Abortions and the US: A Colonial Gambit
The United States Supreme Court has overturned the Roe v. Wade case, resulting in the surfacing of decades worth of ill-treatment and unjust behaviours toward women’s rights and bodily autonomy. While the people cherished 50 years of their constitutional right to safe abortions, an underlying religious and political conflict has finally gained a public platform as the world awaits action to be taken.
The Court that made a decision in 1973 granting women the right to safe abortions, has effectively allowed for the criminalisation of the act under a conservative majority. As politicians debate right and wrong, and the public bursts into mass international protests, women from all backgrounds across the US have lost control and autonomy of their own bodies, health and safety overnight – a threat with the potential of expanding worldwide.
Roe v. Wade was a case discussed by the Supreme Court after a 20-year woman challenged the laws of the states of Texas and Georgia, banning abortion. With a 7-2 vote in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the US constitution did indeed protect a woman’s right to seek an abortion. This decision proved groundbreaking, granting women the power to make decisions about their bodies, with utmost care and support provided by the state. This landmark decision outlined the “trimester” system, granting women the absolute right to terminate a pregnancy within the first three months — known as the first trimester. The second trimester held some government regulations for aborting a fetus, while the case strictly banned any abortion in the last three months as the fetus would reach a stage where it could survive outside the womb.
Already providing access to safe abortions and resources in a timely manner, and saving the lives of millions of women across the country, the Roe v. Wade case also ensured that a doctor's certificate declaring danger to the life of the mother could grant a termination of pregnancy in the final trimester. Laying the foundation for women’s rights in the US, Roe v. Wade is considered a historic and extremely protected constitutional right, currently threatened by the Right-wing majority Supreme Court Jury.
Following the recent court hearing, each state in the US has again been granted the authority to ban abortions or introduce restrictions as per their judgement individually – a decision that can be reversed should lawmakers in Congress exercise their power and challenge the Court’s hearing. This decision, however, apart from being a threat to a woman’s fundamental right over her body, has sparked a substantial political divide as well. The current Supreme Court, made up of nine justices, holds a Right-wing majority, with six justices being appointed by the Republican Party. A distinct example of how a mixture of politics and religious belief can single-handedly threaten the lives of millions, the court’s decision brings to light the need to separate the two when enforcing the constitutional rights of each citizen.
President Joe Biden recently issued an official statement on the current upheaval saying “This landmark case protected a woman’s right [...] to make intensely personal decisions with her doctor, free from the interference of politics. It reaffirmed basic principles of equality – that women have the power to control their own destiny.” Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have not only explicitly stated their discontent over the Supreme Court’s decision, but have further redirected conversations to consider the hazardous impact of this decision on fundamental rights and necessities, including access to basic healthcare.
These statements, however, hold little value coming from groups with the power to make a difference. Having been elected after a four-year Republican rule, the current abuse of human rights is considered to be one of the most significant and harmful failures of the democratic government. The US Presidential election of 2020 was looked upon as a turning point for the country, as the Biden-Harris Administration promised progress and growth, but evidently failed in the provision of fundamental healthcare services and social development. With no steps taken to oppose or challenge the Supreme Court’s decision, lawmakers’ simple expression of disagreement can be termed as a lazy attempt at stabilising public outrage.
Research conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder indicates that banning abortions would raise women's mortality rates by 21%, and another 33% for women of colour. Not only does bring out the preposterous discriminatory nature of the provision and access to healthcare in the US, but further suggests that “pro-life” is only applicable to a fetus, and not the mother. In numerous cases, carrying a pregnancy to term proves to be 33 times more unsafe than pursuing an abortion.
The interesting question, however, is what exactly is the definition of “pro-life”? The Republican majority claims that termination of a pregnancy is the equivalent of taking away the right to live from a fetus. For years on end, moral policing has played a key role in enforcing “family values” on the basis of white western Christian beliefs. While each individual is entitled to their own beliefs, using them as a justification for deciding what women of an entire country must do with their bodies, is where the mixture of religion and politics becomes problematic. This alone is ground for questioning how we, as one global population, define “pro-life” and “pro-choice”.
What is seldom asked is, what about the life of the mother? What happens when the child cannot be provided for once birthed? What happens when the state, which could not overcome a baby formula shortage leaving millions struggling to care for their children, cannot provide adequate resources? The commonly found answer to these questions is simply – “blame the mother”. The blasphemy of such claims, simply put, suggests that we still reside in a patriarchal world, where the life of a woman holds no value, other than reproduction, with no account or responsibility of what happens after the child is born. Regardless of the choice a woman makes, they are expected to live with an overabundance of societal shame.
But putting aside this “pro-choice” vs “pro-life” debate, the crux of the problem remains to be the inability of lawmakers to prioritise the safety, well-being and growth of the public. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) states that the women most likely to seek an abortion include black women, women living in poverty, Hispanic women and those with acute or chronic illnesses and health conditions — essentially the minority.
Throughout history, the US has funded various programmes internationally, advocating for the sterilisation of women for better economic gain. Puerto Rico holds the highest rates of such forced sterilisations, where approximately a third of the female population was forcefully sterilised between 1930 and 1970. Justifying this under the tag of 'overpopulation', research on the same indicates a dirty game of governments deciding the destiny of women internationally.
Within the US itself, various black and indigenous women have been subject to such coerced sterilisation, simply because they were deemed incapable of taking responsibility for themselves or a child. Research suggests that over 60,000 women were sterilised across 32 states in the US in the 20th century because they did not fit the “perfect racial mould” the government desired. The state of California led this count with one-third of these sterilisation taking place there. Though it may seem contradictory to the current demand for carrying a fetus to term, the US government has capitalised on breeding a perfect white population, while subjugating anyone that does not fit or comply with that definition. A historic yet largely unnoticed process of “othering”. It is primarily these women that seek and require reproductive healthcare and rights but have for years been denied the same – even today in the 21st century.
