Molly Bangs, Director | January 21, 2022 Blog Post

On January 22, 1973, the United States became one of the first countries in the world to legalize elective abortion with Roe v. Wade. Forty-nine years later, this will be the last anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, as the Court is now poised to overturn Roe this summer. The U.S. is now moving in the opposite direction of the rest of the world, which has witnessed a recent tidal wave of abortion legalization. The shameful move will illuminate for the world the attacks on abortion access that, despite the federal right to abortion established by Roe, have long been a part of our reality—and are interwoven with and reinforced by American white supremacist, patriarchal, and anti-democratic structures.

International Affirmation of Abortion as a Human Right

The past quarter century, and especially the past decade, has seen a major upswing in the liberalization of abortion laws around the world. This expansion follows the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, where 179 countries signed a program of action that is considered the first international consensus document to affirm reproductive rights as human rights, including a specific call to eradicate unsafe abortions.

International human rights norms have increasingly included abortion since the ICPD Program of Action. One year later, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action called on governments to review laws criminalizing abortion. The World Health Organization developed 2003 technical and policy guidelines to combat unsafe abortions, including a recommendation for countries to legalize abortion to protect people’s health. Treaty monitoring bodies have also explicitly established abortion as a protected human right under international law, which means going beyond legalization to ensure that abortion services are “available, accessible (including affordable), acceptable, and of good quality.” In 2013, the Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the decriminalization of abortion and access to safe abortion and post-abortion reproductive health care services. In 2014, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) declared abortion imperative for women’s autonomy and directed signatories to ensure reproductive and sexual health includes abortion. And in 2018, the Human Rights Committee clarified that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) extends to abortion and urged signatories—which includes the United States—to remove legal barriers to abortion and ensure access to all forms of quality reproductive health care. A number of other human rights bodies including regional human rights courts have taken similar action.

With the prioritization of abortion as a human right by international institutions and the recent acceleration of countries legalizing and expanding abortion law, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the majority of people seeking abortions now live in countries that broadly allow abortion. While women are not the only people who seek abortion care, about 60 percent of the world’s women of reproductive age, or 970 million people, live under these laws.

Sadly, this number will shrink by at least 73 million when Americans lose their federal right to abortion.

A U.S. Constitutional Right Never Fully or Equitably Realized

Unfortunately, the right to abortion was never fully realized in practice within the United States. The Guttmacher Institute deemed 2021 America’s worst year for abortion rights in almost half a century, with 108 anti-abortion restrictions enacted across 19 states during the calendar year. As explained by In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, these state-level restrictions specifically and disproportionately harm Black people seeking reproductive health care, as some of the Southern states that have the largest Black populations also have among the worst abortion restrictions, as well due to other racist policies like the Hyde Amendment (expanded on below).

In December 2021, the conservative-majority Supreme Court heard arguments for the case directly challenging Roe, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, with the majority of justices indicating a willingness to overturn abortion as a constitutional right. Mere days later, SCOTUS allowed Texas’s vigilante abortion ban to stand, meaning that Texans have been without abortion services for nearly five devastating months.

How Did We Get Here?

It has been a long road to arrive at the current moment, and the opposition’s role in that journey cannot be discounted. The U.S. has one of the most hostile, well-coordinated, and best-funded anti-abortion movements in the world and it has worked to decimate abortion access for a very long time. As anthropologist Faye Ginsburg wrote in Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community, though the Supreme Court established the private right to abortion with Roe, “The court offered no provision or guarantee for making abortion available, nor did the health care system respond uniformly to the increasing demand for abortion services.” It wasn’t long before the anti-abortion movement seized on these holes, as seen with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which prohibited federal funding for abortions and has been attached to every year’s appropriations bill since then. As All* Above All explains, Hyde also paved the way for additional federal abortion coverage restricting Medicaid, Medicare, Children’s Health Insurance Program enrollees, federal employees, Native Americans, people in federal prisons and immigrant detention centers, and more.

As chronicled by historian Maris A. Vinovskis, the anti-abortion National Conference of Catholic Bishops played a heavy hand in Hyde’s success back in 1976. The organization underwent a major effort to organize in each congressional district to force each senator and representative to take a public stand on abortion. This successfully materialized when Representative Henry J. Hyde (R-IL) put forth an amendment to the Labor-HEW appropriations bill for FY-1977 declaring that no federal funds should be used to pay for or promote abortions. Vinovskis wrote, “The pro-life organizations, sensing victory, redoubled their efforts and besieged the senators with telephone calls and telegrams.” Eventually, the Senate acquiesced, handing a major victory to the anti-abortion movement that Vinovskis credited largely to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and other anti-abortion forces.

In 1976, lawmakers recognized Hyde for what it was—an issue of economic and racial justice. Vinovskis analyzed voting patterns and found that the higher the proportion of constituents of color, the more likely a congressional representative was to vote against Hyde.

More than half of the people denied access to abortion care by Hyde are people of color—who, due to structural white supremacy, have disproportionately lower incomes and generational wealth, and are more likely to be insured through Medicaid. Twenty-nine percent of Black women and 25 percent of Hispanic women of reproductive age in the U.S. are insured through Medicaid (as opposed to 15 percent of white women and 12 percent of Asian women).

The Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment in 1980. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “The Hyde Amendment is designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion.” Twelve years later, the Court reaffirmed the right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), but in the same case, severely weakened access by permitting further restrictions and regulations like forced waiting periods and parental consent requirements. There have been 1,338 state-level abortion restrictions to date in the United States (44 percent of which have occurred in the past decade).

Anti-Democratic, White Supremacist Aims

None of this can be explained without looking at the broader context of anti-democratic, white supremacist aims. The majority of American voters consistently support legal abortion. But forced birth policies control pregnant people and sustain cycles of poverty that disproportionately punish people of color. Thus, one of the two major political parties in the United States has made anti-abortion policy and voter suppression bedrock principles of its party platform.

Indeed, the policies championed by the Republican party that stifle and circumvent the public opinion of the majority have long characterized our voting and power structures in the U.S. Some examples of this include gerrymandering and redistricting, strict voter registration laws requiring extra hurdles for people at the ballot box such as showing identification, the criminalization of voting and felony disenfranchisement laws including the prohibition of voting for those incarcerated or on parole or probation, and voter registration purges. The U.S. government would undoubtedly proclaim any of these serious warning signs for any other democracy.

These attacks on American democracy manifested violently just over a year ago, when the sitting U.S. president incited an insurrection on the nation’s capital, rallying support with false and ironic (given his party’s platform of disenfranchising voters) claims of a stolen election. Anti-abortion extremists encouraged and in some cases directly participated in the attack. Since then, many of the same anti-abortion forces have unabashedly pivoted to bolstering voter suppression. As my colleague Ashley Underwood has written, “Anti-abortion groups have rallied millions of dollars to disenfranchise voters. The Susan B. Anthony List and American Principles Project, two organizations previously dedicated to oppressing trans communities and impeding on bodily autonomy, have teamed up on a joint ‘election transparency initiative’. The campaign is an outright attempt to push state-based voter reform legislation that strips voter rights and access to the polls from communities most harmed by conservative policies—including communities of color, young people, immigrants, working-class voters and LGBTQIA+ voters.”

An Honest Moment

There is no denying the very real international embarrassment, disappointment, and devastation of this moment. What the end of legal abortion at the federal level will do is illuminate for the world what’s been happening within the United States to decimate abortion access, racial and economic equity, and democracy for quite some time. As we honor the last anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the fight for abortion rights moves to individual states, we must recognize the long-simmering extremist attacks on bodily autonomy and reproductive health that brought us to this moment, as well as the patriarchal and white supremacist forces that, by design, precluded abortion legalization from becoming real-world access all along.