The recent discussion about the abrogation of the current Mississippi abortion law has sparked a heated debate about reproductive rights in the United States. The topic of abortion has always been in people’s mouths, but nowadays it is particularly discussed: lately many states have taken a conservative turn when it comes to reproductive rights.
Recently the Texas council has passed a law that makes most abortions illegal after a heartbeat has been detected in the womb (the so-called “Heartbeat Law”), and Mississippi appears to be following suit with the passing of a similar law more conservative than the one currently in force. The law under review in Mississippi renders abortion illegal after 15 weeks, which is more or less two months earlier than the timing of precedence in Roe vs Wade. This law was approved in 2018, and it did not provide exemption in cases of rape or incest.
Unfortunately, anti-abortion attempts have been spreading to multiple US states: why are so many states taking a conservative turn by seemingly going backwards on progressive laws such as the one which allows abortion up to 23 weeks?
Court of Appeal Judge James C. Ho recently made a statement which in many ways avoids talking about the real issue, which is the law effectively controlling what a woman decides to do with her body and talks about abortion as a mere medical procedure whose only difference from other matters of healthcare is the fact that issues regarding abortion have a precedent in the Supreme Court. This is Ho’s statement:
“Nothing in the text or original understanding of the Constitution establishes a right to an abortion, rather, what distinguishes abortion from other matters of health care policy in America — and uniquely removes abortion policy from the democratic process established by our founders — is Supreme Court precedent.”
At the root of the abortion issue in the United States are laws and regulations that have been put in place and are now being repealed in some states, such as the Heartbeat Law. As the name suggests, the Heartbeat Law bans abortions as soon as a heartbeat is detected in the fetus. Recently there have been lots of discussions about this topic, as Texas and Oklahoma have just had the Heartbeat Law return effective as of September and November 2021, respectively. In other words, through this legislation, it would be prohibited by law to have an abortion if the fetus is more than 6 weeks old.
In the case of Mississippi, the return re-enactment of the Heartbeat Law was blocked in 2019 and is now under revision. The Heartbeat Law goes against the famous 1973 process which saw Roe vs. Wade and ended up establishing the court precedent regarding abortion mentioned by Judge Ho. Since the American Constitution does not formally mention abortion rights, women rely on effective court precedent for the right to stop pregnancy. This despite the fact that in the Roe vs. Wade process the result made it so that the constitution protects the right of a woman to have an abortion before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb (which at the moment, thanks also to medical advancements, is about 23 weeks).
If we take into consideration the 23 weeks that the current abortion law offers, versus the 6 weeks of the Heartbeat Law, we can immediately notice a striking difference. In the time that a woman could, first of all, realise she is pregnant, consider her options and effectively ponder the decision to terminate her pregnancy; in many cases, a woman will not even know that she is pregnant after six weeks. Under these circumstances, it is safe to say that the Heartbeat Law effectively takes away women’s right of having an abortion, even though it doesn’t state this fact in so many words. The name itself, “Heartbeat Law” can in my opinion be considered misleading since it evokes a sentiment of protection and justice; this might well be the case, but the truth is that the mothers who are not allowed to pursue an abortion are in many cases left to fend for themselves.
Donald Trump’s presidency definitely influenced the conservative turn many states (which already had a conservative majority) have taken. The judges who Donald Trump appointed during his presidency (such as Judge Ho) are of course anti-abortion, and in those states which historically have always been republican and conservative, they are pushing to have the Heartbeat Law come back into force. In the course of his presidency, Donald Trump appointed 54 federal appellate judges, flipping the balance of many appeal courts to a republican majority.
Former President Trump has also been at the centre of a debate regarding a case that happened back in 2017, when a pregnant 17-year-old, who at the time was staying in the country as a federal refugee, sought an abortion. In this situation, Trump told her that if she wanted to remain in the United States she would have had to carry on with the pregnancy. This case was definitely a way for Trump to take a clear position in matters regarding abortion: because the girl was an immigrant in the United States, Trump actually had the power to decide about her fate and thus he used her as a scapegoat.
These types of demonstrations which governments carry out to make a statement or to show their power over people become even more problematic when women’s bodies come into play and are treated not only as something which needs to be controlled by legislation but also as something which can be quite literally used as a way to communicate a strong message.
In conclusion, it is interesting to look at how in recent years (that is to say since President Trump has been elected) there has been a retrogression in terms of abortion rights. Even though public opinion regarding matters of abortion has maintained relatively stable through the past few years, the issue of conservativism acquiring a louder voice in recent times is definitely due to Trump’s election in 2016. As true as that might be, we still need to consider the fact that our collective social mentality has taken a shift for the best regarding matters such as LGBTQ rights. Of course, this could be debated, and discrimination is still largely taking place, but it is undeniable that many things have become normalised in the past ten years, mainly thanks to the Internet and social media, through which many people have had the opportunity to learn more about issues that might not concern them in the first place but which are crucial for certain people. When it comes to abortion, it is undeniably a controversial topic, and this is because it concerns men and women in very different ways. It is quite obvious that, since the majority of politicians (not only in the United States) are still men, they are able to talk about abortion with a very pragmatic undertone, such as Judge Ho when he talks about abortion being “a matter of healthcare policy”. The truth is that it is much more than that: a woman being able to choose whether or not she wants to carry on with pregnancy is primarily a matter of making her own choice when it comes to her own body. There will always be debates about abortion, and I believe that we have to accept this. Many times, it is not about the procedure itself, but it is about the implications that it has for the people involved; it is not a black-or-white issue, every single case has to be considered in and of itself. In light of this, laws such as Mississippi’s current abortion law or the Heartbeat Law, don’t actually take into consideration the fact that every case is different and that by taking away (or limiting) the right of having an abortion for everyone they are ultimately damaging the lives of many people.