive care -- directing people to dentists and optometrists and elementary school health clinics for their their reproductive health needs.
This law comes on the heels of another recent law making it harder to get an abortion in Florida. The state’s 24-hour waiting period just went into effect earlier in March. The paternalism abounds: This restriction requires anyone who wants an abortion to take one more trip than necessary to the clinic, and includes mandatory “counseling” and an 18-hour waiting period before being allowed to get a procedure that is both exceedingly safe and legal.
If that weren't bad enough, the state of Indiana, a leader in regressive and restrictive abortion bans, has launched another round in their ongoing anti-choice salvo. Last week, the state passed a bill requiring abortion providers to bury or cremate fetuses and banning abortions from being performed based on a fetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, or based on the race or sex of the fetus. While there is surely an important and necessary conversation to be had about the relationship between reproductive rights advocacy and justice for those living with disabilities, the Indiana law does not dwell in any nuance. It is a vehicle to judge and criminalize the reasons that people choose abortion. And, of course, it is a vehicle to punish them.
It's low-income women, immigrant women and women of color who are most likely to be criminalized as a result of such legislation. In Indiana’s St. Joseph County, Purvi Patel, a South Asian woman, was sentenced to 41 years for the crimes of feticide and neglect of a dependent. (Patel will serve 20 of the 41 years in prison.) While Ms. Patel consistently maintained that she experienced a miscarriage, prosecutors argued that that she attempted to terminate her own pregnancy but gave birth to a baby who she then neglected and allowed to die. She is currently incarcerated with a pending appeal.
Patel’s is the first instance of a state-level feticide being successfully used to punish a woman for trying to have an abortion. Women have been charged with other crimes after taking abortion pills without a prescription, but the feticide charge appears to be Indiana’s idea. It could spread, though: About 38 states have fetal homicide laws in place. The common justification for the feticide laws is that they protect pregnant women against unscrupulous abortion providers or abusive partners. In practice, it’s women, particularly Asian-Americans, who seek abortion and/or miscarry, women like Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai, who have been prosecuted and charged under the law. In fact, laws like Indiana’s most recent ban, which includes a ban on race- and sex-selective abortion, are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Supporters of these bans claim they are necessary because of Asians and other immigrants who migrate to the U.S. and bring “backward” values with them, when in fact, Asian-American women are actually giving birth to more girls than their white counterparts. So, when Indiana passes another law asserting that it is to protect against discrimination, you might understand the skepticism.
Add to this mix the very real worry about abortion access in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, along with a potential 4-4 split at the U.S. Supreme Court allowing one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the land to stand, and we’ve just painted a very bleak picture.
This moment is acutely dangerous, not just because of restrictive laws, but because Americans don’t seem to know what’s happening to their right to access reproductive health care. According to a Vox/PerryUndem poll, 83 percent of registered voters said they “don’t know or aren’t sure about which laws are in place around abortion.” Importantly, after these voters were given more information about abortion restrictions, two-thirds said that the states that pass them are headed in the “wrong direction.” It’s not that Americans are more anti-choice than ever before, but rather that anti-choice state legislatures are quietly and aggressively proposing and passing anti-choice legislation.
In this climate, when Mr. Trump advocates “punishing” women who seek abortion in the event it becomes illegal, we don’t need to imagine that future. That future is now.