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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Elephant in the Room

Why the Republican party cares only about unborn women.

In America, the days of the coat-hanger abortion might be back. With the presidential race approaching, a new breed of conservatism is making its presence known on the political scene, and the consequences for women are grim. Over the past couple of years, Republican law-makers have been steadily creating legislation that restricts women’s access, and right to, contraception and abortion services. 

Against the advice of medical profession, activists, and many women themselves, their decisions are adversely impacting lives across the nation. But the issue transcends the pro-choice/pro-life debate. It’s about a political party using its clout to marginalize 50 percent of its country’s population. It’s about that party implementing laws that undermine the agency of women and holds them all to a conservative standard of behaviour. It’s about bypassing the democratic process and the separation of state and religion. And the result is that tax-paying citizens are subjected to laws they were never consulted about—laws that affect them intimately—simply because those citizens have female genitalia. Welcome to the American dream.

You can’t make this shit up

America’s self-appointed nickname is the “land of the free”, but recent events are shattering that reputation.  Abuses of power and policies that defy belief have cropped up all over the democratic nation, and no one seems to be taking any notice.  When a congressional hearing about Obama’s Affordable Care Act was put together, its aim was to discuss whether or not health insurers covering birth control under their plans would violate religious freedom. In their infinite wisdom, the Republican party decided to have a balanced panel of experts debate the issue. It consisted of eight people and five witnesses. All were male. Most were religious clergy. The fact that no religious institutions would be forced to pay for contraception (and the fact that no one on the panel would be affected by insurers subsidising birth control) went unnoticed. Also absent were economists, insurance industry representatives, doctors, employment lawyers, and, uh, women.

All the people of Georgia and Oklahoma wanted were upgraded parking meters and a new library, but their state legislatures took it upon themselves to spend taxpayer resources on passing a new law that grants fertilised eggs the same rights as full-grown human beings. Since partially-formed, conscious-less embryos are scientifically incapable of exercising these rights, it appears as though the states are just paving the way for future anti-choice measures. Also in Georgia is the “Women as livestock” bill that requires women to carry non-viable foetuses to term, because, as Republican state rep Terry England reasons, if pigs and cows can carry their dead foetuses then women can too. Just take a minute to think about that logic and the fact that Terry England has the power to make legally-binding, medically inexplicable decisions based on that thought process. Then, think about how emotionally devastating it would be to a woman who has to carry the remains of her would-be child for several months until the state decides it’s the “natural time” to end her torment.

Texas governor Rick Perry decided to unconstitutionally destroy the state’s women’s health program in case any funding went towards Planned Parenthood clinics, who he seems to think are evil abortion advocates that convince vulnerable women to kill their babies. In reality, Planned Parenthood provides invaluable sexual and mental health services for both men and women, including STI treatments, cervical smears, and counselling. Apart from being a spectacular abuse of power, Perry’s actions have woeful implications for Texan women who rely on these services for basic health provisions. But the happy fun times in the lone star state don’t end there. Women seeking abortions in the towns of Kingsville and Corpus Christi must listen to a presentation (given by an honest-to-God doctor) that explains the link between breast cancer and abortions (which empirically doesn’t exist). This is all done in a wholehearted attempt to convince the women not to go through with it, regardless of their own reasons (rape and incest don’t cut it) or the medical code of impartiality.

In a move intended to restrict access to safer, easier, less expensive terminations, Wisconsin passed a law that required doctors to perform vague deductive checks to make sure their patients aren’t being pressured into having terminations. It sounds well and good until you consider the sinister reasoning behind it that conceives of abortion as a choice that no right-minded woman should consider. Additionally, it increases the number of medical visits a woman would have to make (in America these don’t come cheap) while making it illegal for doctors and patients to communicate via webcam when undergoing medical abortions. This needlessly disadvantages women who choose the non-surgical route and penalises doctors who just want to ensure a medically-sound experience from start to finish. Finally, let’s not forget Arizona, where a recent law stipulated that a woman’s pregnancy legally starts two weeks before the point of conception. Technically, this means that every woman is legally pregnant since she can’t fully guarantee that she won’t be pregnant two weeks in the future. Let’s hear it for common sense!

Time for a change?

Luckily, NZ’s legal limitations on reproductive rights aren’t as restrictive. Bafflingly, abortion is listed under the Crimes Act, and can only be carried out under the provisions of serious danger to life, physical or mental health, incest, and foetal abnormality. Although factors like rape, extremes of age, and foetal abnormality are taken into account, they aren’t legal reasons in themselves. Self-abortions are not only illegal, but a criminal offence. To get abortion performed here, a woman must be certified by two specially-appointed doctors.

Currently, almost all abortions performed in NZ are approved under the mental health clause. Agencies like family planning–who provide fertility advice, cervical smears, vasectomies and much more–advocate for sex education and access to abortions without unnecessary barriers. The Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ (ALRANZ) argues that our current law, which was passed in 1977 when Parliament only had four female members, is outdated, punitive, and unrealistic. They say the $5 million it costs to certify a consultant could be better spent on preventing unplanned pregnancy, and that socio-economic factors should be recognized and not swept under the heading of ‘mental health’. Additionally, they say that the discourse around abortion needs to change. No contraception is 100 per cent effective and sexual activity is not a crime, so mistakes are bound to happen. They argue that women want to give their children the best start in life, and forcing someone to carry a child they just don’t have the resources for is not in the best interests of society.

ALRANZ also points out that rural and poorer women are more disadvantaged in the process, and the bureaucratic delays result in the prolonging of the abortion process, which is neither cost-effective nor medically advisable.  Additionally, they point out that the law hasn’t reduced the number of abortions, it’s just made the process more costly and difficult for doctors and patients. Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing the long-running Right to Life v Abortion Supervisory Committee case. Right to Life are appealing the court’s decision that the ASC (who are appointed by Parliament) should not be allowed to overturn the medical decisions of certified consultants, and the outcome is yet to be decided.

The big picture

None of this is to say that having pro-life/anti-choice beliefs are necessarily bad. The horror of the matter is that individual choice is being taken away on fundamentally personal issues. Instead of focusing on what the public wants to fund, the Republican lawmakers in the US are abusing their powers to further their own ideological agendas. By using their influence to promote beliefs that trample on the hard-won reproductive rights and civil liberties of women, the Republican Party are giving preferential treatment to those that share their own religious affiliations at the cost of everyone else’s human rights. Even in safe old Aotearoa, we still have reproductive laws that were passed over 30 years ago. Our society has changed, and so have our views on sex and reproduction, so why are our lawmakers so resistant to updating the legislation around them? Though we might not see US-style ‘reforms’ here, the political inaction speaks for itself. America’s new laws on reproductive health are a depressing indicator that a country which supposedly champions individual rights is willing to forfeit the achievements gained in equal rights over the last 50 years to conform to a standard of morality that doesn’t suit many of its 300 million citizens. Thankfully, those citizens still get a voice in the upcoming election. Let’s hope their views won’t be silenced.

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