In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that women have a constitutional right to end a pregnancy.
Decades later, where do things stand?
“We are in a precarious state,” says Karen Law, Executive Director of Pro-Choice Resources. “Women’s bodily autonomy has always been challenged. But we have never seen such a planned strategy aimed at whittling away” at the right to abortion, mainly at the state level.
“In large parts of the country,” says Sarah Stoesz, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, “Roe is functionally irrelevant.”
In 2010, 20 state legislative chambers flipped to GOP majorities and Republicans gained six governor’s offices. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 300 abortion restrictions have been enacted in states since then, with 50 restrictions enacted in 18 states in 2016 alone. As of May 1, 2017:
• 11 states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans,
• 45 states allow individual health care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion,
• 27 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between when she receives counseling and the procedure is performed.
“In spite of the political pushback on abortion rights, it’s important to underscore how common a procedure it is – and how commonly accepted,” Stoesz says. “About one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.”
In recent years, though, abortion rates have fallen sharply. The Guttmacher Institute reported that the U.S. abortion rate declined 14 percent from 2011 to 2014 (13 percent in Minnesota).
While they didn’t investigate the reasons, the study’s authors say improved contraception use is a likely factor – and the wave of state-level abortion restrictions could have contributed “by making it more difficult for women to access needed services in highly restrictive states.”
Law doesn’t think restrictions are a big factor. “Opponents say, ‘See, our restrictions are working,'” Law says. “But in the six states with the biggest declines, only one had new restrictions in that time period.”
But restrictions do mean delays – traveling farther, spending more money – which jeopardize women’s health and safety.
Law indicates there are multiple factors leading to declining abortions, including accessibility to birth control. She notes that the Obama administration dropped its predecessor’s “abstinence-only” approach, so more young people began getting medically sound, comprehensive sex education. Studies show, Law says, that “when you educate youth, they make better decisions.”
“The one thing I don’t regret”
While it’s improved, prevention isn’t perfect. Malorie Deason began using birth control at 16; at 18, she became pregnant.
“I had just left my parents’ home, because when you’re 18, you know everything,” says Deason, 29. She was living “couch to couch,” and knew she was neither mentally nor financially ready for a child.
“I decided the responsible thing to do was end the pregnancy,” she says. Deason came from a conservative family and “was scared to tell anyone because there was that stigma,” she says. It was pre-Obamacare, and having been cut out of her father’s military insurance upon turning 18, she had to scrounge up the money on her own.
“I am so thankful for being able to make that choice,” Deason says. Subsequently, she went to college, and became a teacher – and eventually a mother.
“I have the most amazing little boy,” Deason says. “Because I had that choice, I’m able to be a good mom and care for him mentally, emotionally and financially.”
She’s also a Planned Parenthood volunteer. Looking back on her teen years, “the one thing I don’t regret is having an abortion, so I want to give back,” Deason says. “The right to choose is under threat more than ever.”
Deason isn’t exaggerating. A Guttmacher Institute map color-codes states into four categories on abortion rights: Supportive, Middle-ground, Hostile, and Extremely Hostile. In 2006, when Deason ended her pregnancy, there were two Extremely Hostile states. In 2016, there were 22.
Minnesota’s “Middle-ground” status didn’t change – but that doesn’t mean anti-choice forces haven’t been trying.
This year, Republicans – who have a 77-57 majority in the House – introduced bills that are regularly supported by the anti-choice lobby: 1) to ban state-sponsored health programs from paying for abortions, which impacts the 830,000 low-income people who get insurance through Medical Assistance – Minnesota’s version of Medicaid; and 2) to require new licensing requirements and fees for abortion clinics. Both bills passed the House and Senate. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to veto both (action had not been taken before press time).
The federal Hyde amendment bars Medicaid from funding abortions, except in limited circumstances. Due to a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, Minnesota is one of just over a dozen states that offer public insurance for low-income women who need abortion services.
“Abortion is covered for low-income women in Minnesota, and that’s a very important thing,” Stoesz says. “We don’t want to see that diminished.”
What can pro-choice Minnesotans do? “Loudly and repeatedly contact your representatives at both the state and federal level,” Stoesz says. “I can’t stress that enough. Even if they’re pro-choice, they still need to hear from voters. It’s important they be thanked and reinforced.” Advocates can also attend town meetings, visit their elected officials’ offices, and be active on social media.
Along with recent court victories, there’s other cause for hope.
Since the wave of restrictions began, “public opinion has been shifting more and more toward abortion rights,” Stoesz says – perhaps in part an unintended consequence of the restrictions themselves. She cited an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that 70 percent of Americans don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned.
“When people begin to really consider what it means to have abortion as a safe, legal option,” Stoesz says, “they want to keep it that way.”
Pro-Choice Resources has an abortion assistance fund that provides no-interest loans and grants. They also have a discussion/support group for those who have had abortions.
Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota provides an array of health services, including pap tests, birth control, emergency contraception and abortion.
Pro-Choice Resources hosts regular volunteer trainings/workshops focused on Reproductive Justice.
Every department at Planned Parenthood is glad to have volunteers. You can also join the Planned Parenthood Action Network.
NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights since 1966. Join their Choice Action Network, become a member, and/or volunteer.