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Abortion access in the US is falling apart — politicians must step up

Women’s health updates

This week was when the long nightmare that so many of us have had about abortion access in the United States became horrifyingly real. With the Supreme Court refusing to block a Texas law banning abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy, every doomsday scenario that pro-choice advocates have warned about for over a decade is here.

The effect has been immediate. Within hours of the Court’s decision not to halt Texas’s law allowing anyone to sue individuals who “aid and abet” those seeking an abortion, people received calls telling them that their appointments had been cancelled. Kat, who is 23, told me, “All the Texas clinics I called were already overwhelmed and unsure of how the law would cause their future operations to change, if not close completely . . . My access was already taken away from me.” For many, their only remaining option is to fly out of state — with all the attendant emotional and financial costs.

Access to abortion has always been a challenge — states have enacted hundreds of restrictions over the past decade, shuttering half of clinics, and making the procedure both unaffordable and unattainable. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 2021 has already seen more abortion restrictions than any year since the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling gave women the constitutional right to end their pregnancies — and that was before this week. None of this is new, it’s just more dire.

Sadly, abortion has also fallen by the wayside when it comes to political leadership. For some time, there have been glaring signs from the Supreme Court that the end of Roe vs Wade is near. Another case from Mississippi is due before the Court later this year.

Some politicians are paying attention. But as always, it will be too little, too late. Biden has now accused the court of unleashing ‘unconstitutional chaos’ with this week’s ‘unprecedented assault’ on abortion rights but it took 224 days of his presidency for him to use the word abortion in a public statement, let alone enact proactive policies that would pause the pain many are feeling right now.

We’re starting to hear from politicians the common refrain of “refusing to go back” to the time before Roe, alongside promises of federal legislation that will not pass a vote due to the power of anti-abortion Democrats and the filibuster. The Hyde Amendment has long barred low-income Americans from using their Medicaid insurance to pay for their abortions, rendering Roe meaningless unless they have the spare cash.

Elected officials and others in positions of power must take steps to protect and expand abortion access based on the opportunities and needs of 2021 — not 1973. They must realise what we’re dealing with, right now, in our communities and show up in solidarity. My organisation is dedicated to representing people who have abortions, ensuring their voices are heard and highlighting the ever-shifting complexity of accessing abortion care in America. We understand and we want politicians to understand as well.

It’s critical that people recognise how different our reality is today to 1973. When people think about abortion, the image of a rusty coat hanger often still reigns supreme. But this no longer illustrates the realities of 21st-century ‘illegal’ abortion. Illegal doesn’t mean unsafe — it just means subject to criminalisation. Black and brown people are the majority of abortion patients in the US and any criminalisation hurts us first. We know this, because it’s been happening for years.

Medication abortion — or abortion via pills — now accounts for more than one-third of all terminations. Such an option allows people to have an abortion on their own terms and in the comfort of their own homes. It’s not only safe but it proved critical during the Covid-19 pandemic when travel to healthcare settings wasn’t an option. While medication abortion has always been over-regulated, the pandemic gave a glimpse as to what could be possible. 

Understanding that this method is the future, anti-abortion activists have been taking action for years to erode or eliminate access to it. That is why 19 states currently ban the use of telemedicine for doctors to prescribe medication abortion. A handful of other states require providers to give patients scientifically unsupported advice that medication abortion can be reversed. Right now, Texas is moving to severely limit medication abortion in the wake of their current ban.

We need our leaders to step up and offer a plan for full decriminalisation of abortion. There is no reason anyone should face arrest, prosecution or lawsuits for seeking constitutionally protected healthcare. We need drastic action — and we needed it yesterday.

The current anti-abortion moves are a sign of what’s to come. Abortion is just the beginning — it always is. The playbook it provides applies to our other rights as well. Making it harder to vote? The closures of polling stations follow the same strategy as the closure of abortion clinics. Protests against COVID-19 vaccine distribution? It’s the same method used to protest and barricade abortion clinics.

We’ve seen these tactics play out for a decade. Our elected officials must take action now, because tomorrow is too late.

The writer is the founder of We Testify and co-author of forthcoming book ‘Countering Abortionsplaining’

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