Anti-abortion movement gains ground in US

Women could be charged with murder in the US state of Utah if they have a miscarriage caused by an “intentional or knowing act”. On March 8, the state’s governor signed into law a bill to that effect. The bill was introduced to the legislature by Republican representative and former cop Carl Wimmer, who told the US ABC that he sponsored the bill “because I’m pro-life and anti-abortion and I’m doing everything in my power to restrict abortions in Utah”. Wimmer and anti-abortion groups have pledged to campaign for similar legislation in other states.

The law brings all women who miscarry under suspicion. Any woman who miscarried could be brought to the attention of the state and have to justify herself. Even in cases where charges were not laid, the law increases social control and state interference in women’s lives. It exposes many more women to scrutiny and harassment from the state — up to one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

Wimmer claims the bill was a response to a case in which a 17-year-old woman paid $150 for a man to beat her up after her boyfriend threatened to leave her if she did not terminate her pregnancy. The fact that the anti-abortionists would criminalise a woman who was forced into such horrific circumstances demonstrates their deep misogyny. They deny women social rights and control over their own lives, deny them access to safe abortion and then seek to criminalise women who are forced to take desperate measures.

Increased restrictions

The Utah bill is about further enforcing exactly the sort of social controls over women that lead to such situations in the first place. This new law and the campaign to make it a national model are part of a raft of laws and regulations that the anti-abortion movement is fighting for to increase state control over women’s bodies and deny access to abortion. These include state legislation mandating parental involvement in abortions for minors, mandating counselling and waiting periods for abortion, restricting insurance coverage and cutting funding of abortion under Medicaid. The anti-abortion movement also runs terror campaigns against abortion clinics and doctors.

Some statistics from the Guttmacher Institute (a New York-based non-profit organisation that focuses on reproductive issues) attest to the increasing restrictions on abortion:

The number of US abortion providers declined by 2% between 2000 and 2005 (from 1819 to 1787). Eighty-seven per cent of all US counties lacked an abortion provider in 2005; 35% of women live in those counties. Thirty-five states currently enforce parental consent or notification laws for minors seeking an abortion. While the Supreme Court ruled that minors must have an alternative to parental involvement, such as the ability to seek a court order authorising the procedure, this is a very difficult proposition for someone with no knowledge or experience of the legal system.

Congress has barred the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, except when the woman’s life would be endangered by a full-term pregnancy or in cases of rape or incest. In 2005, the cost of a non-hospital abortion with local anaesthesia at 10 weeks’ gestation ranged from $90 to $1800; the average was $413.

‘Fetal homicide’

So called “fetal homicide” laws already exist in 37 states, applying to women in their third trimester of pregnancy. The Utah law applies to the entire pregnancy.

In Iowa, the “feticide” law was used to charge a woman in January after she fell down some stairs while she was pregnant. She went to a hospital emergency department, where she had a conversation with a nurse about the difficulties she was having and that she had considered adoption or abortion before deciding to go through with the pregnancy. The conversation was reported to a doctor, who called the police. She was arrested as she left the hospital and taken to jail. Her two children did not know where she was while she was in prison for two days. She was charged with “attempted feticide”. The charges were dropped only because she was in her second, not her third, trimester, which is when the laws apply. But the damage to her life was already done. As she told the Des Moines Register newspaper,My name is ruined. Just Google it. Now I won’t even be able to get a job.”

This case was not a mistake or an unintended consequence. While the justifications are shrouded in theological garb, the laws and attempts to restrict abortion are not about “life” or the fetus — they are about control over women’s bodies and lives. The Utah laws and those like them are the logical conclusion of the attempts to create complete social control over women’s bodies — reducing them to nothing more than incubators (when they are not busy looking after men’s needs).

The anti-abortion movement has intensified its campaign as the women’s rights movement has won social gains and independence for women, threatening the social roles that capitalist society dictates for women: mothers, carers, housewives. The anti-abortion campaign is part of a broader social agenda to force women to accept these roles and their second-class status in capitalist society.

Right-wing agenda

It is of great social and economic advantage to capitalism to have women accept this role — providing unpaid labour in the home and creating the conditions in which women’s paid labour is attributed less value than men’s, thus creating a downward pull on wages. The anti-abortion agenda goes hand in hand with the attempts to sow divisions among the working people and weaken the struggles of the oppressed — in this case to weaken the working class by weakening women’s position in society. It is no coincidence that the anti-abortionists are strongly connected with other pro-capitalist political movements. Utah legislator Wimmer, for example, is also a supporter of the reactionary, racist Tea Party movement.

The same can be said of the anti-abortion movement in Australia. A recent anti-abortion rally in Brisbane was sponsored by a range of groups including the ultra-rightist National Civic Council and Democratic Labour Party. The anti-abortion movement in Australia studies closely the tactics of its counterpart in the US. In 2006, for example, it toured Terri Herring, a prominent anti-abortion campaigner from Mississippi, whose anti-abortion group claims credit for shutting down five abortion clinics in the state and successfully campaigning for 15 anti-abortion laws.

While the anti-abortion movement has not had the same success in Australia, the current case in Cairns of a couple charged under Queensland’s anti-abortion laws demonstrates that there is no room for complacency. During the committal hearing in the Cairns case, the interpretation of the laws that the police prosecution sought would allow charges to be brought against women along the same lines being sought by the anti-abortionists in Utah. The prosecution argued that it didn’t matter that there was no proof that the woman was pregnant; no proof of what the drugs allegedly used were; no proof that the drugs caused a miscarriage. They argued that all they needed to show was that there was “intent” to procure a miscarriage. Just as in Utah, the state is seeking complete control over women’s bodies — an attempt that must be resisted and defeated.

[For information about the Cairns case and the campaign for the dropping of the charges visist the Pro-Choice Action Collective website.]