Even more profane, is that in 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of upholding the State’s right to carry out forced sterilisations if the woman is deemed “unfit” to reproduce or care for the child. With an 8-1 vote at the time, the US proved to have an oppressive approach to women from the very beginning. The case is popularly known as Buck v. Bell, after a woman named Carry Buck was considered “feebleminded” and therefore ill-suited to procreate according to the Court. This case proved to be a milestone in the Eugenics' fight, a major movement in the 1920s, to promote gender determination and essentially conduct selective breeding to achieve the “perfect” American population. The core of this belief was to eliminate any perceived signs of inferiority or dangers that could arise from diverse offspring. This was later justified by expressing the desire to reduce mental or chronic illness and physical disabilities within the population. Many medical workers over the years have come forth with allegations of social Darwinism and racial discrimination, making numerous comparisons to the social policies witnessed in Nazi Germany.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this minority and othering is not just restricted to the people living within the borders of the US. The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has sparked outrage internationally and has also threatened women’s rights across the world – specifically in the Global South.
In an epoch where western dominance and power, led by the United States has played such an influential role in the development of countries around the world, it is inevitable that a decision of this nature holds the potential to be replicated or worse, not even discussed. The World Health Organisation suggests that over half of all abortions pursued between 2015 and 2019 were unsafe, the majority of which took place in South East Asia. The problem is rooted not only in the lack of access to safe abortions but further in the inadequate access to accurate information and research surrounding abortions.
The International SAIGE network released a statement saying, numerous women from Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan were seen travelling to India in order to terminate their pregnancies safely and receive adequate post-abortion care. However, the COVID19 pandemic worsened circumstances with numerous travel restrictions prohibiting women from crossing borders to access abortion commodities. Latin America’s quarantine restrictions were of similar nature, depicting an exponential increase in abortions performed without any medical supervision and using unsafe methods.
But these were still considered the “privileged” who could fight their way to gain access to abortions in some way or another. Nobody is talking about the skyrocketing prices of misoprostol, a registered abortion pill in Kenya, which is unaffordable for the majority. Or Uganda, where abortion pills are only available with a doctor’s prescription, but the social stigma prevents women from even accessing that, leading to incomplete abortions and consequential health concerns. While it would be unfair to discount the inability of the governments in the listed countries and many others around the world, in recognising the need for better access to not only safe abortions but also accurate medical information and contraceptives at an affordable rate, it goes without saying that until a few weeks ago, the United States probably still had the power to influence these policies and potentially change them for the better.
A key trade partner, a supplier of political and economic aid, and a country that supposedly encourages cultural diversity while promoting access to fundamental human rights, the US’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has derailed all global attempts to make strides in achieving gender equality. Throughout history, the slightest changes in US policies have resulted in the entire world experiencing a paradigm shift and changing their methods to comply with those of the US. Outrageous in itself, the same can be observed when discussing abortions. But despite the ability to use their power for the betterment of humanity as a whole, the US has, according to history, repeatedly failed women – especially in the Global South. In the case of access to abortions, the Helms Agreement signed in 1973, essentially prohibits funds and support for safe abortion services around the world, otherwise provided by US foreign services. In countries where abortion is legal and a constitutional right, this agreement gives the US enough power to undermine local and existing healthcare systems and policies.
History, however, is not the only argument currently being put forth. Right-wing government representatives and supporters have, in recent days, made various statements suggesting that abortions, even for victims of rape, abuse and incest are unacceptable and the pregnancy should be carried to term. Though such statements are problematic on their own, women around the world have rightfully questioned them and asked for valid justifications.
A recent case of a 10-year rape victim in Ohio broke the internet, as she was no longer eligible for an abortion six weeks into her pregnancy due to the “trigger ban” imposed the day after the Supreme Court ruling concerning Roe. Forced to travel to Indiana to terminate the pregnancy, the girl's case was evidently insufficient to get decision-makers to rethink the criminalisation of abortions. Instead, statements by various Republican party members were made, diverting the attention to rape, rather than providing a child with necessary medical assistance.
Such policies regarding reproductive healthcare and awareness were seen to have a ripple effect internationally. Known as the “Global Gag Rule”, this phenomenon summarises the extent of influence the United States has over policy-making across the world. For instance, the US foreign services, over an extended period of time, have cut all US funding for organisations working in various countries in an attempt to limit the support and promotion of abortions in any capacity. One of the most significant consequences of the “rule” was seen in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis of 2017, when an influx of migrants, mostly women and children, arrived at the Bangladesh border. The majority have experienced some form of abuse and rape committed by the Myanmar army and many were in dire need of medical assistance and reproductive healthcare. This Global Gag Rule was seen to pose many complications in the provision of the required care and resources with international organisations including UNICEF, which is highly dependent on US funding, as it was unable to provide any form of support.
It goes without saying that the decision of the US Supreme Court will not only be one that is etched in world history but will also be one that will have to be reconsidered. The sheer magnitude and momentum of global protests can surely not go unnoticed, especially in a country that claims to stand for the democratic rights of the people. It is with this hope that women around the world, continue to urge lawmakers to revisit this decision and not only legalise abortion in the US, but also encourage governments and leaders around the world to focus on equipping women with enough resources and information for them to be able to take control and make decisions for their own bodies. The world has not only proven that it still continues to function within a patriarchal mindset, but has also shown leaders that it is high time that politics and religious beliefs stop interfering with the lives of women, and dictating their destiny. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all kinds of oppression.”
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