This Is What Happens When Abortion Is Outlawed

AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca

A man walks past the former site of a clinic that offered abortions in El Paso, Texas, Friday, October 3, 2014. Abortion services for many Texas women require a round trip of more than 200 miles, or a border-crossing into Mexico or New Mexico after federal appellate judges allowed full implementation of a law that has closed more than 80 percent of Texas' abortion clinics. 

In Paraguay, a 10-year-old rape victim is denied an abortion—even though her stepfather is her attacker. In El Salvador, suicide is the cause of death for 57 percent of pregnant females between ages 10 and 19. In Nicaragua, doctors are anxious about even treating a miscarriage. All of these instances are the result of draconian abortion laws that have outlawed critical reproductive care in nations throughout Latin America. If stories like these seem remote to American readers, it’s because they’ve been largely eliminated through widespread access to basic abortion services beginning in the 1970s. But with the Republican Party now chipping away at our right to make our own reproductive health choices, these realities could become commonplace in the United States once again.

On June 9, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’s H.B. 2, better known as the omnibus abortion bill, after a two-year court battle. The bill, passed in July 2013, restricts abortion by medication; requires hospital admitting privileges (a physician’s right to admit and treat a patient) at a hospital no more than 30 miles away from where the abortion is obtained; and mandates that abortion facilities meet the minimum standards of ambulatory surgical centers—a provision that would force many providers to make multimillion-dollar changes to their facilities. This law threatened to close of all but seven abortion facilities in the state of Texas.

Since it first came up for debate, the Texas bill has encountered fierce opposition. It was H.B. 2’s companion legislation, Senate Bill 5, that inspired state senator Wendy Davis’s impassioned 11-hour filibuster in July 2013. After the bill passed, two lawsuits were quickly filed to challenge several of its provisions. The first failed in March 2014, and on June 9, the second failed. The Fifth Circuit has just made obtaining abortions in Texas extremely difficult—but abortion providers are not giving up and are moving towards taking their case to the Supreme Court.

Such laws aren’t likely to lead to a reduction in the abortion rate, but they do force women to take drastic measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, every year 21.6 million women worldwide have an unsafe abortion. Of these unsafe abortions, 18.5 million are in developing countries. Complications from unsafe abortions kill 47,000 women each year; these women make up nearly 13 percent of all maternal deaths.

Abortion is illegal (or only permitted to save the mother’s life) in 66 countries, or approximately a quarter of the world’s population. For social, political, and religious reasons, many of the countries with strict abortion laws are in the Latin American and Caribbean region. In El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Haiti, abortion is prohibited—under all circumstances.

In El Salvador, a 1998 law went into effect that made abortion illegal with no exceptions—including rape, life of the mother, or incest. Women who are found guilty of having an abortion face two to eight years in prison. Punishment is widespread as well. Anyone found guilty of assisting in the abortion also faces two to eight years in prisons. Doctors and nurses who assist and perform abortions face six to twelve years behind bars.

With harsh consequences for obtaining an abortion, women in El Salvador and other countries often turn to clandestine—and sometimes dangerous—methods. The drug misoprostol, often referred to as just “miso” and used for treating ulcers has become a popular abortion drug. But without access to dosage information and no supervision, using miso can lead to complications or even death. Yet, as Andrea Grimes documented at RH Reality Check in March, the use of misoprostol is gaining traction, even in the United States. And when used correctly, miso is safer than other self-inducing options.

Although self-induced abortion is dangerous under any circumstances, other methods run a higher risk of injury and death. In order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, women will drink turpentine, bleach, or livestock manure concoctions. Some will inflict direct injury to the vagina by inserting herbal mixes or inserting foreign objects into the body like a twig or a coat hanger. Some use external injury—jumping from the top of the stairs or from a roof—to induce abortion, as well as inflicting blunt trauma (like punching or kicking) to the abdomen.

Self-induction isn’t the only way an abortion can be unsafe. Health care professionals lacking the skills, hygienic settings, or instruments to perform an abortion can cause uterine perforations and infections.

The number of unsafe abortions in the United States is miniscule, for now. But as conservative lawmakers find creative ways to undermine Roe v. Wade, such as waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds and Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) bills that single out abortion clinics and subject them to stricter laws than other medical facilities, more and more women will be left with few legal methods to end their pregnancies.

Kenlissia Jones from Albany, Georgia, ordered pills online to end her pregnancy. After ingesting them, she gave birth to the fetus in a car on her way to the hospital. She was arrested on charges of murder and illegal drug possession and taken to county jail. The prosecutor dismissed the murder charges, but Jones still faces charges of drug possession. In Georgia, 58 percent of women live in a county with no abortion provider.

In Indiana, Purvi Patel suffered a miscarriage and put the fetus in a bag in a dumpster. At the hospital, while suffering from heavy bleeding, law enforcement arrived to question her. During the investigation, local police found text messages that indicated Patel had ordered drugs online to end her pregnancy, but a toxicologist testified at her trial that no drugs were found in her blood sample. In March, Patel was sentenced to 30 years in prison for neglecting a dependent as well as six years for feticide. 

When abortion is illegal, even miscarriages can end in prison sentences. Purvi Patel’s story mirror the stories of the 17 women jailed in El Salvador whose pregnancies ended in miscarriage or complications during birth. Many of them were charged with murder and sentenced to decades in prison. A woman who goes to the hospital seeking medical care can be reported to authorities if medical professionals suspect that the woman induced an abortion.

These horrifying situations are realities for many women around the globe, and as reproductive rights get slowly chipped away by anti-choice legislators, the United States may revert back to pre-Roe v. Wade days, when 1.2 million women had illegal abortions every year and unsafe illegal abortions accounted for 5,000 deaths annually.

But these tragic stats don’t seem to faze conservative lawmakers.

Mandatory waiting periods in states like Missouri and Louisiana make it harder for low-income women to obtain a safe and legal abortion. Laws that cause the shuttering of clinics in Texas mean that many women seeking an abortion will have to travel extensively, and for women with few resources, no paid sick leave, or options for child care, travel may be out of the question. All of these restrictive laws make abortion access virtually impossible, meaning it might as well be illegal.

If the GOP continues to chip away at our reproductive choices, Patel and Jones’s stories will become more common. “It is shocking each and every time we see an attempt to deny pregnant women their human rights and to treat them and the fact that they are pregnant as a crime rather than a public health issue,” Lynn Paltrow, an attorney and the executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Guardian.

Criminalization of pregnant woman, lengthy prison sentences, suicide, and preventable death are what happen when abortion is illegal. The Center for Reproductive Rights, Amnesty International, and countless other groups have called for a fix to restrictive abortion laws. Pro-choice activists and progressive voices everywhere must help end the total ban on abortion in countries worldwide—and not let it happen in the United States.

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