The feminist movement has been active for over a half century now, and yet I notice that there are still an alarming number of girls and women who are treated horribly by the men in their lives. Rape continues to be a common occurrence. According to data gathered by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, rape is the only violent crime in Canada which is increasing, 92% of those who report sexual assault to police are female, and over 70% of victims know their attacker. A U.N. committee on the status of women put out a report in 2015 raising concerns about the escalation of cyber misogyny and so-called revenge porn, which is when aggrieved men post intimate pictures of their former partners on social media as a way to publicly disgrace and humiliate them. The report was largely ignored, and instances of cyber harassment, threats, and shaming directed at girls and women continue to soar. Domestic abuse is another perennial problem, and there has been a sharp uptick in such incidents since the pandemic began.
While the fate of women in the personal arena has not improved, I am encouraged by the increased presence of female participants in the public sphere. There are growing numbers of women with leadership roles in government, the judiciary, and most especially, in medicine and medical research. Sexual harassment on the job is reportedly down, I think largely thanks to #METOO, and the gap between male and female salaries for equal work is incrementally shrinking. Women are producing and directing more independent films, taking advantage of the hole left by the dissolution of Harvey Weinstein’s company, and they are creating more and more shows featuring well rounded female characters to meet the ever-increasing need for content on streaming platforms. It is partly because of all these visible gains that I was so very alarmed and disheartened by the enactment of SB 8, more familiarly known as The Heartbeat Bill, which was passed by the Texas legislature on September 1st and then upheld a week later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
SB 8 allows citizens, as long as they do not work in government or a prosecutor’s office, to sue anyone they suspect of aiding and abetting a woman in obtaining an abortion after an electrical pulse has been detected in the womb, which usually occurs at about six weeks pregnant. Anyone but the woman seeking the procedure can be sued – the friend who recommended the clinic, the Uber driver who got her there, and of course any and all medical staff involved. Courts are directed to award successful plaintiffs in such cases a minimum of $10,000, while losing defendants must pay this fine along with their accuser’s legal fees. In other words, SB 8 effectively bans abortions by pitting Texans against one another while conveniently keeping the state out of the mix. The wording of this bill scares off people from helping women wanting or needing to terminate their pregnancies, while simultaneously eliminating the possibility of getting the law overturned in court. No governmental or judicial body brings charges under the bill, leaving its opponents with no entity to sue.
I learned of the existence of this bill when a friend posted about it on Facebook, and I immediately went on YouTube to see Texas governor Greg Abbott making the announcement. The bill effectively bans abortions after six weeks, even when the pregnancy was caused by incest or rape. When a reporter asked Abbott how he can justify a law which makes raped women carry an unwanted child to term, the governor said he will , “…make sure we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them…” An unbidden and furious, “Oh, fuck off!” flew out of my mouth in response to this fatuous response. Never in the history of the world has any government or society been able to eliminate rape. Never! Also, Texas currently has approximately 5,600 untested rape kits in storage, so saying that getting rid of rapists is a priority is demonstrably untrue. Most importantly, imprisoning all rapists in the future, were it even possible, is no help to the woman who has already been impregnated by one. The government is still forcing her to have that child.
There are so many problems with the arbitrary six-week legal abortion limit established in this bill that it is hard to know where to begin. The “heartbeat” that is mentioned is actually a simple electrical pulse which bears absolutely no resemblance to a heart in either form or function; it does not have valves, chambers, or aortas, nor does it pump blood. This charge is so faint in its early stages that it is often impossible to detect unless the ultrasound machine and the technician running it are absolutely top notch. There are many health care facilities which simply can’t afford either of these. There are also countless women who have very irregular periods, so they wouldn’t even know to check if they are pregnant until after the window for legal termination had closed.
