The Toll of Abortion Politics

Simplistic solutions to complex problems lead to human suffering.

I remember back in the 1980s when pro-choice advocates would talk about what would happen if Roe was ever overturned. One of the dominant images was that of the coathanger alongside the specter of the “back alley abortion.” I will confess that at the time it seemed perhaps a bit over the top. I know that it was certainly portrayed in right-wing media and from the pulpit as just a bunch of hyperbole.

Reality, it turns out, is far worse than the alleged hyperbole.

The AP reports: Emergency rooms refused to treat pregnant women, leaving one to miscarry in a lobby restroom.

One woman miscarried in the restroom lobby of a Texas emergency room as front desk staff refused to admit her. Another woman learned that her fetus had no heartbeat at a Florida hospital, the day after a security guard turned her away from the facility. And in North Carolina, a woman gave birth in a car after an emergency room couldn’t offer an ultrasound. The baby later died.

These are all heart-breakingly awful stories that should be unacceptable, regardless of one’s position on abortion. The notion that the legal regimes in these states have become so draconian that healthcare professionals are unable/unwilling to render proper aid is inhumane.

Pregnant patients have “become radioactive to emergency departments” in states with extreme abortion restrictions, said Sara Rosenbaum, a George Washington University health law and policy professor. 

“They are so scared of a pregnant patient, that the emergency medicine staff won’t even look. They just want these people gone,” Rosenbaum said.

This is not “protecting babies” nor is it “respecting the sanctity of life.” It isn’t incentivizing people to abstain from sexual activity that certain moral codes might object to. This is cruelty, plain and simple, and it is impossible to conceive that this is a just outcome of judicial and legislative processes.

The point of the rhetoric from the past was to underscore the potential horrors that American women would endure if abortion were made illegal. I would not at all downplay the risks that people might undertake to get an abortion if they were sufficiently desperate, which is the essence of the back alley abortion rhetoric. But I think it is worth plainly underscoring: we are repeatedly seeing women who need critical healthcare denied access because of these laws which is not the result of trying to transgress the law, but rather are the result of them seeking needed healthcare.

To be clear, I am not discounting the real harm that forcing desperate women into homemade or clandestine abortions could cause. I am just illustrating the real consequences of these laws that are manifesting in a particularly horrible and public way.

I would further note that these types of outcomes are why simplistic assertions that this situation can be solved by appealing to “state’s rights” are incorrect.

It also seems worth noting that Dobbs has not led to fewer abortions, but instead the opposite: Despite Bans, Number of Abortions in the United States Increased in 2023.

FILED UNDER: Healthcare Policy, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    The subjugation, suffering and death of women is the point of the anti-choice movement, it always has been.

  2. DeD says:

    Indeed, Prof. Taylor. The one question I always ask, and to which I never get a straightforward answer, is:

    When it comes to the issue of the availability of safe, legal abortion, what “compelling government interest” argument exists that overrides a woman’s privacy right to make an informed, physician-assisted medical decision about her health and her future well-being?

    To be clear: What political, economic, and social policies necessary for the proper function of government and society are impacted by women’s right to autonomy and privacy in this matter? How and at what point do society and the proper governance thereof break down or, at the minimum, fail to carry out its functions and commitments if women exercise their unimpeded, autonomous right to decide for themselves to become pregnant, carry the pregnancy to term, or end the pregnancy?

  3. Jen says:

    One of the dominant images was that of the coathanger alongside the specter of the “back alley abortion.” I will confess that at the time it seemed perhaps a bit over the top.

    I’m not sure why anyone would have considered this to be over the top–that(considering it hyperbole, I mean), to me at least, was wishful thinking.

    That’s what the situation was prior to Roe, in my mind of course once you take the legal options away, the illegal ones fill the gaps (especially in the 80s, which was before RU-486 was available).

    I used to think that we’d need to see a bunch of cases like Savita Halappanavar before anti-choice people would realize what they’d done and maybe rethink their position. I’m now of the opinion that we could see dozens of cases like hers every week and the “pro-life” folks would still NGAF.

    As Michael correctly notes, the subjugation of women is the point.

  4. Bill Jempty says:

    An abortion rights amendment will be on ballot in Florida this November but it will need 60% to pass. Some people blame Florida pregnant pig amendment for the 60% instead of 50%

  5. Bill Jempty says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The subjugation, suffering and death of women is the point of the anti-choice movement, it always has been.

    There are people who oppose abortion because they believe it is the taking of a life and immoral.

    My Roman Catholic Filipina wife and my in-laws are among those people. Abortion rights and gun control have been issues that have never particularly excited me. Apathy is the best description for my views.

    Be careful before you take aim at me or my wife. Due to some personal experience my wife and I have had, I have big issues with some pro-life supporters because of their hypocrisy. Also my strong views about that hypocrisy led to my getting kicked off a conservative blog 15 years ago.

  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Bill Jempty:

    So are you and your wife okay with the cruelty being visited on pregnant women as described in the OP?

  7. Kylopod says:

    @Bill Jempty: Florida is one state that seems to have resisted the Dobbs effect. It was one of the few places that enjoyed an actual red wave in 2022. Some people point to the Democratic upset in the 2023 Jacksonville mayoral race as part of the pattern of Democratic overperformance in off-year and special elections since Dobbs, but it might be more a reflection of the overall realignment in the Trump era–Biden was the first Dem to win Jacksonville since Carter, despite losing the state overall and doing worse even than Hillary.

  8. JohnMc says:

    @DeD: Speaking from family experience, God has told them. If you disagree, that’s fine. But error has no rights.

  9. DeD says:


    That’s all well and good, but has zero bearing on a secular, non-sectarian government.

  10. Tony W says:

    @Bill Jempty: If they feel that way they should absolutely not get an abortion.

    The problem here is the arrogance of imposing their feelings on others.

  11. Barry says:

    @Bill Jempty: Bill, the movement’s goals are precisely what Michael said.

    The goals of some *participants* might be different, but it’s clear that the ‘pro-life’ people are not running that show.