Governor Greg Abbot signed into law a measure that prohibits abortions in Texas as early as six weeks into pregnancy and granted power to any private citizen to sue abortion providers as well as those who allegedly aid the process in any way. This law is not the first in an American state and it may not stop in Texas. Abortion has severe restrictions in quite a few states in the country. This week the U.S Supreme Court formally denied the request by Texas abortion providers to freeze the new law. This law is in direct violation of Roe v. Wade, a case from 1973 which legalized abortion prior to 24 weeks of pregnancy. The new law in 2021 set the United States back with regards to reproductive health.
Why is six weeks not enough?
According to anti-abortion protestors, abortion should be illegal after six weeks as one can detect the fetus’ heartbeat at this point. Shedding some light on the issue, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that what is being detected is “a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops” which occurs around six weeks in a pregnancy. Many women are not aware that they are pregnant by then.
Aiding and abetting abortions
While the law itself has created a stir, it comes with an additional controversial part that penalizes those who are a part of an ‘illegal abortion’ process. It authorizes citizens to file lawsuits against those that perform or unintentionally ‘aid or abet’ any of the abortions that fall in the illegal category. Those convicted can be fined at least ten thousand dollars for each abortion paid to the person initiating the suit. This way of incentivizing policing abortion makes doing so a matter of public interest.
What does this abortion ban mean for human rights?
There is no need to create imaginary scenarios to understand what abortion bans mean for women as we have enough case studies and ongoing bans in other parts of the world to learn from. Margaret Wurth, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, listed out a few examples in her article on abortion bans. She included stories from the Dominican Republic where a 16-year-old pregnant girl died of Leukemia as abortion was illegal. Another health educator who had to counsel an 11-year-old who was raped by her stepfather and could not get an abortion. A Honduran woman was facing jail time when her miscarriage was written off as an illegal abortion. These cases from 2019 show a small part of a dark reality for people whose rights are abused by abortion bans.
Banning abortions has little to no effect on the rate of ending pregnancies. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based reproductive health non-profit, countries that broadly allow abortions have a rate of 34 in 1000 people terminating a pregnancy, while that in countries where it is prohibited the rate is 37 in 1000 people. The reason for such an insignificant difference in both cases is the unsafe abortion route. Preventing access to legal and safe abortion tends to push people to seek unsafe ways to end pregnancies, either by themselves or other illegal operations in unhygienic and untrained places. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that about 25 million unsafe abortions take place each year, mostly in developing countries. Elaborating on unsafe abortions, WHO said that it is the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide adding five million largely preventable disabilities. The ‘preventable’ part of this study is extremely important as it points at the hopelessness of the situation. A preventable unsafe abortion starkly stands against the pro-life agenda of the groups that call for a ban on abortions.
Incentivizing people to press legal charges on those who ‘aid or abet’ is yet another risk added on to the already grim situation for those who seek abortions. The fear of being wrongly accused puts a lot of people including family, friends, and in worst situations even health care providers in a dilemma where they may not be able to help those who need an abortion due to life-threatening concerns. The gray areas that such laws leave behind makes it difficult to understand who can be helped. This fear also deters women who may have had an unsafe abortion or had a complication in their pregnancy from seeking help in case their life is in danger.
The law is an act of discrimination against women as it takes the agency on her body from her and gives it to the state. This goes against a person’s right to choose. It goes against human rights as it takes away the right to body autonomy. Allowing people to report on someone else’s decision to get an abortion is a violation of the pregnant person’s right to privacy.
Access to abortion
This may be a good time to look at the complexity of what pregnant person are we talking about. Most of the narrative around this issue is based on cisgender women and girls, but we cannot forget that there are other gender identities like intersex people, transgender men and boys, and others who can also get pregnant. They face discrimination and stigma which makes access to healthcare difficult and the added issue with abortion bans only worsens their situation.
Banning abortion is known to unfairly affect women from poor, rural, or marginalized communities more than anyone else as they cannot afford to travel across to another state or pay for an illegal – and at times an expensive – procedure. While the wealthy and privileged may still find access to an abortion clinic by flying to some other state, the poorer people will pay the price for their situation.
A glimmer of hope
While some parts of the world move towards more regressive laws, other parts chose to re-evaluate their past decisions. On the other side of the U.S. border, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, earlier this month. While women in Mexico are celebrating this big moment, they are now working towards legalizing abortion in the entire country. A Reuters report stated that U.S. women in states such as Texas may travel south to Mexico to access abortions after the new ruling.
The contrast between either side of the border may question the contradictory outlook that a society has towards women’s rights. Women have struggled for equality and basic human rights for decades. Such rulings that take away from their autonomy over their own body advocates for treating them as second-class citizens. The backlash that such anti-abortion laws receive all over the world should be taken as enough evidence that it may not be what the population wants or needs. Such blanket laws endanger people’s health and well-being, while potentially jeopardizing the struggle to attain gender equity.
The fear that banning abortions may not stop people from having them in an unsafe and unregulated way is what needs to be investigated. If the argument against abortion is the concept of pro-life then the life of a pregnant human should receive equal, if not more, consideration.