Medill Newsmakers: 3 local professionals explain legal, medical, environmental impacts of overturning Roe v. Wade

Abortion Rights Rally Chicago
Pro-choice advocates rally for abortion rights in Chicago's Federal Plaza after hearing of the Supreme Court draft decision to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. (Chantel Ropp/Medill)

By Chantel Ropp
Medill Reports

With the recent leak of a Supreme Court draft decision detailing the potential overturn of Roe vs. Wade, abortion rights and access are being challenged across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, “58% of U.S. women of reproductive age — or 40 million — live in trigger law states that are “hostile” to abortion.” Three local professionals — an attorney, a health care practitioner and an environmentalist — share how reversing this 1973 landmark decision will impact Americans legally, medically and environmentally.

Video Transcript: 

Chantel Ropp: Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. I’m your host Chantel Ropp. Today we’ll be discussing a timely topic: abortion rights and access. Just weeks ago, a Supreme Court draft decision was leaked detailing the potential overturn of Roe vs. Wade. This 1973 landmark decision protects a pregnant person’s right to an abortion without government restriction. Overturning it would give this authority over to states, and many are not happy about it. Some states, in fact, have already been successful in passing pro-life legislation outlawing the procedure. Oklahoma, for example, enacted the country’s strictest abortion ban to date in May of 2022.  The bill prohibits abortions from fertilization and allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps women terminate their pregnancies. Although Chicago politicians have vowed to maintain access, this may not be the case for 18 states across the country that have trigger laws to ban abortions if Roe is overturned. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, “58% of U.S. women of reproductive age — or 40 million — live in trigger law states that are “hostile” to abortion. I spoke with three professionals on the issue – a lawyer, a health care practitioner and an environmentalist – each of whom shared how restricting access to abortions will impact their fields. First up is practicing attorney and President of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women Gina Rozman-Wendle. Take a look. 


Ropp: Could you explain how and why the Supreme Court is able to possibly overturn Roe v. Wade?


Gina Rozman-Wendle: The right to an abortion is not specifically enumerated or written Constitution. And that should not stop us from recognizing it as a fundamental right because the decision of Roe, it didn’t create a legal right to abortion. It just simply noted that inherent in the Constitution is the concept of privacy. And you can see that written out in many different places in the Constitution. The 14th Amendment, particularly where it talks about due process, and the Ninth Amendment also discusses that. But basically, the concept of privacy is when you read between the lines of the Constitution. There’s an inherent right to autonomy over your personal liberty and decisions. And so that exists independent of the Roe decision. However, Roe is one of a long line of cases that come from the idea of substantive due process. It was first outlined in the case Griswold v. Connecticut, where that was the case that legalized contraception. So in my personal viewpoint, these things are legal because we have the inherent right to them. But the government needs to step in to strike down laws that seek to infringe upon that right. And so when it comes to Roe right now — ever since Roe has been the law of the land, so to speak, in 1973 — what Roe actually does is protect us from states or localities or other regulations — laws, rules, etc. — that are designed to inhibit or stop you from being able to access your abortion as part of your own legal right to autonomy. And so without Roe that turns it back to every state can make that decision for itself as to whether or not they want to ban abortion. And then you will need to find a new avenue within the law to indicate why abortion is something that is a protected part of your inherent right to personal liberty. And so basically what will happen is without Roe being a federal nationwide protection from those kinds of laws, each law would have to be individually challenged upon application to people and women who are looking to get abortion. And there are a lot of laws and states across the country that had been on the books since before Roe that were never taken off the books but were unenforceable because of Roe. But those laws that ban abortion won’t have anything stopping their enforcement once Roe is gone. So the effect itself depends on the state that you happen to be in. And that is very frightening for people who are in states that already are banning abortion, have these old laws on the books or have taken steps in recent times to put these laws on the books hoping that they would be able to enforce them and looking to this post-Roe future that they’ve been planning for a long time.


Ropp: So you actually kind of answered my next question, which I think you were talking about trigger laws. What exactly are they?


Rozman-Wendle: There are some laws that, like I said — the plan that I was talking about before that were on the books before Roe v. Wade was passed — where they are not being enforced because it is obvious that they’ll be immediately challenged. And you know, they’re considered nullified by this national legal holding that says that you can’t have laws that infringe abortion rights. And then there are newer laws that have not been challenged yet or are in the process of being challenged based on our current understanding of the legal framework for abortion rights, that when, if Roe is fully overturned, that they would be in effect at that point. There’ll be nothing stopping a state from enforcing them. And that would mean that immediately you’re in a number of circumstances. If you’re, an example, so we know about the Texas laws that are going down right now. SB8 was the ban on abortion after six weeks. And that’s already in effect because the court didn’t stop it from coming into effect. There are laws that basically once Roe falls will automatically come into effect where if you are a woman who you’re in a state that has on the books, let’s say, a six-week or an eight-week ban, and you find out, you’re pregnant, and then you’re early on in your pregnancy, you’re not exactly sure how pregnant you are, if you’re nine weeks pregnant and you haven’t decided whether or not you want to have an abortion yet and you are in a state with an eight-week ban, Roe overturned means that you can’t access an abortion in your state at that time, like the day before you could get an abortion. And then the next day, you can’t get an abortion. You’d have to travel to a state where abortion is still legal and protected in order to be able to access that same care that you were considered legally entitled to just the day before. So that is, that’s a dramatic and actual effect that can happen. It’s already in Texas, when that six-week ban been into effect and the court didn’t stop it from going into effect. Yeah, it literally is a trigger wall-like nightmare scenario. This is the actual legal effect of what will happen if that law is overturned.


