Though you might not know it from the topics I tend to write about on this blog, I am extremely passionate about women’s rights. Obviously. And right now, in the USA, Republicans are threatening a cornerstone of women’s liberation: the right to a safe and legal abortion.
Abortion politics feels like an issue that mainly applies across the pond and to other countries. Abortion has been legal in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967, and was, when it was first enacted, one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. While we have our own problems with male, pale and stale politicians over here, abortion is not a key policy position in the same way as it is in the US. Over the past fifty years, we have had Labour governments and Conservative governments, but safe, legal abortion has been provided on the NHS through it all.
But then Jeremy Hunt said that he would prefer abortion access to be far more limited than it is now in a recent public interview, and I bristled. He followed that comment up by saying that, should he be elected prime minister, he had no intention of making any changes to abortion legislation. That’s good. It still made me pause.
Because of course, the right to abortion is not just an issue for other people to deal with. Abortion was only legalised in Ireland last year. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the UK, the same country I somehow feel is infallible when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose. An idea that I have come back to time and time again in my blogs this year is that everything is transient. Nothing lasts forever. It’s hard to imagine while you’re living it, but… communities change. Laws can be – and are – rewritten. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Romania flipped back and forth between abortion being legal and illegal, under the governance of Nicolae Ceausescu. Just because I live in a country where abortion is legal now does not mean it will be that way forever, with America offering hard evidence for that possibility.
The laws are being rewritten as we speak, with Republican politicians in Ohio, Georgia and Missouri signing restrictive and barbaric heartbeat legislation into law, which will forbid abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, a point at which many people do not know they are pregnant. The penalties for breaking these new laws will be severe, with some states offering the maximum punishment available for murder, which is death.
It’s almost laughable that the continued defense for anti-abortion laws is to protect life. Many of the same people who campaign ardently to limit abortion access think nothing of slashing funding for healthcare, food banks and other life-saving public services. In the US specifically, hundreds of people, many of them children, are gunned down each year due to easy access to automatic weapons, but Republicans continue to defend their right to bear arms as more important than people’s lives, while simultaneously refusing to allow women to place their own bodily autonomy and basic personhood above the potential for life encapsulated in what is still, essentially, a balls of cells, and is significantly less sentient than the animals that many people happily eat fried up for breakfast. Not only does the painful illogicality of anti-abortion supporters’ policy choices continue to sting, it ignores the fact there are plenty of scenarios in which modern societies permit the taking of life. In the USA, the death penalty is still legal, while self-defense remains a reasonable plea in a court of law. Soldiers are permitted to kill in active conflict and government officials will bomb innocent people in countries they wish to dominate, with no thought given to how their pro-life beliefs make no sense with their myriad anti-life actions. Even more starkly, the actions of anti-abortion protestors have resulted in the deaths of numerous doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals through violent attacks designed, somehow, to advocate for the sanctity of human life. And of course, making abortions illegal does not prevent abortions. It merely prevents women (or a person of any gender who finds themselves pregnant) from seeking a safe termination, with an ostensibly pro-life stance leading to a pile of dead women and pregnant people – whose foetuses die with them – many of whom are likely to be poor and underprivileged. Criminalising abortion has nothing to do with protecting life – if it did, anti-abortion protestors would also be advocating for stricter gun laws, better prenatal care, universal healthcare, better wealth redistribution and vaccines for all. No, criminalising abortion is about the same thing all other displays of male dominance over women’s bodily autonomy are about – power and control.
We live in a world that is structured to allow men to get away with sexual violence but punishes women for engaging in consensual sex. Two legally and practically independent persons cannot occupy the same physical body, and yet it is the foetus who is granted greater personhood than the woman carrying the pregnancy, whose bodily autonomy is meaningless when put up against the rights of the unborn. The question of whether or not a foetus is a person remains objectively unanswerable, but the choice to value the potential of a human being over the rights of living, breathing women and girls speaks to how we value women and their right to control their own lives.
The unborn are a convenient group to advocate for, as they have yet to independently become poor, LGBTQ+, black, Muslim or part of any other group from whom powerful, conservative men like to strip rights and dignity. The unborn occupy an untouchable status in the eyes of many, as the purest form of innocence, before becoming human children who suddenly no longer deserve life, when they are murdered by machine guns in classrooms or shot by racist police officers and the government merely offers thoughts and prayers in response. Nothing about the pro-life stance being rooted in saving or improving lives makes sense, and that’s because it is not meant to make sense. Anti-abortion movements come from a hatred of women and their sexual agency, hidden under a guise of protecting the innocent, before those innocent unborn children become real children, some of whom become adult women who suddenly cease to be deserving of the same rights afforded to them before birth. Now, they are just walking wombs, begging to be subjugated and controlled for putting their vagina out of line.
Everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs. Don’t want to have an abortion? Don’t have one. But the restrictive beliefs of any single person should not be the guiding principle governing the lives of many, especially when that person is trying to harm and limit people, rather than support or protect them. Bodily autonomy matters. Women matter, as people with dreams and ambitions rather than just as mothers or wombs. Everyone deserves the right to make choices about the things that will impact their lives. I want to be governed by someone who understands that – and I want everyone else to be governed by people who understand that, too.