by maddie millington-drake ~
Back in 2019, when Alabama passed a law banning abortion with no exceptions for incest or rape, Instagram went wild. My news feed was filled with people exclaiming their outrage and horror. At the time I got on my moral high horse, and posted a story and some links reminding those in the UK that yes, what was happening in Alabama was shocking but that abortion in Ireland was still illegal, and that the outrage we all felt should be channelled into standing in solidarity with these women, as well as those in the US. Ireland’s law changed in October 2019, in a historic victory; abortion is now legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in exceptional circumstances between 12-24 weeks.
However, the decision taken on Friday, 24 June 2022 feels different.
In 1973, a landmark decision was passed in the United States in the form of Roe v. Wade, a decision that guaranteed ‘a constitutional right to abortion in certain circumstances, and limited the ability of states to ban abortion procedures’ (1) – it guaranteed nationwide access to abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation. However, on 3 May 2022, Politico broke the story that this decision was likely to be overruled by the Supreme Court, after publishing a leaked document written by Justice Samuel Alito. The document was from the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, considering if Mississippi could ban abortion at 15 weeks of gestation, with no exception to incest or rape. On 24 June we learnt that Roe v. Wade had been overturned.
This effectively ends the constitutional right to have an abortion in Mississippi, and cuts off access to around 36 million women of child-bearing age. It is predicted that 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortions. Thirteen states including Idaho, Kentucky and Wyoming have ‘trigger bans’ in place which are laws designed to be ‘triggered’ with immediate effect in the absence of Roe. These trigger bans might include four states – Florida, Indiana, Montana and Nebraska – that are likely to ban abortion fully. Other states are likely to have ‘near total’ bans limiting abortion to select cases.
It tells us that a woman’s body is not her own. That it doesn’t matter if she is not able or not ready for a child. That she is, that we are, secondary.
Alito writes that the Constitution makes ‘no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision. . . . The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions’. It is startling that today’s law should still be rooted in the founding of a nation? To step 246 years back, is to disregard all of the progress made in every facet of society – the civil rights movement, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, the list goes on. What does this say about progress at any level?
This is coming at a time when support for abortions has never been higher, with more than two-thirds of Americans in favour of retaining Roe, and 57% affirming a woman’s right to abortion for any reason (2).
It is also happening in a society whose maternal mortality is climbing: in 2020 the rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births compared with a rate of 20.1 in 2019, and the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.9 times the rate for non-Hispanic White women . It is happening in a society which offers no paid maternity leave, no universal subsidised child care, and no mental health support.
In a paper submitted by 547 health professionals in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, a clear line is drawn linking lack of safe abortion access and maternal mortality. The report states that ‘access to the full range of reproductive health services, including abortion, is a fundamental right integral to the health and well-being of individual women and to the broader public health’. It goes on to state that this ban – specifically in reference to Mississippi but relevant here – will ‘disproportionately affect young women, women of colour, and low-income women who live in families and communities already vulnerable to elevated health and social risks and reduced access to necessary health care’ .
Researchers investigating the effects of Roe being overturned have estimated that the predicted state bans would probably ‘close abortion clinics for nearly half of US women of reproductive age (41%) and increase the average driving distance to an abortion provider from 35 to 279 miles’. Another study estimates a nationwide ban would lead to a 21% rise in pregnancy-related deaths (6).
Jia Tolentino writes that we are entering an ‘era of repression and regression’  but also of surveillance and monitoring. What is different about this post-Roe era versus the pre-Roe era is the criminalisation and prosecution of not just pregnant women but also physicians, nurses, doctors, family members and friends. Louisiana has passed a law that makes mailing abortion pills to a resident of the state a criminal offence, punishable by six month’s imprisonment. A law in Alabama is pending which could see someone providing abortion services punished with up to 99 years in prison – the only exception is if the mother’s life is at serious risk. It is not surprising physicians would be nervous in providing care in case they were charged with jail time, with numerous other states with similar laws coming. The SB 8 Law in Texas is aimed at those who provide abortions and encourages citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who facilitates an abortion. The reward for a successful lawsuit is a minimum of $10,000, so the benefit of becoming a citizen vigilante is a real one .
All of these laws emphasise that women in the US will now be seen as criminals. Any pregnancy that does not end in a live birth could be investigated as a crime, including miscarriages and still births. This is already taking effect with physicians in prohibition states declining to treat women who are in the midst of miscarriages, for fear that the treatment could be classified as abortion .
Another element of surveillance that could be used is data from smartphones. Gina Neff, professor of technology and society at the University of Oxford, tweeted the day after the ruling, ‘Right now, and I mean this instant, delete every digital trace of any menstrual tracking’. Period tracker apps are meant to help with monitoring your cycle, symptoms of PMS and to help women become pregnant. But now the fear is that as abortion becomes a criminal offence, data from these apps could lead to incriminating evidence especially in the early stages of pregnancy when medical abortions can be used .
What does Roe v. Wade being overturned mean for women not only in America but globally? If the ‘land of opportunity’ actually states that women no longer have decision-making power over their bodies, will this cause a ripple effect elsewhere? Women in countries such as Iraq, Malta and Egypt are still fighting for their rights but is this going to cause even more of a roadblock? Reading reactions from around the world, conservative groups in other countries, such as Italy and El Salvador, are seeing this as something to be learnt from, and it is galvanising groups to continue their fight to overturn legal abortions. In Italy, Law 194 allows for medical staff to refuse to perform an abortion if they have a ‘conscientious objection’, meaning that in some parts of Italy it is extremely hard for women to access the care they require.
To criminalise a woman who is experiencing a miscarriage, or a still birth, or a woman who does not want, or is not able to support, a child is so many steps backwards I have lost count. Stripping women of a fundamental agency – that we shouldn’t even have to ask for – in supposedly one of the most progressive places in the world has left me reeling. I am lucky, I live in the UK and my agency around the choice to have an abortion does not feel threatened but my friends and family who live in America no longer have that right. It is the age of the ‘female boss’, but we aren’t allowed to decide if we would like to have children or not, even if we have been raped.
As the news of Roe v. Wade broke, I had just read a passage in Hanya Yanaghiara’s new novel To Paradise. It is from the third section of the novel set in Manhattan in 2093, in a dystopian society that has been ravaged by pandemics and climate change ultimately leading to a society with no internet (in order to stop the spread of misinformation). This passage is concerned with a proposed ‘Marriage Act’ in order to encourage procreation and therefore repopulation (due to a pandemic affecting children) with monetary incentives attached to those who do have children. Ultimately the state would pay its citizens to have children. Yanaghiara writes, ‘was this effectively eliminating a fertile person’s right to choose to have children? What if the fertile person was physically or mentally unfit – would we still be encouraging them to have children? What about divorces? Wouldn’t this be encouraging women to stay in abusive marriages?’ I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease that Yanaghiara was imagining what a post-Roe era could be like. Is this genuinely in our future?