Standing in the middle of Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan, on the 24th of June, I propelled a sign skyward that read: Abortion Is Healthcare. There were thousands of other slogans, on posters and placards, all being hoisted repeatedly by protesters equally aggrieved by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

Earlier that same day, at 10 AM, the United States Supreme Court had overturned the ruling of the original monumental case. Since 1973, Roe v. Wade had protected the constitutional right to privacy for nearly half a century – ensuring that every woman in the US could obtain an abortion without fear of criminal penalty. But the repeal of this landmark case has unfortunately handed the regulation of abortion back to each individual state. And now, approximately 20 US states are set to once again criminalise or entirely outlaw access to abortions, despite two-thirds of its citizens being in favour of abortion.  

So how will this loss of privacy constrain women’s autonomy?

The right to an abortion protects women from bodily harm, insecure financial circumstances, and emotional grief. The medical procedure allows a woman to maintain bodily autonomy by affording the choice to decide when, or if, she ever wants a child. Abortion acknowledges a woman’s right to live life as she intends. Banning abortion severely compromises that choice. Further, it does not reduce abortion rates but instead forces women to seek abortion elsewhere or by unsafe means. In 2020, over 900 000 legal abortions were conducted in the United States by professionals or by mothers using medication prescribed by physicians.

Banning abortion places a hefty burden on women, suppressing their autonomy.

The Legal Disparity Pre-Roe

Before Roe, women in the United States had minimal access to legal abortions, which were usually only available to high-income families. Illegal abortions were unsafe and in 1930 were the cause of nearly 20% of maternal deaths. This is because many of them relied on self-induced abortions or asked community members for assistance. Given the lack of medical experience, botched procedures and infections were rife.  

Pre-Roe abortion bans harmed and further disadvantaged predominantly low-income women and women of colour. In 1970 some states allowed abortion. However, given the lack of national support, women were expected to travel long distances for many hours, which placed their health at significant risk. Once again, this limited access created unequal outcomes by only providing access to select women with means to travel and financial security.  

Post-Roe Injustice

Post-Roe, the outcomes appear just as grim. In a digital landscape, technology brings benefits but also comes at a cost, introducing new vulnerabilities and concerns for women. While technology equips women seeking abortion to find clinics, book appointments, and help with travel interstate, it can also amplify the persecution of women when abortion is criminalised. For example, in 2017, Mississippi prosecutors used a woman’s internet search history to prove that she had looked up where to find abortion pills before she lost her foetus. And currently, since the recent ruling, clinics are scrambling to encrypt their data, while others are resorting to using paper to protect their patients’ sensitive information from being tracked or leaked

Unfortunately, there are also concerns that data could be used from period tracking apps and location services to further restrict women from accessing abortions. In previous years, prosecutors and law enforcement have wrongfully convicted women for illegal abortions by searching their online history and text messages with friends. Now that abortion is criminalised in some states, there are worries of increased access to private information that could be used against women in court: specifically the use of third-party apps that sell information which would further isolate women and reduce their ability to receive competent care, which in some states could be accessed without their consent. 

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, known as HHS, released a statement on June 29th about protecting patient privacy for reproductive health. It states that “disclosures to law enforcement officials, are permitted only in narrow circumstances” and that in most cases, the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), commonly known as a privacy Act, “does not protect the privacy or security of individuals’ health information” when stored on phones. The guidance continues by suggesting how women can best protect their online information. For women to defend themselves, they must take extra precautions such as using privacy browsers, turning off locations, and using different emails.  

These additional measures are troubling as they stipulate how women receive care. Placing the onus on women, the risk of information leaking limits access to resources and further restricts the privacy and autonomy of pregnant women as it creates fear of constant surveillance.

Further, it places people seeking care at a significant disadvantage if they do not know what information is protected and what is not.  

Post-Roe, the medical landscape will also begin to shift. Abortion care is not uncommon in other procedures conducted by obstetricians and gynaecologists (OB-GYNs). Abortion care can overlap with miscarriage aftercare and ectopic pregnancies, creating murky circumstances for physicians and delaying care for patients as they wait for legal advice and opinion. In other cases, abortion care is necessary when pregnant women have cancer and need to terminate the pregnancy to continue with chemotherapy.   

By restricting abortions, many physicians will be unable to provide adequate care and fulfil their duty to patients as they will be restricted by governing laws which will hinder further practice if persecuted. Any delay in receiving an abortion is an act of maleficence, as the windows to receive abortions grow increasingly slim and the restrictions grow tighter, the process inhibits providers from treating women seeking an abortion which obstructs beneficent care. As a result, many women will lose their lives from preventable and treatable causes. 

Criminalising abortion will warp access and create unnavigable procedural labyrinths that will change the digital and medical landscape. Post-Roe United States will continue to breed fear and control over women’s lives. Criminalising abortion will isolate women from their communities and obstruct them from receiving competent medical care and treatment. Banning abortions will place an undue burden on women and will unfairly jeopardise their health and right to access care.