Several decades ago Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Hughes, the co-founders of MS magazine, were in a cab in New York City. They were discussing possible issues they could address at an upcoming feminist rally – should they talk about the scarcity of business and educational opportunities for women, the lack of maternity leave and affordable child care, or the humiliating reality that women needed a man’s permission to get a credit card or open a bank account? Their conversation eventually swerved into female reproductive rights at the very moment when they stopped at a red light. The taxi driver, whom neither had noticed was a woman, turned around and said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
The unvarnished truth of this statement galvanized the two women in the back seat. They realized that all other rights and freedoms pale in comparison to having autonomy over one’s body. Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it succinctly in a 1972 case she argued before the Supreme Court. She said that choosing whether or not to have a child is, “…something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity,” and, “…when the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.” Roe v. Wade, which gave American women the legal right to choose and obtain abortions, came into effect the following year.
Now, half a century later, it looks as though this landmark decision is about to be overturned. This will cede decisions about the legality of abortions to the states, 24 of which have already drafted horribly restrictive laws, and some full-out bans, which they will immediately enact when Roe falls. This means that an alarming 50% of the contiguous United States is gleefully poised to completely undermine the bodily autonomy of half of their citizens. It is an outrage beyond words, and one that surely would not even be considered were it not exclusively women’s bodies being affected.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion in the case that will overturn Roe, and in it he says that the right to abortion has no legal standing because it is not mentioned in the Constitution. The American Constitution was written 250 years ago by a group of privileged, slave-owning white men. There is no mention of abortion in the document because there is no mention of women in the document. Women did not even have the right to vote until 1920. There are a lot of other civil rights’ initiatives that are not mentioned in the Constitution, such as the recent ruling that gay people may legally marry. One has to wonder if this will be the next casualty of the right’s assault on social progress.
I’ve recently read several articles which include the term American anti-abortionists are currently using to describe embryos and foetuses – pre-born children. Words matter, and calling largely unformed lumps of cells “children” grants them personhood, thus making abortion murder. But the actual time when the entity in the womb becomes a human being is very much in dispute. Science says that a developing foetus is not a person until it becomes viable outside the uterus at approximately 24 weeks gestation, which is why many existing laws allow abortions throughout the first two trimesters. Some religious folks, however, feel that personhood begins at conception because that is evidently when God endows a two-celled, microscopic blob with a human soul. I would argue that these people are absolutely entitled to their opinion, but it should have no force in law because it is entirely dependent on faith. Religious belief should never inform legislation, for that is surely the road to theocracy and, as Winston Churchill said, “…democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”
This harping on the pre-born child also completely ignores the rights of women who, I think we can all agree, are already born and functioning in the world. What of their hopes and aspirations, not to mention their ability to contribute to the economy? And it is not just pregnant women who will suffer when Roe is quashed. Spontaneous miscarriages are extremely common – I myself had one and know several other women who did as well. What is a doctor to do if a woman who is losing her baby through no fault of her own comes to the hospital because she is bleeding excessively. (Hemorrhaging and sepsis are two common risk factors of spontaneous abortions.) If the foetus still has a heartbeat, the doctor will be legally prohibited from speeding up the process. Even if the woman is in jeopardy of bleeding out or becoming septic, in other words even if she may die, the presence of a fetal heartbeat means the doctor still may not expedite the abortion. There is a very fine line between when a patient may die, and when they definitely will die, and making that call just became infinitely harder. If someone decides that a medical professional acted prematurely, despite the fact that the foetus was going to die regardless and that such action almost certainly saved the woman’s life, then they have the right to report their concerns to authorities. At that time the doctor can be sued or, in some states, charged with murder.
Many devastating fetal anomalies, such as genetic disorders and anatomical malformations, can be detected in utero. Making women have children regardless of such concerns will force thousands of men and women to deal with the on-going heartbreak of a chronically ill child, not to mention scrambling to pay for the massively expensive healthcare services these children often require. Also, such children will be brought into a world of suffering and quite possibly die young and in considerable distress. Compelling women to bring unwanted children to term for any reason is just unkind. Many low-income couples make the decision together to abort an accidental pregnancy, thereby avoiding extra strain on their already limited finances and the stress and deprivation their entire family would have to endure were another child added to the mix. Perhaps the cruelest manifestation of abortion bans, however, is that they doubly victimize rape and incest survivors unlucky enough to have been impregnated by their abusers by forcing them to carry the result of their violation to term.
Making abortions illegal also opens up a return to the bad-old-days when women ended up sterile, or even died, from obtaining back-room procedures or attempting to miscarry on their own. In some places it is actually going to be even worse than it used to be because they are enacting laws which allow the state to charge women who try to miscarry with attempted murder if they fail, and with murder if they succeed. There are already American women who, because they used illegal drugs while pregnant, have been convicted of manslaughter after spontaneously aborting even though there is no scientific evidence that their drug use caused the miscarriage. 38 U.S. states have foetal assault laws on the books which allow for such outrageous and unjust prosecutions.
I feel it is every woman’s absolute right to decide whether she wants to have a child or not, whatever her reasons, and many smart and respected women, including Margaret Atwood, agree. I recently read her response to the latest legal assaults on women in the U.S. Her article begins with her saying that Gilead, the dystopian version of America in her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is fictional, but she fears that the Supreme Court is making it real. She says, “Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past. There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?” What indeed.