Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” is highlighting the essays written by the winners of Americans United’s 2022 Student Essay Contest. We had two third-place winners, and today we’re featuring the second of those. Sally Geoghegan of Wilbraham, Mass., focuses on how the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization impacts teens and shares research on the history of religious activism for abortion rights as well abortion access in Poland.
By Sally Geoghegan
At 16 years old, there are many things that I legally cannot do. I cannot drink alcohol, or work full time during the school year, or drive a car with passengers (in my home state of Connecticut). I was not old enough to vote in the elections of presidents that appointed the current Supreme Court justices, yet on June 24, 2022, they voted to decide that I, and others my age, are old enough to be forced to give birth.
This decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization struck down the precedent set by Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973. In Roe, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens of the United States have a constitutional right to abortion, as, they decided, reproductive choice falls under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. With this decision overthrown, Americans have no federally protected right to abortion, allowing states to set restrictive laws or outright ban the practice.
Another clause of the Constitution, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, decrees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe is a dangerous infringement upon American citizens’ religious and personal freedom that violates the Establishment Clause. Laws restricting or banning abortion, which the federal government now allows states to enact, violate citizens’ religious freedom. These laws favor religions that discourage or ban abortion over those that permit the practice.
In 1973, the same year that Roe v. Wade was decided, an organization of religious groups called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, or RCAR, formed. The group, now called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, involves groups from several religions, such as Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Unitarian Universalists and more. According to an article published in the Journal of Church and State by Samuel A. Mills titled “Abortion and Religious Freedom: The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) and the Pro-Choice Movement, 1973-1989, “Even those groups that endorsed specific moral guidelines with which to evaluate the abortion decision believed that public policy should refrain from embodying one particular religious view on abortion.”
While the religious leaders involved in the formation of RCAR all had different views on abortion as it related to their particular faiths, they all agreed that the government should remain neutral on the topic and allow citizens to use their own beliefs to make the decision for themselves. Restricting or banning abortion does not allow people that right and elevates certain religions over others.
Poland should serve as a case study for the effects of abortion bans on citizens. As of January 2021, abortions are only legal in Poland in cases of rape or if the pregnancy poses a risk to the life or health of the pregnant person. The vast majority of Poles are Catholic, and Catholic anti-abortion groups have major influences on government. As stated in an article for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy by Alicia Czerwinski, “The Church’s ability to influence the Polish political process demands attention, for despite Poland’s high Catholic population, the majority of Poles (sixty percent) oppose its anti-abortion law.”
Restrictions to reproductive freedom in Poland, just like those in the United States, appeal to a minority that believe their religious views on the termination of pregnancy should be enforced nationwide. The consequences are monumental: thousands of Polish women travel abroad to receive abortions, a black market for abortion pills is thriving and three patients have died because they could not receive abortions. If America does not curb its issues with the separation of church and state surrounding reproductive rights, we may face a similar situation.
In an effort to promote the religious views of those in power, state-level abortion restrictions and bans lead to public health problems. Firstly, those who are denied access to medically safe abortions are significantly likely to attempt the procedure by themselves. In a study published in Reproductive Health, “One-third (34%) of 741 participants indicated they would definitely or probably consider ending the pregnancy on their own if unable to obtain care at a facility.”
Self-induced abortions can be unsafe, especially if the patient does not have access to a combination of misoprostol and mifepristone. While these medications are safe, without the presence of a doctor, side effects such as bleeding, incomplete abortion, or hemorrhage can go untreated. The usage of certain herbs, including rue, can cause toxic reactions and is often ineffective in terminating a pregnancy. Additionally, some patients will inflict abdominal trauma on themselves in an effort to induce a miscarriage, which can cause a number of complications. If any of these methods result in complications, however, laws that restrict reproductive rights cause patients to fear contacting a doctor, as they could be prosecuted for the abortion or attempted abortion.
On a global scale, maternal mortality rates are also affected by abortion laws. In a study published in PLoS Medicine that examined 162 countries, researchers found that in nations with flexible laws regarding abortion access, fewer mothers die during childbirth. This study is further proof that reproductive rights are essential to the public health of pregnant people worldwide.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to allow states to restrict or ban abortion is a violation of religious freedom that is dangerous to the health and safety of the American people. At 16, I should not have to factor the possibility of forced birth into my future plans. I should be focused on my schoolwork and friends, not figuring out who would take care of my hypothetical child.
Even though I cannot vote, however, there are still actions I can take. The day that the decision was finalized, I attended a protest against it. At my school, the Stone Society (a gender equality group) frequently discusses what we can do to protect reproductive rights. The Supreme Court must understand that while we will adjust to this new development, we refuse to accept it.