Abortion politics for export

Posted on May 17, 2012

Sydney Morning Herald, May 18, 2012 by Chloe Angyal

Australians’ love of things American must not extend to a growing assault in the US on women’s reproductive rights.

I HAVE learnt many things in the seven years I’ve lived in America. I’ve learnt to explain the difference between Australia’s three codes of football to a gridiron fan. I’ve learnt that what we call a main, they call an entree, and what we call an entree, they call an appetiser. And this year, along with the rest of America, I’ve learnt the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound”.

Right now, if a woman in Texas wants to get an abortion – a procedure that has been legal since the historic ruling in Roe v Wade in 1973 – she cannot do so without first having a transvaginal ultrasound. The state of Texas mandates that a doctor insert an ultrasound wand into her vagina and show her the image, and describe it to her according to a state-mandated script. She must then wait another 24 hours before being allowed to have that procedure – one, again, that is entirely legal and has been since my own mother was younger than I am now.

The mandatory ultrasound law in Texas went into effect late last year, and very few people outside of Texas noticed. It wasn’t until February this year, when Virginia tried to enact a similar law, that the whole country got up in arms.

In the face of criticism that he was mandating state-sanctioned rape, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, an arch-conservative who is now vying to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, amended the law. Now, if a Virginian woman wants an abortion, she still has to get an ultrasound, but it will be abdominal, not transvaginal.

In so many ways, Australia follows America’s lead. That goes for pop culture – we listen to its music, watch its movies and devour box sets of its greatest TV shows – and for politics. We follow it into war and agree to host its marines. And, recently, that goes for personhood, too.

What is personhood? It’s the idea that a fertilised egg is a person with constitutional rights. Personhood used to be a fringe idea in the US. Upholding personhood would reclassify abortion as murder, obviously, but it would also render in vitro fertilisation and forms of hormonal birth control illegal. When anti-choice groups succeeded in getting personhood measures on the ballot in deeply conservative electorates such as Colorado, a stronghold of modern evangelical Christianity, and in Mississippi, the idea was shot down in flames. And thank goodness for that.

But the days of personhood proponents existing solely on the fringes of the debate about reproductive freedom are ending. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has said he favours a personhood amendment to the constitution. Whether he means it is uncertain, but the fact that he can utter such an opinion and remain a viable candidate for national office shows just how far the conversation has moved.

Personhood amendments. Mandatory ultrasounds. Calls to make it illegal for rape and incest victims to have abortions (Governor McDonnell again). Funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, the organisation that provides low-cost cancer screenings, birth control, STI testing and, yes, abortion in a country where 40 million people don’t have health insurance.

Legislation that allows employers to decide whether their workers get birth control cover. This is the new political landscape around women’s health in America.

Before you start shaking your head and rolling your eyes at those puritanical Americans and their wish to control women’s bodies, you should know that personhood is for export.

In Western Australia this year, the Attorney-General proposed new “foetal homicide” laws that would mean killing a pregnant woman could carry a harsher sentence than killing a woman who was not pregnant. Then, the Australian Medical Association supported criminal charges for women who drink to excess while pregnant. In other words, the foetus is a person, and it has rights. In both cases, we were assured that neither change would affect abortion law. Unfortunately, what I have learnt in my time in the US is that such reassurances should not be too readily trusted.

When we talk about personhood, we are talking about criminalising IVF and abortion. We are talking about the government forcing a woman to give birth against her will.

Thirty-nine years ago, when Roe legalised abortion, America lagged behind many Australian states, as well as Britain and Canada. In 2012, in this most crucial of matters – the right of a woman to decide if, when and with whom she has children – the US is once again falling behind.

This is one American trend we must not follow. In so many respects, we love American exports. Whether it is good for Australian children to grow up on such a steady diet of American pop culture, or whether it is wise for the Australian government to help wage America’s wars, is always a ripe topic for heated debate. But one thing is certain: we cannot allow American anti-choicers to export their abortion politics to Australia.

Posted in: World