One step forward, 10 steps back | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 26, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 26, 2019

One step forward, 10 steps back

Regressive new laws in some US states undermine reproductive rights

I was sixteen. I had been raped by a school volunteer. The foetus had caused internal bleeding and I was minutes away from dying. I was a Sophomore in high school…dying because of the choice of one man. It was either me or the foetus that was going to die anyway”, Jennifer N (@TheSaltWell) had tweeted in the wake of “the most aggressively anti-abortion law in the recent Alabama history.”

It has been a terrible year for reproductive rights in America: Alabama outlawed abortion, and Missouri has passed a bill banning abortion after eight weeks- before most women even realise they’re pregnant. In fact, women across America are contemplating the worst with the advent of Trump as president, as abortion rights opponents “seem to be moving from a longstanding strategy of chipping away at abortion rights to full-on assaults.” Alongside sparking an increase in the number of women seeking long-term birth control measures such as IUDs, the regressive new laws have also given rise to a viral social media campaign, with thousands of women sharing their abortion experiences with the hashtag #YouKnowMe. The takeaway is clear: 1 in 4 women have had abortions and women will go to any lengths to end unwanted pregnancies, which essentially undermines the “commitment” of “pro-life” advocates to decrease abortion rates.

In 1846, the Michigan Legislature passed a complete ban on abortion except for when the mother’s life is at risk, “carrying with it a punishment of felony manslaughter.” This unleashed havoc among women all over America, as activists fought to protect a woman’s right to control her body. This led to the monumental case of Roe v Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion nationwide. However, in recent times, “some fear the new laws may lead to more widespread criminalisation of miscarriages.” Jezebel reported last month: “Black women and low-income women are more likely to be arrested for these pregnancy-related charges.” This is already becoming a reality in El Salvador, where women are being convicted of homicide and sentenced to 30-plus years in prison after suffering miscarriages. If a new Supreme Court overturn Roe v Wade, “as President Donald Trump has promised and as Democrats and activists fear, the law that governs a Michigan woman’s right to choose will be more than 170 years old and one of the strictest in the country.”

Other states in the USA, including Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia have pursued “heartbeat bills”—legislation that would prohibit abortion as soon as a physician detected a foetal heartbeat and additionally, doctors are likely to face sentences of 99 years. And under the new Alabama law, there is no exemption of rape or incest: “the 11-year-old raped by her father will be sentenced to nine months pregnancy with all the health risks that entails, as well as the horror.” Dr Ted Anderson, president of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, criticised the “heartbeat bill” saying that it is largely “misleading” and “out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.” According to the Guttmatcher Institute, between 2010 and 2014, 25 million abortions were considered unsafe, putting women, in particular, women of colour and women in poorer regions, more at risk. Hence, the abortion debate ultimately comes down to women’s access to safe/unsafe abortion methods and “pro-life” legislators establishing a world mired with misogyny and control, in turn, indicating a significant regressive move in terms of women’s reproductive rights.

And it’s not just about implementing a total ban on abortion—service providers are being denied funding under the “global gag rule” instigated by Trump, which will strip them of the ability to carry out the most basic women’s healthcare, as reported by the Population Action International (PAI). It is very difficult to grasp the idea that prosecutors and juries would impose a law that forces women to carry out unwanted pregnancies and threatens to kill them if they don’t. It is indeed difficult to imagine how conservative forces and bureaucracies regularly overlook family planning and its fundamental impact on individual empowerment and national development. But prosecutors have adamantly prosecuted women in states where abortion is de facto illegal. It would be rather ignorant to “underestimate their capacity for cruelty.”

Despite this, self-induced and self-managed abortions are on the rise again. Before Roe, this was largely risky and while self-managed abortions are now relatively safe (Misoprostol and Mifepristone pills), what is significant here is that women’s autonomy are being constricted and reproductive rights are up for debate when it should not be. If outlawing abortion and even jailing women doesn’t actually decrease abortion rates, then what does? The answer is obvious: “access to affordable and reliable contraception” and a robust social safety net where women can choose whether they want to conceive or not.

Ironically though, keeping in mind that politics create “pro-life” and “pro-choice” division, history suggests that “boldly supporting a woman’s right to legal abortion is a winning strategy for Democrats on the road to the White House”, as opposed to the belief that abortion only motivates voters on the right. This was the reason behind Bush receiving only 37.5 percent of the popular vote and Obama’s whopping 7.5 million vote margin with women. The arguments put forward by “pro-life” advocates and Republican Senate candidates are indicative of how states are chipping away at issues of women rights’ injustices: “I think it’s important to remember that if a drunk driver kills a pregnant woman, they get charged twice,” said the state representative Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, according to Fox 4 News. “If you murder a pregnant woman, you get charged twice. So I’m not specifically criminalising women. What I’m doing is equalising the law.”

In other words, there is no medical basis for these restrictions and legislators do not even care for reason, or actual medical advice. We need to understand that reproductive rights’ restrictions are advocated by people who show no interest in the well-being and health of infants and children, and instead, deprive women to be able to fully participate in economic and public life in their fertile years. We need to understand that it is simply about “misogyny and control”. We need to understand how problematic the anti-abortion movement has become that the bill’s rape and incest exceptions, since removed, dominated the conversation in the Alabama Senate. Anti-abortion lawmakers remain open about their motives—to overturn Roe v Wade—especially with the Supreme Court that “seems clearly tilted in their favour.”

Beyond hoping that Roe v Wade won’t be overturned, let’s educate ourselves and those around us about the political debates over abortion pills. There are 214 million women in the developing world who don’t want to conceive right now, but don’t have access to family planning. Let us enforce how political and cultural discrimination is not a thing of the past for women—I mean, we’re still arguing over birth control in the US, let’s not get ahead of ourselves by talking about how good women have it. A dangerous and cynical populism from the pro-Brexit and Trump campaigns is on the rise, but don’t let abortion rights wane from consciousness as these severe laws become America’s new normal.


Zaha Chowdhury pursued Bachelor of Social Sciences in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester, UK.

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