There are few issues in American politics as contentious and emotional as abortion. It is a heated topic of debate, with advocates for abortion rights arguing access to abortion is essential for gender equality and women’s bodily autonomy, and opponents believing that abortion violates the rights of a fetus.
All women deserve access to safe abortions. The landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade affirmed that the right for women to have an abortion is protected by the U.S. Constitution. While not absolute, since 1973, Roe v. Wade has been instrumental in protecting abortion access. Under this ruling, governments are prohibited from banning abortion in the first trimester, or the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, and governments may only regulate abortion in the second trimester if those regulations are related to the health of the pregnant woman.
States led by Republican governments have successfully made it much more difficult for women to obtain an abortion by passing regulations such as mandatory waiting periods, counseling and ultrasounds. Such laws put an undue burden on women attempting to obtain an abortion, especially low-income women who may not have the time and resources for travel and other related expenses. But as the Supreme Court has recently demonstrated, restrictions on abortion are not the worst-case scenario for reproductive rights in the United States.
On Sept. 1, a Texas law went into effect that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, clearly violating Roe v. Wade’s first-trimester standard. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court refused to block the law. Additionally, in its coming term, the Supreme Court is expected to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a Mississippi case that challenges a state law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year and the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett as her replacement, the Supreme Court tilted further to the right, despite its supposed nonpartisanship. This put abortion rights even more in jeopardy as the court appeared closer to overturning Roe v. Wade than ever before. While the end of federally protected abortion access would be devastating to women across the country, the impacts of such a ruling would not be felt equally by all.
In Texas, low-income women, teenagers and women of color are among the most vulnerable to severe restrictions on abortion. Laws banning or severely restricting abortion are an assault to low-income women who may lack the financial access not only to abortion, but also to birth control, which has been proven to decrease abortion rates.
The clearest way to lower abortion rates is not to ban abortion; it is to expand access to birth control. If fewer women have unplanned pregnancies, fewer women will seek an abortion. Under the Affordable Care Act, most insurance plans are required to fully cover all forms of birth control. Since the ACA went into effect, the use of contraceptives increased.
But the ACA has not equally increased contraceptive use. The ACA allows states to broaden Medicaid eligibility to allow almost all low-income Americans access to Medicaid, but this expansion is optional, not mandatory. Twelve states, Texas included, have not expanded Medicaid, leaving about 1.1 million women without healthcare coverage for contraceptives.
Government action can lower women’s reliance on abortion. And though Republican lawmakers seem to think banning or severely restricting access to abortion accomplishes the goal, it does not. Rather, governments reach this goal by granting women access to contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy and providing them with social support so that they are in a financial position to raise a child.
It is clear that in Texas, like other Republican states that seek to restrict or ban abortion, lawmakers only want to limit women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives. Restricting access to abortion and birth control does not stop people from having sex; it only increases the risk that people will have unsafe sex, resulting in sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. The way to lower the abortion rate is for the government to provide low-income people, especially women, with easy access to affordable, effective birth control.
Besides abortion bans being an ineffective way to lower the abortion rate, we don’t need to work to lower the abortion rate; it continues to decline no matter who is in power. Since 1981, abortion rates in the United States have been steadily falling. In 2013, the abortion rate was lower than it was in 1973 — when Roe v. Wade was decided — and has continued to decline into this decade.
Texas’s new abortion law devastates women’s rights in the second-most populous state in the country and sets a precedent that may allow even harsher restrictions in other states. But not only does this law harm reproductive rights, it completely misunderstands how government can work to actually lower abortion rates. Rather than banning abortion, states should expand Medicaid to allow low-income women access to affordable birth control to prevent unintended pregnancy in the first place.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.