On November 4, Americans will head to the polls in a biennial tradition to elect new members to its twin legislative bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Once again, the issue of abortion will be put to a vote in a variety of races. There are ballot initiatives in three states – Colorado, North Dakota and Tennessee – to add amendments to their respective state constitutions that would severely restrict, and perhaps even fully ban, abortion. Abortion has also surfaced as a main contrast between candidates for Senate in conservative Kansas, where Republicans [generally anti-abortion] have won every Senate race since 1932. [For an interesting look at the battle in Tennessee, check this BBC story on how women’s rights advocates are using traditional country music to fight for abortion rights – that never happens in the world of country music!]
Another key battleground for abortion rights has been Texas. The state is the second most populous in the country, with both a long tradition of political and cultural (Christian) conservatism and a recent significant demographic shift (the majority of residents are now non-white, including nearly 40 percent of Texans who are Hispanic) which may or may not shift the state’s political make-up in the coming years.
Enter into this hotbed of shifting political and cultural landscapes the abortion debate. Abortion has been a mainstay in the American political landscape since the famous 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which ruled in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion. The debate roars between those who call themselves “pro-life,” meaning they oppose abortion out of concern for the life of the unborn fetus, and “pro-choice,” meaning they support access to abortion out of a concern for a woman’s ability to make her own decisions regarding medical matters. The debate is inherently cultural in nature, in that pro-lifers generally base their beliefs on their religious (Christian) convictions, while pro-choicers generally base their beliefs on either a feminist commitment to women’s autonomy or a libertarian commitment to personal choice above government regulation.
(Interestingly enough, American cultural conservatives and even some libertarians who are generally very opposed to government interference in daily life also tend to be in favor of tight restrictions on abortion. In other words, they are consistent in their worldview until matters of gender come into play. But that’s another topic for another time!)
In Texas, the issue of abortion was most famously highlighted in June 2013 by the high-profile filibuster of an anti-abortion bill waged by then-State Senator Wendy Davis:
Davis grabbed headlines (basically everywhere – especially among the feminist blogosphere) and lit up social media with her eleven-hour speech on the floor of the Texas Senate aimed at delaying voting on the bill just long enough to go over the midnight deadline for the bill’s passage. (Filibusters are a strange, but legitimate, debate tactic with a storied history in American politics.) Thousands of pro-choice activists filled the chamber and stayed for hours to show support for the Senator and growing increasingly loud and raucous as the night went on and the midnight deadline approached; leading national women’s organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America backed her; the hashtag #StandWithWendy soon started trending; and references to the pink running shoes that Davis wore during the filibuster soon went viral:In the end, the bill was passed into law – a contentious debate about whether she stalled the process long enough according to filibuster rules eventually was ruled in her favor, but the very next day, the Republican Governor simply reintroduced the bill. It was later passed by a wide margin. Nevertheless, her efforts were enough to galvanize pro-choice activists, launch her to political stardom and focus national attention on the politics of abortion in Texas.
Davis is now running for Governor of Texas against Greg Abbott, the current Attorney General who has focused much of his efforts in the past year on leading the state’s defense of the restrictive abortion law.
The law has introduced two harsh restrictions on abortion clinics: (1) doctors at all clinics must have admitting privileges at a nearby emergency center and (2) all clinics must be upgraded to have the ability to perform surgical procedures, even if they are just using drugs to induce an abortion. Supporters of the law say they are for the “health and safety of the women,” but the real medical experts – the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – have come out in strong opposition to it, stating it is “plainly intended to restrict the reproductive rights of women in Texas.”
The election, which is in just weeks, comes after more than a year of various legal battles surrounding the law:
- The law was passed on July 18, 2013.
- In October 2013, a local judge ruled in favor of abortion providers who had challenged the “admitting privileges” section of the Texas law in court.
- In March 2014, a federal appeals court reversed the local judge’s ruling, thereby upholding the “admitting privileged” section. This caused the number of clinics in the state to drop from more than 40 to fewer than 30. In response, abortion providers filed a new challenge to the law a few weeks later. Their new attempt included the same challenge to the law as before, while also expanding their efforts to challenge the second portion of the law that required clinics to have surgical equipment.
- In August 2014, the same local judge as before ruled, once again, in favor of the abortion providers.
- However, on October 2, the federal appeals court announced that it would allow the restrictive abortion law to go into full effect while the court worked toward a ruling on whether the law was constitutional or not. Here’s a good video explaining the impact of that ruling.
- On October 9, the federal appeals court threw a second blow to abortion rights advocates by announcing that it would not re-examine its ruling back in March 2014 to uphold the law in the face of the providers’ original challenge to the law.
