Over the last two days, I have veered between despair and disbelief as I contemplate the overturning of the decision of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court of the US this week. I have already heard countless people, mostly men, saying it is a US problem, and therefore should not impact on those of us who live outside of the States, in places where we are fortunate enough to have reproductive autonomy. But this is a sentiment that deeply troubles me. There is no doubt that the ripples of the decision this week have been felt by women all over the world. I personally, have shared a sense of devastation, anger, and grief with many of my female friends. When I try to articulate a reason for why the decision has had such power to evoke what I can only describe as a stunned horror, what it comes down to is that the reversal of Roe v Wade evidences the underlying absolute power of the patriarchy, demonstrating in the most unequivocal and relentless manner that we live in a world in which women’s rights, our reproductive autonomy, even our right to name ourselves as a sex-class, is dependent on the benevolence and whims of men. And these rights can, and will, be taken away from us.
I grieve for the women of America. And I fear for women across the world as our lives and our bodies are legislated over by men. It is men that make these laws that prevent us from accessing safe abortion services, and they do so over our dead bodies. Because we all know that the decision will not stop abortions, merely prevent access to safe, regulated, compassionate health care at a time when women are vulnerable and desperately need that help. Women will die because of this decision. Abortion doesn’t save lives. It destroys them.
I am not going to recount the horrific personal testimonies I have read over the last two days about women who have needed to access abortion services, from those who have had to have the remnants of a dead foetus removed from their womb while they grieve for the loss of a baby they desperately wanted, or those who terminated a much planned for pregnancy because the foetus had a developmental issue which was incompatible with a meaningful life. It is nobody’s business why a woman would seek a termination of her pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are both life-threatening and life-changing, and no woman should have to proceed with a pregnancy when it is not what she wants. It is nobody’s business why a woman would choose to end a pregnancy. It is hers and hers alone. There is no hierarchy of reasons which makes an abortion acceptable for some and not for others. Not one person has any right to question a woman’s motivation. Not one. It simply doesn’t matter. What matters is the right to choose, the right to self-determination, the right to reproductive autonomy. Abortion is a fundamental human right. And America, which holds itself out as a beacon of freedom and democracy, has just shredded that right for half the population, all of them female.
Even in the UK, we don’t have to look too far back in history to see the devastating impact of a lack of safe abortion services for women, particularly those women living in poverty. In fact, in 1837, an amendment to the Ellesnborough’s Act made all abortions illegal. Prior to this Act, abortions had only been illegal if they took place after the ‘quickening’, or when the mother had felt the baby moving within her womb. The penalty for a breach of this law was death.
It is no wonder that many desperate women took their own lives, throwing themselves into the dark waters of the Thames, rather than face the consequences of living with a pregnancy outside of wedlock when they would have no means of support for either themselves or the child they carried. And then there are the many cases of infanticide, where women give birth to a living child, only to find themselves disgraced, unemployable, and starving. It was a subject that Charles Dickens explored in his second Christmas book, The Chimes, written in 1844, in which a desperate Meg takes her baby to the river’s edge, poised at the brink of throwing herself and her child into the water. And Dickens, as ever, based his work on what he witnessed in the world around him. Cases of infanticide in London were shockingly common. One such case was that of a woman named Harriett Longley in 1841. Harriet cast her three-week-old infant daughter into the Thames. An autopsy confirmed that the child was alive when she was thrown into the river, and a guilty verdict was inevitable. But what was a woman such as Harriet to do? There was no birth control. Abortion was punishable by death. Harriett was homeless, starving, and unable to breastfeed her daughter, and had been released from prison for vagrancy with only 18d (worth about £6.38 in today’s terms). The law expected her to give birth to her child, but at the same time, did nothing to mandate provision for the baby she gave birth to. Both she and her child had nothing. What else could she do?
Banning abortion isn’t about saving lives, it is about exerting control over women. It is about preventing us autonomy over our own bodies. And in a country such as America where there is no universal healthcare, and no real or meaningful maternity provision and child support, the overturning of Roe v Wade does nothing other than impose misery and fear on a future generation of women.
How can we have let his happen in our lifetime? Women must never be complacent. We must stand against this erosion of our rights. Women’s rights are human rights. And they have never felt more under threat.