At the Abortion Rights Campaign, we stand in solidarity with those fighting for abortion rights all across the world. In this blogpost, ARC co-convenor Helen Stonehouse responds to the news from Texas. If you can, please donate to abortion funds which support abortion seekers in Texas and elsewhere.
It is hard to know what to write in response to the Texas abortion ban. Even as someone who regularly spends time talking about abortion laws and barriers to access, this one feels particularly dystopian. For those who aren’t aware, Texas’ Senate Bill 8 has gone into effect, banning abortion from around six weeks — before many people will even know they are pregnant. After that point, the only exception is “unless the mother’s life is in danger”- an all too familiar turn of phrase. It cannot be emphasised enough how laws like this are not designed to limit abortion, but to outlaw it entirely. In Texas, as in Ireland, gestational age in law is dated from the first day of your last menstrual period (LMP) — six weeks gestational age being 42 days since the start of LMP. On average, a menstrual cycle is anything from 24-38 days — it can be longer for adolescents and those with PCOS or other conditions and can vary up to a week or more. Considering many people will not realise they might be pregnant until several days after their missed period, this law makes abortion inaccessible in Texas. The average Texan is now 248 miles away from an abortion provider, that’s roughly Kinsale to Inishowen, as the crow flies.
Even more disturbingly, the law empowers private individuals to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in “aiding and abetting” abortion provision. A successful suit against an abortion provider, anyone who funds an abortion, or the person who drives you to a clinic, nets $10,000. Texas law already forbids the use of public funds or private health insurance to cover the cost of abortion, so individuals must pay from their own resources. This effectively places a bounty on the heads of abortion providers, family, friends, and even taxi drivers across the state. This particular element is designed not only to terrorise doctors, but also to shut down those mutual networks that have always helped people end pregnancies outside the bounds of law.
Similar abortion bans have been passed in other states; these have been struck down in Federal Court. But the unusual nature of this law makes it complicated. Private citizens, not state officers, are deputised to enforce the unconstitutional law meaning that it is more complicated for federal courts to challenge. In an unprecedented move, using its shadow docket, the US Supreme Court allowed the legislation to stand, although Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a powerful dissent.
While this is dystopian and terrifying, it is not unexpected. Texas is one of many places where anti-choice legislators have been slowly chipping away at abortion rights. In the last decade, Texas has enacted 26 laws to restrict abortion, and the number of clinics has dropped from 41 in 2008 to 15 in 2020. These restrictions include attending in-person counselling with biased information, a mandatory waiting period, and a compulsory ultrasound at which the physician must show and describe the image to the patient. Similar laws were suggested by anti-choice legislators during the passage of Ireland’s abortion legislation — indeed, the Irish law has a mandatory three-day waiting period, two days longer than Texas. These laws are often presented with concern for the patient’s well-being. Concern that we should understand what we’re deciding to do, we should take time to think about it, we should see what it looks like. We are, after all, only women and having a womb can make one hysterical. This paternalistic attitude has nothing to do with concern, only control.
These laws have never been about protecting babies, or helping pregnant people, or preserving life. If they were, we’d see funds being directed to contraception, quality education and childcare, eradicating child poverty, and fully funded healthcare.
These laws have always been about controlling those who dare to have sex for recreation, not procreation, those whose bodies and lives do not fit the rigid norms assigned to them by the patriarchy. Our determination to control our own bodies, our own future, to decide if we become a parent, who to do that with and when, how to raise our families and how to live our lives will always terrify those who want to control us, to categorise us as Virgins or Magdalenes, to put us in boxes and keep us there.
It is tempting to make comparisons to Gilead and other places, in our world as well as fiction, where we suppose that women who step outside the lines are hunted for their transgression, whilst patting ourselves on the back that we would never allow such things to happen. Or at least, never allow them to happen again. After voting so resoundingly for Repeal, closing the laundries and ‘mother and baby’ institutions — we would never allow this to happen again, surely. But this didn’t happen overnight in Texas, or even in Gilead.
With our abortion legislation due for review in 2021, anti-choice legislators will once again suggest that we need more time to think, more “decision support”, more medicalisation. They will not suggest more contraception, more sex education, more funding for our overstretched obstetric and gynaecology services. They will try to chip away at our rights, little by little, until we find ourselves like Texas, suddenly without the care that we need.
We already have too few providers, too many legislative barriers, too much stigma and harassment. It has been a long hard road from 1983 to 2018, from the 8th Amendment to the 36th. Landslide moments such as Repeal happen rarely, more often it is a slow erosion of the barriers that have been gradually built up over years. I am tired of slowly eroding barriers. It is time to break them.