- On October 14, the Supreme Court intervened and ruled that the abortion clinics affected by the law could reopen while the case proceeded in court. This is not the last ruling on the matter by any means, but it does have the practical step of allowing the dozens of clinics that were forced to close to serve patients. Advocates fears that the longer clinics were closed, the more likely that they would find it difficult or impossible to reopen.
To boil all that down: Advocates on both sides of the issue have been battling it out since the law was passed, to the point of the Supreme Court weighing in just weeks before the election with a significant, but temporary and small, victory for pro-choice advocates. This is definitely one of those stories that will have many more ups-and-downs in the coming weeks, if not longer. So stay tuned.
It’s worth noting that this whole thing is not just a theoretical political debate – until the October 14 ruling, the number of abortion clinics open in Texas dropped from more than forty to just eight. This meant many women would have to travel more than 150 miles to seek an abortion, which is a particularly difficult task for poor women who have limited transportation options, tend to work jobs with hourly wages (rather than salaries) and may require several trips to the clinic depending on their medical needs.
A Comparison to India
It’s interesting to note how the political conversation surrounding abortion in America compares to what I noticed during my seven months in India earlier this year. When I first arrived in India, I was coming from a background in which the phrase “the rights of the unborn” has routinely been used by anti-choice religious fundamentalists to attack women’s legal access to safe abortion. One of the key tools used by conservatives has been so-called “Personhood amendments” – proposed amendments to state constitutions that would define personhood as beginning at conception (as soon as the sperm and egg join). The U.S. has seen a scary uptick in bills and laws proposing such amendments in the past several years following the 2010 elections, when a new brand of ultra-conservative legislators were swept into state and federal offices across the country.
Personhood amendments are inherently impractical: Do proponents of these amendments really advocate charging a woman who has an abortion with murder? If a fetus is really a person, how do we count them in the census? What does this mean for couples who utilize in vitro fertilization? And what about in the case of a woman who has been impregnated via rape? In this last case, some politicians have, amazingly, still refused to compromise, saying that rape victims should not get an exception to an abortion ban. And for those politicians who do make an exception for victims of rape, how do they justify doing so if they truly believe that all fetuses are people? Wouldn’t such politicians just be consenting to what they view as murder, essentially saying that some types of murder are justified?
There are no real answers for these questions because in the United States, personhood amendments are not actually practical. Rather, they are part of a sinister attempt to rally pro-life activists around the cause and slowly erode women’s access to abortion – even though our Supreme Court largely settled the issue more than forty years ago.
So when I arrived in India, I was well-versed in all the problems inherent in arguments about protecting the “rights of the unborn.” In India, though, I noticed that feminists were concerned about abortion in a way that was literally foreign to me because of the reality of female infanticide in that country. In a cultural context in which people often opt for – or force women to have – abortions after finding out a woman is going to give birth to a girl, the language of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” doesn’t quite fit. The matter becomes one of, basically, “anti-female” or “pro-female.” In this case, feminism’s central concern with battling misogyny comes into play – not only because of a theoretical commitment to battling beliefs that under-value female life, but also because of a practical commitment to how a skewed sex-ratio created by sex-selective abortion makes life more difficult for the women that already exist (bride trafficking, etc).
Interestingly, conservative politicians in the U.S. have used the language of “sex selective abortions” to bolster their attempts at restricting abortions by putting pro-choice politicians in the uncomfortable – and weird – position of having to go on record opposing a bill that claims (on its surface) to fight anti-female sex-selection. Of course, in the U.S., claims by conservative politicians that they really care about fighting sexism are bogus and disingenuous because there is no crisis of anti-female sex-selective abortion in our country.
I think the lesson to be learned from these two different settings is that while feminism has broad global commitments to fighting misogyny and patriarchal power structures, the form that these commitments take will vary greatly depending on cultural context. American conservatives could certainly look at India and use it as evidence to bolster their own domestic agenda (I’m sure some already have). But their arguments would severely miss the mark. One cannot talk about the phenomenon of sex-selective abortion in India without looking at the factors driving it – a traditional marriage system that automatically makes female children a financial burden to their parents due to dowry needs; a context in which many women do not truly have the power to make their own decisions regarding childbearing anyways (in other words, even if they want to keep a child, they may have to bow to the will of their husbands, parents or in-laws); and, in some cases, a simple undervaluing of female life.
In short – The issue at hand here is not whether abortion should be legal or not, but rather the problem of cultural undertones that allow for a technology that should serve women’s medical needs and increase their personal freedom to be co-opted by forces that want to use that same technology to value boys over girls and, ironically, control a woman’s reproductive choices.
In the end, though, there is one thread that is very similar between the American and Indian context: access to abortion. In the United States, abortion is a political issue that allows for over-zealous conservative activists to restrict access via policy, which ends up hurting poor women the most. In India, as this interesting NPR story highlights, abortion may be less of a political hot-button issue, but a lack of resources make access an elusive thing for many women.