Emma Hussain reports on the controversy surrounding Alabama’s recent abortion ban and explores the wider ramifications.
On Wednesday 15 May, the US state of Alabama passed a near-outright abortion ban. The latest in a string of attempts to restrict the right to abortion this year, in a country where the alliance of the right-wing and Evangelical Christian camp has always kept the issue on the political agenda, the Alabama ban will essentially ban abortion, unless the mother’s life is at risk. Abortion would be outlawed even in cases of rape or incest, and doctors performing the procedure could face up to 99 years in jail.
the Alabama ban will essentially ban abortion, unless the mother’s life is at risk.
In 2019 alone, seven other states have passed “heartbeat bills”, wherein abortion is only permitted before the foetus’s heartbeat is detected, at 6 weeks – before most women know they are pregnant. Over 20 additional states have imposed, or attempted to impose, some form of restriction on reproductive rights this year. These state-based legal reforms challenge Roe versus Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling which assured the right to abortion until viability – that is, until the foetus can survive independently. This makes the new Alabama law unconstitutional under the US Supreme Court precedent, but the pro-life lobbies expect and welcome legal challenges. Their hope is that appeals will reach the Supreme Court, where federal laws such as Roe versus Wade can be revisited. Alabama Congresswoman Teri Collins, who sponsored the new Alabama law, stated, “What I’m trying to do here is get this case in front of the Supreme Court so Roe v Wade can be overturned.”
Their hope is that appeals will reach the Supreme Court, where federal laws such as Roe versus Wade can be revisited
The efforts of the pro-life lobby have re-entered the political agenda with a vengeance thanks to President Trump’s appointment of two strongly anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and, infamously, Brett Kavanaugh in October last year. These appointments have tipped the Court to a 5-4 conservative majority, and President Trump has praised the legal work that has already limited access to abortion. Amid the passionate debate sparked by the Alabama law, he broke his silence on the issue on 19 May via Twitter: “As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly pro-life, with the three exceptions – rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan”. The President demonstrated here a less restrictive view of abortion than the Alabama lawmakers, although his position has still been a (not-unexpected) concern to pro-choice activists. Trump also expressed his desire to see America “win for life in 2020”. Interestingly, Trump has shifted his stance on reproductive rights over the years. In 1999, he described himself as “very pro-choice”, citing that while he personally hated the concept of abortion, he believed in the importance of choice.
Trump has shifted his stance on reproductive rights over the years
Nationally and globally, the Alabama law has been met with an outcry from pro-choice activists. On 24 May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood sued the state of Alabama, calling the new law a “manmade public health emergency”. Last week, in coordinated rallies across the US, thousands of protestors gathered outside municipal buildings to affirm abortion as a human right. Many responses have drawn attention to the well-documented fact that criminalizing abortion does not put an end to abortion, but rather ends safe abortions. In societies throughout history where abortion has been illegal, women have sought backstreet abortions, generally carried out in unprofessional and unsanitary conditions.
Many women have taken to social media to share stories of how reproductive rights have shaped their lives. After sharing that she had an abortion aged 15, actress and TV presenter Busy Philipps encouraged others to share their stories of abortion with the hashtag #YouKnowMe, aiming to de-stigmatise abortions by highlighting the number of people whose lives are improved by having access to reproductive healthcare. Resulting stories have ranged from women who turned to abortion to escape abuse or poverty, to those who simply used what they describe as their human right to choose when to become a parent.
In Alabama, women make up 51% of the population, but just 15% of lawmakers.
Protestors to the ban have also drawn attention to the fact that it was ratified by a male-dominated state Senate. In Alabama, women make up 51% of the population, but just 15% of lawmakers. Debates have ensued about what role men should play in this conversation. To some, it is offensive to see women’s bodily autonomy being controlled by men whose experience of an unexpected pregnancy can never be the same as a woman’s. Others argue that the debate can only be settled with the engagement of every part of the population. Anti-abortion advocates emphasise that 50% of foetuses aborted are male, cementing men’s place in the debate. Meanwhile, members of the transgender community have emphasised the importance of including their voices in the dialogue, as trans men may occupy the often-overlooked position of being men who can become pregnant.
Notably, Alabama’s ban was sponsored by female public representative Terri Collins. For the anti-abortion camp, this is evidence that the pro-life movement is more diverse than conventional wisdom would have us believe, and that it is not anti-woman to be anti-abortion. Indeed, a 2018 Gallup poll found that 48% of US women identified as pro-choice and 47% as anti-abortion, showing that the issue is not as clear-cut as one may think. For the pro-choice movement, on the other hand, Collins is evidence of privileged women leveraging their political power to restrict the rights of poorer women. One Twitter user wrote, “When you have a child and can’t afford it, you get on assistance, that, in turn, causes ppl to become limited by being so dependent on assistance which prevents economic progression”.
The debate rages on across the US and the world. While the Roe versus Wade foundation upon which reproductive rights in America have been built looks increasingly unstable, pro-choice activists are preparing for battle in the streets and the courts.