John Oliver Examines the Real-World Effects of Restrictive Abortion Laws

John Oliver
John Oliver detailed the measures conservative lawmakers have taken to restrict abortion access on Sunday night's episode of "Last Week Tonight." HBO/YouTube

Abortion is legal in the United States. It has been since Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court in 1973. But as John Oliver pointed out Sunday night on Last Week Tonight, conservative lawmakers are winning the war against abortion by imposing restrictions so severe that it has become nearly impossible for some women to access clinics.

In 1991, the Supreme Court case Casey v. Planned Parenthood gave states the power to restrict abortion as long as they didn't create an "undue burden" that places "a substantial article in the path of a woman seeking an abortion." As you may have guessed, states have stretched the meaning of "undue burden" to the bounds of reason and beyond.

For starters, Oliver cites an Associated Press report that since 2010, new state laws have contributed to the closure of around 70 abortion clinics. In 2013, Texas passed a law requiring clinics to have the same building standards as outpatient surgical centers—such as 8-foot-wide hallways—and for abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, which the American Medical Association has said there is "simply no medical reason" to institute as a requirement.

Elsewhere, doctors are forced to essentially scare potential abortion patients by reciting a list of side effects that are no different from the effects of carrying a child to term. In Alabama, where a doctor did everything the state said he needed to do to open a legal clinic, a new law was proposed stating that a clinic could not stand within 2,000 feet of a school, which his did. The list of restrictions goes on, and all under the guise of "protecting women's health."

For a real-world example of how damaging these laws can be, Oliver played a clip from Dawn Porter's documentary Trapped in which the director of Whole Woman's Health in San Antonio details a rape victim's futile struggle to receive care. Earlier in the segment, Oliver cited a Gallup poll from May 2015 that found that only 19 percent of Americas feel abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

In order to see her I need to put her to sleep, and in order to do that I need a nurse anesthetist. Because of this crazy law, it is impossible to find people to work for us.... She is 13 years old, and she is a victim of rape. She drove four hours from McAllen to San Antonio, and we had to turn her away. There was nothing I could do to save her. So if she has a procedure, and that "if" is huge, she'll have to go all the way to New Mexico, and pay $5,000, and get there, and spend three days. It will never happen. We know it won't.

As Oliver says, "Abortion can't just be theoretically legal, it has to be literally accessible." The laws restricting Whole Woman's Health will come before the Supreme Court on March 2. We'll see if the court decides it feels the same way.