10/18/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Binders in the Back Alley

Tuesday night's debate has again brought women's issues to the fore of the presidential race, as an audience member's question about gender inequality in the workplace drew an unusually clear line in the sand between the two candidates. President Obama emphasized his commitment to progressive legislation, and explained how the very first law he signed in office, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, helps women fight income inequality through the court system. Meanwhile, Governor Romney's "binders full of women" anecdote suggested that such policies should exist at the discretion of employers.

Behind the candidates' remarks, a central and uniquely divisive women's issue loomed unspoken. With regards to abortion, it is Romney who is proposing the radical legislation -- legislation that would turn back the clock on women's equality, health, dignity, and economic vitality.

Governor Romney's plan would eviscerate the right to abortion enjoyed by American women since 1973, barring access to abortion except in the instances of rape, incest, or a threat to the woman's life. His plan would place American women among the 25 percent of the global population facing the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, alongside women in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran. It would raise the specter of back-alley abortions, which first prompted abortion law reforms in America, and which today account for 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.

To understand exactly how extreme the Romney abortion plan is, it helps to look at it alongside the abortion law regimes around the world. Statistics published by the Center on Reproductive Rights are revealing. Right now, the U.S. is among 56 countries, containing 40% of the world's population, which do not restrict access to abortion with regard to the woman's reason for requesting the procedure. Under Romney's plan, this picture would change. Radically.

This is not to say that U.S. law does not already limit women's abortion right. In 1992, the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, set up today's current regulatory framework, referred to as a "periodic model." In the period after fetal viability, the state can restrict abortion access heavily, even banning certain procedures, as long as it leaves an exception for women's health. In the period before fetal viability, the state can also regulate abortion access so long as it does not impose an "undue burden on the woman's decision." This undue burden framework has maintained the abortion right originally declared in Roe v. Wade but also allowed it to narrow over time. As of 2011, for instance, 32 U.S. states have counseling and mandatory delay laws, 43 have parent-notice or consent laws, and 21 prohibit organizations receiving state funds from providing abortion-related counseling or referrals.

So where does the Romney-Ryan platform sit and what makes it so extreme? Romney has offered what's called an "indications model" of abortion regulation, and a narrow one at that. Most countries with indications models permit much broader rationales than Romney proposes -- 36 countries allow abortion to preserve a woman's physical health, 23 countries add preservation of mental health as an acceptable indication, and another 14 only require that women offer a socioeconomic reason. Since 1995, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, 26 countries have liberalized their abortion laws, many of them recognizing that requiring women to prove conditions like rape and threat to life is simply untenable.

In 2006, the Constitutional Court of Colombia, a strongly Catholic country, declared a replica of the Romney indications model unconstitutional. It called the lack of a health-based indication an assault to the dignity, liberty, and equality of women. Unless Romney were to change its composition, the U.S. Supreme Court would almost certainly find his plan unconstitutional as well.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court recognized that abortion access is essential not only for women's liberty and privacy, but also for their health. When countries restrict abortion access, they don't stop women from seeking them. They only lead them to perform abortions themselves or seek them out in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. A recent study in the Lancet found that highly restrictive laws of the type that Romney is proposing fail to lower the incidence of abortion. In fact, highly restrictive abortion laws are associated with the highest rates of abortion -- 32 per 1000 women of child-bearing age in Latin America as opposed to 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe. The death rate from clandestine abortions worldwide is 350 times higher than from legal abortions in the United States.

What all of these numbers amount to is a dramatic threat to the dignity and equality of American women, to their leadership in society, and to the integrity of the U.S. on the international stage. Erosion of the abortion right threatens women's health. It threatens their ability to find work, to bring home enough pay to support their families, and to play prominent roles not only in cabinet positions, but across all sectors of the economy.

What our country needs is not a return to the dangerous policies undone generations ago. We need to continue attacking systematic failures to bring more women into the workforce -- and into running the show. We need laws that promote women's dignity rather than burying us behind binder covers. Rather than forcing women into the back-alleys, the next president should begin by bringing women into the spotlight.