Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) releasing a statement earlier this year articulating that, “services related to reproductive health are considered to be part of essential services during the COVID-19 outbreak,” legislators in some US states have been making relentless efforts to declare abortion services as non-essential during the pandemic. Lawmakers in Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Iowa are having to contest extensive lawsuits in connection with the issue.
On March 23, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked all licensed health care professionals and facilities, including abortion providers, to comply with the executive order issued by Governor Greg Abbott that stated that all surgeries and procedures that are not medically necessary to correct a serious condition or preserve life will be postponed. Thus, all procedural abortions in the state of Texas were banned amid the COVID-19 outbreak to conserve medical resources. After a union of abortion-rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, sued the state of Texas over this temporary yet extremely restrictive measure, the bans were partially lifted, with abortions resuming again at the end of April.
Global Pandemic Exposes Gender Inequality
According to Marie Stopes International, the suspension of services could lead to anywhere between 1.2 million and 2.7 million unsafe abortions during the pandemic across the 37 countries where the charity operates. A large part of these will occur in the United States, owing to a lack of safe abortion facilities. Thus, the uproar caused by the US restrictions has breathed new life into the standoff between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, an argument the relevance of which has not diminished with time.
May 15, 2019, was a decisive and divisive date for women in the United States, particularly in the state of Alabama, which saw the passing of the Alabama Human Life Protection Act. Under this law, women who undergo an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy can be held criminally culpable or civilly liable for homicide. The act bears only two exceptions: if the fetus has a lethal anomaly or if the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life. Since the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, this is the first time abortion is being criminalized in the US. The passing of the act has triggered a domino effect, opening the availability of abortion up for debate in several states. In Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana and Missouri, blanket bans on abortion have been passed.
Of the 27 Republicans in the Alabama Senate, 25 of those who voted the act through were white men. As Nahanni Fontaine, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Canada, tweeted, “These 25 men, who will never be pregnant, just legislated more rights to rapists than to women, girls & victims of rape/incest.”
Hundreds of pro-choice demonstrators marched to the Alabama Capitol to protest the bill, with slogans like “My Body, My Choice!” and “Vote Them Out!” Then-Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg vocalized their opposition to the passage of the act. Celebrities like Jameela Jamil, Ashley Judd, Amber Tamblyn and Busy Philipps talked about their own abortion stories as an act of protest. Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Sophie Turner and Emma Watson have also spoken out against the bans. Even Tomi Lahren, a conservative commentator, has voiced her opinion against the ban, calling it “too restrictive.” The postulate that “Men shouldn’t be making laws about women’s bodies” flooded the internet.
On the other side of the argument, pro-life supporters think that the 6-week-old embryo is a living being and that aborting it is murder — even in the cases of incest and rape. Often, religion is used to justify such ideology. The main argument that pro-lifers bring to the table is that because at six weeks of gestation the fetus inside its mother’s womb has a heartbeat, it must be recognized as a human being.
In 2015, 89% of all abortions in the United States happened during the first trimester, prior to week 13 of gestation. During this period of time, the fertilized zygote is generally attached to the wall of the mother’s uterus through the placenta. At this stage, the embryo is incapable of surviving independently from its mother. Hence, the embryo — which becomes a fetus at seven weeks gestation — cannot be considered an entity in itself.
Pro-life advocates go on to say that adoption is an alternative to abortion and also highlight the fact that abortions may result in medical complications later in life. However, more than 60% of children in foster care spend two to five years, and 20% spend five or more years, in the system before being adopted. Some never do. This can lead to issues like a greater vulnerability to depression, obesity and anxiety. Furthermore, new research shows that only about 6% of children passing out of foster care have actually finished college and less than half are employed at the age of 23.
When it comes to the safety of abortions, a study by the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health shows that major complications in abortion procedures are rare, occurring in less than a quarter of 1% of procedures, which is safer than having a wisdom tooth removed. Abortions performed in a clinical environment are safe. However, that is precisely what these acts are denying women.
In the case of incest or rape, pro-life advocates are vocal about punishing the perpetrator. However, Republican Congressman Steve King has defended the blanket bans by saying, “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled out anyone who was a product of rape or incest?” He went on to ask: “Would there be any population of the world left if we did that? Considering all the wars and all the rapes and pillages that happened throughout all these different nations, I know that I can’t say that I was not a part of a product of that.” The fact that the birth of a child is a physical burden carried out by women, not men, is glaringly absent from this line of thought.
