Back in 1973, the landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade established a woman’s right to have an abortion in the United States. What it did not make clear, however, is where in the United States it is possible for a woman to have an abortion, and it is increasingly this question of geography, not federal rights, that determines whether or not a woman really is free to chose.
Even though Roe vs. Wade set the national position on abortion, specific laws in the 50 states vary immensely, and in practice, these laws have a much greater bearing on a woman’s access to an abortion clinic. Over the past decade or so, more and more states have taken up stronger, more hostile positions against abortion. Between 2001 and 2011, 15 states enacted measures to make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. These measures include things like prohibiting Medicaid dollars from being used for most abortions, or barring abortion after a certain number of gestational weeks. For example, in 2010 Nebraska outlawed abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and 11 other states followed suit. Currently, a third of all U.S. women of reproductive age do not have access to an abortion provider in their county.
An observation of the states' stance on abortion reveals that these policies are often very closely tied to with a state's economic, social, and political standings. The states with the strictest abortion laws tend to be located in the South and Midwest, whereas the states with more lenient abortion policies tend to be located on the East and West coasts. Those states with stricter abortion laws also tend to have poorer, more rural populations, a fact that carries with it troubling implications, as it is often the case that women with the fewest economic resources also have the fewest places to turn for an abortion should they need one.
The fact of the matter is that while stricter abortion laws have decreased the number of legal abortion facilities available, they have had no impact on the demand for abortions. So because the states who are less tolerant are close to one another geographically, fewer abortion clinics are available across an entire region. This lack of resources has meant that women will often have to travel out of state, sometimes over 50 miles, to a have an abortion performed. And now, the states that women most often travel to are enacting the harshest laws, some believe in an effort to shut down the few remaining abortion facilities there. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that half of the abortions performed in Kansas in 2008 and a third of those performed in North Dakota were on non-residents. Now, both of these states have some of the strictest abortion laws on the books.
When one takes into account the socioeconomic and geographic factors that are involved, it becomes clear that abortion is much more than a moral issue. But because it is only framed in moral terms in the national conversation, women are being denied access to resources simply based on their unfortunate geographic and economic circumstances, and the personal moral views of their state legislators. Everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding the morality of abortion, but no one should prevent a woman from what is her federally guaranteed right simply on the basis of economics or geography.