2021 Is the Worst Year for Abortion Access in a Decade

And it’s only April.
April 1, 2021, 6:14pm
A woman speaks during a protest against recently passed abortion ban bills at the Georgia State Capitol building, on May 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
A woman speaks during a protest against recently passed abortion ban bills at the Georgia State Capitol building, on May 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Texas, famous home of small-government enthusiasts, has a novel plan to shrink its entire body politic to fit inside a woman’s uterus.

A bill passed by the state Senate this week would ban physicians from performing abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people even know they’re pregnant. 

But that’s not the exciting part for Republicans: Rather than rely on big government to send the doctors who violate the law to jail, or slap them with fines, the bill would let individual Texans sue doctors for providing abortion—even if they don’t know anybody who was involved in the procedure. 

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Anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks could also be sued, including the person who drove the patient to the clinic or helped pay for the procedure. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Texas’ proposal is unprecedented, but the state is far from the only one to attempt to pass a bill this year that would abolish virtually all abortions. So far this year, state legislators have introduced at least 516 abortion restrictions and enacted 12, according to a Planned Parenthood report out this week. By this week in 2019, abortion opponents had introduced just over 300 and enacted only one. 

Despite all the other, seemingly more pressing obligations facing state legislatures—like, say, the pandemic that’s killed upwards of half a million people in the U.S.—Republicans are really committed to making 2021 the worst year for abortion access in a decade. 

“The doors are kicked open,” Elizabeth Nash, who tracks abortion restrictions for the Guttmacher Institute, told VICE News earlier this year, after lawmakers in multiple states proposed attacking abortion providers with murder charges. “In the midst of a pandemic, where states need to be thinking about how to get out the vaccine, how to provide education, how to support the unemployed, how to provide health care—we’re seeing this real trend around abortion restrictions and really comprehensive abortion bans.”

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A bill to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy passed out of committee in Arizona on Wednesday. At least 15 other states have introduced similar legislation, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Earlier this month, Arkansas passed a law that bans almost all abortions at any stage of pregnancy. The only acceptable abortions, under that law, are those sought to save the life or health of the mother.

Unlike in 2019, when the nation erupted in outrage over the passage of a near-identical law in Alabama, the public response to the Arkansas law has been far more muted. But that may be a sign of just how successful Republicans’ decade-long strategy to hack away at abortion access has been. 

Many of the 500-plus abortion restrictions passed in the U.S. since 2010 have seemed relatively small. Rather than stripping patients of their right to an abortion altogether, legislators have pushed for laws that make patients wait longer for an abortion or force them to listen to medically inaccurate counseling ahead of the procedure. Several abortion restrictions introduced this year follow that pattern, making some deeply random proposals: In Iowa, Republicans want the state use “targeted digital marketing” to convince people to continue their pregnancies; in Arkansas, they want abortion patients to call an anti-abortion hotline.

These regulations can reshape the course of abortion patients’ lives by making it too expensive or onerous to get the procedure. But because they’re so common, they can seem like background music. And even when abortion restrictions initially seem unimaginable—like in the case of Alabama’s 2019 ban—they quickly become so widespread as to look mundane. 

Americans may also be failing to pay attention due to the simple fact that many of these regulations get bogged down in court challenges anyway—which is also part of the GOP’s plan. After signing his state’s near-total ban, Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson admitted that the law was unconstitutional. But that’s the point: He wants to use the law to hand the majority-conservative Supreme Court a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. 

The new conservative majority on the Supreme Court, cemented by Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment last year, may be fueling the state arms race of abortion restrictions. After nearly a half-century of Roe, many abortion opponents believe its demise is now only a matter of time.