For some, the coronavirus pandemic has been a good excuse to get things done. Furloughed workers might finally get to clean out the attic, people working from home might be spending their commute time catching up on some reading. And for some state governors in the US, the shutdown of normal proceedings and removal of the public from state premises has proven a perfect opportunity to clamp down on abortion rights.
In June in Tennessee, lawmakers passed House Bill 2263 – commonly nicknamed a ‘heartbeat bill’ – which attempts to restrict access to abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Bill Lee, the Republican governor who submitted the bill, celebrated the news calling it ‘the strongest pro-life law in our state’s history’. The bill doesn’t even have the caveats that stringent anti-abortion laws usually provide for leniency in cases of rape and incest. And, to use an unfortunate term, it over-eggs the pudding. Not only does it state that abortions won’t be allowed past the first few weeks, it also makes it a Class C felony to provide abortions on the basis of sex, race and a prenatal diagnosis – for example, screening for something like Down syndrome.
If you believe that women should be equal to men, you must support a woman’s right to choose; it’s as simple as that
If you believe that women should be equal to men, you must support a woman’s right to control the choices she makes about her own body. It’s as simple as that – unfettered access to abortion services allows women to have the same degree of bodily autonomy as men. Without it, our bodies remain under the control of the state. The fact that the governor attempting to limit Tennessee women’s choices is a bloke is not insignificant. The excuse of a heartbeat is simply a ruse to place greater restrictions on women’s ability to make choices. Unless they’re trying to get pregnant – peeing on ovulation sticks and timing sex – it’s probable that most women won’t discover they are pregnant until after six weeks of gestation. A normal hormonal cycle can fluctuate by a number of weeks, and most women have better things to do than count and log the approximately 500 periods we might get in a lifetime.
According to regular polling, pro-choice sentiment in the US has remained high – around 61 per cent support access to abortion in all or most cases. But by including sex and race as determining factors in the prevention of abortion, Tennessee lawmakers are hoping to weaponise extreme cases. It’s quite often that you hear people agreeing that abortion should be allowed for ‘understandable’ reasons – like if the women is particularly young, if it was a mistake, if she’s unwell or has some other sympathetic issue to take on board. But if you argue that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion because she doesn’t want a girl, or can’t raise a child with a disability, or simply has decided she’s changed her mind, people tend to be less willing to agree.
In truth, if you believe in trusting women to make decisions regarding their own bodies (and pregnancies), no one needs to understand the reasoning behind a woman’s choice to have an abortion other than herself. Contrary to the belief of some lawmakers, women are complicated – we think about things and weigh up consequences just as much as men. You might think it’s immoral that a woman decides to have an abortion because she finds out that the sex is female, but you don’t have to live with the decision. Many anti-abortion activists argue that women from religious (often Muslim) backgrounds who want sex-selective abortions are being pressurised by their husbands to have boys instead of girls. Coercion in relation to all healthcare needs is illegal, but it is quite possible that the woman has decided that having a girl will negatively affect her life and her marriage.
It doesn’t matter if we think that is immoral or politically incorrect, we don’t have to live with the decision. In any case, these scenarios are rare – and are often used to promote prejudice about certain religious or ethnic groups. The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) responded to Lee’s Tennessee bill by pointing out that stereotypes often lead to AAPI patients (women with an Asian American and Pacific Islander background) ‘being singled out for special questioning based on a prejudice of them favouring sex or race-selective abortion’.
The Tennessee bill might have passed in the state – easy enough when protesters were removed from the building and the state capitol in Nashville was closed to the public because of the pandemic. But as it is unconstitutional in its attempt to limit access to abortion so excessively, it will inevitably be blocked in the courts.
There is no country in the world that will simply trust its female citizens to make safe decisions without some intervention from the state
Which raises a question: why are lawmakers wasting time inventing bills to threaten abortion rights while the US is in the middle of a public-health crisis? But this should also serve as a reminder that the fight for women’s liberation has a long way to go. In the UK, women are still unable to access abortion even up until 24 weeks without proving to two doctors that we will fall ill if not given access to services. The 1967 Abortion Act means that, by law, abortion is not legal, we merely can access it if we meet the right requirements of having ‘the right’ reasons (‘to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman’). There is no country in the world that will simply trust its female citizens to make safe decisions with their doctors, in private, about what is best for her or her family without some intervention from the state.
You don’t have to agree with a woman’s decision to have an abortion, you simply have to respect that it is her decision. In order to pose as being against discrimination, anti-abortion activists cheerlead the further restriction of women’s rights. You couldn’t make it up. If we want to live in a world where women are truly as free and equal to men, we have to call out those who seek to restrict abortion in the name of protecting girls on their bullshit.
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