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Written by Dr. Antoinette Marengo, Chief Medical Officer at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest and a fellow of Physicians for Reproductive Health and lives in San Diego County. Published in the San Diego Union Tribune. 

The freedom and power to decide if and when to start a family is a basic human right, and yet abortion is not a guaranteed right for millions of Americans.

As the chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, I see firsthand the profound impact that comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, have on the lives of people and families in San Diego and everywhere. And through my experience in the Navy, I know how detrimental an environment that restricts access to reproductive health care can be.

As we pass the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that protected the legal right to abortion in the United States, we must remain committed to protecting access to reproductive and sexual health care services for all. In light of mounting attacks and threats to abortion access around the country, this year’s commemoration of the landmark case is more important than ever. The dark reality is that this quite possibly could be the last anniversary we can celebrate, as the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health could overturn or severely restrict Roe v. Wade.

Prior to coming to Planned Parenthood, I spent the bulk of my career with the United States Navy, first on active duty, then as a civilian OB-GYN. Over my decade of service, it was clear to me that not everyone could access basic reproductive health care and that restricting access to abortion was incredibly harmful to the health and lives of those seeking care.

When I entered active duty in 2004 after the completion of my residency training, I came to realize that the stigma surrounding abortion and the status of people serving in the military created numerous barriers to access to basic reproductive health care. Not only do service members face barriers in accessing contraception, but access to abortion is also restricted due to a law called the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions except in rare cases. This meant that many service members were left with very few options to access basic services like contraception, or were forced to delay care — a reality that many Americans will face if Roe v. Wade is overturned or gutted.

About a year ago, a medical colleague asked me how she could help a service member stationed overseas access an abortion. This service member couldn’t leave her duty station due to COVID-19, had no one to care for her other children, and could not find an abortion provider anywhere in her region. Due to the Hyde Amendment, she could not seek an abortion at the military hospital. Her only option was to find a way to fly back to the United States (in the middle of a pandemic), but she did not have the resources to get the care she needed and deserved. If access to abortion around the country is limited, we will see similar scenarios — patients with the means and ability to travel may be forced to flee their states to access basic critical care, and those without the means or ability to travel will be forced to carry pregnancies against their will.

Recently, the Guttmacher Institute issued a report showing the damaging effects that would occur should the U.S. Supreme Court weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade. The report shows that there would be a 2,923 percent increase in out-of-state women of reproductive age who would find their nearest clinic now located in California. At Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, we have only seen a slight uptick in out-of-state patients seeking care due to Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy and allows people across the country to sue anyone who helps someone get an abortion after six weeks in Texas — including doctors, partners, friends, family members or volunteers. However, we know this will likely increase more significantly if Roe v. Wade is overturned, as more states will restrict access to abortion.

The freedom and power to decide if and when to start a family is a basic human right, and yet nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade was decided, abortion is not a guaranteed right for millions of people across the country. Throughout my career, I have seen how much people benefit from taking charge of their lives and exercising reproductive autonomy. We know that people suffer when they cannot choose what is best for them and their life. Restricting access to abortion can make people more likely to experience debt, evictions and unemployment. Being denied an abortion can also significantly increase mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and can cause serious physical health outcomes.

We must protect everyone’s right to safe and legal abortion without interference. At the end of the day, deciding what’s best for you should be a decision made by you in consultation with your medical provider.