“Wake Up, the Sky Is Falling!”: The Unsettling Reversal of Abortion Rights for American Women
by Lily Mafi — 20July2022
In the United States lately, women hold less rights than an inanimate object. Although not literally, the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade has positioned American women in an uncomfortable seat. Despite years of progress made for women’s rights, the recent Supreme Court decision on the right to abortion has taken the power from women, giving it back to the states. It is no longer the choice of a woman to carry a pregnancy or have an abortion, but instead, the choice of each state — driven by their own ideological and religious dogma.
The right to terminate a pregnancy is no longer a constitutional right in the US, and with an estimated 26 states expected to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the future of American women is up in the air. While some of these states make exceptions for rape and incest, conditions are vague and problematic. In a country where 44 states have provisions to protect the right to keep and bear arms, the life and death discourse has become more unsettling than ever.
At what point is life sacred and worth protecting? To grant the power to draw the line to those far detached from the very experience of child bearing creates an apathy for those experiences, perpetually shaping the lives of those affected. Part of the implications of taking the power of choice out of the hands of the women biologically able to procreate is presuming readiness to take on the greatest extant responsibility.
We spoke to two American women about Roe vs. Wade. Although they represent a speck of the population, their experiences as women with different personal and professional distances from abortion shed light on the perils of an anti-choice US. The banning of abortion will fuel intersectional experiences that will further complicate discrimination in the US.
Merle Hoffman, abortion rights activist and pioneer, founded one of the first ambulatory abortion centers in the US, just three years before Roe v. Wade. Despite starting out her career as a concert pianist and psychology major, a part-time job as a medical assistant paved her way in the medical world and feminist activism. It wasn’t until her night shift on the midnight express at Bellevue hospital that she became wedded to the movement. After being asked to go in and talk to a Catholic mother of three from New Jersey who had arrived bleeding from an attempted abortion, she was catalysed to dedicate her life’s work to abortion access. She co-founded the Flushing Women’s Medical Center in 1971, the forerunner of Choices Women’s Medical Center in New York today, one of 10 states with expanded access to abortion.
The name Choices represents Ms. Hoffman’s doctrine to have the right to a choice rather than taking an anti-abortion approach, “I stress that to be pro-choice doesn’t mean that you have to be pro your own abortion. You can come and say I would never have an abortion, I would never kill my baby, I would absolutely not do it and I would say that’s fine. That’s your choice.” The choice, she argues, is an embedded right that stems from biological differences between men and women that should be made by women and women only.
Beyond legal barriers, the social construction of gender and ethical debates surrounding abortion present women with difficult challenges in the realization of their right. “It’s one thing to externally criminalize abortion, and it’s another thing to have women absolutely believe that they have no right or bodily autonomy, not even constitutionally,” Ms. Hoffman says.
The argument against the right for a woman to choose commonly forwarded by pro-life groups equates abortion with murder, viewing human life with high regard. When it comes to women’s rights, the same pro-life belief comes with a double standard. Chloe, who considers herself a democrat and feminist tells us, “It’s a blatant assault on women’s rights. It’s basically saying that potential for life is more important than a woman’s life, period…or that it gets priority and that’s a huge attack on our autonomy as women and our ability to decide what we do with our bodies.”
“You see, I call my organisation ‘Choices’, but how much choice do we really have when you don’t have an economy that supports women to have children, when you basically have an anti-natal society in the United States? We have no daycare, we have poverty, at rates we should not have.”
For women belonging to racial and ethnic minorities or lower income classes, this impact is even greater. In response to pro-life priorities, Chloe asks, “Do you prioritise life or do you prioritise the opportunity for a good life?”. Data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that approximately 33 million women live in states hostile to abortion rights — where abortion is already banned or likely to be banned. These states, such as Mississippi and Louisiana have some of the highest poverty rates amongst women between the ages of 15 and 44. Women living on the margins in these clustered states face a multifold of challenges when it comes to resources to access safe abortion.