(This was originally posted in May of 2019. Reposting it now because it seems even more prescient.)
During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump said on MSNBC, “You go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places, but you have to ban it.” He then followed that up by saying “There has to be some form of punishment” for the women who have them.
Anti-choice forces pressured Trump to reverse himself within one day of this gaffe. But I agree with the cynic’s definition of a “gaffe” as an occasion in which a politician accidentally tells the truth. And that’s definitely the case here.
Don’t rely on what I say. Look at the countries that have banned abortion. The more extreme the restrictions, the more likely they are to lock up women who get illegal abortions — or are merely suspected of having one.
First of all, notice that Trump acknowledges that without safe, legal abortion, women will be forced once again to back-alley butchers to terminate their pregnancies — and he’s OK with that. Typical Trump lack of empathy.
Secondly, despite all of the current crocodile tears that women are also “victims” in an abortion, in countries that ban abortion in all or nearly all circumstances, plenty of women get jailed, with sentences that could range from six months to 99 years. For example, in Rwanda, where abortion is illegal under most circumstances, 313 women and girls were in jail for illegal abortions — nearly one-fourth of the inmates.
Lastly, making abortions illegal doesn’t make them stop. Despite threats of arrest, stigma, or possible injury or death, there are an estimated 20 million illegal abortions each year, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. In Africa, 680 out of every 100,000 abortions end in death, but that has not kept women from trying to control the size of their families. The World Health Organization estimates that 78,000 women a year die from illegal abortions. In Latin America, one in five maternal deaths are due to illegal abortions, the WHO estimates.
So, you think women won’t get arrested for abortions? Let’s take a look at where they already are.
Countries that ban abortions and jail women
Twenty-six countries ban abortions in all circumstances, according to the World Population Review. No exceptions. Among them is El Salvador, a tiny Central American nation where at least 25 women are in prison convicted of having an abortion.
Until last December, Imelda Cortez was among them. DNA results confirmed that she was telling the truth that her stepfather had raped and impregnated her. (But, remember, as with the new Alabama law, rape and incest aren’t exceptions to the law.) Cortez didn’t even have an abortion; she gave birth to her child in a latrine, and, when she went to the hospital with her baby, doctors there accused her of trying to induce an abortion. Doctors, fearing being charged themselves for being complicit, will turn women over to police. Under pressure, Cortez was released after languishing in jail for a year, although prosecutors had wanted to charge her with child abandonment to save face.
Another victim is Alba Lorena Rodríguez. She says she suffered a miscarriage in 2009; however, prosecutors accused her of having an abortion, even though Rodríguez held a vigil to mourn her loss. She’s serving a 30-year sentence.
Despite draconian enforcement, the Salvadoran Health Ministry estimates that there were 19,290 illegal abortions in the country between 2005 and 2008. But women are understandably reluctant to turn to doctors or hospitals if anything goes wrong for fear of ending up behind bars.
A notable example occurred in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where a woman ended up in the hospital after trying to induce an abortion. The doctor reported her to police. The woman was handcuffed and spent the rest of her 10 days in the hospital under police guard. She was then sent to prison for the next eight months so that she couldn’t try again. She was poor, as is usual for those arrested in Latin America, especially in Brazil.
Increasingly, women don’t need to resort to back-alley abortions, thanks to misoprostol, a medication frequently prescribed for stomach ulcers that has miscarriage as a side effect. The drug is used so frequently in Mexico — where abortion is legal in Mexico City, but severely restricted in other states in Mexico — that the locals call it simply “miso,” buy it over the counter, and self-administer. But without medical supervision, women are left to guess how much is the right amount and they can’t get Mifepristone, which, when used in combination with misoprostol, is 95 percent effective.
The Dominican Republic, which also bans all abortions, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America — three times higher than the United States’. One-third of pregnancy-related deaths involve a women dying from a terminal disease they could not treat because they were pregnant. Among them was Rosaura Almonte Hernández, a 16-year-old who was prevented from being treated for her leukemia because doctors prioritized the fetus. Eventually, doctors relented, but too late, and Almonte Hernández died.
As with other countries with total bans, in Nicaragua, women die because they fear turning to hospitals or doctors when an illegal abortion goes wrong. Everyone knows someone who has been at least detained, although it’s less frequent than in neighboring El Salvador.
What about the United States?
By now, I’m sure you’re thinking this can’t happen here, not in the United States. Think again.
First of all, states — particularly in the South — are vying in a race to the bottom. Each new law we see in the news is more draconian than the previous. Alabama joins Third World countries in not providing exceptions even for rape and incest.
Take the Georgia law. As Mark Joseph Stern points out in Slate,
An earlier Georgia law imposing criminal penalties for illegal abortions does not apply to women who self-terminate; the new measure, by contrast, conspicuously lacks such a limitation. It can, and would, be used to prosecute women. Misoprostol, a drug that treats stomach ulcers but also induces abortions, is extremely easy to obtain on the internet, and American women routinely use it to self-terminate. It is highly effective in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Anti-abortion advocates generally insist that they do not want to punish women who undergo abortions. But HB 481 does exactly that. Once it takes effect, a woman who self-terminates will have, as a matter of law, killed a human—thereby committing murder. The penalty for that crime in Georgia is life imprisonment or capital punishment.
Georgia has already charged a woman when she self-aborted. Murder charges against Kenlissia Jones were dropped in 2015 only because prosecutors reluctantly had to admit that Roe v. Wade still stood in their way. Think they’ll be more circumspect if the Roberts Court strikes down Roe?
But Jones isn’t alone. The most famous case is Purvi Patel, sentenced to prison for 20 years in Indiana for inducing her own abortion.
Increasingly, faced with restrictive abortion laws, women are turning to self-induced abortions. When Texas passed laws that closed more than 20 clinics that performed abortions, South Texas women began traveling to neighboring Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, to buy misoprostol for $50. Clerk Roberto Gonzáles, a clerk in a pharmacy there, told NPR, “We sold (miso) like hot bread. The girls in Texas came over to buy this treatment — eight to 10 tablets for a pregnancy of nine weeks. It works the fastest.” According to The Atlantic, Rio Grande Valley Texans don’t even have to cross the border. Misoprostol is sold clandestinely at flea markets.
So, when medical personnel are no longer involved in abortions at all, will anti-choice zealots just shrug their shoulders and give up? Will we no longer have to worry about women being arrested? Of course not.
In every state, there are ambitious prosecutors just looking to make a name for themselves by prosecuting abortion cases. If you don’t think that’s the case, you’re fooling yourself.
And let’s not forget the everyday citizens who, in their anti-abortion zeal, will be more than willing to turn in their neighbor, their co-worker, or even their family member. They will see themselves as part of the “re-education effort,” just like Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale.
If these laws stand, women will be arrested and jailed. Count on it.
The future is here.