Op-Ed

Global crackdown on access to abortion will cost women their lives | Opinion

Anti-abortion activists hold a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Anti-abortion activists hold a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2015 in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

It’s not fake news: Public support for abortion rights in the United States is as high as we’ve seen in years. While Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation stirred the national debate over Roe v. Wade, today’s fight for abortion access rests with the states.

Indeed, several states have considered and passed extreme restrictions intended to erode or overturn Roe v. Wade, from efforts in Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio to ban abortion at six weeks (before many women even know they are pregnant) to current bills in Indiana and South Carolina that would ban abortion altogether. In Florida, a recently introduced bill would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. But trying to ban a woman’s constitutional right to reproductive care is not enough for abortion opponents, who are going so far as to propose prosecution and prison time for a woman who receives an abortion.

Make no mistake: These proposed domestic policies haven’t happened in isolation. The movement to ban abortion is happening across the world, and its consequences are fatal.

Just look to our neighbors to the south. El Salvador has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the world, but it was not always this way. Up until 1998, abortion was legal in some cases. That all changed one year later, when the conservative ARENA party passed a law outlawing abortion without exceptions.

The effects of this extreme law were immediate and offer a glimpse into what happens when abortion is illegal: A woman arrives at the hospital with abdominal pain and learns she has an ectopic pregnancy, but doctors refuse to perform an abortion. This was the case of 22-year-old Keyla Cáceres, whose doctors waited until her ovaries exploded and her life was on the line before they took action.

Another woman has a miscarriage at home and is rushed to the hospital. While unconscious, a doctor asks if she had an abortion and calls the police. She is handcuffed to her hospital bed and later sent to prison. Such was the case of 18-year-old Evelyn Hernandez, who is now serving a 30-year prison sentence. Hernandez is not alone. Over the course of 20 years, El Salvador’s total abortion ban has imprisoned more than 25 women and orphaned countless children.

El Salvador is not the only country in the Americas with an extreme abortion ban. A woman recently died from sepsis in the Dominican Republic after being denied an abortion. In Honduras, both emergency contraception and abortion are illegal. Now, some legislators are attempting to pass similar laws in the United States.

Until recently, most opponents of abortion in the United States sought to pass seemingly small restrictions state by state, such as waiting periods, that chip away at abortion access. Now, dangerous efforts to outlaw abortion do not shy away from criminalizing women who seek reproductive care. In Oklahoma, a proposed bill would ban abortion entirely and impose a criminal sentence up to, and including, the death penalty for getting an abortion. A similar bill in Texas was introduced by legislators who expressed their desire to see women jailed for having abortions and doctors jailed for providing them. In Indiana, a proposed bill is so broad that some legal experts believe miscarriages could be considered manslaughter.

While this outright assault on Roe v. Wade is distressing, there is hope.

Since President Trump’s election, women have demonstrated the power of their voices and their votes, and elevated reproductive freedom on their agenda. This has not been missed by many state leaders. In 2018, we saw the greatest number of pro-choice legislation enacted in states in recent years. In January, New York passed the historic Reproductive Health Act to ensure and expand legal protection and access to abortion. New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont are advancing bills to protect abortion rights.

This momentum is not isolated to the United States. Last year, thousands of women filled the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, demanding an end to clandestine abortions. Women and allies across the Americas are unapologetically claiming the right to choose.

Each day, new threats to safe, accessible abortion arise. We must heed the lessons of El Salvador and other countries in the region, and work together to protect a woman’s autonomy over her body. State legislators must continue to protect abortion access, even in the face of misinformation campaigns and false claims by people who want to ban safe, legal abortion. The struggle for reproductive freedom continues, but it is not a struggle in isolation.

Women, no matter their country or their economic status, should not die from an ectopic pregnancy or be jailed for a miscarriage. Our path to a world in which reproductive freedom reigns supreme might not be a straight line, but it is part of a greater struggle for women’s rights everywhere. It’s a struggle we cannot afford to lose.

Paula Avila-Guillen is director of Latin American Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center. Kelly Baden is director of Reproductive Rights at the State Innovation Exchange.

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