When Tory Donahoo of Pensacola, Florida, read last week’s leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft decision on abortion rights, she became worried and frightened. The majority opinion, though not final, appears to signal the court’s intention to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that set forth women’s right to abortion in the United States.
“I have family members who have needed abortions,” Donahoo told VOA. “My mother, for example, was molested and raped repeatedly by her father during her childhood. He got her pregnant and fortunately she was able to have that pregnancy terminated.”
Doctors have told Donahoo that she, too, may need an abortion one day.
“They said the medications I take could make it impossible for a fetus to grow normally,” she said, “and I’m scared that this upcoming Supreme Court ruling could put my life at risk if I needed an emergency abortion and couldn’t get one.”
Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the authenticity of the leaked document but warned the opinion could change.
Still, women around America and across the political spectrum are reacting passionately.
“I have no problem with people believing what they believe about abortion or religion or whatever,” explained Hannah Wiessner from Savannah, Georgia, “but when a bunch of old dudes try to be the boss of my uterus, it makes me really mad. And scared. I have a liver disease and if I was forced to carry a pregnancy to term there is a good chance it would kill me and the baby. What good would your ‘baby rights’ do then?”
Wiessner says she is pro-choice, meaning she believes women have a right to terminate pregnancies free of government interference.
“But just because I’m pro-choice doesn’t mean I’m pro-abortion,” she clarified. “I love children, but abortion is a serious, personal option that has been provided for women for different situations. It can be traumatic, but it’s also sometimes the best solution.”
While public opinion polls show majority support for sustaining Roe v. Wade, a substantial and equally vocal minority that identifies as pro-life believes abortions should be illegal in most or all cases.
“I remember being heartbroken after abortion was protected by Roe v. Wade, and now I’m very happy they seem to be ready to overturn that,” said Garland, Texas, resident Judi Thompson. “To me, pro-choice women are too lazy to use protection during sex. It’s simply a bunch of crap to me.”
A survey conducted in March by the Pew Research Center found that while 21% of women believe abortion should be legal in all cases and 9% believe it should never be legal, most respondents do not see the issue in absolutist terms.
“The majority of Americans believe there are instances where abortion should be permitted,” Michelle Erenberg, executive director of women’s health advocacy organization Lift Louisiana, told VOA. “The reason why you’re seeing so much intense passion at the moment is because change is happening so quickly and seemingly without much thought.”
Much of today’s abortion debate stems from the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in which seven of nine justices held that pregnant women have a right to abortion grounded in the U.S. Constitution. The court balanced that right with the need to protect prenatal life and decided to allow abortions until the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. Nearly 20 years later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court updated the decision to define that point of viability at approximately 23 weeks of pregnancy.
The high court’s conservative majority grew during the previous administration, when the Senate confirmed all three of then-President Donald Trump’s nominees. Anticipating a Supreme Court more ideologically opposed to abortion, Republican-led state legislatures across the country have passed restrictive abortion laws in the hopes of challenging – and overturning – Roe v. Wade.
Their wish was granted when a Mississippi law banning abortions 15 weeks after conception made its way to the Supreme Court for consideration last year. Many conservatives, however, felt the 15-week ban didn’t go far enough.
“Abortions should be banned from the moment of fertilization because there is no logical beginning to life other than conception,” said Hannah Bowden of Memphis, Tennessee. “That’s the moment human development begins. That’s the moment our unique DNA is created. That’s the moment every breathing individual becomes who they are.”
Still, those who are pro-choice hoped the Supreme Court would uphold the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, or at least would not completely overturn it.
“It looked like there was a scenario in which the Supreme Court could rule in favor of Mississippi and make 15 weeks the new point of viability,” Erenberg said. “But — and of course this can change — the leaked draft sounded like the court would go much further than that.”
Patchwork of abortion laws
Experts believe if Roe v. Wade is overturned, approximately half of U.S. states will ban or severely limit abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Already, 13 states have so-called “trigger laws” that would automatically and immediately ban abortions if the Supreme Court reverses the 1973 decision.
Even the most extreme state laws make exceptions for when continuing the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life. But pro-choice activists worry the restrictions will nevertheless result in cases where women’s lives are at risk.
Meanwhile, efforts are under way in Democratic-led states to pass laws that would cement abortion rights within their borders.
Some women say the resulting patchwork of laws would cause them to consider a state’s abortion policies when deciding where to live.
“If Roe v. Wade is overturned it would make abortion illegal in Louisiana,” explained New Orleans resident Danielle Lee. “I have a genetic condition that can be passed onto my child but that isn’t detected until 16 weeks into the pregnancy.”
The disease, Lee said, can be painful and fatal for the child.
“I’m not bringing a child into this world to live a short, painful life,” she said. “If my husband and I decide to have a third child, we will have to move somewhere where it’s legal.”
A lightning rod of an issue
In Louisiana alone, 27 bills have been introduced this legislative session that would regulate some aspect of abortion or reproductive rights. This includes bills that could charge a woman with homicide if she illegally terminated a pregnancy.
Laws meant to stop women from traveling to different states for abortions are also being explored.
“Of course, wealthy women will always have the resources to travel to another state or country for an abortion,” explained former Louisiana State Representative Melissa Flournoy. “Working women and poor women will have no options and will be driven to extreme measures to either self-terminate and face the legal consequences, or to bear children that they cannot afford to raise. The trauma of ending access to safe and legal abortion will ripple through communities and families.”
The Supreme Court is expected to release its final decision within two months. Until then, and probably long after, Americans will engage in one of the country’s most polarizing debates — one in which both sides believe they are morally correct.
“It all boils down to whether you believe the life in the womb is a human life,” explained Memphis resident Bowden. “If it’s not, you can do whatever you like with it — similar to a wisdom tooth. But if it’s a human life, you have to protect it. I believe it’s human life because I can’t see what else it could be.”
Chaya of New Orleans sees the debate differently. She asked VOA to use only her first name as she fears new laws could attempt to punish women for abortions they had in the past. She had an abortion nearly 20 years ago because she couldn’t afford to raise the child after her husband left her.
For Chaya, the debate isn’t about the status of a fetus but rather whether a woman has autonomy over her own body.
“No one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body,” she said. “You can find the decisions I made in the past morally repugnant, but your power stops there. I find the decision not to get vaccinated morally repugnant, but I shouldn’t be able to make you get the COVID-19 vaccine any more than you should be able to make me give birth.”