By Georgia Dodsworth
As loath as I am to feed more attention into the Trump publicity behemoth, one of the presidential hopeful’s latest controversial comments has in fact proved very relevant to the topic at hand. Last week the Republican frontrunner told an interviewer that he believed women who acquire illegal abortions should face “some sort of punishment”, before backtracking somewhat, then changing his line of argument once again with another confused statement that “[abortion] laws are set […] and that’s the way they’re going to remain.”
Trump’s flip-flopping remarks and the subsequent media furore highlight how the subject of abortion has always seemed one of the enduring societal disparities between Britain and the United States. Of course, there are virulent anti-choice campaigners here too – in fact, BBC research from last year suggested protests outside UK abortion clinics are on the rise – but the entire debate seems to be an altogether messier and nastier affair across the pond.
The same can be said from a legal standpoint too: aside from the troubling situation in Northern Ireland (where all terminations are prohibited unless the mother’s life is endangered), the legality of abortion has been rooted in British law since 1967 and there have been no amendments to the law in the last 26 years. In the US, however, the federal system means women living in different states are subject to what the Guttmacher Institute calls a “lattice work of abortion law”; a criss-crossing set of regulations which, due to the still intensely divisive nature of the debate, seems in constant flux.
And as time goes on, these regulations are increasingly backing American women into a corner over their reproductive health. Indiana governor Mike Pence recently signed an expansive anti-abortion bill which, among other things, prohibits termination for the reason that the foetus will be born with a life-limiting disability, and requires women to pay to have foetal remains interred or cremated after an abortion or miscarriage.
Indiana is already one of the most restrictive states regarding abortion, but this latest legislation – particularly regarding the foetal remains – contributes to a persistent and enraging trend amongst US lawmakers: shaming women for seeking abortions by implying they are acting out of a disregard for human life. This is an utter fallacy: women who choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy understand the value of life completely. They have assessed the reality of their situation – for they do not have the luxury of merely theorising about it – and know it is not ideal. They know that in their position, carrying the foetus to term would be detrimental to the wellbeing of both mother and potential child, be it physically, psychologically, financially, or for a myriad other reasons. Yet now many more women have had this agency wrested away from them.
Another element of US law pushing women towards going ahead with unwanted pregnancies is state-mandated counselling, currently carried out in 17 states. The availability of counselling itself is not the problem; women should always have access to whichever resources help them reach an informed decision. However, some of the counselling provided is legally required to include information on the purported link between abortions and breast cancer (5 states) and the ability of a foetus to feel pain in early pregnancy (12 states). Lawmakers have simply ignored the fact that neither hypothesis is supported by mainstream medical or scientific opinion.
Yet just last month the governor of Utah signed a law forcing abortion providers to employ measures to prevent foetal pain before 20 weeks, despite complaints from medical professionals that the bill provides no practical guidelines and that giving patients unnecessary anaesthesia carries extra surgical risks. The notion that these regulations are in place to ensure the wellbeing of mother and foetus is laughable: anti-abortion policymakers have stooped to relying on unsubstantiated medical claims to create an atmosphere of fear and shame.
In the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “the decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity.” I have often heard people claim abortion is an “easy way out” for women, a quick fix if they find themselves “in trouble”. This is a fallacy too. Terminating a pregnancy is never an easy choice to make or process to go through. Neither is carrying a baby to term and then giving him or her up to a care system in which their future may be uncertain. And neither is raising the child yourself, with all the responsibilities that come with trying to create for him/her as safe, secure and loving an environment as possible. In Britain we are fortunate enough to broadly have the freedom to make whichever decision is right for us; many of our American sisters are continually faced with obstacles placed in front of them by politicians who have never met them and have no appreciation of their real lives.
Yet the future isn’t entirely bleak: a revolutionary scheme is launching in New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington which will provide access to video counselling and abortion-inducing drugs by mail for women who need them. The scheme goes hand-in-hand with another pro-choice victory: the FDA has finally approved an update to abortion drug labels, which previously required a higher dosage and more visits to a clinic than necessary. These advancements are small and tentative steps forward, however. Regarding the medication labels, abortion opponents have fought for years to retain their outdated requirements, once again shamelessly overlooking assertions from medical professionals that “the old regimen is so far beneath the standard of care that prescribing the drugs would be irresponsible”.
The seemingly relentless campaign to rid American women of any sense of privacy or agency in this life-impacting decision is unacceptable, but hopefully the tide is slowly turning. Until it does, no matter how many options are blocked off to women with unwanted pregnancies, abortions will be carried out nonetheless. In 2014 the estimated number of deaths worldwide from unsafe and illegal abortions was 25,000–44,000. I wonder what “pro-life” advocates think of this disgraceful statistic. Why are such tough restrictions put in place to protect the unborn when women and girls’ lives can be tossed aside like scrap?