Alabama Abortion Ban: ‘No Uterus, No Opinion’ ?

On May 18th, Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed a new anti-abortion bill into law. This law intends to punish doctors performing the procedure with up to 99 years in prison, admitting no exceptions for cases of rape and incest. It is the most restrictive abortion law in the United States and is expected to take effect in November. At the same time, several states, amongst which Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have passed ‘heartbeat bills,’ banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Though women make up 51% of Alabama’s population, its lawmakers are 85% male. Women’s political under-representation is striking, with only four women in the 35-seat Alabama Senate. In angst, one female lawmaker stated that ‘‘we do not police men’s bodies the way we police women’s – and this decision about an issue concerning women so intimately is being made almost entirely by men.’’ On Wednesday, her voice, with that of most women, remained silent. Following the events, reactions from interest groups were instant. Alabama Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against Alabama’s abortion law. The suit, brought on behalf of Alabama abortion providers, argues that the law conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and seeks an injunction against the new law.

Roe v. Wade is considered a landmark decision in American history. In essence, the Court ruled that a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental ‘right to privacy,’ protecting a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Dr. Yashica Robinson, owner of the Alabama Women’s Center (AWC), a plantiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that ‘‘Alabama has a long track record of passing laws designed to close clinics and push abortion care out of reach and, just like we have before, we will fight for our patients and do all we can to stay open and continue serving our community.’’

Sponsors of the bill, like Republican Alabama Rep. Terri Collins, argued that challenging ‘‘pro-life ultra-liberal groups like the ACLU or Planned Parenthood’’ was inevitable, such that their intent from the day the bill was drafted was to ‘‘use it as a vehicle to challenge the constitutional abomination known as Roe v. Wade.’’ In the meantime, the ACLU claim to be exploring ‘‘all options… to block the law from going into effect.’’ Litigation has been resorted to in Alabama and now Missouri, after its Republican government signed an anti-abortion bill into law on May 24th. Under the law, which goes into effect in August (unless blocked in the courts), doctors who perform abortion procedures after 8 weeks could face between 5 and 15 years in prison. According to provisional data by the state health department, a total of 2910 abortions occurred in Missouri in 2018. The influence of the ACLU was exemplified by the decision to have Missouri’s last remaining abortion clinic continue operating.

In his ruling, Judge Michael Stelzer wrote that the local Planned Parenthood clinic had ‘demonstrated’ that it would face ‘immediate and irreparable injury’ should its license expire. Stelzer put a temporary restraining order in place, allowing the clinic to keep practising as the case moves forward. ‘‘Planned Parenthood has served Missouri for more than 87 years and we aren’t going anywhere […] we will not abandon our patients,’’ Dr. Colleen McNicholas, OB-GYN at the Planned Parenthood clinic, wrote in a statement after the ruling. But the backlash instigated by recent state laws was not limited to interest groups. The weekend following the passing of the bill, thousands of pro-choice civilians filled the streets of Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery. Signs at Montgomery’s March for Reproductive Freedom read ‘‘not your body not your choice,’’ ‘‘no uterus, no opinion.’’ Others read: ‘‘keep abortion safe and legal.’’ As many OB-GYNs told CNN, other than greatly infringing on personal liberties, the main problem with restrictive abortion laws is that abortions will not stop just because it is banned. This only means that these procedures will be performed unsafely. Subsequently, more women will suffer and potentially die.

Such protests are a clear nod to Poland’s 2018 ‘Black Friday’ which opposed the ‘Stop Abortion’ draft bill. The latter would remove the main legal recourse Polish women had for getting a termination in a country that already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the E.U. ‘Stop Abortion’ was the second bid by the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), to tighten abortion rules. An unstoppable wave of men and women dressed in black and armed with coat hangers filled the streets of Poland’s main cities. Black – a symbol of their grief and longing for human rights. The coat hangers symbolized the drastic methods that were historically used back when abortion was deemed evil, back when the Church and the state were one. However, centuries later, the election of PiS in 2015 heavily depended on the Catholic church’s support. This meant the return of close ties to religious institutions. As exemplified by Poland, the U.S, Northern Ireland and most African countries, it is clear that where religion occupies a central place in politics and society as a whole, the legitimacy of abortion will be contested. As secularity gradually made its way through the Western world, legalization of abortions followed (see France, Italy, Germany). To each cause, its effect – backlashes were natural and quasi-instantaneous in all affected countries. Their magnitude is key.

In 2016, after about 100 000 people joined protests in Poland, the ruling party rejected a bill that would have imposed a near-total ban. While incentivizing revision on the part of decision-makers, global backlash tends to increase the perceived salience of the issue. A 2018 poll showed that at least 12% of citizens felt ‘indifferent’ towards abortion. This number was shown to diminish following mass protests, as individuals felt encouraged to ‘pick a side.’

Increasing women’s representation is another key element in the democratization of abortion. Descriptive representation refers to the extent to which a population is represented in the political realm. According to Clark, Golder and Golder (2011), women only occupy 13% of all leadership positions. Political scientists have shown how increased representation of women in Parliament lead to more permissive abortion laws. Again, when looking at Alabama’s 35-seat Senate, with four seats occupied by women, the outcome of the abortion debate was predictable. The outcome predictability is reinforced by the share of seats held by Democrats: only 8!

The logic is simple: leftist parties tend to elect more women, and where there are more women, descriptive representation will increase, and with it, women’s choice over their bodies. If support for leftist parties has been in steady decline in a century of self-doubt, attractiveness of far-right populist parties and climate-change sceptics, the solution to increased representation of women seems to be the introduction of quotas. Once they work, they can be removed.

The adoption of quotas by countries like Rwanda or Bolivia, where roughly 54% of their respective Parliaments are made up by women, has aided policy favouring them. And we ought to take note. Finally, as brilliantly demonstrated by Anzia and Berry in 2011, the higher the female representation, the higher the competence of politicians. They start by reminding us of a milestone for American baseball – Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in 1947. He had to be better than almost any white player in order to overcome the prejudice, almost ubiquitous amongst the industry. They argue that a similar effect takes place in women’s politics. Besley and Folke confirmed their theory with their groundbreaking findings: on average, a higher female representation by 10 percentage points raised the proportion of competent men by 3 percentage points. By competent men we mean those that would allow for women to enjoy their human rights.

Anne-Sophie Neyra