What would happen if abortion was banned in the U.S.?


Americans have spent the past 45 years fighting over whether abortion should be legal. I spent the past 10 years trying to figure out how it matters.

I traveled to Chile and El Salvador to see what happens when abortion is banned. I learned that, even when abortion is illegal, it remains commonplace and the law against it is rarely enforced. My journey also helped me understand how misguided our battle over abortion has become.

What happens when abortion is illegal? In 2008, Chile had the world’s strictest law against abortion: it was a crime in all cases, without exception. Knowing what happened in the United States before abortion was legalized, I expected to find hospitals overflowing with women dying from having tried to induce an abortion on their own. Once there, nothing looked as I’d expected. As one of the doctors I met explained, “Abortion is a non-issue in Chile. You can buy abortion drugs on the street any time you like.”

The most widely available abortion drug, misoprostol or cytotec, is used in treating a range of other ailments, and can be found throughout the world. Although it’s only part of the formulation of the more effective abortion drug used in the US, taken alone in the first trimester misoprostol causes a miscarriage in 90% of cases. Unless the bleeding is severe, there’s no need to see a doctor. It’s safe; fewer Chilean women die from illegal abortions now than they did 50 years ago, before the abortion ban.

Type “cytotec” and “Santiago” into Google and you’ll see how easy it is to buy. In Brazil, where abortion is illegal in all but the most extreme cases, there are between 500,000 and 1 million illegal abortions each year. Approxoimately half of them are induced using abortion drugs.

Because of its clandestine nature, it is hard to enforce abortion laws. Abortion drugs have increased the challenge: unless they confess, there’s no easy way to tell whether a woman has had a naturally occurring miscarriage—which happens in approximately 25% of all pregnancies—or a drug-induced one.

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