With the balance of the US Supreme Court shifting steadily rightward, the odds are greater than ever that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered. Roe, of course, is the epochal court case that established early abortions as private decisions protected from state intrusion by the US Constitution. Overturning Roe would not ban abortion. It would simply free state governments to regulate abortion as they saw fit.
What would happen in the Pacific Northwest?
Big change in Idaho, but much less elsewhere. Let’s take the parts of Cascadia in turn.
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British Columbia, like all of Canada, is solidly pro-choice. It doesn’t even have a strong antiabortion movement.
Washington was the first US state to recognize that decisions about abortion should be made by women themselves. It adopted this policy by popular vote in 1970. Alaska followed soon thereafter, and Washington later enacted the principle of women’s freedom to make reproductive choices into state law.
California is equally stalwart on reproductive freedom. It’s canonized women’s choice in state law. What’s more, California—like the states of Alaska,Montanaand Oregon—has written into its state constitutions guarantees of women’s right to choose that are stronger than the Supreme Court’s Roe interpretation of the US Constitution.
Idaho, on the other hand, is one of just a few states that have passed “trigger laws”—statutes that automatically ban abortion to the maximum extent permitted by the Supreme Court. If Roe goes, women in Idaho will no longer be able to get safe, legal abortions locally. (USA Today recently charted the likely outcome of overturning Roe.)
Just as prohibition didn’t end drinking, though, banning abortion won’t end abortion. It will simply drive abortion underground or across borders. As David Garrow documents extensively in his history of the US struggle for reproductive choice Liberty and Sexuality, travel for abortion was commonplace before Roe. So were hospital abortions to protect women’s life and health (and affluent women could often find hospitals willing to perform abortions on this basis). And so were clandestine abortions and self-administered abortions, as Garrow and the Guttmacher Institute (pdf) have both documented.
Nowadays, in the age of instant home pregnancy tests, affordable air travel, abortion pills, and Internet drug sales, the Idaho state government’s ability to stop women from ending unwanted pregnancies seems more limited than ever. Banning abortion in Idaho will probably reduce their number a little but at the cost of endangering the lives of many women, particularly those who cannot afford a trip to a pro-choice state.
A better option is open to Idaho—a way to achieve its goals of fewer abortions with no threat to women’s lives. It’s a strategy of prevention. The main determinant of abortion rates is the unplanned pregnancy rate, not the legal status of abortion. And Idaho can do many things to help its women prevent unplanned pregnancies: provide comprehensive sexuality education to all its young people in school; extend insurance coverage for contraceptives to all women in the state, through Medicaid for the poor and equal-prescription-coverage standards for others; provide universal access to emergency contraceptives; and target child sexual abuse and domestic violence as top tier law enforcement priorities statewide (because sexual violence is a precursor of a shameful share of unintended pregnancies). Finally, when Idaho women do choose abortion, the state could aim to ensure that they can get those abortions as early in pregnancy as possible, to minimize health risks and also the moral concerns of others in Idaho.