We were led through the prison, up several flights of stairs, and eventually came to a circle of chairs where 13 women in white were sitting patiently. Suddenly, the room was filled with joyous shrieks of recognition, cautious introductions assisted by translators, and a heavy realization sinking into all of our bones. These women are prisoners in San Salvador, El Salvador, doing time because of the tragic outcomes of their pregnancies. In a country with one of the strictest abortion bans in the world, experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth makes you the suspect of a heinous crime.
We sat down in the circle of chairs filled with these 13 women whose stories we were about to hear, whose hands we were about to hold, and whose lives had been forever changed by a cruel twist of gestational fate. I, alongside five U.S. state legislators, had traveled to this women's prison in El Salvador with the express purpose of hearing them out. I had organized this journey with a delegation of state legislators from places experiencing their own attempted abortion bans and restrictions — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio — in order to better understand what happens when a government bans abortion and to help communicate those understandings to other U.S. legislators hell-bent on taking us backward.
This trip, in November 2019, was organized and planned well before we knew what 2020 would bring for reproductive rights. By the time we went to El Salvador, the ongoing avalanche of state abortion bans was apparent, and while abortion remains technically legal in all 50 states, it seems only a matter of time before one of these state abortion bans survive some early court challenges and become the case that puts Roe v. Wade to the test.
But an outright challenge to Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court case that established our national constitutional right to abortion is not only unlikely, it's nearly beside the point. Access to safe, legal abortion care can be whittled down so much that the right exists on paper alone. On March 4, 2020, Trump's U.S. Supreme Court will hear June Medical v. Russo, a case challenging an abortion restriction that could threaten abortion access not only in Louisiana but around the entire country. This case could effectively roll out the red carpet to any states looking to trample all over the promise of Roe.
Judging by what states have already done — over 400 abortion restrictions enacted in the last ten years and a record-breaking number of abortion bans in 2019 alone, there is no doubt that many states will fall to the occasion and race to become the most restrictive abortion state in the nation.
This case and other attempts to ban abortion in the U.S. are not happening in isolation. Despite a growing liberalization of abortion laws around the world — from Ireland to Argentina to Mexico City — other countries are diving deeper into brutal authoritarianism when it comes to bodily autonomy. El Salvador's reality shows the inevitable outcome of banning abortion: turning women into suspected criminals anytime something goes wrong with a pregnancy. We can't assume it won't happen in the U.S. We already have examples of some women — mostly poor, Black, or otherwise marginalized women — facing criminal penalties for their reproductive health decisions and outcomes.
Despite the current political climate, there is actually very little public support for these restrictive policies In the U.S., states are banning abortion in defiance of the American people, whose support for access to safe, legal abortion is at an all-time high and growing; 73% of Americans say they do not want to see Roe overturned, and one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime. Not a single state has majority support for banning abortion, not even Alabama, home of the most extreme abortion ban in the U.S.
We know who pays the prices for abortion restrictions in the U.S. and around the world. The poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable women are already bearing the brunt of harsh abortion restrictions. Rich women can cross state or international lines and seek safe, legal abortion care elsewhere. When abortion is banned, poor women are not only blocked by their bank accounts from getting the care they need, they are most at risk of being scrutinized and suffering the indignities of the carceral state. Making abortion illegal in any country sits at the nexus of state violence, economic coercion, white supremacy, and misogyny.
We know who pays the prices for abortion restrictions in the U.S. and around the world. The poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable women are already bearing the brunt of harsh abortion restrictions.
This week's case is critical to understanding how Trump's new Supreme Court will tackle abortion rights, but it's only one in a series of signals to watch for in 2020 and beyond. Roe might be at risk, but opponents of abortion are smart enough to avoid a straight up and down challenge to Roe in an election year.
The reality is that the promise of Roe v. Wade — that abortion is legal for everyone, in every state — is the bare minimum of what we should be asking for. If I have only one clinic in my state, a series of state-mandated hurdles to jump over in order to get there, a hostile climate created by these policies that stigmatizes and shames my healthcare decisions, and financial and logistical burdens to getting abortion care, my "right" to abortion on paper is nearly meaningless. June Medical v. Russo will be the case that decides the extent to which states can create obstacle courses that stand between a person needing care and the clinic where she can get that care.
We don't have to take this. States like Illinois, Maine, New York, Nevada, Vermont, and Rhode Island enacted laws in 2019 to protect or expand abortion rights and access. People in Georgia and beyond have taken to the streets to protest these devastating abortion bans. If your state hasn't passed laws to protect abortion rights and make them easier to access, demand that they do. The crowd that will gather in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday will make sure that the nine justices inside — including Brett Kavanaugh — hear us. They'll hear our cries that we won't go back, that our fundamental rights and bodily autonomy should not be up for debate. They'll hear that we are in this fight together, sisters across the globe, connected in the knowledge that if one of us is blocked from getting the care that they need or even if one of us is imprisoned because of outrageous bans on abortion, then we are all at risk.
For photos of Kelly's trip to El Salvador, see below.
WRITTEN BYKelly Baden