On Thursday, I moved through my busy day at a remove. Being occupied was best. At every other moment of my day, I felt two things racing through my body. Fear and anger.
Most of the women I know felt the same way that day. We had been sucker-punched by news of the passing in Alabama of the ‘Human Life Protection Act’. This is the most severe and hateful piece of anti-abortion legislation to come out of the US, but it is by no means the only piece. A slew of bills from Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi, broadly known as ‘heartbeat bills’ have recently been signed into law.
These bills are seeking to ban abortion from the moment a foetal heartbeat can be detected. In Alabama, this means banning abortion after six weeks of gestation. At six weeks, many women (particularly those with endometriosis, or polycystic ovaries) may not even realise they are pregnant.
There are many anomalies and inconsistencies with the Alabama abortion ban. The first is in its definition of a foetus. For these Republicans, the idea of conception and life is inextricably linked with the placement of embryos within a woman’s body. Republican Senator Clyde Chambliss has claimed that ‘when God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.’ By contrast, if a fertilised egg is not inside a woman’s body – for instance, if it is being stored for use in IVF treatments – then it does not count as a life.
Neither do live children. As Jill Filipovic writes
the same states that are most aggressively outlawing abortion – Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi – have some of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. Alabama’s rate is on par with that of Sri Lanka and Albania. Maternal mortality rates in those states are also predictably, and horrifyingly, high. Where abortion laws are the strictest, women’s health is the worst.
Worse still, Alabama lawmakers are responsible for some of the worst statistics for children’s health in the entire US. In a clear-sighted article, Ashley Reese points out, that in Alabama
more than a quarter of children live in poverty; 30 percent of those children are under the age of five’ and that ‘More children are living in poverty in Alabama now than they were almost 20 years ago, and the state has the fifth highest child poverty rate in the country.
Moreover, Alabama is only one of five states in the US without maternity or family leave.
One of the most notable features of the abortion ban is that it provides no exceptions for rape or incest, and defines abortion as ‘the use or prescription of any instrument, medicine, drug, or any other substance or device with the intent to terminate the pregnancy of a woman.’ Another one is that it does not criminalise women, but rather their doctors. A doctor who performs an abortion in Alabama can face up to ninety-nine years in prison.
The abortion ban is aimed not just at the women of Alabama, but also at over-turning the Roe v Wade ruling of 1973. Its attempt to grant personhood to the foetus means that the embryo – which at six weeks is the size of a lentil – is given rights equal to the woman who is carrying it. (Someone on social media asked if that meant pregnant women might get two votes.)
There are several major problems with this notion, of course. Firstly, a six-weeks old foetus cannot survive outside the womb. Foetuses only achieve a chance of survival greater than 90% after twenty-seven weeks of gestation. Until then, they are wholly dependent on the mother’s body for their survival.
There are also myriad things that can go wrong at any stage of a pregnancy, so a foetus may have a heartbeat at week six but not at week eleven. One in five women miscarry during pregnancy any time before twenty weeks. According to the Stillbirth Centre of Research Excellence, ‘One in every 137 women who reach 20 weeks’ gestation will have a stillborn child.’ For women who are Indigenous, or come from other disadvantaged groups, the risk of stillbirth is doubled.
The causes of miscarriage and stillbirth are still largely unknown. For women who want to keep their pregnancies, losing one is traumatic. To criminalise miscarriage and stillbirth is beyond cruel. As Molly Osberg notes, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has studied cases in which women have been arrested for pregnancy-related charges and have found that ‘Black women and low-income women are more likely to be arrested for these pregnancy-related charges.’ The executive director of the NAPW, Lynn Paltrow states that the ‘The point of prohibition – with alcohol, with drugs, with abortion – is to give the government more power to control certain groups of people.’
This ban is a bitter pill for women. Especially those in the US, but also those of us here in Australia. On Saturday, Australia re-elected the right-wing Liberal Party into government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was photographed in religious ecstasy in the Pentecostal Horizon Church over Easter this year, is devout in his faith. He has characterised his election victory as ‘a miracle’ and ended his election speech with the phrase, ‘God Bless Australia.’ It is a reminder to be vigilant in the times ahead. This election has brought home the fact that women have only been granted limited permission to be out in the world, that the gains of first- and second-wave feminism can be diminished by twenty-five raised hands in a room. That our rights are not tied to our personhood but are decided by those who have power. That these men can snuff out our lives, just like that.
Image: Reproductive Health Services centre in Montgomery, Alabama, photographed by Robin Marty