The heart of all moral and legal arguments about abortion is this: who owns a woman’s body? Is it the woman herself, or is it someone else? In the state of Arkansas, a new and brutal law has decided it’s the latter.
Arkansas Act 45, which was signed by the state’s governor Asa Hutchinson on Thursday, criminalises dilation and extraction (D&E), which is the surgical method used to perform most second trimester abortions. On its own, effectively banning abortion after 14 weeks would amount to a heinous attack on women, but Act 45 goes further.
It includes a provision for the pregnant woman’s husband, parent or guardian, or healthcare provider to block abortions by D&E – and there’s no exemption for cases of rape and incest. That means that a woman raped by her husband, or a girl raped by her father, has to go through her abuser to end any resulting pregnancy. And that means that Arkansas is siding with male coercion over women’s bodies. It means that women’s consent can be stolen from them twice: first in the act of rape, and again in the denial of abortion.
This is grotesque, and it comes on top of an abortion law that already includes mandatory counselling, a waiting period, 20-week limit and severe restrictions on provision of terminations under the Affordable Care Act. But the particular twist of horror in Act 45 should not obscure the fact that compulsory childbirth is always a violent imposition on women.
The gestation of a child is not an equal partnership between a man and a woman. A man’s basic physical contribution is orgasming, and as far as I’m aware, no man has ever suffered death, pain or even stretch marks as a result of this. For the woman, reproduction means nine months of possibly fatal complications and unavoidable discomfort, all capped with the exhausting and dangerous process of labour.
You can sentimentalise maternity as much as you like, but it’s meaningless kitsch unless you recognise what having a baby actually entails for women. And the Arkansas Act doesn’t even recognise women as adults. It treats them as minors under the care of their husbands. It infantilises adults in order – paradoxically – that men can make full exploitative use of grown female bodies. The Act refers, inanely, to the foetus as an “unborn child”, and then gives women an even lower legal standing.
The absurdity of the spousal consent provision is that it’s not even necessary. If D&E is banned, then it’s banned: it makes little sense to extra-ban it by saying husbands can refuse for their wives to receive a medical procedure that is in any case illegal. But this redundancy exposes the purpose of the law. It’s intended not just to punitively restrict abortions (in a state where 77 per cent of women already live in a county with no abortion clinic), but to reframe the place of women.
Remember, Roe vs. Wade is a ruling that allows for abortion under the auspices of privacy: Act 45 is a law that says a woman has no privacy, and her husband is the ultimate authority on what should happen in the most intimate spaces of her body. Even if the Act ultimately falls (as the ACLU thinks possible), the message is clear.
With Trump in the White House and the possibility of definitively rebalancing the Supreme Court in favour of reactionary interests within this presidency, the architects of the backlash are ready to press their advantage. This is not about “saving babies”. This is not about “protecting society”. This is a state level pussy-grab and it’s about affirming the inferiority of women. Women must resist it, and resist it together.
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