What to know about abortion laws in Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories

·5 min read

The reproductive rights of Americans across the country were thrown into question with the Supreme Court's decision to dismantle the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to have an abortion. But people residing in the continental United States alone weren't the only U.S. citizens affected.

Without constitutional protection of abortion rights, the legislatures of U.S. territories are able to decide for themselves whether abortion access is guaranteed, and to what extent, unless Congress intervenes.

Here's what to know about U.S. territories' abortion rights post-Roe.

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Protest in Atlanta on June 24, 2022, against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Protest in Atlanta on June 24, 2022, against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

What are U.S. territories?

U.S. territories are "unincorporated insular areas," or areas under the United States' jurisdiction that are neither states nor federal enclaves, according to the Department of Interior.

There are 13 U.S. territories, only five of which are permanently inhabited: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Are they sovereign?

Not entirely. The Constitution says that the U.S. Congress has the authority to make laws for territories directly or to transfer that function to a legislature elected by its citizens, so long as those laws abide by the U.S. Constitution and acts of Congress.

Citizens in the inhabited territories are U.S. citizens and are able to vote in presidential primaries, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. However, they do not have representation in the Electoral College or U.S. Senate and only have nonvoting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Abortion rights in U.S. territories post-Roe

Because the laws of U.S. territories are beholden to the U.S. Constitution, the overturning of Roe v. Wade eliminated the abortion rights protections that the Constitution had provided since 1973. The territories can legislate their own abortion laws, unless Congress intervenes.

Puerto Rico

Abortion in Puerto Rico is legal if it is performed by “therapeutic prescription” by an authorized physician and protects the pregnant person’s life or health.

In 2020, Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed into law a civil code that recognizes a fetus’s “condition as a person” and says it is “considered born for all the effects that are favorable to him or her.” However, “the rights recognized to the nasciturus (unborn child) are subject to it being born alive and in no way undermine the constitutional rights of the pregnant woman to make decisions about her pregnancy,” according to the code.

Still, there are efforts among conservative politicians in Puerto Rico to limit access to the procedure. On June 21, the Senate of Puerto Rico approved a measure that bans abortion after 22 weeks unless there is risk to the pregnant person’s health or life, a fetal anomaly that would lead to unviability or a medical determination of fetal unviability.

The territory repealed a pre-Roe ban in 2011.

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U.S. Virgin Islands

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea, abortion is allowed up to and including 24 weeks after the commencement of the pregnancy and must be performed by a licensed physician. Abortions after 12 weeks must be performed in a hospital. The procedure is permitted after 24 weeks if the pregnancy will endanger the life or health of the pregnant person.

Physicians can notify the parents or legal guardian about a minor’s abortion without the minor’s consent.

Guam

Abortion is legal in Guam, in the western Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines, if it is performed up until 13 weeks by a licensed physician, or until 26 weeks if a physician determines the child would be born with a physical or mental defect or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The procedure is allowed at any point if the pregnancy would endanger the health or life of a pregnant person.

However, abortion care is restricted to physicians, and the last abortion provider in the territory retired in 2018. In 2021, a judge issued an injunction that would allow a pregnant person to receive abortion pills by videoconferencing with offshore physicians, without in-person visits.

A pregnant person must seek counseling and wait a mandatory 24 hours before obtaining an abortion. Minors must receive consent from a parent, legal guardian or judge.

Northern Mariana Islands

Abortion is prohibited in the Northern Mariana Islands, north of Guam, in Micronesia, in the Pacific Ocean,  “except as provided by law,” according to the territory’s constitution. However, there is no operating law in place regarding abortion.

A 1995 opinion from the attorney general’s office determined the right to privacy includes the right to seek an abortion.

“This qualified right to abortion must be recognized and respected by the CNMI, just as the fifty states have had to recognize and respect it for the last twenty years since Roe v. Wade became the law,” the opinion reads, referring to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The status of abortion is unclear following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. There are no abortion providers in the territory, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

American Samoa

American Samoa, in the South Pacific Ocean, prohibits abortion unless the pregnant person’s life is endangered or their physical or mental health is substantially impaired. Abortions must be performed by physicians. There are no abortion providers in the territory, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Any person who distributes or sells a drug or medicine that would terminate a pregnancy faces a Class A misdemeanor.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Puerto Rico, Guam, other U.S. territories: What are the abortion laws?