With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s surprise announcement last month that he was retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court, much attention has focused on how his successor would rule on a rollback of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.
President Donald Trump pledged to nominate more pro-life justices to the high court, so a chipping away at Roe v. Wade, if not a wholesale reversal, is likely. As the Senate considers Trump’s nominee, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Central and South America offer a cautionary tale.
The simple conclusion is that outlawing abortion doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it more dangerous, sometimes deadly, especially for poor women.
All but four countries in the region restrict abortion. Six ban abortion completely. Despite these restrictions, the abortion rate in Latin America, 44 per 1,000 women, is one of the highest in the world. The U.S. abortion rate was 14.6 per 1,000 women in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available. That is the lowest rate since Roe v. Wade was decided, when the rate was 16.3 per 1,000 women.
This data show that restrictions clearly don’t prevent abortions. Women will still take control of their bodies and their pregnancies, ending them in painful ways that endanger their health, their ability to have children in the future and their lives.
In Latin America, about 760,000 women are treated each year for complications from unsafe abortions. In 2014, 10 percent of maternal deaths were attributed to unsafe abortions. Worldwide, 68,000 women die each year due to unsafe abortions, making them one of the leading causes of maternal death. By contrast, four American women died in 2013 from legal abortions, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Rich women have abortions; poor women die,” Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights legal expert and the director of Latin America initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center, recently told Business Insider. “At the end of the day, women will always have abortions. It’s just a matter of deciding how.”
That’s because no matter what restrictions lawmakers, who are typically mostly male, enact, women will still control their bodies as much as they possibly can. In Latin America, the rate of abortions is much higher among married women.
In part because of the grim mortality statistics, courts and lawmakers in Argentina are moving toward making abortion more accessible. If a law legalizing abortion passes, Argentina would be the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion.
American politicians can learn a lot from these trends. It is fairly easy to be against abortion and for restrictions when the practice remains legal. But with the prospect that legal abortion could become inaccessible in many American states, the risks to the health and lives of women will become real.
Here’s another data point lawmakers should keep in mind. The notion that America is “deeply divided” on abortion is also wrong. In fact, 57 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most instances, according to Pew Research Center polling. Only 40 percent believe it should be illegal in most or all instances. Most politicians would consider a 17-point spread in an election a landslide.
In Maine, two-thirds of adults believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only New Hampshire and Vermont have higher rates of support for abortion. A Pew survey had similar results.
Abortion is a deeply personal issue that lawmakers should approach with both caution and reliable information. Most importantly, they should listen to women, who are most affected when their access to health care and family planning, including abortion, are restricted.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.