Restrictive Abortion Laws Aren’t Pro-Life. They’re Anti-Women.
By Kaz Weida and Dr. Melissa Bird
The past few weeks have dealt crushing blows to women’s reproductive rights as state legislatures have competed to see which red state could produce the most draconian legislation aimed at dismantling access to abortion. More than a dozen states so far in 2019 have attempted to pass laws that restrict abortion services and cripple an ever-dwindling number of clinics that provide reproductive healthcare for women.
Alabama’s law, HB 314, which passed the Senate last night and was signed into law today by Governor Kay Ivey, bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy. It’s been framed as the strictest abortion law because it does not include exceptions for rape or incest and punishes abortion doctors with a 99-year prison sentence. In fact, doctors who perform an abortion in Alabama in the case of rape or incest would face a longer prison sentence than the actual rapist.
Several other states have also passed so-called “heartbeat bills” similar to the one Governor Brian Kemp signed into law in Georgia earlier this month that ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected and punishes women who receive an abortion with prison time. These bills are essentially backdoor abortion bans since a heartbeat can be detected at 6 weeks, just two weeks after a woman would have missed her period, and long before many would know they were pregnant.
While this assault on women’s reproductive rights isn’t new, the aggressiveness of the bills that have passed in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio have women across America asking if Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaiden’s Tale” is about to become reality. It’s looking less and less like dystopian fiction and increasingly painting a picture of what may happen to women when lines between politics and religion blur, slowly eroding bodily autonomy and choice. This campaign to force women into unsafe back-alley abortions will cost thousands of lives and leaves the precedent of Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for more than forty-five years, hanging in the balance.
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The Struggle for Reproductive Rights
It’s important to remember that the Roe v. Wade decision didn’t just happen suddenly. It was the culmination of decades of activism, civil rights movements, and changing social norms. In fact, when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the seven judges that voted in favor of it were nominated by Republican presidents. It is critical for us to remember that just a few years earlier, in 1965, the court finally decided married women could use birth control without their husband’s consent in Griswold v. Connecticut.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
There have been setbacks along the way, but if you are younger than 45, abortion has been safe and legal your entire lifetime. The understanding of a world without legal abortion and access to birth control isn’t something that we can comprehend because many women who are currently of reproductive age have never lived it.
Well, affluent white women anyway. For women of color and poor women, access isn’t just the struggle to get to a clinic or having a “choice” in their state. It is about reproductive justice, a framework created by black women in 1994, to address issues of racial, economic, and social inequality. When we look at the current legislation being enacted, we must remember that women of color, the disabled, and those on the lower rungs in terms of socio-economic status will always face greater barriers to access in a system that’s rigged against them.
Republicans are doubling down in the war on women
The GOP’s war on women has accelerated under an increasingly conservative Supreme Court and appears poised to chip away at the precedent of Roe v. Wade. For decades, Republicans have made it their business to hold back progressive policies on a myriad of issues that disproportionately affect women from healthcare to the wage gap. Even on issues like domestic violence, where surely we could reach some sort of bipartisan consensus, conservatives have been eerily silent. When Congress tried to renew the Violence Against Women Act last year, there wasn’t a single GOP co-sponsor.
While the current Republican Party seems incredibly hostile to women, it wasn’t always this way. Republicans worked with Susan B. Anthony to introduce the amendment that would give women the right to vote and were the first party to make women’s rights part of their platform. The first woman elected to Congress was a Republican, as was the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
But with a pivot to the Southern Strategy decades ago, the GOP seems to have embraced a side of misogyny along with their racism. Today we find this administration undermining Title IX on college campuses and loosening reporting requirements for sexual assault. While the GOP is mired in efforts to defund Planned Parenthood at every turn, Trump has reinstated the global gag rule and tried to change HHS internal policy to reflect that life begins at conception. The Grand Old Republican Party isn’t just obstructing the progress of reproductive justice. They’re actually rolling back precedents that have provided bodily autonomy to women for decades. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 304 policies were introduced in the first quarter of 2019 that limit or ban a woman’s ability to receive a safe, legal abortion.
The question, however, is why. These extremist abortion bills are deeply unpopular with everyone outside of the religious right, which makes up an enthusiastic but ever-shrinking portion of the Republican base. Only 21 percent of Americans want stricter abortion laws and a recent poll in Georgia found a larger plurality of voters don’t support the heartbeat bill either, by a margin of 49 percent to 44 percent. It seems like political suicide to pass these sorts of highly-controversial, religiously-ideological laws ahead of an incredibly important Senate and Presidential campaign in 2020.
The answer is both simple and obvious. Thanks to master obstructionist and grim reaper Mitch McConnell, the balance of SCOTUS has fundamentally changed with the nomination of the accused sexual assaulter, “I love beer” Brett Kavanaugh.
