US Abortion Laws: Patterns of Oppression
Alabama is criminalising all abortion, except in cases of severe threat to the women’s life, with up to 99 years imprisonment for the doctors performing the procedure. Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi have all passed so-called ‘heartbeat’ laws, preventing abortion once a foetal heartbeat is detected. This can happen within 6 weeks of conception. These laws are combined with an increase of state efforts to change the definition of consent so it cannot be withdrawn once sexual acts have begun, and to give rapists legal control over children in case of conception and birth. This wave of laws is frankly terrifying, and showcases my worst fears. America has proven that rights previously granted to women can be revoked legally, and women can be reduced to second-class citizens with the alienation of their bodies from themselves. If this can happen in America, what’s to say it couldn’t happen everywhere?
However, for me, the most terrifying aspect of American abortion laws comes when considering them as extensions of attacks upon women (who are already systematically disadvantaged by the Trump administration), and America’s existing problems with racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
The fundamental pro-life argument legislators give to justify this wave of abortion laws consistently derives from religious origins: the sanctity of life, and the sin involved in destroying such. However, the criminalisation of abortion is not about religion or preserving life. State abortion laws are about power. Male legislators are systematically trying to reduce female autonomy and preserve patriarchal power over female bodies and choices. This is most evident when considering the effect that the ratification of such laws have on different demographics already subjected to existing oppression. Consistently, African American women are more likely to be subject to rape than white women; 21.2% of black women are estimated to be subjected to rape at some point of her lifetime, as compared to 19.3% of white women. More startling, however, are the rates at which black women are subjected to domestic violence: 41.2% of black women are the subjects of physical violence in relationships, as opposed to 30.5% of white women, demonstrating how black women’s autonomy and safety is already at greater risk in the private sphere.1 The ratification of state legislation to prevent access to abortion, even in cases of rape, is therefore an extension of the systematic oppression and violence inflicted on these women beyond the private sphere and into the public. Heightened rates of violence and rape are identifiable for all groups of ethnic minorities in the United States: 34.1% of American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and 24.4% of mixed-race women reported being raped at some point in their lifetime.2 When considering that only 34% of rape cases are estimated to be reported, it seems likely that these figures could in fact be much higher.
Similarly, the greater likelihood of rape for groups of ethnic minorities correlates with the demographics of states which have successfully enforced abortion bans. African Americans are estimated to comprise 12.7% of the American population. Yet Alabama has an African American population of 26.54%3, Georgia has a black population of 30.5%4, and Mississippi of 37.6%.5 Thus, the ratification of laws banning abortion evidently has a greater risk for women who are already at a heightened risk of rape, and these women comprise a large proportion of the states proposing these laws.
The heightened regularity of rape extends beyond ethnic minorities, and also affects individuals subject to homophobic oppression in greater numbers. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 44% of lesbian women experienced rape, violence or stalking in their lifetime, and that 46% of bisexual women have been raped in their lifetime. 47% of transgender Americans have been sexually assaulted before.6 These groups of women (or pre-surgery trans men) are thus at a greater risk of being raped precisely because of their sexual identity, and experience unwanted pregnancy as a result. Thus, the instatement of abortion laws to prevent abortions even in cases of forced, non-consensual sex is enforcing that these groups can be punished for this identity and subsequently have their autonomy taken away from them.
Minorities in America are already subjected to intersecting oppressive forces, whether they be derived from race, sexuality, gender identity, or religion. But state bans on abortion, which threaten the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, are perpetuating and worsening the prevalence of sexism which other oppressions intersect with. Effectively, criminalising abortion, even in cases of rape, signifies the totality of male power over women’s autonomy and their bodies. For women of colour, or gay women, this totality of male power is worsened precisely because of their identity and existence within groups which are already otherwise oppressed. These abortion laws are not a product of altruistic attempts at preserving life, but are another factor in the ongoing reduction of women’s bodily autonomy.
This article was intended to condemn white women in the UK, myself included, who are worried about what the abortion laws mean for the rights of women and the possibility of the erosion of precedented laws. These worries are legitimate, and American state legislators have proven that although rights can be entrenched, they can just as easily be taken away. However, I also wanted to emphasise how these laws will manifest in the lives of women who are already systematically marginalised and oppressed because of their racial, sexual or gendered identity. These women, who are already subject to the forces of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of institutionalised discrimination will face further disadvantage. This is the realistic impact of state abortion criminalisation: the marginalised in society will be further marginalised by male control of female bodies, precisely because such women are already at a higher risk of this control in their private lives, via violence and rape. All women need access to abortion, for any chosen reason, but it is these groups of marginalised women which we cannot forget, precisely because they are at the greatest risk of impact, and yet are the most excluded from the legislative institutions deciding these laws.