TW: Abortion, mentions of rape, incest, infant abandonment
Let me start by being honest with you all here: this article is not the article I wanted to write. Instead of publishing the article I had written for this week, (it was going to be a nice rant on the lack of true female representation in horror films, apologies) I instead felt compelled to write this. And honestly, I still can’t believe it myself – in fact, had anyone told me that, in 2019, I’d be writing about new draconian laws concerning the regulation and control of women’s bodies, I’d probably have laughed.
But, it’s 2019, and the world has ceased to make sense. Donald Trump is president, British politicians leap like rats off the collapsing ship of Brexit negotiations, and so perhaps it is no surprise that amidst all this dystopian nightmare fuel, women’s bodies are once again being subjected to intense scrutiny, judgement and political censorship.
In a disturbing move reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale come to life, May 15th, 2019 saw an Alabama bill signed into law, which could criminalise almost all abortions in the state. Though access to legal abortion is enshrined within the U.S. Constitution, the pending amendments to Alabaman law would see felony charges brought against physicians who administer or attempt to administer the procedure. The sentences range from fines to 99 years in prison (defined in would-be law with the disturbing term ‘committing abortion’, rendering the process akin to murder or criminal activity).
The proposed law would make convicted felons of doctors performing the procedure and would make no exception in cases of rape or incest, nor regarding pregnant individuals who may be unable to live independently or make their own decisions. The proposed law is, in short, a blatant and inhuman attempt to prioritise the rights of an unborn, potentially undeveloped foetus over those of a living, breathing human being, by virtue of the latter’s sex.
Certainly, many have been quick to point out the irony of the self-termed ‘pro-life’ legislation lasting just up until birth, the beginning of life itself, before its momentum rapidly peters out. The ‘pro-life’ sentiment behind the bill therefore appears to last as long as gestation only, with no legislation offering maintenance and support of the life of the foetus post-birth.
Indeed, should the foetus be female, it must be noted that it has enjoyed a greater degree of bodily autonomy and legal protection before birth than after. A demonstration of the patriarchal nature of the legislative systems, in which the safety, mental health, and ultimately, survival of women is consistently placed as secondary to those of men.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, in a world ergonomically designed for men. From medical trials to car-crash dummies, the prioritisation of male wellbeing persists in multiple corners of our society. And yet this latest legislative attempt still feels personal, as the bill is a blatant attack on our most basic human right, of bodily autonomy.
As multiple real-life examples have shown, legislative prohibition towards contraception and abortion achieves nothing so much as increased maternal mortality rates (thanks to unsafe back-alley abortions) except perhaps a vast increase in rates of infant abandonment. We know as fact that criminalising abortion and limiting access to contraceptives does little to prevent either. Instead we see an increase of costly travel to neighbouring and more liberal regions, a spike in the illegal smuggling of contraceptives – by those with the financial resources to risk it – and a turn to unsafe alternatives, for those without.
A world in which women who are unable to procure a safe medical procedure are forced to turn to life-threatening surgeries, or the trauma of infantile abandonment, seems nothing like a world we ought to be striving towards and everything like a terrifying dystopian nightmare. Yet, incredibly, Alabama is not alone in its pursuit: nearly 30 states have sought to introduce some degree of control over abortion laws in the last few months, with Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi and Georgia seeking a similar degree of restriction within the first trimester of pregnancy.
On Friday the 1st of May, Iowa approved the so-called ‘heartbeat bill’, a bill which seeks to prevent terminations after six weeks’ gestation. It is immediately apparent that either ignorance or a wilful misinterpretation of fact is a key driving force behind support for the movements. Indeed, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said in a public written statement on the bill: ‘If death is determined when a heart stops beating, then doesn't a beating heart indicate life? For me, it is immoral to stop an innocent beating heart.’
This ostensibly moral and emotive statement, and the name of the bill itself, have both been publicly reproved by medical professionals for their factual inaccuracy, implying as they do the existence of a viable heartbeat in a six-week embryo, which is medically incorrect. The activity of the embryonic tubular heart is actually unconnected to a circulatory system at six weeks post-conception.
This intentional misrepresentation of the truth to garner support is truly reprehensible. But is it as reprehensible as the underlying message: that a beating heart inside a six-week-old embryo surpasses the life of the woman housing it? That regardless of the circumstances around the pregnancy, the paternal ir/responsibility, one’s financial situation, one’s mental health, and – crucially – one’s choice for one’s own life, women have an obligation to continue with an unwanted pregnancy?
In continuing to legislate against female bodily autonomy, lawmakers demonstrate their absolute disdain for the safety and security of women’s lives. Even those policymakers who are themselves women, like Governor Reynolds, appear not to realise the risk they pose to themselves, let alone millions of others. Women who do not even realise the pregnancy before the proposed cut-off date of six weeks (and many would not); those without the financial resources to adhere to a six-week time limit; women who have been raped, who are non-communicative, non-binary or non-conforming, and countless other women are at risk. Under this bill, men will remain legally free of responsibility. It will be those forced to suffer the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy who will have to bear the consequences.
It seems that, in the uproar, all pretence has been stripped away. Despite the importance of moving towards equality of the sexes, justice and tolerance, in Alabama, women’s bodies remain a battlefield, in which women themselves are expected to remain silent bystanders. Whether or not the bill succeeds, in many ways the damage here has already been done – a sad legacy for the ‘land of the free’.
'Cia Risbridger is a freelance writer based in Manchester UK, mainly fuelled by bad yoga and coffee'.