Ropp: Next I spoke with registered nurse and Vice President of National Nurses United Chicago Martese Chism. She delved into the importance of abortion access from a health care perspective, and what the impacts of restricting it could mean for health care workers like herself.


Ropp: How would the overturning of Roe v. Wade impact health care workers like yourself?


Martese Chism: Abortion is not going to stop. What’s going to end is safe abortion. So we probably, you know like our mother/baby unit, you know OB-GYN floor, I expect to see our census increase because, you know, from complications even with abortions now, with the services we provide, still there are still complications. When a person has an abortion, we have to watch them like an hour or so afterwards to make sure you know that they don’t pass out because they, you know, blood loss. So we have to monitor them after the procedure. So in these back alleys and stuff, there’s probably gonna be a quick job. They’re gonna end up going home, passing out and dying. So we’re gonna see an increase, and that’s a concern. We already have a staffing shortage. And that’s why wee’re fighting for Medicare for All and patient ratios. But this, this is definitely going to increase our ratios in OB-GYN.


Ropp: Can you just explain why having access to abortions that are performed by medical professionals like yourself — as opposed to illegally or unsafely in back alleys like you talked about — is critical? Why is that critical to have access to safe abortions?


Chism: Safe abortions, it’s like I explained: After you have a procedure like that, you have to be monitored at least an hour. You have to be monitored. And that’s what we do in the clinics. We monitor them. And not only do you know, like an abortion clinic, not only do you have to be monitored, they also require that you bring somebody too, you know, to drive with you. Because a lot of people pass out, you know, they’ll feel. So like I said, we’re gonna see deaths from the back alleys, and then we’re gonna see death from a lot of the pregnant women too because a lot don’t get medical treatment, you know, prenatal care. That’s what leads to infant mortality. So a lot of the women, they’re probably uninsured and then now we’re forcing them to carry the baby with no insurance in the South. And then to delivery. So it’s just gonna be bad. Whatever our numbers that we have now, it’s gonna double.


Ropp: With a better understanding of the legal and medical ramifications surrounding the overturn of Roe v. Wade, I then spoke with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Chakena Perry. She helped explain the negative impacts of a potential Roe reversal on the environment. 


Ropp: I saw you speak at the abortion rights rally. And you talked about the connection between abortion access, water reclamation and environmental impact. Can you just talk a bit more about that? What is the connection between all of those three?


Chakena Perry: I think that when we talk about climate justice and reproductive justice, the two groups of communities that are disproportionately impacted the most are Black and brown communities, and women. So when we’re talking from a climate perspective, communities of color are harmed by environmental degradation more than any other community. So that’s whether living in highly industrialized areas that are close to factories, close to metal shredding facilities, toxic wastelands, whatever, all the way to just air pollution in general or exposure to lead, communities of color bear the burden of that more often than not. And then when we look at the reproductive health movement and then the justice that we’re seeking around there, to be able to like threaten to take away access to abortions, access to reproductive health care, also falls disproportionately on communities of color and women. And so just being able to see those two separately and seeing the people that are harmed the most by it, but then looking at it intersectionally and seeing that some of the same communities who have high levels of air pollution and exposure to different environmental harms, also negatively affect the birth outcomes of the children that they want to bear. So just really having women or anyone who is hoping to have a child, just having those different conversations about does it make sense for me to bring the child into this  living environment where we don’t have access to clean air? Or we don’t have access to clean water? And what will that look like for their life trajectory? So looking at those two things interchangeably. But also seeing that the amount of people who are uninsured in America, like don’t have access to health care. And so you’re fighting two fights here. You know, having health issues from an environmental standpoint, but also having health issues from a reproductive health standpoint. But not having access to insurance to actually take care of yourself is also another issue to just think about.


Ropp: What is the connection, when there’s not access to abortion, on the environment and women having to travel across states to access abortions?


Perry: So we often talk about Illinois being the safe haven, this island in the Midwest. And surrounding states around us that if this is overturned, Illinois will be the only state for miles on end that women and folks seeking abortion can actually take advantage of. And so the fact that you have to travel thousands of miles by car and spend who knows how much money on last-minute flights to get them where that’s contributing to carbon emissions in a lot of ways as well. So you can’t say, “Hey, reduce carbon emissions in the environment.” But not see how having to travel hundreds of thousands of miles so you’ll get access to something like health care, reproductive health care, doesn’t negatively impact the environment too.


Ropp: Thanks to our guests for joining us to discuss the legal, medical and environmental impacts of the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade in the near future. I’m Chantel Ropp for this week’s episode of Medill Newsmakers. See you next time.


Chantel Ropp is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChantelRopp and Instagram at @ChantelRopp.