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What If Roe v. Wade Were Overturned?

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Roe v. Wade Protest
Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images.
For some it's a dream scenario, for others a nightmare: A conservative president and conservative Senate are in power. Two or three key justices retire and are easily replaced by justices of the Scalia-Thomas mold. A routine abortion rights case makes its way to our nation's highest court...and in a 5-4 majority ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia writes words never before handed down by the Supreme Court: "We find in the Constitution no implicit right to privacy."

Unlikely? Very. But in the final analysis, this is what we're fighting over. Conservative presidential candidates say that they will work to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Other candidates say that they will not. Nobody in any real position of political power is talking about a federal constitutional amendment banning abortion, or anything of that nature, anymore. It's all about Roe.

The Political Reality

1. Within the first 60 days, trigger bans take effect. Numerous states have abortion bans already on the books that could take effect automatically within 45 to 60 days, based only on the attorney general's finding that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. All of these states would immediately close down any and all abortion clinics.

2. Within the first two years, abortion is illegal in more than half of the country. Legislatures in socially conservative states that have not already banned abortion would do so. After banning abortion, these states would aim to write abortion bans into their constitutions by referendum in an effort by legislators to draw socially conservative voters to the polls. In socially conservative states, from South Carolina in the east to Kansas in the west, abortion would be easily banned. In socially progressive states, such as California and most of New England, it would remain legal. Closely divided states, such as North Carolina and Ohio, would be political battlegrounds as the question of whether or not to ban abortion would become the defining issue of the legislative year--every legislative year.

3. For generations to come, abortion remains a defining issue in American politics. In federal policy debate, progressive legislators would work every year to expand abortion rights while conservative legislators would work every year to restrict them. Progressive politicians would run for president vowing to appoint justices who would bring back Roe, while conservative politicians would run for president vowing to appoint justices who wouldn't.

The Reality for Women

1. In states that protect abortion rights, little changes. A post-Roe New York is going to look pretty much just like a pre-Roe New York.

2. In states that ban abortion, abortion will move from the clinic to the bedroom. In most Latin American countries, abortion is illegal with a prison sentence of up to 30 years for women who have abortions--but there are still about four times as many abortions in Latin America as there are in the United States. Why? Because women who can't have abortions at clinics are still perfectly capable of shelling out two dollars for a black market abortifacient. And there are many, many abortifacients--ranging from common herbs to mass-produced anti-ulcer drugs. The police can't keep marijuana off the streets; they would have even less success with abortifacients. Bedroom abortions are much less safe than clinic abortions--approximately 80,000 women die every year from do-it-yourself abortions--but it's not as if having an abortion is anybody's idea of a good time to begin with, and many women will still be having abortions regardless of the legal or physical risks. This is why many people who do not personally approve of abortion still strongly identify as pro-choice.

3. Many women will get angry...and vote accordingly. In 2004, NOW organized the March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC. With 1.2 million participants, it was the largest DC mobilization in U.S. history--larger than the March on Washington, larger than the Million Man March. And this is while abortion is legal. The Religious Right as we know it today exists because abortion was made legal, and it has delivered the presidency to Republicans for five of the last seven presidential elections. Want to take a guess at how the national political landscape would change if Roe were overturned? Yeah. Neither do conservative politicians, which is why--despite winning the aforementioned presidencies--Republican administrations have done nothing concrete to ban abortion. Even though conservative Republican presidents have appointed seven of our nine current Supreme Court justices, only two of these justices have expressed an interest in overturning Roe v. Wade.

Pro-Life Strategies That Actually Work

A better strategy for reducing the number of abortions would involve looking at the reasons why women have them. According to a Guttmacher study, 73% of women who have abortions in the United States say that they can't afford to do otherwise. Promoting universal health care and streamlining the adoption system could give these women choices that they do not presently have.

Comprehensive safe sex education, promoting both abstinence and safe sex practices, would also be effective in reducing the number of abortions by reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancy as a whole.
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