In a country obsessed with individual rights, we seem intentionally ignorant of them when it comes to those of women.
It is particularly striking now. We are engaged in a vicious debate over gun rights, completely ignoring the attack on a woman’s rights to make determinations about when and whether to have children. Political commentator, Shannyn Moore, said it best. In an op-ed reflecting on her gun ownership and regulation, she noted, “[I]n this country, my uterus is more regulated than my guns. Birth control and reproductive health services are harder to get than bullets. What is that about? Guns don’t kill people — vaginas do?”
To some this is merely a funny quip. However, a study released this week in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law shows that this is no laughing matter. The study’s authors, Lynne Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, identified 413 cases involving the arrest and detention of a pregnant woman between 1973 and 2005. Paltrow and Flavin show how these “interventions” are justified using state laws, including feticide statutes. Take, for example, Laura Pemberton, who wanted to deliver her child vaginally after having a caesarean. While in active labor, Pemberton’s legs were strapped together and she was forcibly taken to a hospital. As she was prepped for surgery, an emergency hearing was held to determine the state’s interest in protecting the fetus. Pemberton and her husband were allowed to outline why they thought the procedure was unnecessary without the benefit of counsel and, then, compelled to have the surgery. Pemberton sued for the civil rights violation and lost. A trial-level federal district court determined that the state’s interest in preserving life outweighed Pemberton’s rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Pemberton has since given birth to 3 more children vaginally.
Imagine a world in which these “interventions” on behalf of a fetus are commonplace. It could happen. Pro-life advocates are pushing hard for “personhood” legislation, which defines a fertilized human egg as a legal person. While their attempts failed miserably during the last election cycle, imagine the consequences of this kind of legislation. It would further limit women’s birth control options, throw procedures like In Vitro Fertilization into limbo, and create giant obstacles for women’s health. In fact, such legislation could completely wipe out a woman’s ability to act on her own behalf as it relates to her health care. Doctors, occasionally in conjunction with judges, could plot the course of a woman’s pregnancy and birth over her loud protestations.
It may seem like a giant leap to assume that the pro-life movement can pass this legislation. The movement, however, has always been the proverbial tortoise, not the hare. The goal of mainstream pro-life groups is not to make abortion illegal in the United States, but to make it completely inaccessible.
Pro-lifers have been moving legislation slowly in their favor for more than two decades. They galvanize the public around wedge issues like parental consent and notification while also pushing through laws that directly affect women’s access to health care services. This strategy has been very successful. Just look at the last two years alone. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 19 states enacted 43 pieces of legislation restricting access to abortion services in 2012. This was second only to 2011 when pro-lifers passed 92 laws limiting these services. These laws are not simply attempts to stem the tide of elective late-term abortions, which are rare but a sure fire way for pro-lifers to mobilize the masses. Many of these restrictions involve making sure that the abortion procedure is banned in the insurance exchanges being established under Obama’s Affordable Care Act and restricting where, how, and who can perform the procedure. In short, the pro-life movement has a track record that should not be ignored. If anything, pro-lifers show that with money, well-tested language, and persistence anything is possible.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions. There will be rallies, protests, and calls from both sides to mobilize anew. On this day, we need to take stock of these decisions and the many laws that have followed in their wake and realize that we are heading in the wrong direction. Women are not simply potential, real, or former incubators of life, but human beings. Women deserve to choose not just whether or how many children they have, but how they give birth. To argue otherwise is denying women their basic rights.