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Addressing the Fragile Limits of Female Autonomy

To secure the reproductive rights of Americans and those affected by American foreign aid, the Biden administration must take action.
Monica Weller, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, US abortion rights, US access to safe abortions, anti-abortion movement US, US Supreme Court right to abortion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett abortion, US women’s health aid, Poland abortion ban protests, Biden administration women’s health

Protest outside the Supreme Court, Washington, DC, 5/21/2019 © Rena Schild / Shutterstock

January 27, 2021 10:44 EDT

On October 22, 2020, the United States co-sponsored a Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family. However, despite its name, this declaration states that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” While it doesn’t legally impact access to abortion in the United States, it bars foreign aid organizations from using US global health funds to counsel women about abortion or refer them to a safe abortion provider.

What Happens When We Ban Abortion?


This corresponds to more than $9 billion in foreign aid and health services provided by the US to women’s health advocacy groups, impacting issues as far-ranging as HIV, malaria and water sanitation. While the Biden administration has promised to reverse American support of this declaration, the impact from funding allocations to organizations as well as women’s health during the time it’s enforced will leave long-term effects.

Limited Access

The Trump administration has also made gains nationally to limit women’s access to reproductive health care not only by nominating Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, but also by chipping away at women’s access to birth control. In what became the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s last dissent, despite the reported difficulties in accessing birth control, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 to uphold companies’ right to deny insurance coverage of birth control to employees. These cases highlight the increasing barriers to reproductive health care enacted by the United States and how urgent it is for the incoming administration to prioritize access to birth control and abortion, especially amidst the ongoing pandemic.

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The World Health Organization estimates that the average rate of unsafe abortion is “four times higher in countries with more restrictive laws than in countries with less restrictive laws.” With the advent of COVID-19, birth control methods have become less accessible even in places where birth control should be easily available, culminating in a rise in pregnancies and, hence, the need for abortions. Due to social distancing restrictions, previously accessible clinics have shut down many services, which can make time-sensitive appointments and access to medical care nearly impossible. In one egregious case, no abortion procedures were available in South Dakota for seven months due to COVID-19, and they continue to be offered only once a month.

Further complicating the issue, women have also been more heavily impacted by job losses than men, with more than one in four women considering reducing hours or quitting their jobs in the next year. In places like the United States, health care is largely tied to employment, meaning women have fewer affordable ways to obtain birth control, further increasing the rate of unwanted pregnancies.

While there have been efforts to bring doctors to restricted areas to perform abortions, such as flying in practitioners to the one clinic available for abortions in South Dakota or the advocacy group Women on Waves providing offshore medical assistance to women living in countries without the right to abortion, this is not a sustainable long-term option. The United States is considered a country where women have access to abortion, but in practice, access varies heavily by state.

Since 2019, when multiple anti-abortion laws were passed, five states have only one clinic offering abortions. Before that, 38 states required by law that teenagers inform their parents 24 to 48 hours prior to receiving an abortion. While many states continue to reaffirm one’s right to abortion, the Trump administration’s harsh criticism of abortion has further constrained the legal access to both the procedure itself and to information about reproductive health care at a national level, with the impacts of COVID-19 serving to further restrict access.

Alternative Approaches

Restrictions on reproductive care are certainly not unique to the United States. Poland has been in the news recently with the introduction of legislation to ban abortion in cases of fetal defects, which would exclude nearly 98% of abortions. The new law has inspired the largest protests in the country since the 1980s pro-democracy movement. Because of the momentous backlash against the heightened restrictions, the legislation has not yet been implemented. However, the fact that increasingly severe restrictions are being introduced in countries with populist leaders reveals the fragile limits of female autonomy.

Even with the new Biden administration, restrictions on access to reproductive care and laws enacted will not automatically go away. Just like women in Poland, women in the United States are less likely to seek out safe measures conducted by medical practitioners with less information and greater restrictions.

The Biden administration remains limited in its options to pursue judicial or legislative success for abortions due to conservative majorities on the Supreme Court and in the Senate. However, there are several alternative approaches that the administration can pursue, even within the first 100 days. As president, Biden can reinstate Planned Parenthood and other organizations back into Title X’s family-planning program. In addition, he could reduce the current restrictions on the early pregnancy termination drug mifepristone. Both of these approaches could expand access to abortion without directly interfering in states’ laws and maintain some security for women if Roe v. Wade were to be partially overturned.

Access to abortion remains limited in the United States, and the strength of anti-abortion movements remains a serious concern in the US and elsewhere. Existing restrictions on abortion will not instantly disappear with the swearing-in of a new administration, nor will the additional long-term consequences caused by the coronavirus pandemic simply go away. In light of the situation, the public needs to continue being adamant in its refusal to allow governments to restrict the bodily autonomy of pregnant people lest we continue moving away from the needs and rights of those giving birth. To secure the reproductive rights of Americans and those affected by American foreign aid, the Biden administration must take action.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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