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Restricting Bodily Autonomy is Violence Against Women

By Brandon Heiblum
Published 2019-05-17

With Contributions from Sophie Hart, Juno Henderson, Sonia Bucan, and Salma Addas

“It is estimated that 6,000,000 Jewish people were murdered in German concentration camps during World War II; 3,000,000 people were executed by Joseph Stalin's regime in Soviet gulags; 2,500,000 people were murdered during the Chinese "Great Leap Forward" in 1958; 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s; and approximately 1,000,000 people were murdered during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. All of these are widely acknowledged to have been crimes against humanity. By comparison, more than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin's gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.”
-Section 2 (i) of the 2019 Alabama Human Life Protection Act.

It is incalculably difficult to articulate just how offensive it is to invoke the victims of humanity’s most evil injustices as tools to eviscerate the bodily autonomy of American women. Besides the implication that doctors who perform abortions are guilty of genocide is the logical conclusion that the United States, where abortion is legal, is guilty of crimes against humanity at a rate of three times that of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

On May 15th, the Alabama Human Life Protection Act became law, banning abortions except when they threaten the life of the mother and punishing doctors who perform them with up to 99 years in prison. The Alabama House of Representatives approved the measure in April and the Senate republican majority- without the vote of a single woman in favor- rammed the bill through earlier this week. Many of the justifications offered for the bill ostensibly referred to God and the sanctity of life. Such religious fundamentalism, however, has no place in the United States, a nation whose constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion and whose founding fathers famously cautioned against theocracy. The invocation of God and the sanctity of life is offered wholly in bad faith, withering in the face of contrary evidence; Alabama has more people on death row per capita than any other state, Alabama refuses to raise the minimum wage, which would help working families, Alabama ranks 50th in public education, and Alabama refuses to expand Medicaid, which would allow hundreds of thousands more children to access expensive healthcare. There is nothing pro-life about being anti-abortion. There is only chilling hypocrisy and imperious self-righteousness. Conservatives love to posture against “big government” and “overbearing regulation” – until it comes to a woman’s body. It is readily apparent that these white, male lawmakers would rather boast about violating the separation of church and state than admit their true, more draconian goal: the subjugation of women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy. Because a ban on abortion could literally kill women, particularly poor women and women of color, state repression of female autonomy amounts to political violence.

Alabama is not alone. States like Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and now Missouri recently passed fetal heartbeat bills that would outlaw abortion after six weeks. That threshold, of course, is only two weeks after a missed menstruation and at a time when many women don’t yet know they are pregnant. This pattern is part of a concerted multi-state assault on abortion rights happening right now, and a defining national moment. These bills are certain to face legal challenges in court, but as both supporters and opponents acknowledge, that is their very intention. Architects of the anti-abortion bills are hopeful that a Supreme Court with a now conservative majority may overturn the landmark 1973 decision Roe V. Wade, which affirmed that a women’s right to choose an abortion was constitutionally protected by the fourteenth amendment. President Trump was able to appoint conservative justices like Neil Gorsuch, whose seat was stolen from Obama-nominee Merrick Garland by Mitch McConnell, and Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed despite credible allegations of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court. Should Roe V. Wade be overturned, states across the country could constitutionally ban abortion, harming millions of women. As Rachel Benson Gold of Guttmacher Institute, an NGO focusing on reproductive health research, writes:

“Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from upwards of 1.2 million per year. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth of maternal deaths recorded in that year. Poor women and their families were disproportionately impacted. Women also had to travel long, expensive distances to obtain abortions legally. The year before the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, just over 100,000 women left their own state to obtain a legal abortion in New York City.”

The evidence is unambiguous: the criminalization of abortion endangers the lives of women, because abortions still happen in societies that prohibit them. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 women in countries that prohibit abortion and 34 per 1,000 in countries that allow abortion. Therefore, if reducing abortion was the goal, reducing unwanted pregnancy would be the best means of achieving it. Programs that increase sex education, increased access to contraceptives and birth control, and publicly funded family planning resources would do more to reduce the incidence of abortion than a ban. Pragmatically speaking, research from University of Baltimore professor Michele Gilman indicates that for every $1 invested in family planning services, the government saves $7.09. Those who espouse fiscal conservatism and complain about government spending should embrace these programs, but hypocritically choose not to. Even this reasoning, however, avoids the most important point one can make about an abortion: it is a normal, legitimate medical procedure that has existed in varying forms of legality since the first recorded abortion around 1555 BC in Egypt. While abortions are deeply emotionally taxing, and there is no reason to seek their proliferation as opposed to implementing measures that would prevent their necessity, medical procedures do not possess inherent moral qualities. Supporters of legal abortion cannot concede to conservative rhetoric that stigmatizes abortions as morally nefarious events that must be avoided as much as possible because it perpetuates that stigma. While nobody wants an abortion, those who choose to have one are making a medical decision about a reproductive healthcare procedure and should not feel ashamed- or feel the need to apologize. Those who make the decision to have an abortion do so out of necessity and desperation, a necessity and desperation that lead thousands of women to the doors of trauma. To criminalize abortion would be to instill fear and danger into women who are already making the difficult decision to terminate their pregnancy. This terrifying reality and that destabilizing fear is what the anti-abortion movement will usher in should they succeed in overturning Roe Vs Wade.

Of the many absurdities that inform Alabama’s abortion bill, one that cannot be ignored is the cruel weight of the punishment it imposes. The penalty for a doctor who provides an abortion is up to 99 years in prison. The penalty for rape in the second degree is limited to 20 years in prison. The penalty for sexual abuse or incest is less than 10 years in prison. Thus, a doctor who aborts the fetus of a raped woman could be in jail for decades longer than the woman’s rapist. What sort of message does that send to victims of sexual assault? In addition to the trauma of rape is the trauma of a government who prioritizes the product of a rape more than the victim. The laws of a society are part of a wider social contract that embodies societal priorities and ranks the severity of crimes. Decades in prison for performing an abortion is cruel, inhumane and nothing short of oppressive. Such corrosive and pervasive rot extends to the entire criminal justice system, where nonviolent and property crimes carry with them the potential to ruin lives and destroy communities.

This wave of state abortion bans reinforces a terrifying fear- that the fight for bodily autonomy is far from over. The hyper-regulation of reproductive rights and the state imposition of pregnancy is reflective of a deeper inequality and the entrenched patriarchy. In the midst of all this threat, we cannot forget intersectionality. Angela Davis centered this point in her landmark 1981 Book “Women, Race, and Class” in writing that marginalized and minority women are historically the first whose bodily autonomy is restricted. As Amnesty International further posits, “It is not only cisgender women and girls who may need access to abortion services, but also intersex people, transgender men and boys, and people with other gender identities who have the reproductive capacity to become pregnant.” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey claims that the Alabama Human Life Protection Act stands as a testament that “every life is precious,” while it institutionally devalues the lives of women and especially victims of sexual violence and structural poverty. Proponents proudly claim that the banning abortion will save lives, but their fixation on protecting life seems to end as soon as a baby is born. Instead of proactive solutions geared towards family planning and protecting the lives of children, “pro-life” activists have opted to restrict bodily autonomy and violate constitutional rights. History will not remember kindly the days when those who claimed to oppose government overreach and prioritize life instead led an assault against the most sacred right a human has: control of their own body.


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