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The State of Abortion in 2021

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Here are six must-read stories to understand the current state of abortion access, both domestically and abroad.

sign at abortion pro-chioce protest

NPR’s Nina Totenberg looks to the future of abortion rights in the United States with a newly-installed six-person conservative majority on the Supreme Court. These six anti-abortion justices find themselves in tension with public opinion polls reflecting majority support for abortion access, and it is this tension that raises questions as to how they will proceed with abortion cases in the future. Most legal experts agree that it is not a matter of if but how the Court will curtail reproductive rights--whether it will take the approach of ‘hollowing out’ Roe or boldly striking down the fifty-year precedent altogether. Either way, the presence of this conservative majority has signaled to state legislatures that the Court is sympathetic to the anti-abortion cause, and with four cases pending in front of the Supreme Court and more than a dozen in federal appeals courts, anti-abortion activists await the first decision that will affirm ostensible bans like so-called heartbeat bills, freeing them to undertake even more repressive restrictions.


For the Associated Press, Jeffrey Collins reports on one such restrictive law. In South Carolina, Republican gains in the State Assembly have made the passage of a ‘heartbeat bill’ more likely than ever. This would make South Carolina the eighth state to outlaw virtually all abortions, as the fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant or have a chance to access abortion services. These other seven states have yet to be able to enforce these bans owing to court challenges, but the presence of an ultra-conservative Supreme Court has served as an incentive to pass these bans, giving the laws a greater chance of surviving a court challenge if they are taken up by the highest court. The South Carolina bill has yet to pass, but Governor Henry McMaster has vowed to sign the bill the moment it reaches his desk, a concerning development for all those invested in the future of reproductive justice.


Writing for The New York Times’ “The Upshot,” Quoctrung Bui, Claire Cain Miller, and Margot Sanger-Katz anticipate what a post-Roe United States could look like. Data analysis displayed on a map graphic shows the tremendous inequities that would result if Roe were to be overturned, with abortion access unchanged in over half of states but ostensibly ended for many of those in the South and Midwest. Of course, this would disproportionately impact the poor and people of color, as they are less likely to have the time or resources to travel to another state in order to access abortion services. Researchers were able to anticipate the impact increased travel times would have because this phenomenon already affects those in states with restrictive abortion laws, forcing them to drive to faraway cities in order to receive care. Able to use this current context to project an uncertain future, a decrease in abortion access post-Roe seems almost undeniable.


In the midst of this precarious time for abortion rights, The New York Times’ Jessica Grose writes about the future of abortion activism, examining how the social media platform TikTok has become the site of Gen Z activism. She identifies many of these activists as young women living in the South and Midwest, areas where abortion is more likely to be inaccessible. These new activists are differentiated from their feminist predecessors by their wholly unapologetic tone, willingness to be confrontational, tendency to reject the ‘safe, legal, and rare’ framework, and emphasis on the need for an intersectional approach to reproductive justice. TikTok is one outlet for this new approach, with people documenting clashes with anti-abortion activists or proudly proclaiming their pro-abortion stance. There has also been a shift of non-virtual tactics, and as counter-protesters have demonstrated against anti-abortion activists outside of clinics, there has been pushback from those sympathetic to the cause of reproductive rights surrounding this adversarial strategy. Undoubtedly, activism in this arena will continue to morph along with the technology that develops, learning new ways to organize and advocate.


Reporting in The Washington Post by Taylor Boas, Mariela Daby, Mason Moseley, and Amy Erica Smith details the newly-passed abortion legalization law in Argentina as well as the implications this could have for other Latin American countries. They identify the emergence of a new feminist movement named Ni Una Menos as being instrumental in the elevation of reproductive justice as a political issue. The group was initially formed as a response to gender-based violence but broadened its goals to include advancing reproductive rights through the lens of social justice and healthcare. The success of the abortion rights law in Argentina could be a positive sign for activists in other nations who hope that the Argentinian legislation will galvanize support for abortion rights abroad and follow the pathway of same-sex marriage, which was legalized by several countries in quick succession. However, there remains powerful right-wing political opposition in many neighboring nations, with the full ramifications of the Argentina law only understandable after more time has passed.


Amanda Taub documents the political organizing over abortion in Poland in The New York Times, exploring the broader effects it could have on Polish politics. After a court decision banning most abortions, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to the streets, demanding reproductive freedom. Taub identifies this protest as about more than abortion, challenging the organization of power itself in Poland. These women are asserting their right to represented by and active in political decision-making, a concept much broader than a single court case. She traces Poland’s development into a democracy and the role of the Catholic Church, pointing out that the passage of anti-abortion legislation cannot be separated from the political power of the Church. Polish women have become less and less willing to tolerate political compromises between the Church and the political establishment that come at the expense of their bodily autonomy, with these most recent protests challenging both the ban and the general role of the Church in Polish society. Given how integral Catholicism has historically been to Polish society, these protests could be transformative if they amount to concrete change.


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