The Slippery Slope to Punishing Women for Abortions

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Republican and Democratic legislators in the state of Florida may not have a problem with the Grieving Families Act, but members of the National Organization for Women and others (like me) who see this a way to more stealthily advance a pro-life agenda are quite concerned. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In a March 2016 town hall event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump expressed the belief that women should be punished for having an abortion. The due outrage was swift to follow, as were Trump’s attempts to modify or recant on his remarks. No, he meant that doctors should be punished for performing these procedures. No, wait—women were punishing themselves for getting abortions. Yes—that’s the ticket! Actually, hold on—are the evangelicals listening? Then women definitely should be punished in some way for aborting their baby. Absolutely. I’ve believed this all of my life—except in 1999 when I said that I was “very pro-choice.” Trump’s expressed opinions on this subject may as well as have been a magic 8-ball. Wait a few minutes and shake—you were liable to get a different answer depending on his mood and his audience.

Trump may have waffled on the issue of abortion as he did on the issue of support of the Iraq War—he claims he didn’t support it, but he totally f**king did—but as far as his pandering to conservative interests went, like a lawyer who makes an extreme allusion only to have his or her line of questioning instructed by the judge of the jury to be disregarded, he got his point across. For the Christians who hold a deep distaste for abortion as a sin and tantamount to murder, and who are yet more resolute than he, Donald Trump was their man. Bringing Mike Pence along as his choice for Vice President only affirmed his commitment to the religious right. Despite his dearth of knowledge of the Bible (or, for that matter, most books intended to be read by adults), and despite his decidedly un-Christian remarks about various minority groups and particularly lewd comments about women, on this issue and perhaps other choice topics (e.g. bringing jobs back to America, immigration, terrorism), Trump’s supporters evidently could forgive and forget. After all, if some of these individuals would be willing to do something as crazy as firebomb a Planned Parenthood center over their antipathy toward abortion—a small portion, granted, but still—then voting for Trump was, if not less crazy, then certainly eminently more legal.

Republican politicians, when not precisely enunciating their views on abortion, will frequently defer to one of two stock positions so as not to alienate voters and yet still communicate a satisfactory enough answer to the desired constituency. The first is something to the effect of, “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land (presumably, they would throw their hands up at this point), but I would support the Supreme Court overturning that decision.” Never mind that a majority of Americans oppose such a reversal, including a majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (apparently, they do exist) who disagree with a complete overturning of this decision. The other standard response: “Well, Anderson, I feel abortion and reproductive rights are a matter best left to the states.” Beautiful. Not only does this raise the possibility of abortion being banned by law in the individual’s jurisdiction, but it specifically sticks it to the federal government. Tell me what kind of meat I can and can’t eat! A pox on your standards, I say! Besides, going back to Roe v. Wade, seeing as this landmark decision has survived for decades without being reversed, the more prudent move for GOP politicians and supporters may be to try their luck at the state level.

Unfortunately for the pro-choice crowd, Republican pro-life forces have more than just simple luck at their disposal, controlling as many state legislatures and governor seats as they do. With this in mind, it’s no wonder some scary pieces of legislation have and continue to be advanced in red states across America. In Texas, Senate Bill 8 would, if passed, allow those who drive women seeking abortions to clinics as effective accessories to a crime. In Oklahoma, legislators passed a non-binding resolution to force officials to equate abortion with murder, and one particular Oklahoma representative dared to insinuate as part of his anti-abortion agenda that cases of pregnancy by rape and incest could be considered “God’s will.” Kansas Republicans, in requiring doctors to provide additional information to women considering abortions, even specified what font, size, and color of paper and ink must be used in furnishing this information. The list goes on. In particular, minors seeking abortions are heavy targets of these kinds of provisions, such that if the potential embarrassment of an unintended pregnancy or having to receive permission from one’s parents is not bad enough, additional legal hurdles and the threat of jail time exacerbate the situation. Apparently, it’s worth it to make young people feel like shit and risk them taking matters into their own hands. Thanks for the life lessons, GOP.

The hardline stance of those on the right against abortion and even access to contraceptives is nothing new. For that matter, it speaks to a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist attitude that equates babies being born out of wedlock or even sex without the express purpose of procreation as sinful. With Roe v. Wade serving as established legal precedent, meanwhile, as much as overt maneuvers to all but outlaw abortion in name bear scrutiny for their relentless advancement of a pro-life cause, policies which seem more benign and would even superficially seem to show genuine concern for women’s reproductive health also deserve to be analyzed. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently signed into law the Grieving Families Act, which provides for issuance of a birth certificate of sorts upon request for women who have miscarriages between nine and 20 weeks of gestation starting July 1. The measure had support from both Democratic and Republican state legislators. OK, you’re thinking, this is good, right? Bilateral political support, recognition of the intensity of emotion surrounding pregnancy, especially one that ends early—no problem here.

Not so fast. This is Rick Scott we’re talking about here, a man who, as governor of the state of Florida, has signed bills that have eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood and imposed additional restrictions on abortions, as well as a measure that requires women to wait 24 hours and visit a doctor before going through with the procedure. Also, the Grieving Families Act was vocally opposed by the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women, who, you would suppose, would tend to have women and their best interests in mind. Might there be a hidden abortion-related subtext to this legislation? You bet your “certificate of nonviable birth,” there is. Without mentioning abortion, the Act suggests that life starts at nine weeks, while at the same time obliquely referencing the 20-week threshold by which right-oriented politicians have sought to cap abortions nationwide.