The Kavanaugh laws
All of these bills racing their way towards the lower federal courts, where they’ll probably be ruled unconstitutional, are designed with one aim in mind—to directly challenge Roe v. Wade and force the Supreme Court to take up the issue. A few years ago it would have been unfathomable that something as well-established as Roe v. Wade could be overturned, but the landscape of today’s court has been slowly shifting towards the religious right for years.
Many activists and experts, who fear Brett Kavanaugh is merely the nail in the coffin for women’s reproductive rights, were sounding the alarm last year. Despite his claims that he would not overturn the precedent of Roe v. Wade, Brett’s judicial history and professional communication over the years tells a very different story. He dissented in Garza v Hagan, objecting to allowing a 17-year-old migrant in government custody to obtain an abortion. Emails turned over during the course of his nomination process indicate Kavanaugh coached other judicial nominees to hide their pro-life stance by couching their testimony in vaguely worded answers.
And it’s not just Brett Kavanaugh. Gorusch has his own history of denying women’s reproductive rights, and the other conservative justices are likely to back him up. The wild card here is Chief Justice Roberts, who has come down in support and in dissent on both sides of this debate. He dissented in a 2016 decision striking down admitting privileges and helped granted a stay in a Louisiana case to allow the abortion clinics to file their Supreme Court appeal. Without his support, however, Roe v. Wade seems precariously positioned and is certain to be toppled by multiple challenges in the coming years, probably through a slow and slippery erosion of women’s reproductive rights.
While it’s unlikely any of these extreme abortion laws will be taken up immediately by SCOTUS, there are some other legislative measures like the one pending in Lousiana that may end up on the docket in 2021. It’s obvious that the religious right has seen the same writing on the wall and it’s fueling this full-scale, take-no-prisoners attack on women that will surely result in the deaths of thousands of mothers, daughters, and sisters as casualties of the GOP’s misogynistic rage and misplaced religious righteousness.
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Restricting abortion isn’t pro-life. It’s anti-women.
Restricting access to abortion may be framed by religious extremists as a respect for life, but in reality, it’s quite the opposite. Let’s not forget that women in Ohio, Georgia, and Alabama live in rural America. For women in these areas access to reproductive health services can substantially improve public health outcomes, and lessen their reliance on public assistance. Women in rural areas experience some of the greatest barriers to contraceptive care because of several factors, including lack of access to contraceptive coverage and lack of health centers that can meet their needs. Lack of contraception leads to unintended pregnancy, which for 25% of the population leads to abortion.
Women must navigate religious and familial stigma about contraception and abortion, which means for many they must make decisions about reproductive health in secret. If lawmakers in these states were really concerned about the health and welfare of their most vulnerable constituents (ie. babies), they would be taking steps to ensure that women throughout their states, but especially rural women, had access to family planning options that prevent the need for abortion in the first place. But as you’ve guessed, this pro-life movement isn’t really pro-life. It’s about controlling women’s bodies and harnessing their reproductive power.
The failure to support even minimal exceptions for victims of rape and incest clearly outlines the Republican priorities at work. This isn’t about politics. It’s religious extremism that teeters on the edge of something akin to Sharia law. Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican and sponsor of the bill that passed the Alabama Senate, defended the omission of exceptions for victims of rape and incest with the following.
“When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.”
We see this trope play out in the media a thousand times a day. Public health agencies, organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, and gynecologists have been saying this publicly and to their patients for a number of years. The bottom line is that helping women in rural America, particularly poor women and women of color, isn’t a priority for our legislators. This is really about policies that reflect the idea that womanhood is synonymous with motherhood. Through this lens, women become less than human. They are simply vessels, “host bodies” for the privileged. These policies force women to remain pregnant as a reminder of where they stand in society. The Republican position is clear—a woman has no autonomy over her own body. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb.
The GOP has once again underestimated women’s rage
The same factor that drove the blue wave that swept up a majority of seats in midterms in the wake of the Kavanaugh nomination will also rear its head in 2020. Women’s rage. Frustration at being long denied equal rights, equal pay, and autonomy over our own bodies, women have been the force behind resistance to the Trump administration and they are ushering in a new generation of fierce activists. This assault on reproductive rights will not go unanswered.
You can see us already gathering the outraged and the vulnerable, building coalitions, strategizing and planning how to dismantle the GOP machine of bigotry and misogyny that threatens our very lives. America may have elected a sexual predator to the highest office in the land and put one on the Supreme Court, but we will no longer be silenced. Taking back this country for ourselves and our children is the work of a lifetime. One we were born for. As Margaret Atwood said, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Want to get in the fight to secure reproductive rights for women?
Here’s where to start:
The Yellowhammer Fund helps women in Alabama overcome barriers to abortion. https://yellowhammerfund.org/
The Women in Need Fund helps women in Georgia.
Women Have Options helps women in Ohio
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