Abortion Rights Threatened: Past, Present, and Future

Image credit:  A Katz: Shutterstock​

Oklahoma just passed a bill, ironically, on this past Valentine’s Day, that will, starting November 1, 2017, mandate that a woman must receive express written consent from the father of the fetus to have an abortion. This is one of the more radical of recent legislation against reproductive rights across the United States. Oklahoma state bill 1441 was highly publicized over the past month because of its relatively extreme mandate. However, it is not the only attempt at tightening abortive rights. Because of its publicity, this bill (and soon, law) has become a vehicle for examination of exactly what the present and future of reproductive rights legislation looks like. To be able to accurately discuss the present and future, we must be well versed in the history of reproductive rights in the United States.

 

Until the 1880’s abortion was legal and relatively widely practiced in the U.S. This changed during the beginnings of women’s rights activism and the suffragette movement. States began to implement restrictions on abortion and birth control in backlash to these movements, and many restricted abortions to only in cases wherein a term pregnancy would be dangerous to the mother’s health. These restrictions did not drastically decline the number of abortions being done; what it did instead was drastically increase the number of dangerous, illegal, and often self-induced abortions across the country. Until 1973, when abortion became legal, a network of secret feminist organizations worked to facilitate safer illegal procedures done by doctors who were willing to put their careers at risk to help women in need. Information about this was all spread by word of mouth, so though it did help a lot of women, there was still a large number of deaths and injury caused by unsafe abortive practice. A light was turned on for reproductive rights in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled to protect the rights of first-trimester abortions in the landmark case Roe v. Wade, but allowed states to place restrictions on later term abortions as they saw fit. Gradually, the availability of even early-term abortions was degraded due to states persistently enacting cleverly worded legislation to restrict eligibility and slowly grind away at the solidity of the Roe v. Wade ruling.

This map was created by the Americans United for Life organization, a pro-life foundation. It shows the 2014 standing on most and least pro-life states. The states in green are the most pro-life, the states in yellow are the most pro-choice.

 

Currently, abortion is still federally legal in the United States, however the specifics of access and eligibility are left up to the states, most of which, have multiple laws in place which make it confusing and difficult for a lot of women to receive the procedure, or even find accurate information about their rights. Since 1973, there have been 1,074 abortion restrictions enacted by states, many which have been in the past 7 years alone.

These are some statistics concerning the restrictions currently in place, cited from the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research organization dedicated to reproductive health:

  • 43 states prohibit abortions after a specific point in gestation, except to protect a woman’s health if the pregnancy was carried to term.
  • 17 states require that a woman attend counseling before having an abortion. These counseling services are to make patients aware of: long-term mental health effects, the ability of a fetus to feel pain, and links between abortion and breast cancer, all of which are claims not well factually supported by studies.
  • 27 states mandate a waiting period of at least 24 hours between which, counselling services are given. 14 of these states require that 2 separate trips to a clinic.
  • 37 states require parental involvement in a minor receiving an abortion, 26 of which, require both parents to give written consent.

In addition to these restrictions, there are many rulings in most states that inhibit public funding and insurance coverage of the costs of abortions, which historically affect the poor and people of color disproportionately. To find out the restrictions in your state specifically, you can look at the tables on the Guttmacher Institute’s website.

 

So now, here we are. In February 2017, in the wake of Donald Trump being newly elected as President and the GOP majority government, bill 1441 was the more radical of two bills put to vote in Oklahoma. Both bills failed to pass the first time, but on February 14, bill 1441 was voted on again, and was passed with a 5:2 majority.

The legislation mandates “No abortion shall be performed in this state without the written informed consent of the father of the fetus.”  It further notes that “Any woman seeking to abort her pregnancy shall be required to provide, in writing, the identity of the father to the fetus to the physician who is to perform or induce the abortion. If the person identified as the father of the fetus challenges the fact that he is the father, such individual may demand that a paternity test be performed.”

In the above quotes, note that the word “fetus” is used. This is the correct medical term for an embryo that has attached to the uterus and is in development. Those quotes are from the original legal draft of the bill. When brought to legislators in proposition of the bill for amendment, the word “fetus” was changed to “baby” in all instances. From now forward, I’ll be citing only the latest draft of the bill. The terms for obtaining such written permission have also been amended since the first draft, stating that anything to obtain permission is at the woman’s expense, though it is at the father’s expense if he demands a paternity test.

The only exceptions to the mandate of paternal consent are in cases in which the father of the baby has died (a death certificate is necessary), or in cases of rape or incest. This law assumes that the fathers are always involved in the woman’s pregnancy and the life of the baby, which is a lot of the time, not the case. 45% of pregnancies in 2011 were accidental; of that, a majority were not between a cohabitating couple, meaning that this law targets women who get pregnant outside of a traditional family planning dynamic. Furthermore, it puts all the power over a woman’s autonomy in the hands of the man, whether he’s involved past the point of conception or not. Why is this? According to the man who conceived this law (pun intended), Representative Justin Humphrey, pregnant women are “hosts” to fetuses. In an interview with The Intercept, he is quoted as saying “I understand that they feel like that is their body…And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant.” Just don’t get pregnant. If you want body autonomy, just don’t get pregnant, says government official, Justin Humphrey; if you’re pregnant, it’s because “you’re the host; you invited it in.” This insinuates that at the point of conception, a woman is no longer a human with rights to her own body, but merely a host to another body.

Not only does this law target women outside of traditional cooperative relationships, but it can only be assumed that the validity of rape victims will be called into question as well. The law states an exception for cases of rape. However, the United States has a dark history of discrediting victims of sexual assault. It can be assumed that if a woman seeks an abortion under the case of rape, that the physician will need proof of the rape. If the woman did not report the incident, or if she did report it, but the case was dismissed or rapist found not guilty, it is impossible to prove, and therefore, the woman would not be permitted to have the procedure. According to the Washington Post, of every 1,000 rapes, only 100 are reported. Of those, 30 ascend to a court hearing. And of those 30, only 10 rapists are convicted. Proportionally, under this new Oklahoma law, if 100 women were to seek abortion after conceiving from rape, only 1 would be granted. This is result of an epidemic of blame and disbelief of victims of sexual assault. It also must be noted that only 2% of sexual assault accounts are false.

Graphic via: The Enliven Project

 

As I stated before, this newly passed law is only one of several state legislations being attempted to restrict and control the reproductive rights of women in the United States. What can we expect for the future? As long as the government majority stays where it is currently, we can expect more of the same. In an Interview with 60 Minutes, President Donald Trump confirmed his plan to appoint justices who are explicitly pro-life, and said that it is possible that the ruling of Roe v. Wade could be overturned, based on the justices that he’s going to appoint. If we don’t want to head down a road that could lead us to another era of dangerous and illegal abortions, then it’s our responsibility to elect representatives that have women’s best interests in mind, and who are educated in the facts about reproductive health and rights. That means voting in mid-term elections and being educated ourselves on the controls that the states can and have placed, and what the candidates are going to support on our behalf.

Access to safe and legal abortion and birth control is vital to women’s health and well-being, and that means that it needs to be available to all women. Right now, that’s being severely threatened. If we educate ourselves and do our part in electing the officials that will fight for women’s autonomy, then we will keep moving forward on the course that Roe v. Wade set us on.

 

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