Abortion is a controversial topic, with its opponents believing that it equates to murder and its proponents believing that it is a basic human right. There are multiple ways to explain why abortion is necessary, but let us start with this: Women die giving birth to children. The whole process of giving birth is extremely intense and puts an intense amount of strain on the women’s body – enough to kill them – making childbirth extremely dangerous. The act of raising a child is long and expensive, especially in America. Hospital visits can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with or without insurance, not to mention the cost of baby supplies. If a ten-year-old girl wanted to adopt a baby, would you let her do it? No, of course not. This (hypothetical) girl does not have the money to take care of it and she knows nothing about taking care of a newborn baby. But what if she was raped and impregnated? Would you make her carry it to term, only so she could face strain on her body that has killed thousands of full grown women since human existence? Would you cram her head with knowledge of raising a child when she will soon face the academic burden of higher education? At what point does this go too far? Not to mention the stigma surrounding young mothers, teenage mothers, and single mothers? What would people think of that ten-year-old mother? There is no reset button, no undo button to save her now. But this could have been prevented, so many months ago, with one of the most controversial medical procedures today: Abortion.
With Roe v. Wade overturned last June, many states have immediately turned to taking advantage of the situation, banning several (if not all) forms of abortion, with little to no exception. But what is Roe v. Wade? In 1973, Norma McCorvey, a mother of two, was pregnant with her third child and wanted an abortion. However, she lived in Texas, where abortion was illegal except to save the mother’s life. With her attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, and under the pseudonym of “Jane Roe,” she won her case over her local district attorney, Henry Wade, stating that Texas’s abortion rules were unconstitutional. Furthermore, in 1973, the Supreme Court issued a decision holding that there is a due “right to privacy,” protecting women’s right to abortion. And so it was, for many years, until last June, when Roe v. Wade was overturned. With many states leaping to take advantage of it, many worry for the future of reproductive rights and compare it to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. From standpoints literary, moral, political, and historical, it is impossible to deny reproductive freedoms for women and other people with uteruses without having unconscionable foundations.
Offred narrates: “But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.”
Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts a future America, where inalienable rights are taken away and women are objectified and only hold value through their fertility and spouse, and everyone lives under control of Christian extremists. Throughout the novel, there are many aspects of life that are notably oppressive, such as the restriction of several rights, abilities, and freedoms of women. One important thing to note is the obvious: this is a dystopian novel taking place in the U.S., and that the country was taken over by Christian extremists, transforming the country into a strict and cruel civilization shaped with patriarchy, constantly oppressing any who dare speak out against the society, renaming it Gilead, which is shocking, because no one has ever really written about a country as ‘progressive’ as the U.S. in a sort of Orwellian way. Though the novel doesn’t openly advocate abortion, it advocates reproductive rights by showing how women’s bodies are constantly in control by their male counterparts, doctors, and lawmakers. We see this when the main character, Offred, acts as narrator, guiding the readers through the basic “do’s and don’ts” of living. We learn that abortion, along with other procedures relating to women’s bodily anatomy when it comes to pregnancy is not only illegal and banned, but one could go through severe torture and eventually death just for speaking of it.
Throughout the novel, you start to see where so many basic rights and abilities such as freedom of speech and the ability to use talk with others are taken away, and it makes you realize the power they hold. One of which is the ability to have and use your own name. As described in the novel, the main character’s name, Offred, used to be June, but it was changed when the country was taken over. Similarly, the woman she works for, Serena Joy, was renamed, with her original name being Pam, along with other female characters in the novel – one starts to see how every female character is renamed, but nothing is changed about the men. Our name is a part of who we are and is often the first thing others know about us. Being able to use one’s own name is important and underestimated.
Additionally, the right to free speech is especially important and easy to forget about, but its absence in the setting of the novel is especially noticeable. Any word heard against the country, legal system, or society would lead to harsh physical punishment, adding to the sort of dystopian, Orwellian theme. Like our country today, both governments have found ways to ban abortion, and many states have gone out of their way to eliminate abortion in its entirety, severely punishing those who go through or assist the procedure more then those who commit much more drastic crimes such as rape or child molestation. According to the New York Times article, “Inside the Extreme Effort to Punish Women for Abortion,” “Even as those in the anti-abortion movement celebrate their nation-changing Supreme Court victory, there are divisions over where to go next. The most extreme, like Mr. Durbin, want to pursue what they call “abortion abolition,” a move to criminalize abortion from conception as homicide, and hold women who have the procedure responsible — a position that in some states could make those women eligible for the death penalty. That position is at odds with the anti-abortion mainstream, which opposes criminalizing women and focuses on prosecuting providers.” Eligible for the death penalty. What if the abortion was utilized because of the high risk of death to the carrier? There are even those who seek miscarriages to be labeled as murder and punishable. Which is more valuable: the life of an unborn child or the life of a fully grown child and adult?
