Reproductive rights go far beyond abortion access. According to Amnesty International, sexual and reproductive rights include having accurate information, access to reproductive health services including birth control, the ability to choose if, when, and who to marry, whether to have children and if so, how many and when. In the U.S., many of these rights are under threat, putting the lives of women, children, and society as a whole at risk. Here are the signs that our reproductive rights are in danger:
- Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned. In 1973, the Supreme Court reached a landmark judgment guaranteeing women’s rights to abortion within the first trimester of pregnancy. Nearly five decades later, a leaked court document revealed that the current Supreme Court is set to overturn that decision, meaning that millions of women will lose their constitutional right to choose whether or not to be pregnant. The ability to choose if and when to have children is a core reproductive right, and overturning Roe would have permanent negative impacts on the lives of women in the U.S.
- 13 states have “trigger laws” to instantly ban abortions. Overturning Roe would put the fate of abortion rights into the hands of state legislatures with each choosing its own version of abortion access. In 13 states, however, the future is certain: by passing so-called “trigger laws,” they have ensured that laws banning or significantly restricting abortion would go into immediate effect if and when the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Penalties for carrying out an abortion include ten years in prison and fines of up to $100,000. Many of these states do not make exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
- Sex education is not mandated in more than half of U.S. states. One of the most basic forms of reproductive rights is “accurate information.” Without proper education about reproductive health, people are unaware of the dangers of contracting STDs and even of becoming pregnant. Yet in 26 U.S. states, sex education is not mandated, and only 10 of those states require that the information provided in those classes be “medically accurate.” And only nine states require information about consent. Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University estimates that 90% of students start college without “decent sex education.”
- Lack of accurate sex education leads to high rates of teen pregnancy. Of the 10 states with the highest rate of teen pregnancy, five are states that do not mandate sex ed (Arizona, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Arkansas). It is estimated that fewer than half of the country’s middle and high schools are teaching sexual health issues that the CDC considers to be “essential,” and 19 states require that only abstinence is taught. That means that instead of providing information on birth control options (including condoms), schools teach students to not have sex at all. A 2017 study from the University of Columbia concluded, unsurprisingly, that abstinence-only education has no effect on teens’ sexual activity and increases the potential for unwanted pregnancies and STDs.
- If Roe falls, women in some states will have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic. Once Roe is overturned, it will be possible for women in states that ban abortion to seek healthcare in states that provide it. However, this will not be easy or even possible for many women. In places like Texas, for example, some women would have to travel 800 miles to get to the closest clinic. This type of travel would be costly and time-consuming, making it impossible for many low-income women. Abortion is also time-sensitive and clinics that do remain open are likely to experience a crush of patients. Due to these limiting factors, low-income and people of color are expected to be the worst affected by the overturning of Roe.
More ways reproductive rights are in serious jeopardy.
- Reproductive rights are becoming a political, not a health issue. In 2021, the U.N. issued a report on the increasing politicization of reproductive rights and the danger this poses to women’s basic right to equality and liberty. Reproductive rights are a health issue, not a political bargaining chip. And yet, as the U.N. report argues, abortion access and women’s healthcare are both deprioritized and the focus of “excessive politicization.” While men continue to control the majority of political systems, women’s bodies are minimized and used as pawns for their power jockeying.
- Misinformation is everywhere. Accurate information is a basic component of reproductive rights, and at a time when other rights are threatened, it is more vital than ever. And yet, according to recent data, abortion misinformation spiked in the days after the Roe v. Wade draft opinion leaked in May. From both left and right sides of the spectrum, false claims about abortions more than doubled from the previous month, including advice on how to perform DIY abortions. In addition to this surge in online disinformation, organizations called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) continue to pose as abortion clinics to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies. In Canada, CPCs outnumber actual abortion clinics.
- The U.S. is one of only a few countries to not offer paid maternity leave. Maternity leave allows women to have children without losing their careers. Given that birth is one of the most intense physical experiences that the human body can undergo, maternity leave is not a luxury, but a necessity. And even though studies show that paid maternity leave reduces the gender wage gap and increases women’s employment, the U.S. does not offer it in any form. It is joined by only five other countries in the world: the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga.
- The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed country. A 2020 study from the Commonwealth Fund found that the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed country. They attribute this to a low proportion of midwives to births, and an overall shortage of primary care providers. Poor postpartum support including lack of unpaid maternity leave also leads to more deaths. Access to health services is a key element of reproductive rights, especially when abortion is likely to be out of reach for many women in the not-too-distant future. Forced pregnancies within a healthcare system that lacks basic resources for women is a bleak combination.
- Women’s health remains underfunded and under-researched. According to experts, women’s health remains severely under-researched. There are various factors at play, including the underrepresentation of women in STEM subjects (implying that the majority-male medical field views women’s health as irrelevant even though the continuation of our species depends on it). And it’s not just about underrepresentation of female scientists. In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration banned women of “child-bearing potential” from participating in clinical trials, a ban which continued until the mid-90s. Without sufficient data or expertise, reproductive rights can’t be upheld. Lack of understanding of the female body exacerbates the issues of abortion access, sex education, and maternal health and mortality.