The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid new talk of criminalizing abortion, research shows the dangers of making it illegal for women

A protester holds a sign at the 2018 March for Life in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Women who get an abortion should face the death penalty, a Republican candidate in Idaho said this week.

A columnist hired (and just fired) by the Atlantic magazine has said such women should be hanged, in a newly emerged audio interview that has sparked controversy online.

And a bill introduced last month in Ohio would ban all abortions in the state and allow those who have or provide abortions to be charged with murder.

The idea of criminalizing abortions is not new, but a push has emerged recently among some antiabortion advocates for enacting strict penalties against women who have the procedure, and not just doctors and clinics that provide abortions.

Research over the past decade, however, casts significant doubt on whether criminalizing abortion would reduce abortion rates. And data from countries where abortion is  outlawed suggests it could have serious consequences on women’s health and safety.

The day after he made his controversial statement advocating the death penalty for women who get abortions, Idaho candidate for lieutenant governor Bob Nonini backtracked slightly, saying that doctors who perform the abortion should be the focus of prosecutions.

“There is no way a woman would go to jail, let alone face the death penalty. The statute alone, the threat of prosecution, would dramatically reduce abortion,” he said in a statement. “That is my goal.”

Research has consistently undercut that argument. A 2016 global study published in the medical journal the Lancet found that abortions occur just as frequently in countries with the most legal restrictions (37 per 1,000 women) as in countries with the fewest restrictions (34 per 1,000 women).

The study revealed that abortion rates had fallen significantly in the past 14 years in developed countries where laws tended to be more lax, but largely stayed the same in poorer countries with more restrictive laws. The study’s authors concluded this was likely because the countries with the most rules against abortion also tended to offer less access to modern contraception, sex education and family-planning services.

“The evidence is clear that the most effective way to reduce abortion rates is to prevent unintended pregnancies through modern contraceptives,” said Heather Boonstra, public policy director at the Guttmacher Institute.

The other key data point that has emerged from research over the years is the relationship between abortion laws and safety: In countries where abortion is most restricted, the procedure is much more dangerous for women.

In a report last year, the World Health Organization found that in countries where abortion is completely banned or permitted only to save the woman's life or health, 1 in 4 abortions was safe. By comparison, in countries where abortion is legal, nearly 9 in 10 abortions were performed safely. The WHO researchers found that 45 percent of abortions worldwide were unsafe, endangering about 25 million women each year.

Laws against abortion have additional consequences for women. In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal with no exceptions. Women found guilty of getting an abortion can face years in prison. In February, one Salvadoran woman who had spent almost 11 years in prison was freed after the Supreme Court commuted her sentence. Suicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant teenagers in that country.

In the United States and elsewhere, many conservatives say that abortion amounts to the murder of a child. In Idaho, a group called Abolish Abortion Idaho started a ballot initiative that would allow authorities to charge abortion providers and women who get abortions with first-degree murder. And a Republican state senator there tried to introduce a bill that would classify abortion as first-degree murder.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump also said that women who have abortions should be punished, a position he later reversed.

Some abortion rights advocates see the wave of increasingly harsh rhetoric and proposed bills as part of a larger effort by abortion opponents to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that underpins the legality of abortion in the country.

“Punishing women for trying to access safe, legal abortion ... has been a strategy of antiabortion politicians in Congress and in statehouses across this country for years,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “While they have been plotting to block abortion access, women have mobilized, organized and run for office to fight back against these attacks. We will continue to fight.”

Read more:

Babies with Down syndrome are put on center stage in the U.S. abortion fight

Millennials have a surprising view on later-term abortions

I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.