2019 has been marked by a notable renewal of the pro-life movement’s assault on abortion, as many state legislatures push forward anti-choice bills such as fetal heartbeat laws. Though nothing new, as the pro-life movement has made a career out of trampling on the rights of women across the U.S. through the propagation of TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, these specific laws have a uniquely malicious purpose: in addition to being cruel and insensitive, they are simply a vehicle for the pro-life movement to transport their ideologically corrupt policy to the Supreme Court, carrying them one step closer to the final goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Fetal heartbeat laws aim to criminalize abortion starting when a doctor can first detect the fetus’s heartbeat, which usually occurs at about six weeks. For most women, this is before they even realize they are pregnant. These heartbeat laws are a blatant violation of the constitutional right to abortion up until the point of viability developed in the 1973 Roe ruling, which has been reaffirmed in subsequent rulings. Some states have also enacted “informed consent” laws, some of which are fetal heartbeat bills, that force the women to listen to a heartbeat if detected, or to view the ultrasound monitor, all of which work to force women to reconsider their decision of abortion.
Though reprehensible enough already, the point of these laws are not solely to constrain the right to choice in one specific way. These bills are introduced with an aim to be taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where conservatives now hold a solid majority, in the hopes that the justices will overturn Roe v. Wade, or significantly decimate the law. Many states also have trigger laws in place, designed to ban abortion completely should Roe be overturned, leaving women with few or no options to safely and legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
There is no need to hypothesize about what happens when a country criminalizes abortion, as we have numerous examples to look to globally, as well as evidence from the pre-Roe era of abortion rights in America. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “at least 8% of maternal deaths worldwide are from unsafe abortion,” and “at least 22,800 women die each year from complications of unsafe abortion.” Another study found that before Roe was passed, between 250 and 8,000 American women died from illegal abortions per year. In countries where abortion is either fully illegal or constrained, women resort to all sorts of dangerous alternatives such as rat poison; knitting needles and various sharp object pushed into the cervix; and blunt force trauma to the abdomen, often in the form of throwing themselves down stairs or having another person punch them repeatedly. Is this the culture of life conservatives claim to represent? As journalist Jennifer Wright writes, “It’s not hard to see what a pro-life world looks like. It looks like a world with a lot of dead women in it.”
If so-called pro-life people are truly interested in promoting a culture of life, instead of forcing their personal religious beliefs upon others they should be advocating for a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system. America has the highest maternal mortality rate of the developed world, disproportionately impacting poor women and black and brown women. Pro-life proponents should be in the streets demanding a welfare system which uplifts each and every person in this country, instead of allowing so many to live in squalid conditions, barely existing and never truly living; a sacrifice of the health and well-being of many citizens on the altar of unbridled capitalism, and a mistaken equation of merit and luck. They should be pressing for comprehensive sex-education and unencumbered access to a variety of contraceptive methods free of charge, as it logically follows that people will rarely need to consider abortion if they have the resources to prevent pregnancy in the first place. Instead of practical measures to reduce unplanned pregnancies and to protect the health of mothers, neonates and children, they focus their efforts on proselytizing, and on hindering a person’s right to bodily autonomy and equality of being. This semblance of care is fickle, unjust, disingenuous and extremely dangerous when wielded by politicians pandering for votes.
Interestingly enough, two of the main tenets of the Republican Party are individual liberty and personal freedom, both of which are suspiciously absent from the discussion of abortion rights. Merriam-Webster defines individual liberty as “the liberty of those persons who are free from external restraint in the exercise of those rights which are considered to be outside the province of a government to control,” and for Republicans, “Big Government” typically represents the threat of government intervention in the personal realm. Is anything more personal than the choices one makes surrounding one’s body? Yet in the case of abortion, suddenly talk of government overreach disappears, and the government interfering in the private decisions of women is acceptable. Personal freedom has allowed for individuals to make choices about their lives, but apparently this right does not extend to women who reasonably would hope to control their own bodies. Though not surprising, this contradiction between articulated values and actual results is most notable when we see the Republican Party’s refusal to grant women the same legal rights as men.
Simply put, a woman cannot be considered equal to a man if he is granted full bodily autonomy when she herself is not. Denying personal freedom to half of the population creates an inherently unequal society. As right-wing politicians further embrace the pro-life movement, promoting and passing dangerous legislation, more women will suffer, more women will be hospitalized, and more women will die seeking abortions. When criminalized, abortion does not suddenly disappear; instead, it is performed underground, making an otherwise ordinary and safe procedure potentially fatal.
Though the fate of abortion rights in America is perilous, it is unconstructive to lose hope, or to become complacent about the Republican war on women. Instead, we must mobilize against these threats, realizing that basic human rights are on the line. Though the Guttmacher Institute generally focuses on infringement upon bodily autonomy, they also report on the protections certain states are enacting. As a glimmer of hope in an otherwise alarming time, Guttmacher notes “In 2018, state policies enacted to support reproductive health far outweighed the number of restrictions,” articulating that there is good news when we look hard enough. But we should use this hope to reinvigorate our support of a woman’s right to choose abortion. For as Ilyse Hogue, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, writes, “The actions of the modern-day GOP lay bare its truth: it is engaged in a coherent, consistent and intentional strategy aimed at the ultimate goal of criminalizing abortion and punishing women. And if the collateral damage happens to be the actual lives, health and well-being of women and families, so be it.” What is at stake here is not an abstract principle, or a bit of legalese: it is the equality of women and the protection of their rights to bodily autonomy and life choices, which when denied result in real human suffering. Our continued vocal support in safeguarding and expanding women’s equality is crucial at this time, and abortion rights are a part of this struggle.