Thursday, March 18, 2010

Guardian Blog: Utah bill reduces women to incubators

by Melissa McEwan
Tuesday 16 March 2010

It's already hard to get an abortion in Utah. Now a new bill opens the door to prosecuting women who 'intentionally' miscarry

Last week, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed into law Utah HB 462, known ignominiously as "the miscarriage bill". It was a reworked version of the original bill, introduced by Republican State Representative Carl D Wimmer, adjusted to address criticisms that the initial language "could have got women sent away for lifelong prison terms for falling down stairs or staying in an abusive relationship". The revised version "designates the 'intentional or knowing' miscarriage as criminal homicide" and "stipulates that a woman can be charged with homicide for 'the death of her unborn child', unless the death qualifies as legal abortion".

Thus are the women of Utah left with a new law that criminalises illegal abortion in a state that increasingly discourages legal abortions.

Utah already requires parental notification and consent for minors seeking abortions, mandates a 24-hour waiting period to terminate a pregnancy, subjects women seeking abortions to state-directed counselling which overtly discourages abortion, and allows public funding for terminations only in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality, or threat to the women's life or physical health. (Don't think you can get away with claiming your psychological health is at risk, ladies! Everyone knows that women would just lie about that to get an abortion because there's nothing conceivably traumatising about being forced to carry a pregnancy you don't want to term.)

As of 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 93% of Utah counties had no abortion provider, leaving 25% of women in the state to travel at least 50 miles, and 8% to travel more than 100 miles, to get an abortion. There were six abortion providers in the whole of the state in 2005, and currently the state has only one licensed abortion clinic.

Utah has become, like many other states, a frontline in the war against legal abortion. Yes, Roe is still in place, but anti-abortion activists are battling to render it an impotent and largely symbolic statute, hollowed out by state legislation that chips away at abortion rights with "partial-birth abortion bans" and "parental consent laws" and mandatory (ostensible) disincentives like "look at your foetus on an ultrasound".

The Democrats, and the leftwing activists who try to use the spectre of a world without Roe to coerce progressive feminists into line during every election, tend to regard legal abortion like an on-off switch, but it doesn't work that way. Legal abortion is only worth as much as the number of women who have reasonable and affordable and unencumbered access to it, and that number is dwindling: the National Abortion Federation reports that 88% of counties in the US have no identifiable abortion provider – a figure that rises to 97% in non-metropolitan areas.

That's not merely an inconvenience – between travel expenses and time off work, especially when a 24-hour waiting period necessitates at least two days of one's time, the cost of securing an abortion can become an undue burden. It can put legal abortion out of a woman's reach.

That's what state legislatures like Utah's are hoping. And because even the most publicly mendacious anti-choice activists know that even criminalising abortion doesn't stop women from getting them, they know that merely restricting access to legal abortion isn't enough – a woman who doesn't want to be pregnant will find a way to not be pregnant.

Thus is their current strategy is to make legal abortion as inaccessible as possible and criminalise everything else. An abortion performed by someone other than a doctor is ergo illegal. An abortion performed on a minor without parental consent, or on an adult without state-mandated counselling and a 24-hour waiting period, is ergo illegal. An abortion late in the pregnancy is ergo illegal. Inducing a miscarriage is ergo illegal. Terminating a pregnancy by any other method than the one which has been most ruthlessly restricted – via piecemeal legislation and the defunding of clinics and the unfettered terrorising of abortion providers – is illegal.

In Utah, women still have a technical legal right to abortion, but very little means to exercise that right.

And now, in pursuit of ensuring that women's right to abortion is as limited as possible, the state has opened the door to prosecuting women who miscarry after having a drink of caffeinated coffee or a beer or a cigarette, or take a vigorous walk, or miss a prenatal care appointment, or shoot up heroin, or go to spinning class, or any one of a number of things that pregnant women do every day, good and bad, during pregnancies that come to term, if there's someone who will testify she did it to miscarry; she was trying to miscarry; she told me.

In pursuit of ensuring that women's right to abortion is as limited, the state has conferred personhood on foetuses, and reduced women to incubators. And watch out if the machinery breaks.

The architects of this legislation insist it was not designed to punish women, but to protect the unborn. Somehow I don't find that comforting, coming from the same lot who won't properly fund childhood education or support universal healthcare. Or any other legislation that would make a material difference in the lives of the born.