The Dangers of Criminal Abortion Bans and Why We Must Resist

Kaitlyn Denzler, Women’s Rights Campaigner

Ohio recently became the 18th state across the United States to adopt a 20-week abortion ban. In early December, legislators in Ohio pushed and passed through two pieces of abortion legislation; one for a six-week ban (also known as the “heartbeat bill”), and another for a 20-week ban. While Governor Kasich vetoed the six-week ban, he signed into law the 20-week ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal anomaly, and only very limited exceptions for the pregnant person’s health and life. The law also criminalizes and penalizes abortion providers if they provide abortion services after 20 weeks if an abortion is not, “…necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

With the increasing number of states passing similar laws across the US, abortion access advocates are worried that 20-week bans could chip away at and eventually lead to the overturn of the US Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which affirms the right to safe, legal abortion. In fact, the pattern of 20-week bans appears to be emerging as a more insidious strategy waged by anti-abortion access groups. Ovide Lamontagne, general counsel for Americans United for Life, is on record stating that, “We do think these kinds of cases and these kind of laws will ultimately lead to the erosion and outright reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Twenty week bans on abortion are clearly unconstitutional and contravene US Supreme Court jurisprudence whereby states are not allowed to prohibit abortions before the fetus is viable. Viability — when the fetus could survive outside of the womb — typically occurs around 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Fewer than 1 percent of pregnant people have abortions after 20 weeks, and most make the decision to have abortions at that time due to a severe fetal impairment or health issues discovered later in their pregnancies.

How do restrictions, bans, and criminalization impact people?

Twenty week bans are unconstitutional, and they also have real, harmful consequences on the health and lives of people — especially young women, women of color, and trans or gender nonconforming people. These types of restrictive laws also disproportionately impact low-income people who are often not able to obtain abortion services during the first trimester due to a range of barriers including costs for obtaining the procedure and for travel to medical clinics that provide abortion services (which in some places can be extremely far, in part due to increasing legal restrictions that have led to the clinic closures), or difficulty securing insurance coverage.

When states restrict access to abortion care, people are often forced to — if they can afford it — travel long distances and across state lines in order to access safe, legal abortion services. Criminal legal restrictions on abortion and related barriers to accessing services such as cost, distance, and stigma related to abortion, ultimately push people into making extremely difficult decisions; putting their lives and health at risk by resorting to clandestine and often unsafe procedures or continuing unwanted pregnancies. No one should be forced to make a decision like this.

Amnesty International (AI) has reported and worked on the dangers and realities of criminalization of abortion across the world. In Ireland, the near-total abortion ban forces approximately 4,000 women and girls to travel outside the country for an abortion every year at considerable mental, financial, and physical cost. AI’s research on the impacts of Ireland’s abortion laws highlight individual cases, such as Lupe, who was carrying a fetus with no heartbeat for 14 weeks and had to travel to Spain for necessary medical treatment. Lupe shared with AI that she, “didn’t feel safe at all…I was feeling really scared because it became clear to me, that if any complication was raised, these people would let me die.”

Dr. Peter Boylan, an obstetrician, gynecologist and former Master and Clinical Director of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital told AI about the legal and ethical tightrope medical staff are forced to walk, and that: “Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene. How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that.”

The “Chilling Effect”

AI has also reported and fought against total abortion bans in El Salvador and Chile, and we have joined the fight against efforts to further restrict abortion laws in Poland and Spain. Laws like these and the one passed in Ohio also lead to a “chilling effect” which essentially prevents pregnant people from seeking services even if their health or life is at risk, and deter healthcare professionals from providing life-saving services to their patients for fear of criminal charges. Under Ohio’s 20-week abortion ban, healthcare providers are liable for up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine for providing abortion services after 20 weeks. Additionally, the state medical board could revoke a physician’s license to practice medicine in Ohio if the physician violates or fails to comply. Punitive consequences like this will likely undermine health care professionals’ ability to provide adequate medical care, information, and advice to their patients.

Ohio’s abortion ban is not the first in the US, nor is it going to be the last, and we must fight back and be proactive! We, along with partners and activists like you, will continue to fight against unconstitutional abortion bans like Ohio’s, and to reveal the dangers of criminalizing abortion at all. We need your help to make noise online and offline, getting the word out — like letters to the editor — about why abortion access and contraceptive coverage is important to you, lobbying your representatives when harmful legislation is being proposed, and having conversations that help to break down the stigma surrounding abortion access and access to all our sexual and reproductive rights.

You can also join Amnesty International USA in the Women’s March on Washington. We’re excited to show our support as a co-sponsor of this historic event and come together to demand that the new administration protect and respect human rights — including sexual and reproductive rights — at home and abroad.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.