the risk is real: anti-choice policy and personhood ammendments
A couple weeks ago marked the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This Supreme Court ruling gave women in the US the ability to have legal abortion, within limits. As many celebrate the anniversary of this landmark court case decision the religious right and political conservatives are in the middle of an assault on women’s bodies, trying to strip away our rights to and control over our health, our bodies and our families.
What seems to be misunderstood by some, particularly in my cohort and younger, is that the Roe v. Wade does not mean women have a legal right to an abortion, specifically. Roe v. Wade is a legal precedent about how to interpret the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution regarding due process and the right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. Further, because it is a Supreme Court ruling, it is long and detailed and involves a lot of language that might become challenging in the future. For example, the ruling limits abortion to embryos/ fetuses that aren’t “viable”—as technology advances the very language in Roe v. Wade could make it obsolete as a protection for women’s right to choose how to control their fertility.
the risk is real
A number of liberals I have spoken to do not acknowledge or actively combat (though maybe it is just that they can’t truly fathom), that this is a real and urgent issue. There is a true attempt to criminalize abortion and other types of fertility control. It has gone under the radar to some degree because those running for office who promote such policies (ahem…the republican presidential hopefuls) are not talking about moral issues; they are talking about job creation and the economy. They keep scrutiny off of the moral and social control they want to impose on the bodies and in the lives of women and other minorities by keeping the focus on the economy.
In a recent article, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, highlights data from the Gutmacher Institute that underscore how drastic our situation is:
“[I]n 2011, state legislatures passed more than triple the number of anti-women’s health provisions than in 2010 — the highest ever. Twenty-four states enacted 92 new abortion restrictions last year, shattering the previous record of 34 adopted in 2005.”
Women my age have always had a right to privacy with their doctor, which feels like—and has been misconstrued as—the right to be able to choose having an abortion. When I discuss abortion with pro-choice people my age, instead of the discussion being about securing this right for all women, in the long-run, conversations are often about the decisions people would make in their personal lives. But, while the personal is political, the individual may not always be. Our sights need to turn back toward the bigger picture. We need to get out of our arm chairs and put on our riot gear because our rights, our liberty, our health, our wombs, our families, and our freedom are at risk. This is a real risk and this is an urgent matter.
inequality and mother-blaming
Woman in the US are living in a culture that already disadvantages women, especially mothers. Our society does not adequately support women financially, medically, psychologically, or socially—much less pregnant women, and especially not mothers. Financially, women are at a disadvantage in this society. Women make less money for the same work as men. The price of motherhood is even greater, with mothers incurring an average 3% wage penalty per year of absence for maternity leave or childrearing.
Even so, women are also expected to be the primary caregiver. A deadbeat dad might seem crappy, but he is not the type of villain that any woman who is not a perfect mother becomes. Women who do become mothers are often held to culturally impossible standards. Among the socially advantaged, mothers who work may be vilified as abandoning their children. At the same time, if a woman chooses not to work to be more available for her children she is seen as lazy, a social welfare pariah—unless, of course, she is independently wealthy or finds a partner to support her, stays home to rear her children, and is completely fulfilled (but not overly consumed) by this role. There is really no winning. Add to that the financial, emotional, and physical burden of pregnancy and motherhood. We treat these as personal issues so that those in power can refrain from providing social or fiscal support for childbearing. At the same time, our society judges women for their choices in their personal lives should they not be perfect pregnant women or perfect mothers.
It is in this context that women are expected to want to have children, even in situations when a pregnancy is unintended, unwanted, or unhealthy. We cannot force motherhood and childbearing if as a culture we don’t adequately support children or mothers.
anti-choice goals are anti-woman (and they also happen to lead to increased abortion rates)
Anti-choice goals are particularly insulting in light of the fact criminalizing abortion does not actually save lives or reduce abortion rates—if successful it will certainly kill more women and increase abortion rates. A reduction of abortion rates and women’s safety during abortions are tied to abortion being legal and accessible and women having access to and proper knowledge of contraception. As Susan A. Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute explains, abortion rates do not decrease when abortion in criminalized—criminalizing abortion just increases the rates of unsafe abortions. Rather, it decreases when contraceptives are used:
“[I]t is not the changes in abortion’s legal status that can explain the decreased abortion rate worldwide, since many more countries liberalized access to abortion than restricted it. Significantly, though, during this same period, contraceptive use worldwide increased and unintended pregnancy rates fell. Where contraceptive use increased the most, abortion rates dropped the most… Where contraceptive use is high, abortion can be legal and widely available, and still relatively rare. The lowest abortion rates in the world can be found in western and northern Europe, where abortion has been legal for decades but access to contraception is widespread.”
