Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. The landmark case established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Ever since then, anti-abortion politicians and activists have tried to chip away at Roe. States have passed more than 1,000 restrictions on the procedure and the Supreme Court has ruled on several other abortion cases, each time further limiting abortion access.
What is clear, however, is that after Roe v. Wade, the availability of safe and legal abortions radically changed health outcomes for women. In a book that collected stories from the illegal abortion era, a man who assisted with autopsies at a hospital described seeing many women die from botched abortions. “The deaths stopped overnight in 1973,” he said. “That ought to tell people something about keeping abortion legal.”
Today, discussions of women’s safety are more often heard in statehouses enacting further restrictions on abortion. The medical safety of women framed many of the arguments cited at the Texas Capitol in 2013, when the state Legislature debated, and ultimately passed, HB 2. This omnibus abortion bill imposed costly requirements on clinics—such as hospital-admitting privileges and stringent construction rules—which the medical community overwhelmingly deems to be unnecessary. Since its passage, 23 of the state’s 41 abortion providers have closed, and others are likely to follow if the measure is upheld after the Supreme Court reviews HB 2 this year. The high court’s ruling could deal a serious blow to the guarantee of the right to a legal abortion enshrined 43 years ago. Either way, many players will be affected—patients, providers, lawyers on both sides of the debate, legislators, the courts, and even lobbyists.
In 2004, Eleanor Cooney wrote an essay entitled “The Way It Was” about the illegal abortion she had as a 17-year-old in 1959, 14 years before Roe. The year before her story appeared, President George W. Bush, flanked by smiling Republican senators and congressmen, had signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban into law, banning the dilation and extraction abortion method usually used in the second trimester. The measure heralded a new era of legislative efforts aimed at stifling abortion access. “Like some ugly old wall-to-wall carpeting they’ve been yearning to get rid of,” wrote Cooney, “they finally, finally loosened a little corner of Roe. Now they can start to rip the whole thing up, roll it back completely, and toss it in the Dumpster.”
In 1981, 14 clinics in Mississippi provided abortions. In 2013, only one remained, thanks to legislation that chipped away at the providers’ ability to keep their doors open. In “Inside Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic,” former Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard profiled the providers fighting to keep the clinic open, the doctors who flew in from out of state to perform the procedures, a woman who made the decision to terminate her pregnancy, and one of the protesters, who stood outside the clinic every day, tossing miniature plastic babies at car windows.