Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, the upholders of patriarchy began waging a campaign of attrition against the right to an abortion, seeking to dismantle it piece by piece in courts and legislatures. Now they are moving in for the kill. Their campaign has become a full-fledged counterrevolution against the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions.
Bad moon rising. Since March of this year, four governors (white, male, right-wing Republicans) have signed bills known as “fetal heartbeat laws” passed in their states: Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi. The legislation bans abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women and girls even know they are pregnant. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 11 more states, from Florida to Missouri.
These measures fly directly in the face of Roe v. Wade, which found that the ability to have an abortion is a freedom guaranteed by the implicit right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution. In the language of feminist chants, that court decision translates to “Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate.”
Roe currently prevents states from outlawing abortion before the fetus is viable — able to survive outside a woman’s body. In real life this varies from case to case, but is usually pegged to late in the second trimester of pregnancy or early in the third.
The new laws are therefore blatantly unconstitutional, and the one in Kentucky has already been overturned. Similar bills passed in 2013 in Arkansas and North Dakota were also challenged in court and blocked.
Now, with a reactionary majority firmly in place on the country’s top court, the challenge to Roe is exactly the point. The goal is to get cases based on heartbeat legislation to the Supreme Court, in the hope that the judges there will finally overturn the landmark ruling. And proponents of these laws aren’t shy about advertising that fact.
The results of these statutes, if they are allowed to take effect, will be ghoulish, inhumane, misogynist, and anti-child. In the news now is the story of an 11-year-old rape victim in Ohio who would be prohibited from choosing a termination by that state’s new law, which makes no exception for sexual assault or incest. Thankfully for at least this one girl, the Ohio restrictions will not be in force until mid-July. And they will also undoubtedly be disputed in court.
Georgia’s bill declares that “unborn children are a class of living, distinct persons” who deserve “full legal recognition.” That means that women who end a pregnancy after six weeks could be charged with murder — in a death penalty state.
And the horror of Georgia’s law doesn’t end there. Women who plan to get an abortion out of state are subject to being charged with conspiracy to commit murder — and so is anyone who helps them.
Though much of the focus at the moment is on the states, the federal government under Trump is also bent on obliterating the concept that women’s bodies are their own to control. Just one example is the administration’s notorious “gag rule” barring clinics that receive Title X federal funds from even discussing abortion with patients, much less referring them to an abortion provider.
The gag rule was set to take effect on May 3, but has been blocked temporarily with a preliminary injunction, national in scope, issued by a federal judge in Washington state.
Bucking the trend. Crucially, some states are taking steps to safeguard reproductive rights instead of turning back the clock.
In January, New York passed a Reproductive Health Act ensuring access to abortion there regardless of what happens to Roe in the high court. The act recognizes a “fundamental right” to abortion, expands the legality of abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy if they are needed to protect a woman’s life or health, and permits certain medical professionals besides doctors to perform the procedure.
In the Illinois legislature, twin proposals were introduced in February stipulating “that every individual who becomes pregnant has a fundamental right to continue the pregnancy and give birth or to have an abortion.” The acts would repeal a law requiring parental consent for minors, lift restrictions on late-term abortions, and more.
However, as of this writing, they are languishing in a subcommittee, despite the overwhelming Democratic majority in both houses of the llinois General Assembly.
In better news, Vermont passed a law early in May making the freedom of “personal reproductive autonomy” part of the state constitution. Other states are considering similar bills.
One element of a multi-issue far-right program. Of course, the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” warriors knows no bounds.
They are content to deny an 11-year-old rape victim a procedure that her whole future may hinge on, just as many of them have no problem with immigration policies that tear children from their parents and put them in cages. That is because their ideology is not about protecting children, whether born or still hypothetical. It is about keeping women down.
The extremism of what is happening today recalls the Nazi slogan for women: Kinder, Küche, Kirche — children, kitchen, church. That is no coincidence. The religious right has had women’s freedoms in its sights for many decades, but today fascist and near-fascist groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys are part of the hunt.
Organizing by the forces of reaction is on the rise today around the world because these are troubled, unstable times. So women’s rights have become the target for more than just those who are nostalgic for feudal times. Such rights are also highly inconvenient for a capitalist system perpetually on the verge of crisis, needing cheap labor in the workforce and free labor in the home raising the next generation of exploited workers.
The “second sex” is not alone in bearing the brunt of reaction. They share it with workers, political dissenters, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and religious and other minorities. Standing up for abortion rights is important for each and every woman and girl, but it is also part of a wider battle.
Abortion is healthcare. As national Radical Women leader Margaret Viggiani wrote last year, “Regardless of legal status, women will seek ways to end unwanted pregnancies. The question is whether the procedure is safe and medically sound, or dangerous and holding the threat of criminal prosecution.”
Women deserve access to safe, legal abortion whenever we decide we need it, and this service should be a matter-of-fact part of free, universal healthcare. Making this real won’t be easy: in the fight for our lives, women are facing the fight of our lives. But reproductive freedom is our right, and the patriarchs had better get out of our way.