While most people can easily understand Alabama’s proposed anti-abortion law as an attempt to control women’s bodies and to provoke a judicial response to Roe v. Wade, other aspects of the law and response to it are equally disturbing.
As a proponent of the law argued recently, women shouldn’t be punished for having an abortion, just the doctors who perform them. When asked why women wouldn’t be punished as well for what he had just called a “homicide,” he responded that women aren’t responsible because they have been influenced by others to make this decision and so basically it wasn’t a choice. Abortion is really about exploiting women, he said.
There are two problematic views of women behind this claim.
First, the idea that abortion exploits women rests on the belief that women are easily duped by others and need others to make decisions for them. The notion that women don’t know their own minds or can’t act in their own interests has long historical roots and spills over into many aspects of life even today.
While only Saudi Arabia continues overtly patriarchal guardianship laws, the West also has a long history of treating women as legal children. According to this worldview, women who have abortions are victims of someone else’s trickery and need to be rescued because they can’t choose something as heinous as abortion.
The argument is ironically similar to radical feminist arguments against sex work. A woman could never choose something so awful so she must have been coerced, forced, or deluded into it. The doctor, then, must be at fault for convincing the weak-minded woman.
The interviewee from Alabama even spoke about the “industry” of abortion providers that preys upon desperate women, exploiting and profiting from their desperation. Because clearly, he inferred, only someone desperate would choose to have an abortion, rather than give the child up for adoption to an equally desperate couple who wants to adopt.
Bodily Integrity and Autonomy
This leads to the second, and even more damaging, problem for women. In the famous words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, treating a woman as the means to someone else’s ends (forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy so that another person can adopt a child), also has a long and destructive history.
We can’t imagine forcing men, for example, to undergo vasectomies – that would be a violation of their bodily integrity, but we can somehow imagine forcing women to bear children they don’t want – because women’s bodily autonomy is not so important.
And as the interviewee basically said, what’s the big deal? We don’t have the same stigma about unwed motherhood as we used to, and a lot of couples want to adopt children. There is no justification for abortion anymore, he argued. Unless, of course, you believe that all people, including women, should have full autonomy over their bodies.
Unfortunately, our society still struggles with the question of who has bodily autonomy, who doesn’t, and whose body it is. And for women, less so than for men, that autonomy is questioned. Women and girls are constantly under surveillance in terms of clothing and appearance. They are judged much more harshly than men. Women’s bodies are policed and essentially seen as public. Women in some cultures are assumed to be fair game in terms of groping and sexual harassment, for instance, because good women don’t go out in public. Dress codes, victim-blaming, and sexual double standards all have their roots in the desire to control women’s sexuality and therefore their reproduction.
Stigma Against Abortion
Stigma against abortion serves the same purpose. Anti-choice activists want abortion stigmatized so that women will be reluctant to see themselves as entitled to reproductive freedom; of the right to put themselves and their needs ahead of the embryo.
With an utter lack of compassion for women who have become pregnant after rape or incest, and with an extremist view that fetal rights trump women’s rights, it is obvious at first glance that anti-abortion laws are an attempt to control women’s bodies and suppress their rights to do what they want with them. But the argument that abortion is “exploiting” women speaks to another dangerous narrative that positions women as always and forever victims. Why else do anti-choice activists presume to know why anyone makes the very personal decision to have an abortion or believe that anyone other than that individual should be able to make the decision for her?
Abortion bans aren’t just about controlling women’s bodies.
They’re about controlling women’s sexuality. Owning women.
From limiting birth control to banning comprehensive sex ed, US religious fundamentalists are working hard to outlaw sex that falls outside their theology.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 16, 2019
I’ve never known a woman who was coerced into or exploited by having an abortion and none who were deluded about what they were choosing to do. Most felt tremendous relief after it was over because pregnancy and motherhood should be a choice and should never be forced upon another human being.
Rather than exploiting them, the right to abortion frees women. This is precisely what scares the right-wing critic of reproductive rights for women: for women to not be the means to someone else’s ends.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.