For nearly half a century, women in the United States have had a constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion. And for most of that time, abortion opponents have been trying to take it away. Even as millions of women have availed themselves of that right, nothing short of a war has been waged on their access to abortion. The results include a congressional ban (called the Hyde Amendment) on federal money for abortions and a patchwork of unnecessary state laws that have forced numerous abortion providers to shut down and left some states with a single clinic.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel aptly summarized the situation in 2013 when he issued an injunction against a Texas law that would have imposed new demands on abortion providers. Abortion, Yeakel wrote, “is the most divisive issue to face this country since slavery.”
But opponents have yet to dislodge the bedrock of abortion rights: the Supreme Court’s holding in Roe vs. Wade (1973) that the 14th Amendment guarantees a right to privacy, which includes the right to have an abortion.
Before Roe, women were at the mercy of laws handed down by a profoundly patriarchal, sexist society that believed the conception of a fetus was a sacrosanct event and that women were simply the vessels that carry it. Only four states had legalized abortion for any reason. In other states it was completely outlawed or permitted only if the woman’s life or mental health was in peril.
For many women, that meant a harrowing and often fruitless search for someone — preferably a medical doctor — who would perform an abortion illegally, often for a preposterous fee. A Guttmacher Institute researcher
estimated that in 1972 alone, 130,000 women obtained illegal or self-induced procedures, 39 of whom died; from 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for nonwhite women was 12 times that for white women.
In the years since then, the basic tenet of Roe has been reaffirmed by the court over and over again. Revisiting the issue nearly two decades later, the high court said in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey (1992) that women have a right to an abortion up to the point when the fetus was viable, although beyond that point, the government has an interest in protecting both the fetus and the woman’s health. That decision set an important standard: a law cannot be enacted simply to place a substantial obstacle or burden in the way of an abortion.
Yeakel applied that standard when he blocked the Texas law, which would have required doctors who provided abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and abortion clinics to be outfitted like ambulatory surgical centers. The Supreme Court agreed in Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt (2016), dismissing the law as a