The anti-choice goal of criminalizing abortion results in more abortions and many women being forced into medical, familial, economic, and interpersonal situations that can be dangerous and even deadly. Promoting abortion restrictions is laughably unstrategic from the anti-choice perspective; it is not a way to help women, zygotes or fetuses.
Pro-choice activists are not “pro-abortion.” We would rather see sexual health education, access to birth control, and other health and family planning measures made available to preempt unwanted pregnancy in cases when women have a priori control. The only thing we currently have going for us is the hope that in the new insurance plan developed under the current administration, insured women should be able to get the birth control pill. However, anti-choice advocates and many of the conservatives currently in or vying for political power would also like to see even these choices outlawed.
personhood for who?
In an attempt to control the bodies and sexual activity of women, a number of conservative politicians are now pushing for Personhood Amendments. Personhood laws grant fertilized eggs personhood. In at least 22 states personhood proponents are working on some sort of effort to put a personhood amendment up to debate. These amendments highlight how immediate and aggressive the anti-choice threat really is.
Mississippi’s failed personhood amendment reads:
“Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.”
Personhood is being defined in such a way that the personhood of women is placed second to the personhood of a zygote. This could make it illegal to even use the birth control pill. No, I’m not joking. It failed in Mississippi, one of the stronger attempts for the amendment, but it did not fail by enough to feel comforted—just over half (55%) voted against the amendment. That means almost half of all voters either supported or simply did not care if a zygote—regardless of whether it is viable or not—has more rights than a person.
Personhood amendments define woman’s bodies as tools that can be regulated, subordinate to the potential life of a fetus. Under these laws, women can be legally liable for any injury to that fetus. In a culture of misogyny and mother-blaming, this is likely to open the floodgate to the persecution and prosecution of women who miscarry. That this regressive idea is even being entertained and put on the political agenda should be ringing the alarm bells—we need to acknowledge that these are attempts at regressive sex-based laws and take the threat seriously.
Many proposed definitions of personhood identify insemination as the start of “biological life.” This could arguably make some of the safest, most effect forms of birth control illegal because the pill and other hormonal birth controls do not prevent insemination, just the implantation of an egg into the uterus walls. I suspect that this is part of the plan, at least for the more insidious among anti-choice advocates; it’s a clear attempt to chip away at sexual choice and reinscribe outdated and sexist moral codes that tie women to sexual contact only in the confines of marriage and with the expectation of motherhood. Essentially, women are being told that if they want to have sex, they should be prepared to be mothers.
Personhood is currently up for a vote in the Oklahoma Senate and some Democratic senators highlighted its absurdity and sexist nature by placing men in the same position of blame and control as women. One senator wrote a bill making the sperm contributor financially liable for the resultant child. Another, Constance Johnson, added language making masturbation and other sex acts not intended to procreate illegal. The amendment she proposed states, “[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” She says she did this because “The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families’ personal lives by policing what happens to a woman’s eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man’s sperm. My amendment seeks to draw attention to the absurdity, duplicity and lack of balance inherent in the policies of this state in regard to women.”
As previously discussed, women’s lives are saved and abortion rates decline when abortion is legal, there is access to trained abortion providers, and contraception is widely available. If personhood advocates could step away from their confused moral and religious dogmatism and sexist ideologies of control over women’s bodies and actually look at the real world data, they would need to acknowledge that the call for a personhood amendment is antithetical to their goals; particularly as it could criminalize access to contraception, the best preventative measure for unwanted pregnancy.
What pro-choice activists are fighting for is women’s right to control their own bodies, their own health and their own families. We are against a government, particularly one that is Eurocentric, male dominated, and organized and maintained by economically and socially advantaged people, having control of the bodies and choices of all women in their reproductive years. We cannot afford to wait until our rights are stripped from us and our persecution begins; we need to fight this now because it is real and it is happening.