On January 22nd, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark legal decision, struck down a Texas statute that made it a crime to perform an abortion unless a woman’s life was at stake, effectively granting women an essential degree of reproductive freedom. In doing so, the court recognized for the first time that the constitutional right to privacy, protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy”.
This ruling proved beneficial to the lives and health of American women and families on several fronts. In 1965, abortion was so unsafe that 17 percent of all deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortions (NCHS, 1967). Today, less than 0.3 percent of women undergoing legal abortions sustain a serious complication requiring hospitalization. Additionally, on the socio-economic front, making this personal healthcare decision enabled women to pursue educational and employment opportunities that were often unthinkable before Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court noted in 1992 that “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives”. Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, called the decision “a step that had to be taken as we go down the road towards the full emancipation of women” (Greenhouse, 1994).
However, in 2022, forty-nine years after Roe v. Wade upheld the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, the Supreme Court deliberated on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which saw the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts had ruled the law was unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade, where states had been prohibited from banning abortions before around 23 weeks (when a fetus is considered able to survive outside a woman’s womb). In its decision, the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Mississippi’s law and overturned Roe after its nearly 50 years as precedent, diminishing reproductive rights nationwide and enabling some two dozen states to imminently ban or limit access to the procedure.
This flagrant assault on women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and democracy leaves women faced with the reality that half of the country is in the hands of legislators who believe that their personhood and autonomy are conditional—who believe that, if they are impregnated by another person, under any circumstance, they have a legal and moral duty to undergo pregnancy, delivery, and, in all likelihood, two decades or more of caregiving, no matter the permanent and potentially devastating consequences for their body, their heart, their mind, their family, their ability to put food on the table, their plans, their aspirations—their life. Those who argue that this decision won’t actually change things much—an instinct you’ll find on both sides of the political divide—are blind to the ways in which state-level anti-abortion crusades have turned pregnancy into punishment.
Half a century ago, the anti-abortion movement in the US was dominated by progressive, antiwar, pro-welfare Catholics. Today, the movement is conservative, evangelical, and absolutely single-minded, populated overwhelmingly by people who, although may embrace foster care, adoption, and various forms of private ministry, show no interest in pushing for the public, structural support for human life once it’s left the womb. So in truth, the concept of “fetal personhood”—the idea that, from the moment of conception, an embryo or fetus is a whole human being, deserving of equal rights—which serves as the foundational doctrine of the anti-abortion movement, and is merely confined to the fetal stage. Once out of the womb, conservatives lose interest. The term “pro-life” is used to cloak the reality of the misogyny and deceit that underpins this crusade, where these same Conservatives continue to resent taxpayer-supported childcare and oppose gun control. It also lies in the fact that the United States has the most expensive healthcare system of any country, has the highest number of school shootings globally, and has legalized child marriage in 44 states.
Furthermore, the overturning of Roe disproportionately impacts women of color, as they are more likely to obtain abortions, have more limited access to health care, and face underlying inequities that would make it more difficult to travel out of state for an abortion compared to their White counterparts. Beyond this, the trigger laws that have reverberated across many states like
Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas have illegalized abortion except to save the life of a pregnant person, leaving no exceptions for rape or incest. Where were these pro-life chants when a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio had to flee her state to have a safe and legal abortion? Or do only fetuses and corporations get to be people in this brave new world?
Conservatives in the US may well believe that embryos and fetuses are persons. But to claim that anti-abortion legislation is about children is deceitful. Forced-birth legislation fails to protect children while punishing women who abort—or even miscarry. But punishment is precisely the point, isn’t it? Because such legislation has never been about children.
Credits- Iman Aamir Ghani