With Abortion Rights in Peril, Here’s What Congress Must Do

Megan K. Donovan, Guttmacher Institute
Reproductive rights are under attack. Will you help us fight back with facts?

First published online:

Abortion is a constitutionally protected right, yet policymakers hostile to abortion have been trying to undermine the landmark Roe v. Wade decision since it first was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

That year, lawmakers in Congress introduced an unprecedented number of measures to cut off access to abortion domestically and globally. Their two-pronged strategy focused on overturning Roe through a constitutional amendment and, alternatively, making abortion unaffordable, especially for people already struggling to make ends meet. One of their earliest successes came with the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid coverage of abortion and paved the way for a variety of federal and state coverage bans.

More recently, attacks on abortion have been particularly energized at the state level, where lawmakers have enacted hundreds of restrictions aimed at making abortion less accessible or outright unavailable. From medically unnecessary and onerous policies that shut down clinics or put additional burdens on people seeking care, to outright bans intended to give the Supreme Court the opportunity to further undermine abortion rights, the goal has always been to stop people from accessing abortion care. The result, for now, is an inconsistent patchwork of rules and barriers across the United States.

The Real-Life Impact of Abortion Restrictions

Where you live, how much money you make, and what kind of insurance you have should have no bearing on whether or not you can exercise your right to get an abortion. But they do—and the impacts are cruel.

Barring access to abortion deprives pregnant people of reproductive freedom and autonomy, in addition to a host of other negative consequences. The landmark Turnaway Study demonstrated that women who seek abortion but are turned away are more likely to experience short-term anxiety and loss of self-esteem, ongoing exposure to intimate partner violence, and serious complications during the end of their pregnancies, such as eclampsia and death. Being denied a wanted abortion also results in economic insecurity and greater odds of falling below the federal poverty level.

At the same time, throwing up burdensome obstacles to abortion doesn’t necessarily block people from getting the care they seek: 1 in 4 women will get an abortion by age 45. Instead, these obstacles cruelly punish people for seeking abortion care, forcing them to make unconscionable sacrifices such as traveling extreme distances and forgoing rent, food or utilities to pay for care. It is no coincidence that these harsh consequences fall hardest on people struggling financially or otherwise marginalized from quality health care services, including many people of color.  

Congress Must Do Its Part

States can and should take steps to protect and expand access to abortion, and some are already doing so. This is especially important as we look ahead to Supreme Court action that could further undermine or even gut the protections afforded by Roe.

But it’s not enough.

To truly and meaningfully restore access to abortion—and live up to the full promise of a constitutional right—we need federal action. The Women’s Health Protection Act, reintroduced on May 23, 2019 by Sens. Blumenthal (D-CT) and Baldwin (D-WI) and Reps. Chu (D-CA), Frankel (D-FL) and Fudge (D-OH), would go a long way towards ensuring access to abortion by creating a federal safeguard against the erosion of abortion access caused by unnecessary and burdensome restrictions and bans.

At the same time, the EACH Woman Act, led by Reps. Lee (D-CA), Schakowsky (D-IL) and DeGette (D-CO) and Sen. Duckworth (D-IL), would restore insurance coverage of abortion to people enrolled in Medicaid and other federal programs. It would also allow private insurers to offer abortion coverage free from political interference.

Taken together, these two bills would go a long way towards realizing a truly meaningful constitutional right to abortion—one that protects and promotes access to care by ensuring services are both available and affordable to all.