This week, Alabama’s governor signed the country’s most restrictive legislation banning most abortions, without exceptions for rape or incest, and awarding sentences of up to 99 years in prison for abortion providers.
It follows a measure that Georgia’s governor signed earlier this month, effectively banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
Also known as the fetal heartbeat bill, it set the precedent for other legislative bodies to prosecute women who terminate their pregnancies after that point.
The rush of Republican-controlled states adopting similar measures continued with Missouri’s legislature approving an eight-week abortion ban on Friday, also without exceptions for rape or incest. Arkansas and Kentucky lawmakers became the latest states to restrict abortion laws. Bills seeking six-week abortion bans in Ohio, Mississippi, Utah, and Louisiana have also been passed.
Target: Roe v. Wade
Even though abortion is still legal everywhere in the US, the recent spate of legislation threatens the overarching legal protection and access to abortion granted under the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.
According to the Washington Post, “These restrictions generally are meant to provoke legal challenges that ultimately elevate the issue to the Supreme Court.”
And that is why a number of Democrats, such as Elizabeth Warren, have mounted a broad front against this onslaught, to protect women’s reproductive health by integrating Roe v. Wade’s provisions into a federal law, which will stand even if Roe v. Wade falls.
Fight back or risk going back
Needless to say, the turn towards extreme conservatism in the way states aspire to control women’s bodies has roused pro-choice activists and women all over the world.
In the US, women dressed in Handmaid’s Tale costumes are protesting outside their respective city halls, drawing a parallel to the oppressive dystopia from Atwood’s famous novel.
This also arrives at a time when Ireland, which legalised abortion after a historic referendum last year, made the procedure free for all women. In Poland, women seeking their right to terminate pregnancies are staging similar demonstrations.
Safe and legal abortions are a human right
The Alabama vote that set this in motion will go down as one of darkest moments in the women’s rights movement. The bill was drafted and signed into law by two women and debated on by 30 white men. Many still can’t wrap their heads around the fact that a shorter sentence is reserved for the rapists (who impregnates a woman) than that in store for the doctor who terminates her pregnancy.
The sweeping ban on a woman’s right to abortion in all circumstances (except fatal anomalies) has irked even extreme right-wingers, namely Fox News host Tomi Lahren, televangelist Pat Robertson, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), and other conservatives.
The bills have further underscored the double standards behind the motivation as advocates have pointed out how the rich and powerful will still be able to undergo abortions when needed, while the severest toll will be borne by working class women and women of colour.
Vocal anti-abortion Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania) resigned Thursday after it came to light that he’d asked his lover to terminate a pregnancy.
The crackdown on reproductive rights has also harkened back to the dark days of botched back-alley procedures and emphasised the need for safe and legal abortions.
Women from all walks of life have since come forward with their stories of horrific surgeries gone wrong, of what life would have been without access to safe abortions and resurfacing underground networks like JANE that ran on word of mouth and offered women the reproductive healthcare they needed before Roe v. Wade.
Many legislators and district attorneys have also revolted against the recent laws, saying they will not prosecute doctors who provide abortions. Many non-profit organisations like ACLU are fundraising to litigate the regressive measures in the Supreme Court.
Is this a strategy?
But anti-abortion rights groups are also hoping to get the top court to revisit and overturn Roe v. Wade, and that may just work in their favour because the majority of judges in the Supreme Court right now are conservative. A bench full of pro-lifers could certainly end women’s constitutional protection against being forced to carry a pregnancy and give birth against their will.
That is why it is so important that Democrats come together to solve this issue politically in Congress, rather than through a strained parsing of the Constitution by the courts. That is why it is so important to elect pro-choice leaders to both Houses, now more than ever. And birth control should be made free and more accessible to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
The moral card
Experts who have scrutinised the language of these bills say things could be worse than the pre-Roe v. Wade era. Some laws, namely Georgia’s and Louisiana’s, are worded in a way that criminalises self-induced abortion, does not exempt women from punishment if found guilty, and may even have to answer for miscarriages.
Coming to how pro-lifers justify this blatant violation of human rights, an illogical pseudo-scientific belief belies the moral angle. Georgia’s bill, for example, defines a foetus or embryo as an unborn child.
Evangelists believe abortion after the detection of what the bills call the fetal heartbeat can be equated to murder. But gynaecologists will argue that this time period is usually six weeks into pregnancy and two weeks after the missed period when most women do not yet know they are pregnant.
By expanding the legal definition of life, the bills are, thus, trying to end legalised abortion, and their supporters, without questioning the importance of the woman’s life and going ahead with this regressive line of thought, are setting a dangerous precedent.
Simply put, after decades of fighting for Roe v. Wade, American women are back where they started with their reproductive rights once again under the political spotlight.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.