Women might soon face the death penalty for abortion in Ohio, proving equality sometimes goes backwards

This is the stuff of Handmaid’s Tale nightmares: the rights granted to the foetus would be greater than ever before, and women would effectively have no choice over their own bodies

Caitlin Morrison
Wednesday 21 November 2018 17:33
Politicians at Ohio statehouse in Columbus have come one step closer to criminalising abortion operations
Politicians at Ohio statehouse in Columbus have come one step closer to criminalising abortion operations

The US was once seen as the New World, and in many ways it still enjoys that status. It’s home to Silicon Valley, the hub of technological advances, and the American Dream is still beckoning millions of immigrants each year.

However, in other ways, many parts of the US remain stuck in the past – or are at least determined to return there.

Legislation that would criminalise performing abortions after a foetal heartbeat is detected – usually around the six-week mark – is one step closer to being introduced in Ohio, after the state’s House of Representatives passed the so-called ‘heartbeat bill’ last week. The proposed legislation makes no exception for cases of rape or incest.

If the bill becomes law, this would severely restrict the rights afforded to women. At the moment, abortion is legal in the state – but a viability test is required after 20 weeks.

Ohio legalised same-sex marriage in 2015, albeit only after the Supreme Court overturned previous court rulings that upheld a ban.

This hard-won victory was not, as some may have hoped, an indication that the state had become a champion of equality.

This is starkly evident due to the fact that the progress of the heartbeat bill has renewed interest in another proposed abortion law in Ohio: House Bill 565.

Under this proposal, a foetus would be considered a person from conception to birth, leaving those who perform or undergo abortions open to severe punishment – and even the death penalty.

This is the stuff of Handmaid’s Tale-esque nightmares: under the proposals, the rights granted to the foetus would be given greater weight than ever before, and women would effectively have no choice over what to do with their own bodies.

The proposals in Ohio show just how draconian lawmakers can be when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.

Furthermore, they serve as a reminder that just because a state has liberalised its laws in one area, it doesn’t necessarily follow that other legislation will go the same way, and it certainly doesn’t indicate that attitudes are generally becoming more liberal.

And this problem is not just restricted to the US.

The huge success of two recent referendum campaigns in Ireland, which saw same-sex marriage legalised and a constitutional ban on abortion overturned, signalled a refreshing sea change in a country that was so modern in some ways, and positively backwards in others.

But it also served to highlight the hideous hypocrisy of British politicians, who have allowed antediluvian abortion laws to persist in Northern Ireland. It’s the only part of the UK where a woman can still face a prison sentence for terminating a pregnancy, and where gay couples still cannot marry.

This sorry state of affairs only became harder to change when Theresa May entered into her toxic relationship with the DUP, which takes a hardline stance against abortion and equal marriage, on religious grounds. (Like many of the DUP’s other policies, this stance goes against what evidence suggests most Northern Irish people actually want.)

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Of course, this disparity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has existed for years in relation to same-sex marriage, and decades when it comes to abortion. People have long been railing against these bigoted, sexist and old-fashioned laws.

What’s different now is that the successful campaign to repeal the eighth amendment in Ireland – which effectively bans abortions – has made the problem harder to ignore. The movement lit a fire under campaigners in Northern Ireland. It showed that change can be achieved but it requires a sustained, vocal, organised and resilient movement.

And as the potential new laws in Ohio show, it’s best not to assume that a battle won means the fight is over.

There will always be those who see progress as the enemy, and recent global events have shown how easy it is for societies to regress. Defending equality requires constant vigilance.

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