How the new Supreme Court could make abortion more dangerous

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The court's attacks on reproductive rights won't make abortion go away, but they could make them much less safe.

With Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the Supreme Court, the court now has a solid 6-3 anti-abortion majority. Roe v. Wade will likely be seriously compromised over time, if not outright overruled. However, restricting access to abortion, a recent study shows, doesn't mean fewer abortions. In fact, it's quite the opposite. 

A recent report authored in part by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute tracked the rates of unintended pregnancies and abortions and how those relate to the legal status of abortion in various countries. 

Worldwide, around 60% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, whether it's legal or not. But over the last two decades, the percentage of unintended pregnancies which end in abortion increased in those countries where there were more abortion restrictions.

The researchers learned that in high-income countries where abortion is "broadly legal," rates of abortion are lower than in high-income countries where abortion is restricted only to save the life or the health of the mother or is banned. 

In the broadly legal high-income countries, 11 per 1000 women of reproductive age have abortions. In the high-income countries where abortion is highly restricted or banned, 32 per 1000 women of reproductive age have abortions. 

The United States currently falls into the "broadly legal" category. However, many conservative legislators have agitated for that to change.

Guttmacher reported that almost half of the 58 new abortion restrictions enacted in 2019 were designed to ban some or all abortions. Ten states already have "trigger laws," which would make abortion illegal or almost completely illegal automatically if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. If that happens, abortions may actually increase.

In part, that increase may be because restrictions on abortion are often combined with highly restrictive views on birth control as well. Better access to birth control decreases abortions. One study at Washington University found that providing free birth control cut abortion rates by at least 62% compared to the national rate. But many conservative legislators and anti-abortion activists have pressed to make birth control illegal as well. 

And Barrett, the newest member of the Court, has already said she believes that life begins at conception and has aligned herself with groups that say allowing doctors to discuss birth control with patients is tantamount to bullying them not to reproduce. It's a worldview that comprehensively undermines reproductive health. 

In a post-Roe world, the need for abortions in the United States won't decrease, but the safety of them likely will. 

Across the world, millions of people have abortions every year, and almost half of those are unsafe, with complications that can lead to death. As much as anti-abortion activists and legislators like to say that a concern for maternal health underpins their desire to restrict abortion, it's simply untrue that maternal health is bolstered by abortion restrictions.

Barrett may get her wish to eliminate access to legal abortions in America, but it won't stop them from happening — they'll just go underground and get more dangerous. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.