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Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

The War on Women Enters a New, Even More Dangerous Phase

The abortion issue is being used to strip women of their rights. It’s time to fight back.

Dorothy Woodend 15 May

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It is an odd coincidence that Georgia’s proposed bill effectively criminalizing all abortions hit the news just as a new documentary about Dr. Ruth Westheimer opened in theatres.

The tiny sex therapist pioneered sexual education for the masses, becoming famous in the early 1980s for her radio and TV programs that offered her preternaturally cheerful and grounded advice and information on all matters of sexuality and reproduction. As Ryan White’s good-natured documentary makes clear, Westheimer’s insistence on speaking the truth about bodies and sex proved revolutionary.

But the truth is currently under assault in the U.S. as part of a new war on women.

Georgia’s “heartbeat law” bans abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks, before many women even realize they are pregnant. In truth, heartbeat laws effectively ban safe and legal abortion.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed it up best in a single tweet.

“‘6 weeks pregnant’ = 2 weeks late on your period. Most of the men writing these bills don’t know the first thing about a woman’s body outside of the things they want from it. It’s relatively common for a woman to have a late period + not be pregnant. So, this is a backdoor ban.”

Ocasio-Cortez was not alone in noting that many of the politicians pushing this kind of legislation didn’t have the faintest clue about how women’s bodies actually work.

The Georgian bill is the most recent mendacious assault on reality, but it is certainly not the only one.

Lauren Kelley, writing for the New York Times, recently collected a bevy of misinformation, misleading statements and outright lies from different political leaders, all aimed at justifying an attack on women’s rights.

Kelley’s collection of stories ranged from boneheaded misinformation about birth control to former congressman Todd Akin’s infamous statement explaining why abortion shouldn’t be allowed even for rape victims. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” he said. It’s a false and stupid claim.

Akin’s appalling ignorance has been matched by even stupider statements lately. Ohio State Rep. John Becker took aim at a provision in that state’s version of a heartbeat law that allows abortions in cases of ectopic pregnancy — when a fertilized egg attaches outside the uterus. The reality is that the condition is fatal for the mother if not treated. But Becker claimed the exemption wasn’t needed because doctors could simply pluck the egg out and re-implant it the woman’s uterus. Except they can’t. No such procedure actually exists.

In Florida, House Speaker José Oliva removed women from childbirth — and humanity — entirely, repeatedly referring to them as “host bodies” in an interview with a CBS affiliate.

Although Olivia was forced to apologize, other political leaders have faced few repercussions.

One the ugliest lies was perpetrated by President Donald Trump, who tells crowds at his rallies that doctors doing late-term abortions are executing babies. “The baby is born and you wrap the baby beautifully and you talk to the mother about the possible execution of the baby,” he claimed at a Florida event last week.

As Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar wrote, lies of this magnitude are likely to get somebody killed. (Anti-abortion activists have killed 11 people since 1993, and providers report another 17 attempted murders.)

The misinformation and lies are appalling. But it’s the cruelty of this wave of legislation that stops you in your tracks.

In Ohio, an 11-year-old girl could be forced to carry her rapist’s child under the state’s new heartbeat bill.

In Texas, the senate recently removed the exemption that allowed abortions after 20 weeks if a fetus had “severe and irreversible” abnormalities. This means a woman with an unviable fetus would be forced to carry to term and deliver a child that had no hope of life.

In Alabama, Republicans removed exceptions for rape and incest from the state’s version of a heartbeat law. The measure, approved yesterday, could imprison doctors who performed abortions for up to 99 years.

A proposed bill in Ohio would not only prohibit private insurance companies from covering abortion, but also from paying for “drugs or devices used to prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” Women could be denied access to birth control, as well as abortion care.

But among all these attacks on women, Georgia’s proposed heartbeat bill stood out enough to snag the majority of media attention.

Among the many horrific Easter eggs buried in the bill’s language was the fact that women who terminated a pregnancy could be charged with murder, even for miscarrying. And Georgia still has the death penalty. The bill also decreed, “Unborn children are a class of living, distinct person” who deserve “full legal recognition.” Fertilized embryos are thus granted the same rights and legal protection as an adult woman.

Slate Magazine did a thorough job of explaining what this might mean, including the fact that lawyers could argue that the fetuses of imprisoned women could demand to be freed.

But the reality that women could be executed based on the agenda of a “pro-life movement” kind of says it all.

Pundits, actors and editorial cartoonists immediately leapt into the fray, with film and television production companies threatening boycotts and actress/activist Alyssa Milano threatening a sex strike, a la Lysistrata.

Democratic lawmakers tabled counter-legislation that would require men 55 and older to report to “the county sheriff or local law enforcement agency when such male releases sperm from his testicles.”

The idiocy of the Georgia bill will render it subject to legal challenges, but politicians across the U.S. are apparently hoping for a Supreme Court ruling that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that found women have a right to abortion under the U.S. constitution.

And in Canada?

It’s tempting to watch from the safety of Canada and think “There goes America, being insane again.” But reproductive rights may not be quite as safe here as one might hope.

Liberal MLAs Rich Coleman and Laurie Throness addressed the crowd at a pro-life rally outside the B.C. legislature last week. “The fact that somebody wants to do things with the right to life at the end of life, or the right to life at the beginning of life, is totally, totally wrong for me,” Coleman said. Throness said “life is sacred from conception until natural death.”

They aren’t alone in voicing support for the anti-choice forces.

In Ontario, Progressive Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff pledged that he wanted abortion to become “unthinkable in our lifetime.” Ontario Premier Doug Ford, asked if he agreed with Oosterhoff, ducked the question.

In Alberta, the battle over reproductive rights is particularly fraught. Premier Jason Kenney has said he will not reopen the abortion issue. But he also appointed Adriana LaGrange as education minister.

LaGrange has a long history with the anti-choice movement, including ties to the Wilberforce Project, previously known as Alberta Pro-Life. Wilberforce backed Jason Kenney in the United Conservative leadership race. “Jason Kenney has had a perfect pro-life voting record and founded the pro-life caucus in Parliament,” its website says. “He is the only leadership candidate that can be trusted to be the leader of the United Conservative Party.”

Even if Canadian women’s access to reproductive rights and health care isn’t under direct threat as it is in the U.S., the same retrograde forces exist here. You need only look to Doug Ford taking Ontario back 30 years by reverting to a sex education curriculum from the mid-‘90s to see how fast things can change.

It starts with limits on access to information and education, and then spirals into some fictional faith-based version of how the world supposedly works. Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale will soon be released upon the world, but it’s hard to imagine that even her fertile imagination could have conceived the current situation in the U.S., and the marriage made in hell between Donald Trump and the evangelical church.

As a recent article in the Guardian laid out, the underlying motivation of this union isn’t about the sanctity of human life. It’s about power, control and money. Women and children are really just the chips in the game.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Catholic nun, made the same point in an interview with Bill Moyers 15 years ago.

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life,” she said. “In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

And just when you think it couldn’t get any darker or more vicious, the Trump administration ups the ante. It reportedly threatened to veto a United Nations resolution condemning the use of rape as a war tactic because it included a reference to caring for the “sexual health” of victims. That implied support for abortion, the U.S. maintained. The resolution passed, stripped of the language.

And Trump has imposed a global ban on U.S. funding for any organization that even mentions abortion as part of its work on women’s health. The result will be a surge in maternal mortality rates.

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the struggle for women’s bodily autonomy, for political representation and economic power, for freedom and equality is still being waged.

But it’s no longer a struggle. Now it’s a war.  [Tyee]

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