What happens to the women denied access to abortion? What does it mean to be “too late” to get an abortion? What contributes to a woman ending up at the clinic “too late”? 

The New York Times Magazine article What Happens to Women Who Are Denied Abortions? delves into these and other questions. The article describes a study by a University of California at San Francisco researcher that looks into what happens to women who are turned away from clinics that perform abortions (the “turnaways”), often because they arrive at the clinic “too late” or because they cannot afford the procedure. The study aims to fill a missing piece of current research: what is the impact of not being able to have an abortion on a woman’s physical and mental health and her financial situation? 

The study responds in a way to the hollow claim made by the Supreme Court majority in the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart case. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that one of the “reasons” (yes, there’s a need for those scare quotes) for upholding the abortion ban at issue in that case was: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.” (Citations omitted.) 

Translation: Although we have no evidence for it, we can assume that women regret having abortions so that’s enough reason to ban them. Besides the fact that the Court admittedly cited no data to support this claim (hint: none exists), no thought was given to the impact on women who want to but don’t (read: can’t) get abortions. 

The study described in The Times Magazine article does just this. It confirms the reality that a turned-away woman generally has worse health and financial outcomes than a woman who was able to have an abortion when she wanted it. The study also shows that most women who carry their pregnancies to term instead of having a wanted abortion bond with their children. In addition, it demonstrates (as others have) just how unfounded Justice Kennedy’s claim is: “post-abortion syndrome” is the myth we know it to be. To summarize, as a bioethicist quoted in The Times Magazine article says: “It’s wonderfully functional for women who have children to be glad they have them and for women who did not have children to enjoy the opportunities that afforded them.” 

The article also raises questions about what are the obstacles to accessing abortion that make some women “too late” or result in women seeking abortions becoming “turnaways”.  

Federal and state legislators are trying to move up the definition of “too late.” Congressman Trent Franks has introduced legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks; in other words, to make all women who seek abortions have 20 weeks “too late.” Legislators in Arkansas passed a law making women who sought abortions after 12 weeks “too late.” Not to be outdone, North Dakota legislators passed a law making 6 weeks “too late.” That’s before most women even know they are pregnant. And, personhood laws, like ones floated in Oklahoma and Virginia, that ban abortion from the moment fertilization will in effect make all women in those states “turnaways.” 

Each of these laws, of course, is clearly unconstitutional. And, considering these laws in light of this study forcefully demonstrates their practical impact: women will be unable to get abortions and will likely be unhealthier and poorer for it. 

Other barriers that contribute to making women “turnaways” are piling up around the country. Laws that make it harder for women to pay for abortions — like federal bans on public coverage of abortion services (like the Hyde Amendment) and state bans on private insurance covering abortions — delay women being able to get abortions because it often takes time for women to collect the money to cover the cost of the procedure, along with any travel. TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) laws that aim to — and often do — shut down clinics, also create more turnaways. For some women, the shuttered clinic may have been the only place they could have received an abortion. Others may have the option of going to another clinic, but that may mean travelling tens or hundreds of miles away, which means more money, more travel and — ever diminishing time. 

The bans and the barriers must stop. It’s not too late.