This is why Florida’s iteration of NOW chose to voice their opposition to the bill: it is a stepping stone to legally defining when life begins and thereby reducing lawful abortions. According to a report for Associated Press by Brendan Farrington, Planned Parenthood was neutral on the Grieving Families Act before being signed by Gov. Scott, and between Democrats and Republicans, only one “no” vote was recorded between the state Senate and House. It’s disturbing, because it’s not hard to connect the dots between awarding “birth” certificates for miscarriages and trying to change the law on abortion. Sure, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Cortes, claims there is no anti-abortion aspect and that he worked with Democrats to make sure they were “comfortable” with the language of the bill. In my mind, however, this only makes the construction of this legislation more suspect, and of the Democrats who voted “yes” on the Grieving Families Act, at best, they appear easily duped, and at worst, complacent or complicit with what Florida GOP members are trying to achieve with respect to curtailing women’s reproductive rights.

Supporters of the Grieving Families Act maintain that there is no mandate regarding issuance of these certificates of nonviable birth, hence there should be no need for such a fuss over the provisions effected by this legislation. If you want a certificate to help you grieve over the loss of a child, then get one. If you don’t, don’t. Quit your bitching, am I right? Again, not so fast. While likewise unstated, there is another level of implication to the Act that makes you believe there is more to the story than altruistically helping women and their families cope. Danielle Campoamor, writing for the website Romper, also has issues with the mentality behind Florida’s new law. Aside from her belief that the law is just one in an ongoing line of the kind of legislation created by Republicans nationwide to try to restrict women’s choices—like attempts elsewhere to mandate burials for aborted fetuses or to bar women and the clinics they attend from donating fetal tissue for medical research—Campoamor draws from her own personal experiences as someone who has suffered a miscarriage to offer her viewpoint that grief is but one emotion experienced by women like her, and as such, Bob Cortes and others who think like him are really projecting certain feelings onto the female portion of their electorate. She explains:

Issuing a birth certificate to a miscarried fetus that was never born might help some women grieve. But it also poses a threat to women’s reproductive rights by establishing personhood at the early stages of gestation. Perhaps more importantly, the bill is predicated on the belief that women can and should only have one emotion related to pregnancy loss, and that emotion should be grief. But the reality is so much more complicated than that.

As a woman who has had an abortion, lost multiple pregnancies, and given birth, I can say with the utmost certainty that there is no “one way” to respond to pregnancy, pregnancy loss, or childbirth. With a positive pregnancy test in my shaking hands, I was both excited and terrified, unsure and steadfast in my decision to be a mother. And during my miscarriage, I felt both sad and relieved that even though I wanted to have another child, that time wouldn’t be now. I wouldn’t have to navigate the difficulties of parenting two children while working, and I wouldn’t have to go through another potentially high-risk pregnancy. My life would stay the same.

As Danielle Campoamor goes on to write about, not only do women who have miscarriages often not suffer from grief, but they frequently are made to feel guilty as part of some sort of odd stigma, as if they are “shitty human beings” for not being able to “keep a pregnancy.” To some, it may even sound absurd, but then again, our President, en route to the White House, suggested the moderator of a Republican debate (Megyn Kelly, then with FOX News) was going after him on matters of policy especially hard because she was menstruating, not merely because she was doing her job. If stigma about women’s periods, a normal biological function, still exists in this day and age, it is perhaps no wonder that women are made to feel inadequate for miscarrying, or for feeling like a cold-blooded killer for daring to end their pregnancy on their terms. Besides, and to stress, if naysayers on the right want to limit abortions, they should insist on the use of contraceptives and other forms of healthy sexual activity. Then again, that brings up the whole “sex is wrong even though it made you and it feels really good and you should hate yourself for liking it so much” argument, and we just end up talking in circles. Let’s just have men and women limit their physicality to holding hands and force them to sleep in separate beds. That’ll do the trick.

Campoamor closes her post with musings on the larger societal attitudes behind pregnancy, miscarriages, and abortions, as well as the implicit sexist bias that marks creations like the Grieving Families Act:

The Grieving Families Act, and other like-minded bills, establishes a narrow, prescribed relationship women should have with their pregnancies. It perpetuates the sexist trope that all women want to be mothers first, foremost, and always. It fortifies the notion that every woman will face the loss of a pregnancy the very same way, stumbling through the stages of grief and in need of some sort of reprieve. It positions motherhood as less of a choice and more of an inevitability, telling women that if they are not devastated by a miscarriage, they’re intrinsically defunct, all the while attempting to establish legal personhood that would give a fetus more rights than the mother.

Women are more than [their] ability to reproduce, and while we must continue to support those women who do suffer through miscarriage, we must also be willing to support those women who do not see a pregnancy loss as cause for suffering, but as a welcomed grace. If we are to champion motherhood as a worthwhile life choice, we must also be willing to celebrate those who choose not to become mothers, or those who want to become mothers but are unable to do so. Most importantly, we must remind women that any time they see a positive pregnancy test, or any time they are faced with the loss of a pregnancy, there’s no one “right” way to feel about it.

Agreed, Danielle, in particular because human beings are so complex, not to mention that they should have control over their life choices and should not have fewer rights than, say, a fetus or someone who rapes or abuses them. As referenced before, the conservative agenda against abortion and a woman’s right to choose is well apparent, especially as it turns confrontational and even violent. Less obvious attempts to define life and the sentiments surrounding pregnancy for women right down to how they should feel, however, also must be guarded against. The Grieving Families Act and its supporters would have you believe it exists only to aid women and families in dealing with the unexpected loss of a child. Those of us who can look past the palatable language of the law, on the other hand, know better, and see only the greasing of an already-slippery slope to punishing women for having abortions. As with Donald Trump and his myriad positions on the subject, and once more invoking the image of the attorney advancing an idea only to have it be stricken from the official record, you don’t actually have to spell it out to get the point across.

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