With people like Durbin placing such high importance and specified personification on fetuses, some people fight back with the argument that if a fetus were to be valued as much as a grown human, they should also have rights and insurance. In the article “If a fetus is a person, it should get child support, due process and citizenship” from the Washington Post, assistant Professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law Carliss Chatman makes points of what possible rights and events could happen if a fetus was viewed as equal as a person. For instance, take their statement that “When a state grants full personhood to a fetus, should they not apply equally? For example, should child support start at conception? Every state permits the custodial parent — who has primary physical custody of the child and is primarily responsible for his or her day-to-day care — to receive child support from the noncustodial parent. Since a fetus resides in its mother, and receives all nutrition and care from its mother’s body, the mother should be eligible for child support as soon as the fetus is declared a person —” and “And what about deportation? Can a pregnant immigrant who conceived her child in the United States be expelled? Because doing so would require deporting a U.S. citizen.” Elaborating on the topic of deportation, Chatman points out that if one were to determine the citizenship of a fetus, they would have to look to section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” She further points out that the term born was not defined by the writers, and that they must have meant the dictionary definition of the word, of which was “to be brought forth by birth.” One’s birthday is celebrated on the yearly anniversary of their being born, as in the day their mother gave birth to them, not the day they were a fetus. “But in states with abortion bans, born takes on a new meaning. Now legislatures assign an arbitrary time during gestation to indicate when life, personhood and, presumably, the rights that accompany these statuses take hold. This grant of natural personhood at a point before birth brings application of the 14th Amendment into question and may thus give a fetus citizenship rights — but only in those states.” Chatman points out yet another detail overlooked by the Supreme Court in their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade; because of the grant of natural personhood (and presumably, the rights that come with it) that a fetus is given by the lawmakers banning abortion, the application of the 14th Amendment comes under question and may possible allow said fetus to have citizenship. A newborn infant born in the U.S. is granted citizenship, but a fetus? This is something without a conscience; something unaware of its very existence. A line has to be drawn deciding when a person is considered a citizen, a line that doesn’t quite exist and is being exploited by lawmakers.
With lawmakers and citizens seeking to penalize and label miscarriage as murder (even though miscarriages are not preventable and often happen without warning), there is a strikingly similar tone in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel, old women and infertile women are sent to enclosed states where they handle chemical materials without protective gear, allowing them to die due to the amount of radiation they are exposed to, making it a sort of extended death sentence. Those women are called the Unwomen, and it’s not just the old or infertile that are sent there. If a Handmaid miscarries, she has a chance of becoming an Unwoman, forced out and exposed to radiation. Though the novel was published over 35 years ago in 1985, the eerily similar thought process and beliefs of the religious extremists of the antagonists and location in the United States to the Supreme Court’s turnover of Roe v. Wade and its unfolding aftermath today could be seen as a foreshadowing of what’s next to come for abortion rights. In January of 2020, Britteny Poolaw, a then-19-year-old Native American from Oklahoma, arrived at Comanche County Memorial Hospital after suffering a miscarriage at home a little over 4 months into her term. According to the affidavit given by the detective who had interviewed her, Poolaw told the hospital staff that she had recently used marijuana and methamphetamine, which was then added to the list of factors contributing to the cause of miscarriage, a list which also contained congenital abnormality and placental abruption. She was arrested on account of first degree manslaughter and since she couldn’t afford the $20,000 bail, she had waited over a year and a half for her trial, which took place in October of 2021 and lasted one day. According to the local news station at the court, an expert witness had testified that the use of methamphetamine may not have been the main cause of miscarriage, but after debating for less than three hours, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to four years of prison.
