The debate over abortion issues has always been conducted through the legal system, yet with the recent trend to legally impede its practice, women’s rights and judicial supremacy hang in the balance.
Alabama is about to join other conservative states that have passed laws which push the boundaries of abortion rights. Last week, Alabama moved to tighten the regulation of clinics and medical personnel by requiring that doctors performing abortions, who often travel through the state, obtain hospital privileges. By imposing new building and equipment requirements, the legislation also necessitates the remodeling of clinics and the purchasing of beds and equipment—a change that could result in millions of dollars’ worth of expenditure for what, according to the clinics, appears to bear no true medical significance. The infectious series of new laws, spreading through many conservative states, that limit the operations of abortion clinics seems more akin to a strategic move of anti-abortion proponents rather than the betterment of women’s health and maternal rights, which the new laws are presented as promoting. While these new initiatives add more fuel to the debate on abortion, what should be taken up as a concerning factor is the apparent manipulation of the law and the circumventing of court-established guarantees by representatives of the government in order to enforce their own ideals.
When read in broader national context, Alabama’s new legislation, termed the Women’s Health and Safety Act, appears more concerned with advocating and satisfying the opinions of anti-abortion activists than protecting women’s wellbeing. Governor Jack S. Dalrymple of North Dakota, which passed its own law restricting abortion rights, said in a statement, “This bill is ... a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade,” which suggests that concern over maternal health was not the primary factor behind that piece of legislation. Indeed, the restrictive nature of the act would most likely have the opposite effect. It rescinds 40 years of women’s rights and safety gained when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion if the fetus was not viable outside the female body. If its shortening of the period when abortions are legal forces women to seek illegal options to end their pregnancies, it will bring the 21st century back to the pre-1973 era of coat hangers and shanty rooms, whispers and maternal deaths. By making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, it merely forces the practice underground, a consequence that is truly detrimental to women’s health.
Not only is limiting the practice of clinics injurious to maternal health, but the legislation also appears to be inherently unconstitutional. Arkansas and North Dakota set the limit on when a woman may get an abortion at 12 weeks and 6 weeks respectively. Yet Roe v. Wade decreed that an abortion could take place up until the fetus is viable outside the womb, and this limit is considered 24 weeks into pregnancy by the medical community. Not only do Arkansas’ and North Dakota’s new acts thereby conflict with Roe v. Wade, but by requiring women to form a concrete judgment before 6 weeks into their pregnancy, they also impose a further psychological burden on pregnant women who already have to make a painful decision on whether to end their pregnancy.
Staci Fox, who heads Planned Parenthood’s Southeast division said, “Bills like these have been introduced in 42 states. This is a whole new level of attack on women's health.” Limiting access to abortion bears both physical and psychological consequences. She goes on to point out another issue which highlights the unhealthy violent extremism born out of the debate. Local doctors find it difficult to work at clinics because it could harm their reputations in conservative states; “there are safety concerns as well,” she said. Fox’s words aren’t vacuous. They are strong echoes of an incident that took place in 2009, when a Kansas abortion clinic closed after one of its doctors was murdered by an anti-abortion activist. The additional requirement of visiting doctors to obtain hospital privileges, as required by the Women’s Health and Safety Act, makes practicing even more difficult for doctors who may already fear the consequences of extremist opinions.
Finally, the new wave of legislation, with its restrictive regulation of abortion practices, will prevent a woman from making her own decisions and exerting her own agency when it comes to her body by robbing her of the opportunity for a safe abortion. What many tend to forget is that both sides of the debate want to minimize the occurrence of abortions. Yet forcing the practice underground by testing the boundaries of the law appears to be more harmful than beneficial to everyone concerned. The path to better maternal health, more informed decisions, and fewer abortions is through better sex education, accessibility to contraceptives, and counseling services. With the oppressive measures taken in many states, through manipulation of the law to satisfy one side’s ideals, female rights that were so spiritedly fought for—especially those concerning the use of a woman’s body—hang on a weakening thread.
Casimira S. Karunaratne ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Lowell House.
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