10/01/2010 02:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's at Stake in the Elections: Just Ask Women in Guanajuato

Thanks to a series of media reports over the past few months, Americans have been learning about the grave situation facing women in Guanajuato, Mexico, where women are jailed if they are suspected of having had an abortion.

Just a few hours from Mexico City, the state of Guanajuato is an international travel destination with a modern industrial economy, and a beautiful and historic capital that has become a thriving urban center. But scratch beneath the surface and you will find that women have not been allowed to share in Guanajuato's progress.

In early September, eight women who had been jailed in Guanajuato for "homicide by way of family" -- in other words, allegedly having had abortions -- were finally released after pressure from the media and the United Nations. One was Yolanda Martínez, a 25-year-old woman who had been in prison for nearly seven years. All eight women insist they had miscarriages or experienced stillbirths. Some say they had been forced to sign confessions, and, while they have been set free, they still have not been absolved, leaving them stigmatized and under suspicion in their own community.

In the aftermath of the release of these women, the New York Times reported the case of a young woman who was bleeding as she arrived at a hospital in Guanajuato. Before doctors would care for her, the authorities were summoned to interrogate her about her sexual history. Immediately after surgery she was forced to make a statement, and she is still being investigated for possible criminal action.

Cases like these are not limited to Guanajuato. Across Mexico, women are being investigated, accused and jailed, even for the suspicion of terminating a pregnancy. Moreover, pregnant women with bleeding or other symptoms are now terrified to go to hospitals, lest they be accused of attempted "murder."

This chilling news from Mexico comes at an interesting moment, just five short weeks before a national election in the United States. For this year, even "mainstream" Republican candidates are running on a platform to overturn Roe and make abortion illegal in the United States. In other words, they want to inject a bit of Guanajuato into American life. They want to return to a time when women were forced to carry pregnancies to term, regardless of the circumstances, even in cases of rape and incest.

I wonder if the candidates from California to Delaware who are running on this platform to make abortion illegal have thought about how we would enforce this new policy. Would local police need to work in concert with doctors and nurses in the nation's emergency rooms to identify any woman claiming to have had a miscarriage -- so that she could be investigated? Would we need to put women with problem pregnancies under special scrutiny? Would we require OB/GYNs to register women who had unintended or unwanted pregnancies, in case they tried to break the law by terminating their pregnancy?

We know that before Roe, nearly 17 percent of deaths related to pregnancy were from abortion, and since Roe, instances of women dying as a result of illegal abortion have all but vanished. In fact, the statistics bear out that countries with the most restrictions on abortion have the highest rates of both abortion and maternal deaths. Making abortion illegal doesn't do anything to stop it; it simply ensures that women are forced to seek unsafe abortions.

Rather than make abortion illegal, why not make it much less necessary? When women have access to health care, education, and affordable birth control, they have fewer unintended pregnancies and therefore fewer abortions. In the U.S., with birth control pills still costing as much as $50 a month, all women don't have easy access. Sex education is still wildly inconsistent across the country, and we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth of any developed nation. If candidates really want to truly solve the problem of unintended pregnancies, they must commit to making sex education and birth control more available, not making it impossible to terminate a pregnancy or prosecuting women, nurses, and doctors.

But it's a particularly bitter election year, and too many candidates are running on dangerous platforms. What we need are real solutions to the nation's very real problems, including our high rate of unintended pregnancy. As the 2010 election season gathers steam, conservative candidates across the nation are making abortion a core issue of their campaigns.

It's time to ask these candidates who want to overturn Roe just exactly what they would like to see happen once they make abortion illegal again in America. It is time for these candidates to explain how we would police our emergency rooms, and how much jail time women and doctors should serve. In Guanajuato, it seems that 25 years is the standard. American women and all who love liberty want to know just what our anti-Roe candidates and elected officials have in mind.

Cecile Richards is president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, PPFA's advocacy and political arm.