Steve Rose

Here’s what would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned and abortions were illegal

Controversial pill. Dr. David Grimes of the University of California at San Francisco holds a container of the abortion pill RU-486.

FILE-- Dr. David Grimes of the University of California, San Francisco holds a container of the controversial abortion pill RU-486 in San Francisco on May 3, 1994. The drug RU-486 could be licensed for use in the United States within two years, because of an agreement announced on Monday, May 16, 1994, that gives French drug patents to an international research agency. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)
Controversial pill. Dr. David Grimes of the University of California at San Francisco holds a container of the abortion pill RU-486. FILE-- Dr. David Grimes of the University of California, San Francisco holds a container of the controversial abortion pill RU-486 in San Francisco on May 3, 1994. The drug RU-486 could be licensed for use in the United States within two years, because of an agreement announced on Monday, May 16, 1994, that gives French drug patents to an international research agency. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan) ASSOCIATED PRESS

His name was Halsey. I don’t recall whether Halsey was his first name or last. But I do know the name was “Halsey’s Grocery Store” where my wife, Carol, and I shopped during our six-month stay in Manzanillo, Mexico, in 1971. There were only a handful of Americans — Halsey, being one — who lived in the small seaport town on the Pacific coast. The population then was about 20,000. Today, it is 140,000.

Halsey was probably 50 years old. He lived with his Mexican wife above the store. He was reserved, unassuming and talked little about himself. We eventually learned from other Americans in Manzanillo that Halsey was not just a small-time grocer, catering to a small number of Americans. He also was an OB-GYN on the run.

It was awkward, but Halsey agreed once to share some of his past with me. He told me with some hesitation he had performed abortions in the United States, where they were illegal at the time. Back then, two years prior to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortions nationwide, abortions could be legalized by individual states. Before Roe v. Wade, only four states allowed abortions: Hawaii, Alaska, New York and Washington.

Halsey’s plight provides but one example of what America was like before abortions were legal across the country. Whether you consider Halsey a villain or hero, illegal abortions made a criminal out of this physician who made a personally devastating choice that would be legal only a short time later. But an OB-GYN like Halsey, performing illegal abortions, was just the tip of the iceberg. Illegal abortions in the United States prior to the Supreme Court decision were widespread. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization dealing in reproductive health, at least one million illegal abortions were performed each year in the U.S. prior to Roe v. Wade. In many cases, women who could not afford the services of a trained physician like Halsey sought cheaper, unsafe procedures, which often led to dangerous medical complications, including death.

I had not thought of Halsey in many years, until recently when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his impending retirement, and a staunch anti-abortion nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was selected by President Donald Trump to take his place. If confirmed, Kavanaugh could cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, which could put us back to where the country was during the Halsey days.

But this time, there would be a major difference. With the advent of the RU-486 abortion pill, there might be no need for a procedure in the early stages of pregnancy. The abortion pill can end a pregnancy up to 10 weeks. It is likely, however, that the pill itself would become illegal where abortions were prohibited. The country could end up with a widespread black market for abortion pills, much like drugs today that are illegal but are readily available.

There are a myriad of ways this could unfold. Roe v. Wade could be left standing as is. Or abortion laws could once again be left up to individual states. It is also quite possible the court may, instead, choose to simply chip away at Roe v. Wade to make abortions so restrictive as to almost ban them entirely. It is also possible that abortions could be outlawed everywhere in America, this time with states having no rights to legalize abortions within their boundaries.

The only certainty if Roe v. Wade were overturned or neutered is that abortions in the United States would not be stopped. It might not even slow them down. There will always be a Halsey — qualified or not —prepared to take the risk of performing an illegal abortion. There also would be dealers more than willing to sell the abortion pill illegally for the right price. It likely would be almost impossible for law enforcement to control.

Really, does anyone believe criminalizing abortions would do anything besides driving abortions underground, as has happened before? Any other outcome is unimaginable.

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