Abortion, the Life of the Mother, and the Politics of American Motherhood

Let’s talk about this 20-week abortion ban the House just passed, shall we?

The bill, which is an updated version of the previous “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, passed in the House yesterday, and is going to move on to the Senate for consideration.  The “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” was dropped earlier this year after GOP women came out in opposition to the bill, specifically citing the mandatory reporting clause that would force women to report their rapes to the police in order to qualify for exemptions for abortion.  The new version has removed that clause, but let’s be clear: the bill is still terrible, and it should not be signed into law.


The good news for opponents of the bill is this: the White House has already come out against the bill, calling it disgraceful, and President Obama had already promised to veto the bill’s previous incarnation back in January.  But don’t be fooled, folks: just because I’m not convinced this bill will ever become a law doesn’t mean no broad abortion ban might ever be signed into law, and this issue is still very much worth discussing.  My concern is frankly this: Republicans in Congress are still catering to the desires of the more extreme right of their own party, skewing legislation, and they are pretty clearly looking to create a meaningful constitutional challenge to Roe.  With the Court likely to change in the next couple of years, as several Supreme Court justices age towards retirement, I hope that those who feel strongly are watching this issue closely, and paying attention to what is happening both regarding the presidency and the Senate.

Back to this bill, though: this bill would functionally ban abortion, something American women already struggle to access, after 20 weeks.  Never mind that the courts have repeatedly struck down 20 week abortion bans (which is what leads me to believe that Congress is really pushing to challenge Roe); this bill is just the latest in a series of unnecessary attempts to politicize the practicing of medicine.  According to Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s leading abortion providers, approximately 99% of abortions occur before 20 weeks; the remaining abortions are usually performed under more extreme and complicated circumstances which require doctors and patients to be able to use every tool in the toolbox.  And while this bill technically does include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, I want to be clear: I do not believe that pregnant people will be able to access this care if necessary under these exemptions in a large number of cases, and rights only matter if they are accessible.

Why am I so unconvinced? As I’ve previously said when writing about rape exceptions, these kinds of exemptions tend to put survivors on trial, and require survivors to be able and willing to recognize and disclose their sexual assault in order to access much-needed care.  And given the backlash that we have seen against survivors of sexual violence, who can really blame survivors if they are reluctant to come forward? Should that jeopardize their medical care?  Their mental health?  I don’t think so, and I can’t see any good argument as to why it should.  Alternatively-~-and again, like I said in my previous posts on the subject-~-if there aren’t requirements to substantiate claims of rape, survivors are likely to be accused of lying to gain access to abortion, which is problematic as well.

But it’s not just rape exceptions I’m skeptical of at this point: it’s the idea that we allow exceptions to “protect the life of the mother”, which I am confident we are determining through a narrow medical definition.  I’m not just worried, though, about pregnant people who might experience medical complications that endanger their health or their life; I’m concerned about the broader conditions which impact pregnant people in the United States and which can place them disproportionately in danger.  When we ignore the dynamics around an individual’s life in an attempt to reduce them to basic “medical” facts, we often miss a lot of what is really going on, major trends that can impact people’s health and potentially endanger their lives.

Let’s start with the big one: homicide, particularly spousal homicide, is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women in the United States.  In fact, rates of intimate partner homicide in the US are staggering: approximately one third of all female homicide victims in the US are killed by their intimate partner, and pregnancy is among the most common times for this to happen.  I haven’t had a chance to track down and read the exact text of the bill, but I wouldn’t bet on Congress having included the likelihood that a pregnant person will be murdered by their intimate partner when they determined what qualifies as an exception to protect the “life of the mother”.  On top of that, trans individuals who become pregnant and for whom pregnancy does not match their gender expression could be outed and targeted for violence; given the statistics on violence against trans individuals in the United States, I am going to go ahead and say we should be doing anything we can to protect the lives of trans people, and we should certainly not be creating situations which exacerbate their risk just because Congress wants to have a political field day with the issue of reproductive rights.

But on top of that, there are just too many people who don’t have sufficient say in what is happening to them who will be disproportionately impacted by a law like this.  Many individuals in domestic violence situations and other abusive relationships may be experiencing sexual coercion, which our laws do an abysmal job of treating as a sex crime, or may have partners who interfere with or destroy their birth control, leaving them with little control over their reproductive outcomes.  Individuals who are economically reliant on their partners are even less likely to leave bad situations when faced with a pregnancy; our narratives about family push people to stay together even when doing so is not in their best interest, even when it endangers their safety (please, look no further than any time marriage incentives are included in discussions of welfare). Poorer individuals who cannot afford to take time off, and even middle class individuals who cannot afford to take time off because of the United States’ embarrassing lack of paid maternity leave may need access to abortion, and may face personal complications like a partner dying or leaving before the baby is born that make parenthood an untenable option for them, partway through the pregnancy.

At the end of the day, though, the bottom line is this: abortion is a complicated decision that needs to be made by pregnant people in consultation with their doctors, without politicians trying to stick their noses in.  The fact that Congress is willing to gamble with people’s lives to score political points with the far right is disgusting and embarrassing; pregnant people in the United States deserve protection and support, not increased threats of criminalization and higher barriers to medical care.  I look forward to watching this bill die on its way to President Obama’s desk, but I am watching anxiously: this won’t be the last attack on reproductive rights by this Congress.  Not by a long shot.


~ by Randi Saunders on May 14, 2015.

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