What legislators seem to be impervious to is that rapists continue to walk free while women are made to carry their children. Nearly 3 million, or 2.4% of American women, experience rape-related pregnancy in their lifetime. However, for every 1,000 sexual assaults that take place in America, 995 perpetrators walk free. According to a CNN investigation, 25 law enforcement agencies in 14 states were found to be destroying rape kits in cases that could still go to trial.
The American justice system is currently incapable of delivering justice to women. No minor — like the 11-year-old rape victim from Ohio — must be forced to carry her rapist’s child to term. Moreover, in cases of incest-related rape, the child born out of the union can suffer various mental and physical deficiencies. Children born to close relatives often suffer from being more prone to recessive genetic diseases, reduced fertility, heart defects, cleft palates, fluctuating asymmetry and loss of immune system function.
Conservatives insist that women must be responsible enough to use contraception and not use abortion as an alternative. A Gallup poll shows that at least 78% of all American adults who are opposed to abortion are also pro-birth control. However, between 2011 and 2013, 43% of adolescent females and 57% of adolescent males in the US did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.
There is a lack of sex education at the primary and high school levels, and women are expected to be aware of contraceptives in a system that doesn’t teach preventive measures in the first place. Moreover, in 2014, 51% of abortion patients were using a contraceptive method in the month they became pregnant, and this goes to prove that contraception does not always stop conception, especially in cases where people are ill-informed about its use.
A Nightmare for Women
The deeper one looks into the issue, the clearer it becomes that pro-life advocates are not really saving lives. They are more simply anti-women. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act states that if a woman does undergo an abortion, the doctor carrying out the procedure could go to jail for up to 99 years — a class-A felony charge.
The ban will disproportionately affect racial minorities. For example, some 36% of abortions are performed on African American women, who make up just 13% of the population. In Georgia, while African Americans constitute 32.2% of the population, they account for 62.4% of all abortions. Policymakers are conscious of this.
The bill also fails to address the crucial question of who will provide the basic necessities that a child needs to survive. In the US, the average cost of raising a child up to the age of 18, excluding college education, is $233,610. However, 49% of all abortion patients in the United States of America live below the poverty line, with an annual income of less than $11,770. Childbirth costs for many uninsured Americans can easily extend to over $30,000.
Furthermore, in 2017, a total of 194,377 children were born to women aged between 15 and 19 — a rate of 18.8 per 1,000 women in this age group, a record low. The states of Mississippi and Louisiana, where attempts have been made to criminalize abortion, rank among the first six states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates. The expenses of having an unplanned child become insurmountable for many of these women.
But making abortions illegal will not stop them from taking place. In 2017, over 6,000 abortions were provided in Alabama. This is despite the fact that the number of abortion clinics had been reduced to just five and that some people had to drive hundreds of miles to get to one. In the state of Georgia, 27,453 abortions were carried out in 2017, 8,706 in Louisiana, 20,893 in Ohio, 3,903 in Missouri and 2,594 in Mississippi. It is unrealistic to suggest that all these women will decide to keep the baby just because of the change in the law.
Baby Lives Matter
The only change Alabama’s new law will bring about is in the methods women will use to secure an abortion. In countries where abortion is already criminalized, non-clinical and illegal abortions still cause about 8 to 11% of all maternal deaths. America may soon be no different. Women may be forced to seek help online, where they receive suggestions such as injecting themselves with unknown drugs, falling down the stairs and other horrific solutions.
As the Alabama abortion laws remain blocked by a federal judge, Americans are shadowed by uncertainty with respect to their right to abortion. With the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg earlier this week, the right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade comes under threat of a possible conservative majority on the court.
Following President Donald Trump’s termination of America’s relationship with the WHO, the US is under no obligation to adhere to the prospects of abortion being an essential service. Despite retaliation from several reproductive rights groups and national medical associations including the American Medical Association, the Trump campaign is selling baby onesies with the slogan “Baby Lives Matter.”
These bans, though legally restricted to the US, affect women all over the world as they affect any progress toward gender equality and create general disagreement on the issue. According to Marie Stopes International, unless efforts are made to acknowledge the essential nature of reproductive health, 9.5 million women across the world could lose access to contraception, causing up to 3 million unwanted pregnancies and, in turn, between 1.2 million and 2.7 million unsafe abortions and 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths. Considering the current state of affairs around abortion in the US, it is safe to say that a large portion of these figures will be attributed to America.
Amid deepening economic, social and health care crises spurred on by the global pandemic, the debate over reproductive rights will affect women the world over. When it comes to abortion, laws around it must be written by women, for women. America must listen to its women, who must retain their right to choose, especially during these trying times.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.