Women are now seen as little more than ‘living wombs’

Men are not put in prison for accessing healthcare – but even in Britain abortion is criminalised. Why?

<p>The law has no place in the regulation of our bodies </p>

The law has no place in the regulation of our bodies

The supposed “land of the free” is the latest in a growing list of countries that have infantilised women by no longer having the right to control their own bodies, thanks to the overturning of Roe v Wade.

This once-landmark decision which made it clear that the US constitution protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose an abortion has been eschewed in favour of individual states deciding their own abortion laws.

As a barrister, I am sometimes criticised for supposedly “not respecting” the integrity of the rule of law. Well, it is my view that the criminalisation of abortion shows that we are not all accountable to the same laws. The law is made by men, for men: to control, dominate and subjugate women. The law has no place in the regulation of our bodies. Yet thanks to Roe v Wade, women are now seen as little more than “living wombs”.

This week, 13 US states made abortion illegal – and that figure is predicted to rise to 26 out of the 50 states. The ruling disproportionately hurts women of colour, those who are impoverished and victims of domestic abuse, because they will face overwhelming costs and logistical obstacles in accessing reproductive healthcare.

Millions of women who once had access to safe healthcare have nowhere to go, and if they dare to exercise their right to bodily autonomy on the black market they could land up in jail. Prohibiting abortions doesn’t make them go away – it just pushes them underground in unsafe conditions.

If America really cared about the lives of children, why isn’t the state making children’s lives better? Why are millions of children in dire poverty, why hasn’t the government regulated gun laws (each day 12 children die from gun violence – and then there are the school shootings like Uvalde), why isn’t there universal childcare and healthcare? Prohibiting abortion isn’t about protecting children at all – it’s about restricting women’s free choices over their own lives.

Being forced by the law to carry an unwanted foetus for nine months; to go through the trauma and financial cost of accessing healthcare just to give birth – and being forced into motherhood – is state violence against women and girls.

Victims who are raped and forcibly impregnated will suffer the harm and pain of that assault all over again when they are forced to give birth to their rapist’s child – and then they could be dragged through the family courts, where their rapist will likely have parental rights over that child. Yet the state would never force rapists to have vasectomies – why?

Women have become wombs, breeding vessels, a situation which has been likened to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian nightmare, The Handmaid’s Tale by many on social media. Many women like me can’t help but ask: is this Gilead or the American dream? But, while we watch our sisters across the pond get dragged to a timezone 100 years in the past, we must remember that abortion in Britain is also criminalised.

There is an exemption from prosecution in some circumstances, but under the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion is still deemed a criminal act in Scotland, England and Wales.

Women who want an abortion cannot have one unless the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks – and only then if two doctors agree that termination is necessary to prevent “grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”.

To my mind, a woman should never be pathologised as “mentally ill” to justify her making an informed decision to access healthcare. This stigmatises abortion – rather than seeing it as a free, independent choice that any woman can make. I was enraged when I discovered the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, which makes it a criminal offence for a woman to bring about her own abortion (for example by taking a “noxious thing”) – for that she could be “kept in penal servitude for life”.

In the UK, there is no legal requirement to donate organs when you die. You don’t have to give up any body part – despite many people dying on a donor list each year. But if a doctor decides that an abortion isn’t necessary for a woman’s mental or physical health, she could be forced to carry a foetus for nine months and give birth; and if she dares to try and bring about her own abortion, she could be locked up. That means that legally, a corpse has more rights than a woman. A mother cannot be forced to donate blood to her dying child, but she can be forced to sustain a foetus against her will.

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Witnessing Poland, the US, Malta and many other countries decimate a woman’s right to abortion proves that abortion must be decriminalised in Britain. Yet this week, the British government refused to enshrine the right to an abortion in its forthcoming Bill of Rights. Stella Creasy MP has pledged to table an amendment to decriminalise abortion and give women the fundamental right to choose.

In 2019, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland and is legally permitted in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy for any reason, but abortion services are difficult to access. Abortion in Canada is decriminalised, which means healthcare authorities regulate safe abortions, just like any other medical procedure.

Which should leave us all asking: why is abortion any different?

Earlier this year, the British government tried (but failed) to revoke at-home early medical abortions, and more than 50 abortion clinics have been targeted by anti-abortion protestors since 2018. Parts of the UK have already experienced a rise in anti-abortion activists outside clinics in recent years, which some claim have been directly “recruited” by American religious groups. The rise in anti-abortion activism is, in my view, the personification of a hatred of women – including internalised misogyny for some female activists.

Men are not put in prison for accessing healthcare. But a woman choosing to access reproductive healthcare is a criminal offence – not just in the US but also on home ground. Something needs to change, and fast – before it’s too late.

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