Title image: Protester holds up a sign that reads “Abortion is a right” at a rally in Pittsburgh on May 3, 2022, in response to the private Supreme Court vote to strike down Roe v. Wade. CC image by Mark Dixon via Flickr.
On May 2, Politico published a leaked 98-page draft opinion revealing that the U.S. Supreme Court had privately voted to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that grants people a federal constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In essence, the ruling would leave the decision up to the states, 30 of which prohibited abortion at all stages of pregnancy when Roe v. Wade became law.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the draft. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”
The draft surprised demographer Amanda Stevenson, an assistant professor of sociology at CU Boulder who studies the social impacts of family planning policies.
“This is even more extreme than what those of us who follow this closely were expecting,” she said. “It explicitly states Roe was wrongly decided and that it should never have been held that people had a right to an abortion.”
CU Boulder Today caught up with Stevenson to discuss how the ruling, if formalized this summer, might impact women’s lives, and what states like Colorado, which have laws on the books to protect abortion rights, should brace for.
In a nutshell, what did this leaked opinion say?
It says that Roe v. Wade is no longer the law of the land—that people no longer have a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion up until the point of fetal viability. So, for example, states could ban abortion completely. They could ban abortion at six weeks gestation, as Texas has already done. They could ban abortion for women who haven't gotten their spouse’s consent. They could ban abortion for teenagers.
This is just a draft, and it's not official. But if the court issues a formal decision like this, the impact will be swift and sweeping.
Will more women die if Roe v. Wade is stricken?
Yes. Abortion bans will force some women to remain pregnant, and we know from data from the Centers for Disease Control that the risk of dying due to pregnancy-related causes is about 33 times higher than the risk of dying from having an abortion. Risk of pregnancy-related death is three times higher for non-Hispanic Black people. So, banning their access to abortion is forcibly exposing them to even higher risk of death.
My own research has found that banning abortion nationwide (which, to be clear, this ruling does not do) would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women. In the years following a national ban, an additional 140 women would die annually from pregnancy-related causes.
What about deaths from unsafe self-induced abortions? Will those rise?
A lot has changed since the early 1970s. People who become pregnant today but can't access abortion legally in a clinical context are not going to be willing to accept the kinds of back-alley procedures that were the only option available to people in my mother's generation. It is now possible to safely terminate your own pregnancy using pills, like the FDA-approved drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, and the internet has made it easier for people to learn about these options and access them.
As we speak, an infrastructure is being stood up to better support people’s ability to safely terminate a pregnancy with medications. Yes, some people will turn to other methods that are not safe, but they are no longer the only option.
Is self-managed abortion legal?
There are states that are working to criminalize self-managed abortion. Laws have been introduced. There have been prosecutions. Just last month, a woman in Texas was arrested and charged with murder for ‘self-induced’ abortion although the charges were later dropped. Most lawyers I have talked to agree it is not against the law, at the federal level, right now. But there are legal risks.
What might this mean for states such as Colorado, which have laws on the books protecting abortion rights?
We're already seeing an influx of people coming to Colorado from Texas. We expect to see an influx of people coming here from Oklahoma. And there's a big swath of states in the center of the country with trigger laws where bans will kick into place as soon as Roe falls. People’s appointments will be canceled and they will be casting about for where to get care.
Colorado is well-positioned geographically and in terms of transportation networks, so we will likely see an even greater increase of people coming to our state to seek abortion care. As a result, Coloradans who need care will have to wait longer.
In what other ways could this decision shape women’s lives?
After Roe, there was this sea change in how we saw the potential of women's lives in this country. Women could now invest in their educations and their careers in ways that were previously not possible because the uncertainty of their fertility could always disrupt their life trajectories. They now believed they could control their fertility, and other people trusted they could plan when they had their kids in such a way that it wouldn't disrupt their ability to continue in high intensity careers. It also meant that people could live the lives they wanted to live in other ways, not just career-wise.
My own research has shown that when women can control their own fertility, via contraception, they go farther with their education. With the end of Roe and access to contraception also under threat (some anti-abortion activists view IUDs as abortifacients), the confidence that people can control their fertility is going to go away. I worry that could narrow how we, as a culture, see the possibilities of women’s lives.