A New Battle on Abortion Rights

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

A New Battle on Abortion Rights

Republicans are using healthcare repeal to try to roll back abortion rights. Who will speak up for American women's needs?

by
Ashley Sayeau

The 22 January marked the 38th anniversary of Roe v Wade – and already Republicans are celebrating with fresh attacks on abortion rights. Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, recently put out the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act", a bill that would permanently prohibit taxpayer money being spent on carrying out abortions. Such a ban is already in place but must be renewed every year by Congress; this would get rid of that hassle.

And more disturbing, given its potential impact on an entire range of women's health needs, is the "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act", sponsored by Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana. If passed, the law would deny federal money to any organisation that provides abortions at all – the argument being that there is no definitive way to guarantee that funds used for, say, birth control or STD treatments won't slip into the "abortion pot". The effect would be to severely limit, if not eliminate, groups like Planned Parenthood that provide a variety of family planning needs.

The irony, of course, is that none of this will actually lower the number of abortions in America. Just look at Latin America, where abortion is almost unanimously banned, but where abortion rates are nonetheless among the highest in the world. Instead, as Katha Pollitt recently pointed out in the Nation, all these restrictions and hurdles will only force more women to risk having illegal abortions after they realise the clinic in their town has been defunded. The truth is Planned Parenthood, a huge provider of contraception, has probably done more to lower the abortion rate in America than all this conservative posturing.

Nevertheless, while these bills do not decrease abortion, they do definitely degrade women's political and social status – which may be the larger goal, anyway. After all, in the case of abortion, while many other countries, including the UK, consider a woman's decision to have an abortion to be a serious health issue, Republicans treat the procedure like an unfortunate side-effect of women's petty, selfish natures. Instead of acknowledging the often difficult physical and economic consequences of carrying and caring for a child, the assumption behind much of their rhetoric is that women cannot be trusted to make such a decision – hence laws in some states that require women be shown an ultrasound before a doctor can proceed with a termination.

One effect of this is that women's needs in society are increasingly seen as expendable, even when there is widespread support for them. Eighty-two percent of American women have used the pill, for instance, and yet, somehow, Republicans have found a way to make even this controversial. Indeed, the 2010 healthcare act requires all new health insurance plans to pay for preventative services for women – but be prepared for a battle over whether birth control is considered preventative.

If it even comes to that. As Sharon Lerner wrote, also in the Nation, even "the Obama administration is moving cautiously on the issue." I somehow doubt lawmakers are losing sleep over the prospect of a similar showdown on the subject of vasectomies, which are widely covered by insurance agencies. Of course, it's unfathomable.

In December, despite widespread support for abortion rights throughout most of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Ireland's ban on the procedure, arguing that since the country's law is founded "on the profound moral views of the Irish people as to the nature of life", it should be granted an extra "margin of appreciation". On Congressman Smith's bill, House Speaker John Boehner applied the same logic: "A ban on taxpayer funding of abortion is the will of the people, and it ought to be the will of the land."

What is too often not being said is that this stance only makes sense if you exclude vast numbers of women from the equation, from what constitutes a people and a land. Are the thousands of Irish women who travel each year to another country for one of the most common medical procedures on earth not considered members of "the Irish people"? And similarly, are the millions of American women – more than one in three – who will have an abortion by their 45th birthday not American?

Republicans, and especially the religious right, have won far too much by skewing the image of the average American. It's not just crazy liberals who get abortions or use birth control, but conservatives are so adept at giving this impression that even leading Democrats are often, at best, sheepish on the subject, focusing on decreasing abortion instead of also defending it as a human right. Of course, getting an abortion is no walk in the park – many decisions in life are not – but if performed safely, it can provide great relief and promise. Democrats would do well to remember that there are millions of women out there who can, openly or just in the voting booth, attest to this.

Ashley Sayeau is an American living in London, who has written on politics, culture and women for a number of publications, including the Washington Post, the Nation and Salon. She is currently finishing a memoir on US cultural and class divides. You can visit her website at ashleysayeau.com

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