8 March is International Women’s Day. Although women have made enormous strides towards equality just in my lifetime, there are still millions of women who are subjugated and even in the West, still plenty of anti-women laws. There are many countries I could pick on, but given that the United States is currently in the throes of an election process that will have major ramifications for the rights of women in that country, I thought I’d go there. Specifically, I want to address some of the issues in the US around abortion.
In New Zealand, this subject is largely ignored. In 1977 the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Bill was enacted and no politician has been game to touch the subject since. It rarely even gets a mention in elections. Because all public hospitals are owned and run by government, religion doesn’t get to interfere beyond the odd protest, and even these are rare. The law isn’t perfect by any means but on the whole, women who want and need abortions are able to obtain them.
In the United States though it’s a much more contentious subject. Abortion has been legal since the (in)famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision of 22 January 1973. There has been push back from opponents ever since, and in recent years those opponents have been finding ways to limit access to abortion by taking control of the legislature in several states and enacting dubious laws. These laws are progressively making it harder and harder for women to obtain a termination, especially if she is young, poor or lives in a rural area.
Also since the Roe v Wade decision, there has been a protest march every year on its anniversary, calling for it to be overturned. The number of participants on the so-called ‘March for Life’ has increased markedly in recent years. According to Wikipedia, up until 2010 numbers never got higher than 250,000. In 2010 and 2011 there were apparently around 400,000 marchers, 650,000 in 2012, and there are unconfirmed reports of 800,000 this year.
The increased attendance on the March for Life has been touted by abortion opponents as evidence of a sea-change in public opinion about abortion i.e. that a majority are now opposed. They point to such things as the Kermit Gosnell case and the undercover Planned Parenthood videos made by the misleadingly named Center for Medical Progress as bringing the reality of abortion to public notice.
(Gosnell owned an abortion clinic and was convicted, among other things, of killing foetuses that survived abortions. The Center for Medical Progress tricked Planned Parenthood staff into saying they would sell aborted foetuses for profit. See the links above for more information.)
The issue has become even more important than usual because of this year’s election. The Democratic Party runs on a pro-choice platform. In the GOP, candidates are technically able to make up their own minds but currently being pro-choice is not an option if you want to get elected, such is the grip evangelicals have on the party’s more tender anatomy.
However, a report released by Pew Research Center on 1 March 2016 shows that since they mid 1990s, support for abortion has remained greater than opposition to it in the United States. Overall, there has been little change in twenty years, with a slight majority (51%) saying it should be legal in most or all circumstances. (43% say it should be illegal most or all of the time.) The interesting thing is that when opinions are broken down by region, there has been a big increase in opposition only in the south-central states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas), which are also the only part of the country where opposition is greater than support.
Further, while those in New England have always been more likely to support abortion rights and those in the south-central states more likely to oppose them, the difference has become much more polarized. In 1995/96 the gap between the two regions was 18 points; by 2012/13 it had increased to 35 points. This matches the increased political polarization of the country, with the South Central states all being conservative, evangelical, and Republican strongholds.
The fact that opposition to abortion is largely based on religion can be seen in the graph on the right. Religion and religiosity, and therefore whether abortion is seen as a moral choice, appear to determine a person’s opposition to abortion.
One of the things I find very interesting about this graph is the relatively low levels of opposition to abortion in the Catholic community. The Catholic establishment is, of course, completely opposed to abortion in principle. The same failure to adhere strictly to Catholic doctrine can be seen in, for example, the widespread use of artificial contraceptives and support for same-sex marriage. (It’s good to see Catholics are more sensible than their leaders.)
I’d argue that the Catholic Church establishment’s constant hypocrisy, especially in relation to their failure to protect children in their care, means they can hardly criticize their congregation either. Also, the pope has made this a Jubilee year, meaning Catholics can get forgiveness for things like abortion that they can’t normally get forgiveness for. The elasticity of the morality of the Catholic establishment has been a feature of it for centuries.
The Guttmacher Institute released a report on 1 March 2016 that shows that 28 states have laws that force women needing an abortion, among other things, to wait between 1 and 3 days. Why this is considered acceptable is appalling. There is no other medical procedure for which this occurs. These laws, like the one relating to Texas abortion clinics that is currently before the Supreme Court (see below), are about nothing more than controlling women and forcing the beliefs of the lawmakers on a vulnerable, powerless group.
Most of these states also require parents to be at least notified and to give their consent when a minor requires an abortion. The terror with which that must fill some young women horrifies me.
I used to work in Quality and Risk Management in the biggest hospital in the southern hemisphere. One case I’ve never forgotten is that where the fact a young woman (supported by social workers) had had an abortion was discovered by her family. They were told by a family member (a nurse) who worked at the hospital, who discovered it by by breaching both hospital policy and New Zealand law. That family member then disclosed it to the girl’s parents and other family members, again in breach of New Zealand law. The girl was kicked out of her home, disowned by her very religious parents, and required to leave school. The family member lost her job (privacy breaches are considered extremely serious issues), but it was too late for the young woman concerned. I can see this sort of happening regularly when the law requires parents to be notified. At least in New Zealand, a social security benefit and other help was available – many US states do not have the same services.