I garnered this information from a very enlightening video posted by a Texas OB/GYN named Dr. Danielle Jones. Dr. Jones has a YouTube channel on which she explains and answers viewer questions about menses and female reproductive health. She begins the video I watched by saying that SB 8 is full of misconceptions about how pregnancy works, making it imminently clear that no medical professionals were involved in its drafting. Most of her concerns about the bill have to do with her patients’ health, but she also worries about being sued for simply doing her job. The bill only allows abortions if there is no fetal heartbeat, or if it is absolutely clear that the mother will die if the pregnancy continues. Dr. Jones makes the point that the demarcation between the time when a mother might die and the time when she definitely will is never clear, which leaves medical staff in a terrible quandary.
There are any number of complications which can put a pregnant woman’s life at risk, but let’s say she goes septic. The doctor tells the patient’s husband that this could well kill her if the pregnancy continues, but he doesn’t believe his wife is in enough jeopardy to merit an abortion. The situation gets worse over the coming days until the doctor finally decides to terminate the pregnancy, thus saving the woman’s life. The husband can then say to the doctor, “Clearly the abortion was not necessary because my wife lived. Now I am going to sue you for $10,000.” The doctor can never irrefutably prove that the woman would have died without the procedure, and therefore under this new law could be made to pay the fine as well as any legal costs incurred by the husband. Ireland had a similarly draconian abortion law which was changed after a young woman who was septic died, along with her fetus, because the doctors were afraid of legal repercussions should they intervene. Dr. Jones expects similar scenarios and loss of life to play out all over Texas because of SB 8.
Many women suffer symptoms during pregnancy which, while not necessarily life threatening, are debilitating. Hyperemesis Gravidarum, or HG, is like morning sickness on steroids. Women suffering from HG are constantly nauseous and regularly throw up, making it pretty hard to be productive at work. Women with extreme HG vomit all through the day and night, sometimes for hours on end, and unlike morning sickness which usually abates after the first trimester, HG lasts for the whole nine months. This much vomiting can quickly lead to dehydration and malnutrition which can kill both mother and fetus if sufferers are not given intravenous electrolytes, fluids, and sustenance. The comedian Amy Schumer had severe HG, and documented her pregnancy in a 3-part HBO docuseries called “Expecting Amy.” Luckily Schumer is rich enough that she didn’t have to work with this horrifying condition, although she does take a few meetings and guests on a podcast through the course of the series. She has a waste basket beside her on all of these occasions, and has to stop often to throw up. Schumer mentions just before she goes in for a C-section in the final episode that she received almost 100 IVs over the course of her pregnancy. Now imagine a woman who has to go to work every day just to cover her bills, and you’ll see how having HG would make pregnancy for that woman impossible. Not only can she not take that much time off, she also almost certainly can’t afford the many hospital visits and IVs that she would need to keep herself and her baby alive. Abortions for women like this are no longer an option in Texas.
SB 8 makes no exceptions for fetal anomalies – gestational problems which sentence the child to a short and/or painful life, or to needing full-time care, or in extreme cases, to imminent death upon delivery. Amniotic fluid levels are regulated by the fetus’s kidneys, and too little of this fluid for extended periods can cause abnormal or incomplete development of the lungs which is called pulmonary hypoplasia. Babies with this condition suffocate immediately after they are born. Ultrasounds during pregnancy can tell parents if their child’s kidneys are not developing properly, affording them the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not to abort. Dr. Jones has dealt with many parents in this situation. Some decide to continue because they need to hold their child in their arms, to say hello and goodbye to it, and to experience the closure of a burial and of grieving with family and friends. Others choose to terminate the pregnancy because they feel the psychological stress of carrying such a child to term would be too great, or that it would be inhumane to put their newborn through the pain of suffocation. SB 8 takes that decision out of the parents’ hands.
