The criminalization of pregnancy – August 1, 2022

first published in the Seattle Times

M. Ryder / Op-Art
M. Ryder / Op-Art

By Alice Rothchild
Special to The Times

The recent Supreme Court decision to end a woman’s right to abortion and the years of agitating and restrictions that led to that decision are a manifestation of a social trend to criminalize pregnancy.

Women and people capable of pregnancy are viewed as threats to their potential offspring, rather than as whole humans capable of making thoughtful and intelligent reproductive choices. This is reminiscent of a time where women were seen as inherently dangerous (see Adam and Eve), where the flaunting of female sexuality challenged the sacred social order, where a woman’s body was inherently her destiny and men were in charge solely by nature of being men.

The increasingly punitive misogyny arising among certain segments of our society is likely a response to the growing power of women taking their rightful places in contemporary life, challenging their traditional subservient positions in the home and workplace, provoking fear among some men who are being asked to share the tasks of homemaking and child rearing as well as traditional male roles at work. Women’s independence is seen as deeply emasculating.

Women began taking more forceful control of their reproduction when reliable, relatively safe contraception became available, and it should be noted that most chose to have fewer children than their foremothers. The ability to end an unwanted pregnancy due to contraceptive failure, rape, incest or a night of revelry at the local bar gave women a critical level of autonomy. This led to a dramatic increase in personal control: the ability to finish a degree, continue work and remain economically whole, and take better care of already existing children, without the fear and shaming of an unplanned pregnancy. It also meant that people capable of becoming pregnant could engage in sexual activity without the anxiety of an unexpected positive test. This kind of independence challenged longstanding male power and domination.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 and the option of abortion became more available, especially with the advent of medical abortions, there has been a flurry of well-organized and well-funded activity seeking to make the delivery of those services increasingly difficult. The Hyde amendment outlawed federal funding for the procedure. Onerous rules were created for abortion centers from burdensome wait times to specified widths of hallways. Providers, sometimes facing threats of harassment and death, were required to perform ultrasounds and detailed descriptions of the fetus before the procedure or to maintain difficult-to-get admitting privileges. A new language and politic developed concerning “personhood,” the rights of the “unborn” and “fetal pain,” couched in particular religious beliefs while ignoring the fact that there is no unanimity between religions when it comes to these deeply personal questions and that the U.S. theoretically has a separation between church and state.

In many states where abortion is currently outlawed, there are attacks on the support systems for pregnant women: Caring friends and family, Lyft drivers, pharmacists and other medical personnel are threatened by a new vigilantism, spying on neighbors, reporting suspected offenders and reaping financial awards in a manner reminiscent of the German Stasi in the latter half of the 20th century.

The fact that this is a so-called advanced society with shocking disparities in access to prenatal care as well as high maternal morbidity and mortality rates, especially for people of color and low socioeconomics, speaks to the lack of respect for the needs of people who are having babies and to their families. It is the same political bent that leads to pitiful maternity leaves and a severe lack of affordable, quality child care. Women (as opposed to fetuses) are clearly less valued, less deserving, (insurance coverage for Viagra not birth control pills), and are to be punished for just being themselves. This is the embodiment of what linguistics professor George Lakoff called “the wrathful god.” Men are less likely to be asked to bear the consequences of their sexual activity until perhaps the settling of child support during divorce cases. Even there, for decades women with children have been at a legal and economic disadvantage.  

The implications of the criminalization of pregnancy are enormous: increased surveillance and questioning of women who present with incomplete spontaneous miscarriages or stillborns and are accused of self-harm; horrific legal quandaries for pregnant people who develop cancer and are literally unable to make choices favoring their own survival; people with ectopic pregnancies or rupture of membranes before viability who are told they have to wait to be treated until their lives are threatened or there is no fetal heartbeat, endangering their own survival and future fertility. Women in more repressive states have to travel to obtain care and are likely to be more financially and emotionally stressed and further along in their pregnancies. We are witnessing the creation of literal abortion refugees, as well as aboveground and underground “railroads” either shepherding women to sanctuary states or bringing abortion pills into states where they are illegal. People using those same drugs for other diagnoses are now having difficulty finding them or are challenged when they pick up their prescriptions.  

These trends in society are dangerous for women and people capable of pregnancy, and challenge the motivations of the supposed “anti-abortion” movement, reactionary judges moving these agendas through the legal system, and the politicians fanning the flames of the culture wars for their own partisan benefit.

One in four women in the U.S. has had an abortion. It is time to share and normalize our abortion stories and to sustain organizations working to protect women’s reproductive choices. We must inspire the two thirds of Americans who support reproductive autonomy to vote for candidates at all levels who will build legislative solutions at a time when the judicial system is failing. The time has come to make reproductive rights an inherent component of basic human rights in this country.

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author and filmmaker focused on human rights and social justice. Until retirement she served as assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She is the author of “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.” A grandmother, she is currently writing books for children and young adults.

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