by Archita Srinath
Graphic design by Emily Tjan
Norma McCorvey was only 21 years old in September of 1969 when she found herself pregnant without a job, partner, or familial support. Her first two children had been given up for adoption as she was battling a drug and alcohol addiction. Norma was not ready to give birth to another child that she could not care for and wanted to terminate her pregnancy. Unfortunately, as a resident of Texas, the law stated that abortions are illegal unless the mother’s life is in danger. Feeling hopeless, Norma was told to contact lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee to explore her options. They sued the Dallas County district attorney (DA) Henry Wade to challenge the law as unconstitutional and infringing on her right to reasonable privacy. To protect Norma’s identity, she was given the name “Jane Roe” in the lawsuit, thereby dubbing the famous case Roe v. Wade. The district court ruled in Norma’s favour, but the DA appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.1
In a historic decision, on January 22nd, 1973, the court issued a ruling that legalized abortion in all states. Pregnant people in the United States could now legally get an abortion before the fetus could survive outside the womb, which is around 24 weeks. Since then, anti-abortion activists have unsuccessfully tried to overturn the decision. However, with the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency and his promise to “make abortion illegal again”, individual states started introducing restrictive abortion laws called “heartbeat bills” to challenge Roe v. Wade.1
The Summer 2019 issue of IMS Magazine contained an article titled “The Heartbeat Movement” by Jason Lo Hog Tian who wrote excellently on this topic. Briefly, “heartbeat bills” are abortion laws that state that a pregnancy cannot be terminated if a “heartbeat” can be detected. This is usually around 6 weeks by vaginal ultrasound, before most individuals even know that they are pregnant. Moreover, this term is intentionally misleading, as a 6-week-old embryo does not possess a fully formed heart, but rather a mass of cells that will eventually become the heart. The “heartbeat” that is detected comes from early electrical activity of these cells. Although an exception to this bill is if the mother’s life is in danger, some states, like Texas, provide no concessions in terms of rape or incest. However, since the ruling in Roe v. Wade deemed individual state restrictions on abortion before fetal viability (i.e., before the fetus can survive outside the womb) unconstitutional, these laws were unenforceable.2
In March of 2018, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Mississippi sued state health officer Thomas E. Dobbs over the passing of the unconstitutional law banning abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy. In December 2021, the case was presented to a conservative leaning Supreme Court. On January 24th, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States threw away 50 years of legal precedent and abolished the federal right to abortion under Roe v. Wade. Individual states are now allowed to make their own decisions about abortion laws, and almost 50% of states are expected to or already have severely restricted abortion. This is accomplished by reviving pre-Roe bans that were unenforceable post-Roe, trigger bans which took effect as soon as Roe was overturned, and pre-viability gestational bans that restrict abortion much earlier than fetal viability outside the womb.3
So, what does this mean for people who wish to have an abortion in America? Experts say that the people who will be most affected by the fall of Roe v. Wade are Black and Indigenous people. These populations already face disproportionate health risks when pregnant and are 2-4 times more likely to die from giving birth than their white counterparts. For Black and Indigenous pregnant people, getting an abortion is much safer than giving birth to an unwanted child. Moreover, the states that are more likely to ban or severely restrict abortions have higher proportions of Black and Indigenous people, not to mention existing inadequacies in access to prenatal healthcare. Consequently, these states have high rates of infant and maternal mortality. Taken together, researchers predict that maternal deaths will likely rise in a world without abortion access.4
Although not much research exists on the impact of having an abortion compared to being denied one, one study stands out. The Turnaway study, conducted by a group of scientists at the University of California San Francisco, compared the differences between pregnant people who were denied abortions because they were just over the legal gestational limit under Roe (24 weeks) and those who got the procedure within this limit. This study recruited over 1000 women from abortion clinics across the country between 2008 and 2010 and followed up with them every 6 months until 2016. The team reported that the people who were denied an abortion were more likely to live in poverty, have a lower socioeconomic status, and be unemployed than those who got the procedure. People who were denied an abortion also reported physical and mental health challenges including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and low life-satisfaction. Finally, feelings of relief were reported by people who had the procedure even 5 years later. The Turnaway study provides qualitative and quantitative evidence that being forced to give birth has lasting impacts on a person’s health and financial situation.5
Since the Summer 2019 IMS Magazine viewpoint on restrictive abortion laws in the United States, the government has overturned Roe v. Wade. Jason Lo Hog Tian was optimistic that this would not happen since a fundamental right protected by years of legal precedent had never been taken away from the American people before. This decision is a shocking setback for all pregnant people in the United States, a decision that more than two thirds of Americans disagree with.3 Now more than ever, advocacy by healthcare professionals and policymakers is vital to ensuring that legal abortions can be equitably accessed by all Americans.
- Solly M. Who Was Norma McCorvey, the Woman Behind the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision? | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine. [cited 2022 Sep 28].
- Rogers A. “Heartbeat” Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong | WIRED. [cited 2022 Sep 28].
- U.S. Supreme Court Takes Away the Constitutional Right to Abortion | Center for Reproductive Rights. [cited 2022 Sep 28].
- Dirks S. Abortion is also about racial justice : NPR. [cited 2022 Sep 28].
- Lenharo M. Being Denied an Abortion Has Lasting Impacts on Health and Finances – Scientific American. [cited 2022 Sep 28].