Abortion has been made a major issue in this year’s presidential election. Republican candidates in particular are required to be not just anti-abortion personally, but prepared to force that position on all USians. When it comes to the general election, this position is going to come back to bite them. As I pointed out in an earlier post, if the Republicans want to win the general election, they are going to have to do a better job of appealing to women. Donald Trump already has strong negatives with women which he cannot overcome. The other two top candidates on the GOP side, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and both strongly opposed to abortion and talking about overturning Roe v Wade. On top of that, they and the fourth candidate are vowing to withdraw all funding for Planned Parenthood. These positions will cost all of them with women.
It has become a mantra in the GOP that Planned Parenthood is some kind of Evil Empire, preying on women, forcing them to have abortions. Expressing your opposition to the organisation is seemingly a requirement to get support. However, once again, the reality is very different from what the Republican party thinks it is. Although there has been a reduction in support for Planned Parenthood over the years, the results of a Gallup survey from October last year, in the midst of the “selling baby parts controversy” showed a sizable majority still view it favourably.
Support for Planned Parenthood is stronger amongst Democrats, independents, and women which explains why Donald Trump has started speaking in favour of the organisation in the last few weeks. Trump can’t say anything to turn off his base, but he knows he needs to attract wider support, especially in the general election, and especially amongst women.
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas in particular have been getting away with enacting laws placing an undue burden on abortion clinics in those states. On Friday, the US Supreme Court handed down an order in relation to the Louisiana law, requiring the court there to allow abortion clinics to re-open. If they follow the same logic they used in this case, the Supreme Court will also strike down the Texas law that it coming before it shortly. (Although it never does to rely on such things with the US Supreme Court.) Think Progress reports:
Friday afternoon [4 March 2016], the Supreme Court handed down a very brief order allowing several Louisiana abortion clinics to reopen after a conservative federal appeals court forced them to shut down. Yet, while the Supreme Court’s order was very short — only slightly more than a paragraph long — it contained 14 more words than such an order normally would. And those 14 words appear to be a direct swipe at the appeals court that shut down Louisiana’s clinics in the first place.
To explain, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has handed down a series of decisions that appear calculated to dismantle nearly all of Roe v. Wade within the three states (Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) overseen by that court. In 2015, for example, the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole gave states sweeping power to restrict abortion, so long as the restriction is dressed up as a health regulation.
Among other things, this opinion blessed a provision of Texas law requiring abortion clinics to undergo expensive renovations in order to comply with regulations governing “ambulatory surgical centers,” even if the clinic does not actually perform any surgeries. Many Texas abortion clinics only offer medication abortions, which are induced by pills the woman takes orally.
An appeal of this Whole Woman’s Health decision is currently pending before the justices, and a majority of the Court appeared skeptical of the Fifth Circuit’s decision at oral arguments last Wednesday.
Just one week before the Supreme Court heard these arguments, however, the Fifth Circuit handed down another anti-abortion decision. In June Medical Services v. Gee, the Fifth Circuit granted an “emergency” motion reinstating a Louisiana law that was expected to shut down all but one of that state’s abortion clinics. The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical Services closely resembles a provision of the Texas law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health.
The Fifth Circuit’s order in June Medical Services was surprising, largely because the Supreme Court had already dropped some pretty big clues that a majority of the justices disapprove of the Fifth Circuit’s decisions forcing abortion clinics to close. Among other things, the justices stayed the Fifth Circuit’s Whole Woman’s Health decision pending the Supreme Court’s own resolution of the case — effectively enabling many Texas abortion clinics to remain open that would be closed if the Fifth Circuit’s order were still in effect.
Nevertheless, the Fifth Circuit decided not to take the hint that Texas-style attempts to shut down clinics should be placed on hold. Instead, the Fifth Circuit claimed in June Medical Services that it was free [to] ignore this hint because, when the Supreme Court stayed Whole Woman’s Health, it did so in a brief order without explaining its reasoning. …
Which brings us back to the 14 significant words in the Supreme Court’s most recent order. “Consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole,” that order begins, the Fifth Circuit’s order reinstating the Louisiana law is vacated.
These 14 words are a subtle spanking, but they are a spanking nonetheless. They directly contradict the Fifth Circuit’s claim that it can ignore the Supreme Court’s previous stay orders if the lower court “cannot discern the underlying reasoning” behind those orders. And they rebut the Fifth Circuit’s logic on its own terms. Why shouldn’t lower courts allow Texas-style abortion restrictions to go into effect in the future? Because halting these laws is “consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole.”
… the Supreme Court is now signalling very loudly that a majority of the Court is not pleased with the Fifth Circuit’s efforts to pare Roe v. Wade down to near nothingness.
It seems likely that at least some of the attempts by religious conservatives to take away women’s rights won’t succeed. It will also bring the issues of both women’s rights the right of the president to select Supreme Court justices front and centre in the election. A majority of USians think women should have those rights, and not recognizing this could ultimately lead to the death of the Republican Party.
For the sake of the cause of Women’s Rights in the United States in general, and for abortion rights in particular, let’s hope that the Democratic Party is successful in November’s election.