Dr. Jones also makes the extremely salient point that banning abortions affords embryos and fetuses a greater right to life than anyone else in society. Suppose there is a person who will shortly die if they do not get a kidney transplant, and I am the only match. No one, and especially not the state, can make me undergo the operation. Banning abortion forces women to take heightened, and sometimes fatal, medical risks while also saddling them with the lifelong responsibility of parenthood, or the heartbreak and guilt which often follow having to adopt out a child you carried for nine months. Donating an organ, on the other hand, is an extremely safe procedure, the negative effects of which usually last only as long as the healing process. Yet despite this enormous disparity in dangers and costs, and even though a human life lies in the balance in both cases, I can still simply refuse to be a donor. The state says my right to bodily autonomy outweighs the ill patient’s right to life. Harvesting my organs when I die could well save several lives, but even then the government protects my right to make decisions about my own body, otherwise ticking the organ donor box on one’s driver’s license would be compulsory. Corpses in Texas are afforded more bodily autonomy than pregnant women, and SB 8 gives embryos and fetuses a legislated right to life greater than that afforded to anyone else.
Texas is an enormous state with very few abortion facilities. Dr. Jones says that most women in the state have to drive between five and eight hours to get to a clinic, and since the procedure has a 24-hour waiting period, women seeking abortions have to be able to take two days off work while securing a viable means of transportation to and from the facility. Texan women could visit a clinic in another state if they wanted an abortion after six weeks, but again that would necessitate them having a car or being able to afford public transportation, as well as having permission to take even more time off work. Dr. Jones makes it clear that women in her socio-economic group, herself included, could work around SB 8 by going out of state. Poor women and many women of colour who live from paycheque to paycheque have neither the transportation nor financial means to exercise this option, and thus will be disproportionately affected by this bill. Those who can least afford to have children are the very ones being forced by the state to do so.
All of which leads to the question of what will happen to these children once they are here? Has Texas put extra child services and supports in place to help these unwanted children thrive after they are born? Have they opened more orphanages or enhanced the child tax credit? Have they done anything to ensure that these kids will have decent lives and be afforded every opportunity to succeed as they grow? The short answer is no, of course they haven’t. I once read a quote from a Catholic nun who has spent her entire working life in a church orphanage. She simply said, “These people are not pro-life, they are pro-birth.” Preach, Sister! It breaks my heart to think of the hardships so many of these children are going to face.
The Texas legislature passed an unlicensed gun carry law the same day they passed SB 8. This new law makes it legal for Texas residents 21 and older to open carry guns regardless of whether they have a license or any firearms training. Adults can now walk with impunity into any mall or church or school with a loaded gun on their belt. The American Law Library reports that between police, judicial, and medical costs, gun violence costs the state of Texas some $16.6 billion dollars annually, and that on average it experiences over 3,353 gun-related deaths per year. Greg Abbott and his cronies repeatedly claimed that they needed to pass SB 8 to save lives, and yet that very same day they made it infinitely easier for Texans to kill each other. Either the Texas legislature believes that the lives of the unborn are indeed more important than any others, or they passed both these laws as a calculated ploy to shore up support from their base. I would bet almost anything that the latter explanation is the true one.
Dr. Jones was born and raised in small town Texas, and firmly believed for all of her formative years that abortion was murder. After spending over a decade as a practicing OB/GYN, however, she now believes that abortion is neutral. She says, “It’s not good, and it’s not bad. Abortion just is. It just is. It just IS.” Roe v. Wade affords American women the legal right to terminate their pregnancies. SB 8, and other state mandates of the same ilk, make an end run around that right, and thus inevitably produce the same tragic outcome – women start dying from botched back-room or self-administered abortions. No law has or can stop the practice because, “Abortion just is.” I have heard supporters of bills like SB 8 say that all they want to do is save the lives of the unborn, and that the fact that only girls and women are put in harm’s way by such legislation is simply coincidental. I find this claim extremely hard to believe. As Gloria Steinem once famously said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Abortion rights are a feminist issue. Canadian women should be alarmed, or at least aware, of the ever-advancing war on female reproductive rights and bodily autonomy spreading like a cancer throughout the U.S. right now. Not only do we share an enormous border with them, but we also consume massive amounts of American culture through their media. We need to stay vigilant to ensure their repressive and regressive polices do not creep up across the 49th parallel.