New war on women’s right to choose


In the US earlier this year, there were 351 anti-abortion bills making their way through state legislative bodies. In 2010, 174 anti-abortion bills were filed in state legislatures.

There has been a clear push on this issue by anti-abortion organisations in the US in what progressive political commentator Rachel Maddow has called America’s new “war on women”.

Many of the bills and laws that have since been passed are simply reworded versions of older failed bills and have been allowed to pass irrespective of the supposed constitutionally-protected right to abortion.

A main aim of many of these proposed laws is to limit or take away financial coverage of abortions and financially restrict access to groups like Planned Parenthood. This is a clear attack on the rights of women and is economically punitive to poorer women.

Another central aim of these bills, many of which have since passed into law, is to functionally take away rights and access to abortion by forcing women who want one to jump through so many hoops it can become impossible.

These laws have been deliberately designed to make abortion so hard to get that people — both pregnant women and abortion doctors — simply cannot do it in practice.

The idea is to create so many legal, economic and psychological obstacles that women simply do not or cannot undergo the procedure.

In the state of South Dakota there is one clinic that provides abortions once a week. The waiting time between first seeing a doctor and the actual procedure was already required to be 24 hours.

Women may have to drive many hours to get there and find their own accommodation.

The proposed law, which was blocked by the federal court, sought to extend this to a 73-hour period. During this period, women would have been forced to undergo a series of required tests and procedures.

The bill also sought to force women to visit a Pregnancy Crisis Centre, which are not health or pregnancy clinics but merely centres run by anti-abortion organisations.

A study released by US Representative Henry Waxman said 87% of federally funded Pregnancy Crisis Centres had provided false information about abortion when they were phoned.

This law did not pass, but similar legislation has passed in other states that require the same tests and procedures.

In some states a woman seeking an abortion is subject to what is known as “dissuasive counseling”. This is a medically-unsupported anti-abortion spiel written by the state designed to make women feel guilty about their choice to have an abortion and persuade them not to undergo the procedure.

In Indiana, a current bill seeks to force a woman to undergo unnecessary sonograms, see pictures of the foetus, listen to the heartbeat before the procedure and be incorrectly told that abortion increases risk of breast cancer.

In Ohio, the “Heartbeat Bill” has been passed through one house and is making its way into a Republican-led senate. This bill will outlaw abortion after a heartbeat can be detected on an ultrasound, which can be as early as six weeks.

Some states, such as Georgia, have outlawed abortion after a certain number of weeks, and have not granted exceptions even in cases of sexual assault, incest or health and life risks to the mother.

This has the effect of making not just abortion unsafe, but has rendered even desired pregnancy an enormous risk to women.

In 2009 in Wichita, Kansas, the abortion doctor Dr George Tiller was murdered by an anti-abortionist. Wichita was without an abortion-provider until February 2011, when Dr Mila Means began training to provide this service and rented a building to use as a clinic.

Her lease was then rescinded when the owner of the business area filed a lawsuit against Means on the grounds that having an abortion clinic there was already attracting protesters and creating a nuisance in the area.

She also faced serious threats and intimidation when her address was published by anti-abortionists and protesters gathered outside her home, located in an isolated rural area, to intimidate her and drive her out. Means is continuing her fight.

In recent years in Australia, there has not been such a large anti-abortion push by the right, but we are not entirely protected from these types of legislation.

Christian Democrats leader Fred Nile now has his own version of the Heartbeat Bill in this session of the New South Wales parliament.

In Australia, abortion law is intricate and complex. Much of it relies on a balance between the statute and court-defined restrictions.

Abortion is illegal in NSW only if performed “unlawfully” and this carries penalties of up to 10 years jail.

What this means is that the practice of abortion must follow the guidelines decided in a number of cases. These guidelines say abortion is legal if a doctor believes the pregnancy is a risk to the woman’s mental or physical health.

In the Australian Capital Territory, abortion is legal provided it is performed by a medical doctor. In other states, abortion is legal only when two doctors approve it. In others, there are time limits.

People are still prosecuted for abortion in Australia. A couple from Cairns in Queensland was acquitted in October last year after Queensland prosecutors charged them with procuring an illegal abortion.

The effects of these legal obstacles imposed on women and abortion doctors in the US have meant that the process women must go through to have an abortion is incredibly traumatic and potentially even unconstitutional.

Feminists, pro-choice organisations and lawyers continue to challenge these proposed and passed laws.

Women continue to have abortions worldwide, regardless of laws, and it is fundamental to human rights that they can be performed safely, and without trauma or fear of legal prosecution.

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