Alabama passes USA’s strictest abortion ban

Dystopian reality: The fictional handmaids’ red robes have become a global symbol for women’s rights.

Alabama’s new bill would outlaw abortion from the moment of conception, even in cases of rape and incest. It has sparked global outrage and fear for the future of women’s rights in America.

Yesterday morning, the Alabama senate passed the strictest anti-abortion law seen in the USA.

The bill, which has been condemned by women’s rights supporters around the world, bans abortion at every stage of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is in danger. Doctors who carry out an abortion could face 99 years in prison.

During hours of fierce debate, Republicans blocked an amendment to permit exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

“We’re telling a 12-year-old girl who — through incest and rape — is pregnant, we are telling her that she doesn’t have a choice,” Rodger Smitherman, an Alabama Democrat, told the Senate floor.

Outside the statehouse, pro-choice protesters gathered. “Whose choice? Our choice,” they chanted.

Some of the women wore red robes, as featured in The Handmaid’s Tale: a story in which fertile women are enslaved and forced to breed.

Women’s rights activists are outraged that all 25 senators who voted in favour of the ban are white, male Republicans.

Last week, Georgia became the fourth state this year to introduce a so-called heartbeat law, which bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. This is usually around six weeks’ gestation, before many women realise they are pregnant. Sixteen more states are set to follow suit.

Conservative Republicans behind the bills know they are likely to be blocked by the courts. But that’s the point. Anti-abortionists hope that legal appeals will eventually bring the bans before the Supreme Court, where the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling could be overturned.

In that landmark verdict, the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s freedom to choose to have an abortion. This has formed the bedrock of federal abortion law ever since.

However, since Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment to the Supreme Court, conservative judges outnumber liberals five to four. For the first time in decades, anti-abortionists believe they have a real chance of defeating Roe v Wade.

This would give states the freedom to decide their own abortion laws. If that happens, abortion could be banned, or severely restricted in half of American states.

Right to choose?

Why shouldn’t states be able to decide their own abortion laws? Democrats in New York and Vermont have introduced laws protecting a woman’s right to choose. Shouldn’t Republicans, elected by the people, have the same power in conservative states?

But what if these laws risk the lives of vulnerable women? Bans do not stop abortions happening. They just force women to travel long distances for an abortion. And if they can’t afford the travel expense, they may risk their health with unsafe procedures closer to home. Isn’t this exactly why we need Roe v Wade?

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to have an abortion?
  2. Should male politicians be allowed to vote on abortion laws?

Activities

  1. Define the words “fetus”, “baby” and “embryo”. Why might pro-choice and pro-life supporters favour certain words over others? Discuss in pairs.
  2. On a map of the USA, colour the states that are seeking to ban abortion in 2019 in one colour. Using a different colour, shade in the states that are introducing abortion protections this year. Are there any geographical patterns?

Some People Say...

“Laws like this have almost nothing to do with the fetus, or the embryo, or the fertilised egg, and everything to do with the role of women […] today.”

Linda Greenhouse

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The number of abortion clinics in the USA has been falling. There are just three abortion clinics in Alabama, down from more than 20 in the 1990s. In 2017, six states reportedly had just one abortion clinic in operation. In 2014, 39% of US women of reproductive age lived in a county without an abortion provider.
What do we not know?
If the new abortion bans will reach the Supreme Court, as the court can decide which cases it hears. The justices want to keep the court away from being embroiled in such a partisan row and, so, allow the decisions of lower courts to stand without a hearing.

Word Watch

Democrat
A member of the Democratic Party, one of the two main US parties. It is more socially liberal and left-wing than the Republican party.
Forced to breed
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is set in a dystopian future in Gilead, which is modelled on the USA. It was recently turned into a popular TV series.
Heartbeat
At this stage in pregnancy, the fetus does not have a heart. What is described as a heartbeat is the cells that will eventually form the heart pulsating as they specialise.
1973 Roe v. Wade ruling
A legal case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that over-restrictive state control of abortions went against a citizen’s rights.
US Constitution
A document signed in 1787 that is the framework for US government and its laws, guaranteeing certain rights (such as privacy) to its citizens.
Controversial
Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers.