It’s been a major factor in America’s culture wars, dividing the country for decades. Now, abortion is right back in the headlines with Catholic bishops voting Friday to approve a “teaching document” that would rebuke U.S. President Joe Biden and other politicians for receiving Holy Communion despite their stance on abortion. The move follows the U.S. Supreme Court last month agreeing to take a case that challenges the seminal Roe v. Wade decision. Yet as a woman’s right to end her pregnancy becomes embroiled in political and legal debates in the U.S., Poland and El Salvador, pro-choice activists on the island of Ireland and in majority-Catholic Argentina have achieved surprising gains. Today’s Daily Dose delves into the pressing debate around a woman’s right to choose and looks to where the ever-controversial issue is headed next.
Kate Bartlett, Senior Editor
american abortion acrimony
1. Biden’s Burden
President Joe Biden firmly supports abortion rights. But as evinced by Friday’s news, his stance has landed him in hot water with his church. A Catholic who carries his deceased son’s rosary beads and attends weekly mass, Biden’s views have divided religious leaders. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ vote — despite not receiving Vatican support — shows the breadth of the divide facing the church and many of its followers at this critical juncture. One figure, Cardinal Raymond Burke, is even on record saying “apostate” politicians should be denied the Holy Eucharist. A recent survey by Pew Research Center shows, however, that 67% of Catholic Americans think Biden should be allowed to receive Communion.
2. Challenge to Roe
Bookish law students aside, most Americans would struggle to name more than a couple of Supreme Court cases. But Roe v. Wade, so historic and divisive, would be the first out of many mouths. The landmark 1973 decision, which rules that the Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s right to an abortion, once again faces a significant threat. Last month, America’s highest court agreed to hear Mississippi’s bid to ban almost all abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. The court, which now skews 6-3 in favor of conservative judges, will debate the matter in its next term, with a ruling not expected until next year.
3. Viral Valedictorian
Just this month, Texas teen Paxton Smith caused shock after going off-script during her valedictorian speech to talk about abortion. “I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body,” she said, referring to a new law in Texas banning abortion from as early as six weeks. She added, “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail me, that if I’m raped, then my hopes and aspirations, efforts and dreams for myself will no longer matter.” The speech was widely praised by former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Hillary Clinton and others. The law, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says will “save lives,” is set to come into force in September.
4. Past Challenges
Roe v. Wade has faced, and weathered, a number of assaults over the years. In 1989, a Missouri statute defining life as beginning at conception and prohibiting public facilities from offering to terminate pregnancies was upheld by the Supreme Court. In 1992, a law that required a 24-hour waiting period and counseling for women seeking abortions, and also insisted that a wife inform her husband, was upheld — except for the spousal notice requirement. Then in 2003, former President George W. Bush signed a law prohibiting certain abortion procedures, including the “intact dilation and extraction” procedure. A plethora of other challenges have gone through America’s court system aimed at chipping at Roe and often making abortion trickier for women to access.
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Pro-choice campaigners say that with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and former President Donald Trump’s appointment of the conservative Catholic justice Amy Coney Barrett, who took her place a month later, “alarm bells are ringing” over the threat to a women’s right to choose. If the top court next year rules in favor of Mississippi, which currently has only one abortion clinic, abortions would be banned much earlier than the 24-to-28-week time frame that doctors say is typically necessary before the fetus can survive outside of the womb — while potentially setting a precedent that other states could follow. While the justices struck down an attempt by Louisiana to restrict abortion last year, that was while Bader Ginsburg was still on the court.
2. Heartbeat Bill
The measure Paxton Smith railed against will see abortion in Texas banned after six weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can often be detected. The problem, says the pro-choice camp, is that at six weeks, many women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet. The law also makes no exceptions for rape or incest and allows for abortion providers to be sued, even by private citizens. Texas now has some of the most severe abortion restrictions in the country, but there are plenty of other states with legislatures that are keen to follow suit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think tank, there have been 561 abortion restrictions, including 165 abortion bans, introduced across 47 states in the 2021 legislative session alone.
3. What If Roe Falls?
So, big picture, what’s at stake? Well, if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe, abortion would likely be prohibited in 24 states, mainly in the South and across much of the Midwest. Twenty-one states have state statutes, constitutions and laws that protect abortion even if Roe is overturned, but others have so-called “trigger laws” waiting to go into effect. This would create “abortion deserts” and “abortion havens,” forcing women in the former to travel to seek terminations in the latter, which, due to financial and logistical constraints, would be impossible or extremely difficult for many, and would disproportionately affect women of color. Even with Roe in place, state restrictions mean many women are already living a “No Roe” reality.
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In January, the South American country became one of only a few in the region to legalize abortion after a series of mass rallies by pro-choice activists wearing trademark green handkerchiefs. Figures from the predominantly Catholic country suggest it’s actually “pro-life” to be pro-choice, considering secret backstreet abortions have killed more than 3,000 women since 1983. Previously, terminations were only allowed after a rape or if a woman’s life was endangered. Despite the change to the law, however, women seeking abortions in the country still face challenges, with some doctors declaring themselves conscientious objectors. Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana legalized abortion before Argentina, but the recent move has prompted renewed debate in Chile on the issue. Will Argentina’s neighbor now see its own “green wave”?
2. The Island of Ireland: Progress Made
With abortion readily accessible in most of the U.K. for decades, Northern Ireland held out until 2019, when it finally decriminalized terminations. Before then, many women were forced to make the expensive overseas trip to England to terminate their pregnancies. Over the border in the Republic of Ireland, things weren’t much better. It took the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar — she was denied an abortion because of a fetal heartbeat while undergoing a miscarriage that proved fatal — to galvanize a massive pro-choice campaign called “Repeal the Eighth.” It referred to the country’s constitutional eighth amendment, which had given equal rights to mother and baby. In 2018, Ireland held a referendum on the issue, which saw the pro-choice camp win a landslide 66.4% of the vote to overturn the ban.
3. Poland: Harsh New Laws
Meanwhile, in January, Poland ushered in a near-total ban on abortion, despite huge protests in the 38-million-strong country. Termination is now only allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk. In the case of fetal abnormalities, however, it is prohibited. The court ruled that “an unborn child is a human being” and therefore has a right to life. Taking their cue from Argentina, many of the protesters wore green, while Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw and an opponent of the ruling, encouraged women to take to the streets. But with a conservative government in power and the influential church hierarchy steadfast, the ban went ahead. Doctors caught performing terminations now face up to three years in jail.
4. El Salvador: No Leeway
This Central American nation has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world, handing out long prison sentences to women who have illegal abortions or are suspected of having done so. Earlier this month, Sara Rogel, 28, was released from prison early after serving nine years of her original 30-year sentence. Rogel, a student, was arrested in 2012 when she went to the hospital with bleeding she said resulted from a fall. Activists say many women in the country are wrongly imprisoned after suffering obstetric emergencies. Even in the case of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger, El Salvador bans abortion.
5. Worldwide: The Big Picture
Seventy-two countries, including most Western democracies, allow abortion on request with different term limits, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. The U.S., Australia, South Africa and much of the EU fall into this category, as do China and Russia. Gestational limits vary from country to country, with Iceland and Australia having some of the most progressive laws, permitting abortion up until 22 weeks. India and Japan also have liberal abortion laws, which take into account a woman’s social or economic circumstances. However, some 24 countries around the world restrict abortion altogether and another 42 only permit it in order to save the woman’s life, meaning that a lot of the world’s women have no access to abortion whatsoever.
6. Global Gag Rule
If you’re an American, you may not think national attitudes toward abortion affect women thousands of miles away in Asia or Africa. But you’d be wrong. Whether U.S. aid money is able to go toward NGOs overseas depends very much on the party in power in Washington, D.C. Under the Trump administration, for instance, a Reagan-era policy known as “the global gag rule” was expanded so that not only would foreign reproductive rights groups be disallowed government funding, NGOs working in other areas of sexual health such as HIV/AIDS would also be unable to access money. Impoverished women suffer the most from the U.S. policy, which, instead of decreasing abortions, has in fact been shown to contribute to an increase in unsafe abortions and maternal mortality.
It’s more of a flutter, doctors say, with new technology able to detect, but not hear, the “heartbeat” on an ultrasound. Technically, it’s “a group of cells with electrical activity,” and medical science shows that even until about the 20th week of pregnancy, what will eventually be the heart remains “a disorganized jumble of tissue.” Some scientists say the pro-life camp uses terms such as “heartbeat” to play on people’s emotions and intentionally obfuscate, claiming that it proves “viability” of the heart, which scientists say is not the case.
2. The Abortion Pill or In-Clinic Abortion
The abortion pill is very different from Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill, which some mistake it for. The morning-after pill prevents a pregnancy from occurring, whereas the abortion pill, or medical abortion, can be used to safely end an early pregnancy up to 11 weeks. When a pregnancy is further along, a woman may need to have an in-clinic, or surgical, abortion. This takes five to 10 minutes and is safe when done legally. If you need to talk to someone about your options or to get counseling, you can contact Planned Parenthood in your state here.
3. The Stats
No woman wants to have an abortion; it is born out of necessity, whether for health or economic reasons, rape or simply not being ready for parenthood. In many places, contraception isn’t even an option. According to international contraception and abortion provider Marie Stopes, 218 million women and girls worldwide have no access to contraception; 25 million will have an unsafe abortion, and some 22,000 of them will die as a result.