Recent years have brought a myriad of gender issues to the forefront of public thought. Public movements have highlighted the pervasiveness of gender issues, such as rape, wage disparity, and bodily autonomy for women. The most contentious of these is a woman’s right to an abortion. The debates surrounding abortion are well known to many, and the extensive moral, religious, and legal factors create a complex, and often volatile, social dialogue.
Last week, the US Supreme Court allowed the Texas Heartbeat Act, a law that criminalises abortions after detecting cardiac activity. This generally occurs around six weeks — before most women know they’re pregnant. The controversial law was voted on just before midnight, and passed five votes to four.
Historically, laws surrounding women and their individual rights have reflected social attitudes toward their role in society. Patriarchal societies have been known to utilise these laws to police women and their bodies, and by extension, larger aspects of their lives. The establishment and enforcement of these laws have supported a conservative understanding of women and the rights that should be afforded them. The Supreme Court’s ruling in support of this law violates their human rights, and will have extensive political and social repercussions for women’s rights.
Currently, Texas Republicans have the majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed the law in May, and despite several appeals against the law, it was supported by all Republican-appointed judges.
This law completely undermines the value of Roe V Wade, an historic legal case in 1973 where the US Supreme Court ruled that pregnant women have the freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. In recent years, 12 states have attempted to ban abortions, although all these attempts have been successfully challenged.
Due to the failures of other laws, the Texan one was specifically written to circumvent the prohibitions of Roe V Wade. By allowing private citizens to bring civil lawsuits in a state court against anyone involved in an abortion, Texas has legislated around the issue altogether. These lawsuits, called “bounty’s” by many, will allow people to be sued for at least $10 000, with possible criminal sanctions imposed against them. Many so called ‘bounty hunters’ had begun colluding on sites like Reddit in order to capitalise on these sanctions against women, the same day the law had passed.
Given the circumstances in which the law was passed, there were few opportunities for public debate and it was enforced with such efficiency that some clinics reported having dozens of women to attend to before it came into effect at midnight. The enforcement of this law is not only a violation of human rights, but is a form of political control.
Whilst in certain extenuating circumstances women will still be permitted abortions, those circumstances are limited and copiously interrogated. Whether they decide to have abortions for medical or personal reasons, many women will face public and social scrutiny for their decisions. By removing their right to access to adequate medical care, Texas law is controlling a woman’s right to actively participate in society in an equal manner to men, and will likely result in many women illegally acquiring a medical abortion. Moreover, the mental toll that will fall on women in these situations can be extreme. The inability to choose not only forces them to confront the lack of control over their own bodies, but can aggravate or create health problems, given the extreme physical and mental toll that pregnancy can take.
Like historical abortion restrictions, this one contains a class dimension. The restriction on their bodily autonomy extends to their financial independence, given that many women are not in situations to support themselves and a child. With the allowance of civil lawsuits, the law targets lower-socioeconomic communities, as these women are less likely to be able to travel-interstate to access health services and often rely on free clinics, such as Planned Parenthood. These civil suits and the threat therein will affect these women the most.
While many supporters of the law are part of the supposed pro-life community, there were no proposals of any ongoing support for women who are unable to access an abortion. There was no suggestion of financial support, access to free clinics or services like OB-GYNs, or even mental health support services. The lack of safety nets for these women shows the contradictory nature of this argument and will only further compromise their quality of life.
The implementation of this ban will have a chilling effect on Texan women. By criminalising access to medical care and restricting a woman’s innate human right to have control over their own body, Texas is establishing an unethical and precarious precedent. The implementation of the law is representative of the ongoing attempts to police women in every aspect of their lives, and the justice system’s endorsement of this situation will likely pave the way for increased restrictions against many communities, not just women.