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Washington Journal: New State Laws Make Abortions Difficult In U.S.

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 19 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new report released last week by an American abortion rights organization says that the number of state laws restricting abortions in the U.S. has quadrupled in the past three years.

The Washington-based National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) says the report shows that in 1998 there were 62 laws passed by U.S. state legislators that either limited or made difficult a woman's ability to get an abortion. This is a 13 percent increase over last year, says the report. In contrast, only 22 laws supporting freedom of choice were enacted in 1998, says the report.

According to NARAL, the obstacles faced by women who need abortions do not remotely approach those relating to any other medical procedure.

Elizabeth Cavendish, the legal director at NARAL, told RFE/RL that complicated and unnecessary barriers that impede access to a legal abortion are unfairly burdening American women. She says those barriers can range from counseling bans that prevent state-funded doctors from talking about abortion as an option, to long, required waiting periods and consent laws.

Currently over a million abortions are conducted every year in the U.S., but that number is in decline.

According to a study done by the U.S.-based research organization, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, between 1992 and 1996, the number of U.S. abortions fell from 1.5 million to 1.3 million -- an 11 percent decrease. Research also indicated that between 1992 and 1996, there was a 14 percent decrease in the number of U.S. facilities which provide abortion services -- nearly twice the proportion lost between 1988 and 1992, and three times the drop between 1985 and 1988.

Cavendish says that the dwindling number of abortion providers, combined with the growing number of restrictive laws impeding abortions, is creating a nightmare for American women who want or need to have the medical procedure. In fact, she says, the report shows that American women today actually have fewer reproductive rights than their mothers held in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion.

Cavendish explains: "There is a disturbing disconnect in our nation between the legal right to choose an abortion and access to abortion services. Although the majority of Americans support a woman's right to choose, anti-choice lawmakers have been intense in their efforts to restrict that freedom."

Another disturbing development, says Cavendish, is that the more restrictive the laws in the U.S. become, the more likely it is that women will seek unsafe abortions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 55,000 unsafe abortions take place every day worldwide -- 95 percent in developing countries. Two hundred women around the globe die daily of complications, with one unsafe abortion taking place for every seven births. Overall, the WHO says unsafe abortion accounts for at least 13 percent of global maternal mortality -- one in eight maternal deaths -- and in some countries is the most common cause of maternal mortality and morbidity.

Restrictive legislation does play a role in that rate, according to the WHO. In Romania, for example, abortion-related deaths increased sharply when the law became very restrictive in 1966 and fell after 1990 with a return to the less restrictive legislation.

"Far too many Americans are unaware of the dangers these restrictions pose to women's health and lives," says Cavendish.

But abortion opponents say they are encouraged by the decline in the number of abortions performed in the U.S., and the growing number of laws which prevent abortion from being a quick, easy procedure.

Mary Spaulding Balch of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington told RFE/RL that most of the new laws being passed regarding abortions in the U.S. are not restrictive only educational.

Balch explains: "Most of these laws simply state that prior to an abortion, a woman must receive certain information such as alternatives, risks and how a fetus develops."

Balch says an abortion is a life-long decision and a painful one. She says requiring health providers to thoroughly discuss the procedure and insisting women wait a certain amount of time to think about it, can hardly be considered restrictive.

"It is reasonable, not restrictive, legislation," she insists.

Regardless, Balch says there are still 4,400 unborn children aborted in the U.S. everyday. She also acknowledges that her organization other anti-abortion groups will not stop their efforts to make abortions in the U.S. difficult and perhaps, even illegal.

But Balch concedes: "Passing pro-life legislation is hard work. And we still have a lot of work to do."