It is important to recognize the other contributing factors of the abortion, notable ones which were congenital abnormality and placental abruption. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 6% of babies worldwide are born with a congenital anomaly, resulting in hundreds of thousands of associated deaths. However, the true number of cases may be much higher because statistics do not often consider terminated pregnancies and stillbirths.” Some congenital abnormalities include heart defects, neural tube defects, and down syndrome, which can impact those who develop them for their entire life. This means that there was a chance that Poolaw could have given birth to a stillborn infant, or an infant which might have a congenital abnormality such as a heart defect, requiring expensive treatments that could put Poolaw in debt or considerably worse financial position, given that she wasn’t able to pay her bail and that healthcare in the U.S. is considerably expensive. Additionally, placental abruption could cause internal bleeding for the mother, sometimes requiring an early birth or resulting in a miscarriage. Infants born too early would need to be incubated, yet another expensive charge for the parent or parents. Infants born after surviving placental abruption have a higher mortality than ones born without abruption, and the impact of abruption extends far beyond the perinatal period. Even if Poolaw were to give birth, her would-be son would face a series of health issues, requiring costly treatments that would put almost anyone in financial burden. But the detective’s affidavit also stated that “when she found out that she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.” Examining this piece of evidence, one would be able to deduce that Poolaw’s entire ordeal could have been avoided if abortion resources and information were available to her. Reproductive healthcare is extremely important for those pregnant, and when it’s not available, the loss of information or spread of misinformation could seriously damage the mother or the fetus, resulting in an unfair imprisonment or punishment that could have been completely avoidable had the resources been present and available.
It’s also important to recognize how race, stereotypes, and the stigma surrounding young and/or single mothers plays into the topic of prosecution of women miscarrying or having abortions. According to the NCRC, “Based on the 2015-2019 ACS for American Indian and Alaska Native population, the median income of American Indian and Alaska Native households was $43,825 – slightly higher than the median income of African American households, which was $41,935. The Hispanic household income for that same period was $51,811. Altogether, these numbers are substantially lower than White, non-Hispanic household median income of $68,785. In 2015, the average income on reservations was 68% below the US average, about $17,000.” According to an NBC news article, “A 2013 report by NAPW and Fordham University looked at 413 arrests and forced interventions of pregnant women from 1973 to 2005. The analysis showed that 71 percent were considered low income and 59 percent were women of color, with 52 percent identifying as Black.” Just by looking at the statistics, one could observe that women of color, especially those considered to be of low income, were charged more. It is no secret that people of color are often imprisoned far more often and harshly than their white counterparts. But why are women so harshly punished for actions of nature? A healthy birth can never be guaranteed, but it seems that lawmakers can’t decide on where the line should be drawn between nature and intentional terminated pregnancy.
But this is not the only problem. Many anti-abortion protestors and lawmakers go on to harass those who are pro-choice or seeking abortion, with anti-abortion protestors rallying outside of abortion clinics, harassing those entering or leaving, and harassing pro-choice activists, sending threatening messages or even death threats. According to NARAL Pro Choice America, between 1977 and 2015, anti-choice protestors carried out over 7,200 acts of violence at abortion providers, including over 40 bombings, 185 arson attacks, and thousands of bioterrorism threats, death threats, and assault. Additionally, over 200,000 acts of disruption were reported, including bomb threats and threatening calls. These are criminal acts, punishable by fines, restraining orders, and prison time, and yet they keep happening. An abortion clinic is just like an emergency room, and it saves lives. To barricade an abortion clinic is like barricading a hospital’s ER. The people seeking or wishing to consult an expert about abortion are in a vulnerable state, and sometimes, it’s a matter of saving their life, or helping their financial situation. Childcare in the U.S. is expensive, and the cost of raising and looking after a child is a large burden, especially for working, single, and/or young mothers. What anti-choice believers don’t understand is the impact of children on people who aren’t them. In an article by WNYC about the heated anti-abortion demonstrations outside of abortion clinics, artist, activist, and volunteer clinic escort Wendi Kent shares her story of abortion and teen pregnancy. In 1993, 13 years old and an eighth grader in Texas, Kent found herself in a dire situation: she was pregnant. She visited her local clinic for information about her options, recognizing abortion as the best one for her. In her interview with WNYC, she states that “When I went in, I kind of expected for this option to be given to me, or for someone to tell me that it was an option, because I didn’t want to have to ask… That actually didn’t happen. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I kind of suddenly said, ‘I think I want to have this baby,’ because I didn’t know what else I was supposed to say.” She had hoped that the options would have been laid out for her, so she could choose abortion without stigma, but it didn’t happen. Several months later, at only 14, she gave birth to a baby girl. Having a child at 14 is extremely difficult, and Kent didn’t feel safe with her daughter at her parents house. She asked her boyfriend’s family to take in her daughter, and Kent left her parent’s home, and wound up on the streets.
What both Kent’s and Poolaw’s story can tell us is that the lack of information, access, and option for abortions is dangerous, and can result in events that lead to homelessness or prison time. Now, with abortion rights no longer protected by the Supreme Court’s decision, the need for these resources are more important than ever.
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