Operating Room (Bathroom)

(WOMENSENEWS)–Abortion could go underground.

Now that President George W. Bush has been elected to a second term, he may appoint new Supreme Court justices who fundamentally disagree with the premises of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that provides U.S. women the right to legal abortion.

In response to this threat, the Washington, D.C.-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America is stepping up the work of its Post-Roe Service Delivery Task Force–a group dedicated to exploring the legal and practical aspects of providing abortion despite a federal ban.

“Bush’s election has prompted us to forge ahead with greater urgency,” says Linda Williams, co-chair of the task force. “Reproductive freedom–a fundamental freedom that many of us have taken for granted–is now seriously at risk.”

For the past four years, Williams and her group’s 13 other members have explored the post-Roe challenge on many fronts.

Among other options, they’ve looked at maintaining services by strengthening state laws and the possibility of providing abortions in places where federal laws don’t apply.

To prepare for what would likely be a health epidemic, they’ve urged physicians to get special training so they know how to treat infections, uncontrolled bleeding and other life-threatening complications caused by botched abortions.

Bush Record on Reproductive Rights

During his first term, Bush slashed family planning programs and promoted “abstinence-only” sex education. He signed legislation that criminalizes some abortion procedures that are common after 12 weeks or injure a fetus. He has appointed more than 200 anti-choice federal judges. His appointed attorney general and secretary of Health and Human Services oppose keeping abortion legal.

“Immediately after Bush took office four years ago, we realized he would try to revoke Roe vs. Wade,” says Williams. “Since three Supreme Court justices are nearing retirement and since Bush is likely to appoint anti-choice justices, we knew we had to be prepared.”

Abortion services have already been curtailed, with only 13 percent of U.S. counties offering an abortion provider, according to Medical Students for Choice, based in Oakland, Calif. State legislatures have enacted more than 380 measures to restrict abortion since 1994, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

Now before Congress: The “Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act,” that requires doctors to inform women before they have abortions at 20 weeks or later that the fetus may feel pain.

“We are absolutely delighted to have four more years with pro-life President Bush,” says Carol Tobias, political director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee.

Pro-Choice Advocates Explore Legal Loopholes

Twenty states are likely to protect abortion rights in the face of a federal ban, with 10 states guaranteeing access to abortion in their state constitutions, according to a recent report from the Center for Reproductive Rights.

To maintain reproductive choice in the 20 “safe” states and to bolster it in the remaining ones, Planned Parenthood says reproductive-rights activism is needed on the local level.

“Women should lobby state legislators to eradicate laws that date from the 1800s and early 1900s and that call abortion murder,” says Chris Charbonneau, second co-chair of the task force. “They should push state legislators to adopt modern-day laws like those in Washington, Maryland, and California, the three states that have air-tight laws because these laws echo the wording of Roe vs. Wade.”

Even if all 50 states outlaw abortion, task force members are looking at other ways to legally offer safe abortions.

They consider the possibility of operating abortion clinics on Native American reservations, which have laws independent of federal ones. They consider launching programs like Women on Waves, a Netherlands-based nonprofit that offers abortion in countries where it is illegal by performing procedures on a ship offshore. They consider lining the border of Canada–where abortion is legal and likely to remain so–with clinics that cater to U.S. women.

Botched Abortions Biggest Concern

If Roe vs. Wade is revoked, task force members say their biggest concern will be treating women harmed by botched abortions. “Just as they did before Roe vs. Wade, women with unwanted pregnancies will take desperate measures,” says Wilson. “They will have back-alley abortions. They will insert sharp objects like coat hangers into their uteruses. And they will douche with toxic chemicals like lye or Clorox.”

To prevent such a potential health crisis, task force members are urging doctors to get special training so they know how to treat the complications of botched abortions, which include infection, cervical tearing, uterine perforation and blood in the uterus.

Task force members admit, however, that their strategies offer no real substitute for Roe vs. Wade. They expect that abortion providers–fearing prosecution and violence at the hands of anti-choice extremists–would likely stop providing procedures. They expect that a sizable number of the 3 million women with unplanned pregnancies each year will take matters into their own hands.

Abortion rates were higher in the United States before the procedure was legal, Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has said.

More than 200 U.S. women died each year from the complications of illegal abortions in the decade before Roe vs. Wade, Stanley Henshaw, a senior fellow at The Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, has said.

Task force members say that if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, poor and low-income women–who seek 57 percent of the 1 million abortions performed in the United States each year–will be the ones hardest hit. “Women with enough money will be able to find a way to terminate their pregnancies,” says Williams. “They will go abroad or find qualified doctors to treat them behind closed doors. But poor women will be exploited. And they will die.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Abortion Access Project:

Women on Waves: