In a reasonable and decent world, the topic of women’s reproductive rights wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would be something that none of us would think about, three words that would never be strung together because it would be such an obvious and normal part of our lives. Women would have full autonomy over their bodies, they would be well-educated on issues concerning sex and reproduction, they would have access to the resources they need when it comes to controlling when or if they want to give birth to a child, and they would not be shamed for using these resources.
But we do not live in a reasonable and decent world.
Last month, North Dakota became the worst state in America to be a woman. Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican politician who has made it his personal mission to push the limits of federal law and “discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade,” signed the strictest limitations on abortion rights in the country: a ban on abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks. This means that a women would have to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound to determine the presence of a heartbeat.
As someone who has never been pregnant or risked becoming pregnant, maybe Governor Dalrymple has no idea that many women don’t even know that they’re pregnant at six weeks, but I’m not going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This is a powerful man who is planning to spend millions of dollars defending this bill and is using every ounce of his political capital to deny women control over their own bodies, and he’s not alone. There are more bills just like this one popping up in states across the country from Ohio, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kansas. As the sponsor of a similar bill in Ohio said, “There is a crack in the door in Roe versus Wade, and we’re going through it.” (source)
One might think that it couldn’t get worse than this for women’s reproductive rights in North Dakota, but they would be wrong. Like Mississippi, the state has only one abortion clinic, which is now in danger due to these new legislations.
Tammi Kromenaker, who runs North Dakota’s last clinic, says the most concerning part of all of this is a bill known as TRAP (appropriately named after the trap that conservative legislators are trying to force women in), which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital in order to practice, an obstacle that is wholly unnecessary. As Kromenaker said in an interview with the Washington Post, “You can look to Mississippi to see how this has already played out [after it passed a similar law in 2011]. There are very well-qualified doctors there who have been unable to gain privileges because the hospital doesn’t want to engage in the debate.” (source)
As terrifying as this is, the extremely restrictive abortion legislations aren’t all that the people of North Dakota are being hit with. As of April 2nd, lawmakers have taken things a step further by attempting to eliminate funding for sex education in the state. Three House members and three senators agreed on an amendment that would stop $1.2 million in grant funding for teens ages 15 -19 who want to receive sex education and have parental permission to do so. Their reasoning is that comprehensive sex education promotes abortion, never mind that abortion is all but illegal in the state anyway. The House still has to vote on whether or not this will go into effect, but sponsors of the measure are on record saying that they don’t anticipate any problems getting it through. (source)
North Dakota is far from being the only state where women’s reproductive rights are in peril. Across the nation we have politicians fighting to make abortion, sex ed, and even birth control less accessible if not entirely illegal, such as in Texas where Planned Parenthood was defunded earlier this year. But most troublesome of all are the proposed “personhood” bills supported by the likes of former Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which would give full 14th Amendment rights to single-celled organisms inside the womb and criminalize the use of birth control pills. “Personhood” amendments were widely rejected by voters in Mississippi in 2011, so it’s unlikely that such legislation would ever be passed into law while the American people have a say in it, but conservative politicians and an organization called PersonhoodUSA are now fighting for these measures harder than ever. The “Sanctity of Human Life Act” was introduced to Congress on January 3rd, 2013 on behalf of 18 politicians, 17 of whom were men. The stated goal was “To provide that human life shall be deemed to begin with fertilization.”
Looking at all these pieces put together, the big question here is why? Why are politicians, overwhelmingly male politicians, putting so much focus on the legislation of female reproduction and so little on the welfare of children once they are born? Why is Governor Dalrymple of North Dakota prepared to spend millions of dollars to test the limits of Roe v. Wade, but is making no discernible efforts to make sure that families and children in poverty have the resources they need? Why do some conservative politicians “value life” to the point that they are willing to strip women of their bodily autonomy to protect fertilized eggs, but don’t value it enough to enact stricter gun regulations in the wake of a tragedy where 26 people, most of whom were aged 5-7, were murdered in cold blood?
The list of hypocrisies in the logic of conservative lawmakers could go on indefinitely, but we are left with the harsh reality that most women in North Dakota no longer have access to safe abortion services, and on top of that they will probably lose access to sex education as long as these bills remain law. These legislations create a sick and twisted cycle of people who are denied the resources they need to make informed and empowered decisions about their bodies and reproduction, then are forced to give birth to children that they aren’t prepared for. With abortion nearly four times more common among American women living below the poverty line than it is among women above 200% of the poverty line, many of these unplanned children will be born into poverty and to women whose goals for advancement in their education and careers will be forever crippled by the added responsibility.
While it is socially acceptable for a new father to continue working toward his career goals so he can support his family, a mother who can’t afford childcare services is often stuck at home or working part-time jobs that offer little room for advancement. Both parties are crippled by the new responsibility, but it is the woman who remains a second-class citizen, not allowed to make decisions about her life and body and “kept in her place” in the role of a caregiver, someone who may never have the same control over her life that a man might. For single mothers the scenario is often drastically worse. This is not at all to say that women who have children from unplanned pregnancies are destined to lead unfulfilled lives, but their paths undeniably become more difficult, and the lawmakers behind the “Sanctity of Human Life Act” know this. Even the lives of women who give up their children for adoption are impacted, having to take time away from school and work, facing discrimination from employers for being pregnant, and some ultimately losing their jobs or having to drop out of school entirely, not to mention the physical and emotional toll.
Legislating women’s reproductive rights is a means of stopping women from advancing in society, it is a way of keeping power in the hands of men and maintaining the status quo of gender inequality. Many people argue that it’s about religion and forcing the moral objectives of the Bible on our society, but what themes in the Bible are greater than the submission of women? Christianity is an institution that was created by men, and over 2,000 years later we still don’t have female leaders in the Church. Male domination is a great Christian tradition, and as long as we allow our political leaders to use their religious beliefs to justify their horrific legislative decisions, we will never see equality between men and women.
If conservative politicians believed in the things they pretend to believe in, they would value the lives of corporeal people and promote programs that would provide comprehensive sex education and family planning services such as Planned Parenthood, things that would improve the lives of women and men instead of taking these things away from us under the guise of being “pro-life.” They would want to provide money and resources to people who need them instead of trying to restrict them. These politicians say that the country can’t afford to provide women with access to birth control, but they don’t seem to mind the result, which is more unplanned children being born and given to the State, or children born into poverty and whose families will often require welfare to get by, a far greater expense. The restriction of women’s reproductive rights also expands the cycle of poverty that so many of us live in, and it’s another system of inequality in our society that is being maintained. If these politicians want anything, it’s power and control. Their pro-life beliefs start and end with rich white men.
We can and are fighting against these forces, and by all accounts we are winning. As Tammi Kromenaker said of the heartbeat legislation in North Dakota, “I’m fully confident we’ll get an injunction. There are constitutional questions that are involved with the heartbeat bill. Even the governor said in his veto statement that they’re open to constitutional questions.” Women don’t want this, the American people don’t want this, and in the end the people will prevail.
Written by Rhiannon Payne