"We use the phrase in Latin America," Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights expert and director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women’s Equality Centre told Refinery29, "'Las ricas abortan, las pobres mueren.' [Rich women have abortions, poor women die.]"
Many anti-abortion advocates believe that outlawing the procedure will stop women from trying to terminate their pregnancies, but research has shown over and over again that this isn't true.
According to Avila-Guillen, we just need to look at some of the United States' southern neighbours such as El Salvador or the Dominican Republican to know that making abortion illegal or severely restricting the procedure leads to deaths, poverty, and restricted access to other types of healthcare.
"Even in countries with total abortion bans, women who have the economic resources can travel to another neighbour country, the equivalent here to traveling to another state; find private providers that will give them the medication or services for an specific amount [of money]; and they will always find a way because at the end of the day it's about financial resources," she continued. "The ones who need it the most, the ones who are already struggling in their lives, are the ones who never connect with these services and are forced to have an illegal and insecure abortion."
Nearly 25 out of the 56 million abortions performed worldwide each year between 2010 and 2014 were unsafe, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Many of these terminations or attempts end up in death: At least 22,800 women die from complications each year after trying to terminate their pregnancies in an unsafe setting, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
This debate on outlawing abortion in the United States is more relevant than ever because the day reproductive rights advocates have long feared is here: US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative and key swing vote in the bench, will retire at the end of July. Now, President Trump will have a shot at appointing an anti-abortion justice that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that gave women the right to choose an abortion.
Avila-Guillen said banning abortion in the US once again would go against the wave of pro-choice movements across the world.
"You’re seeing in Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, and even in the Dominican Republic that people are realising after having these abortion restrictions for a very long time is that they are useless," she said. "It would be ironic that the United States, which has been in a sense a pioneer on reproductive access, would go backwards while the rest of the world is moving forward."
Abortion rates in the US have declined in the last decade, but the procedure is still fairly common: Research has found that about one in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. While the Trump administration has set its sight on reducing access to birth control and slashing comprehensive sex ed across the country, making abortion illegal has been one of its main priorities since the beginning. (Trump identified himself as pro-choice at one point in his life, but during the 2016 presidential election he briefly called for punishing women seeking abortions.)
Avila-Guillen said the anti-abortion efforts in the US are eerily similar to the push to outlaw abortions in some parts of Latin America. She used El Salvador, a country where abortion is illegal without exceptions, as an example of how suddenly the anti-abortion movement can strike and take hold.
"The change to criminal code was so quickly that the women’s movement was not able to react. They thought it was a right that was granted to them, that was never going to be taken away," she told Refinery29. "What made it worse is that they also changed the constitution a year later stating that life begins at conception."
Avila-Guillen said that El Salvador specifically is one of the countries that most actively enforces its ban. For example, health providers denied chemotherapy to women who are diagnosed with cancer earlier in their pregnancies and even prosecutes women who have miscarriages or stillbirths. Nearly 25 women are currently in jail after being convicted of aggravated or attempted homicide due to a miscarriage.
She added that even in countries where abortion is not entirely illegal poor women are the ones who are the most impacted.
"Something that’s a commonality among all the countries that the impact this causes on low-income women," she said. "This is a parallel that’s already taking place in the United States."
While at the federal level there's been attempts to curb abortion access, the main battle is being fought at the state level: Since 2011, state lawmakers have passed more than 400 abortion restrictions.
"It would be ironic that the United States, which has been in a sense a pioneer on reproductive access, would go backwards while the rest of the world is moving forward."
Paula Avila-Guillen, director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center
These restrictions have already made abortion care out of reach for thousands of women. According to the the Guttmacher Institute, 29 states are considered "hostile" to abortion rights. Per their 2017 report, "58% of American women of reproductive age lived in a state considered either hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights in 2017. Only 30% of women lived in a state supportive of abortion rights."
If Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court the situation will become more dire. Four states — Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota, and South Dakota — have "trigger laws" in place that would automatically ban abortion the moment Roe is reversed. Ten other states still have pre-Roe abortion bans: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Washington, and West Virginia. While those haven't been enforced in decades, it's unclear whether they would get into effect once Roe is overturned.
Based on her experience in Latin America, Avila-Guillen said it's crucial for people who want to defend reproductive rights in the United States take several steps: Make sure reproductive justice should be part of a broader women's rights agenda and emulate women in other nations and take the streets to protest.
In the last few days, reproductive rights advocates have been racing against the clock to pressure lawmakers into rejecting potential Supreme Court nominees who are open to reversing Roe.
"President Trump has promised to nominate Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. That promise should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about women—and the Constitution," Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Centre for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement provided to Refinery29 last week. She added: "The stakes of the coming nomination fight are extraordinary. The future of reproductive rights is on the line. It’s up to the Senate to ensure that Anthony Kennedy be replaced with a justice who will affirm the fundamental rights of all."
If the United States ends access to safe and legal abortion, just as Vice President Mike Pence gleefully predicted earlier this year, we wouldn't be restoring "the sanctity of life" as he said. The country would just be signing a death sentence for women. The evidence is right before our eyes. We shouldn't ignore it.