Africa's women struggle to gain abortion rights; USA women struggle to keep them

Most African states still struggle over the right to an early, safe, legal abortion and as a result the number of women dying from illegal terminations continues to increase at an alarming rate. However, in the United States, where women thought that this right had been established decades ago, it is now under serious threat, with the principle established in Roe v Wade under systematic attack in the courts and the states' legislatures. Just last week the Supreme Court heard argument in the latest state bid to undermine that right.

Read transcript of argument in US Supreme Court hearing: June Medical Services v Russo

Read Roe v Wade 

One of the most shocking statistics about women's health on our continent is this: the risk of dying from an unsafe abortion is higher in Africa than anywhere else in the world. This is clearly because early, safe, legal abortions are banned or extremely difficult to access in most of the continent and so women resort to unlawful and extremely dangerous methods to facilitate an abortion for themselves.  

It is counter-intuitive, then, that a country like the United State where early, safe, legal abortions have been available for decades, is now at danger of losing those rights. Imaginative new laws are constantly being passed by states' legislatures to curb rights that have been taken for granted since the 1973 landmark decision in Roe v Wade, and the essential principle enshrined in that judgment is under constant attack. 

Just last week, for example, the US Supreme Court heard argument in a case testing the validity of a new Louisiana state law that will make it far more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion.

The way anti-abortion legislators hope to achieve this, is through a medico-legal device called ‘admitting privileges’.

An ‘admitting privilege’ law is one that requires a doctor working at an abortion clinic to apply and be approved for ‘admitting privileges’ at a local hospital, in the case of Louisiana’s law the hospital must be no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic.

The states that have introduced these privileges argue that it is a safety measure for the women wanting an abortion. Those opposed say it is intended to close down clinics – in many states doctors from abortion clinics have been refused ‘admitting privileges’ at local hospitals. Refused these ‘privileges’ doctors can then not offer their services at an abortion clinic, and many clinics are thus forced to close down as they cannot function without doctors.

The Louisiana law on admitting privileges was argued at the US Supreme Court last week. During argument counsel for opponents of the new law (a functioning abortion clinic) cited a decision by a district court that had ruled against the law at an earlier stage, finding ‘that this law would leave Louisiana with just one clinic in one state to service about 10 000 people per year’.

Counsel also argued that if the law stood, it would mean that ‘hundreds of thousands of women would now live more than 150 miles from the closest provider’.

Later in the debate, the judges and counsel focused on argument that the new law would be detrimental for women’s health by posing too heavy a burden on women to reach help.

The law states that a doctor working at an abortion clinic must be able to admit a patient to a hospital within 30 miles of that clinic. Justice Ruth Ginsburg said she thought it ‘odd’ that most medical abortions (carried out in clinics) don’t have any complications and so the patient ‘never gets near a hospital’.

‘But if she needs a hospital it’s certainly not going to be the one near the clinic,’ Justice Ginsburg added. That’s because the woman would be at home, having returned from the clinic. And she would then go to the hospital nearest her home, rather than one near the clinic.

As counsel for the clinic in this case explained, the 30-mile limit made no sense: if it were to take effect, women in the Baton Rouge area would have to travel 320 miles back and forth to New Orleans to see the ‘same exact physician’ that would previously have seen in Baton Rouge.

While judgment has been reserved in the case, its ramifications continued outside the court. Democrat Chuck Schumer, a prominent politician, addressed a rally held outside the court during argument of the case and mentioned some of the judges by name in his speech. That in turn prompted the Chief Justice, John Roberts, to issue a statement criticising Schumer for ‘threatening’ the justices.

The Chief Justice said that ‘threatening statements’ of this kind were ‘not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favour from whatever quarter.’'

Later, a spokesperson for Schumer said the remarks were a misrepresentation, adding ‘Women’s health care rights are at stake and Americans from every corner of the country are in anguish about what the court might do to them.’