Not long ago, a woman in late pregnancy suffering severe depression tried to commit suicide. She survived but her baby died. She was charged with murder. A pregnant woman who lost her unborn child in a car accident in New York state was charged with manslaughter. So was a woman in Indiana who gave birth to a stillborn baby.
Even in cases where a fetus hasn’t died, pregnant women have been charged with crimes in various states – for miscarrying, falling down the stairs, failing a drug test, or taking legal drugs during pregnancy, often prescribed by doctors.
These examples, reported in a recent New York Times series exploring “legislative intrusions into the womb,” reveal a paternalism that is not new, but is alarming, and growing in the Trump era. They are also reminiscent of other frightening autocratic and dictatorial eras. Hitler, for example, “recruited” German women to produce Aryan children. Under the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, assassinated in 1989, women were subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces while high school girls were routinely digitally raped by male doctors to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. In The Handmaid’s Tale, resurrected in the face of Trumpian resistance to reproductive freedom, forced insemination of those selected to be Mothers is assisted by designated Wives.
If all of this is disgusting to imagine it should be because it derives from a vile act of social control. Such control, still relatively rare but growing, is already occurring in America.
Here’s just one example. Politicians in Ohio recently considered a bill that could have allowed abortions to be punishable with life sentences or the death penalty. The proposed law, would have extended the definition of a person in Ohio's criminal code to include the "unborn human." That meant that a fetus, from conception to birth, would be considered a person, leaving people who perform abortions or women who have them vulnerable to severe criminal penalties.
According to the ACLU, at least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, most of which relate to fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women. So-called pro-life advocates use laws like the Fetal Protection Act, the Preborn Victims of Violence Act and the Unborn Victim of Violence Act to argue that fetuses are persons, or “a child in uterus,” and need to be protected in all circumstances.
The ACLU argues that “a pregnant woman and her fetus should never be regarded as separate, independent, and even adversarial, entities. Yet that is precisely what some anti-choice organizations, legal theorists, legislators, prosecutors, doctors and courts have attempted to do in the past decade.”
Legislation designed to protect fetuses can take different forms, the ACLU points out. All of them endanger reproductive rights. States may amend existing homicide statutes to include fetuses as victims, they can pass statutes defining a fetus as a person, or establish a new crime category called “feticide” or fetal homicide. They can also permit civil suits against anyone who causes the death of a fetus, or enact new statutes to penalize injury to a pregnant woman that causes fetal death or injury. This law is aimed primarily at practitioners, which flies in the face of the constitutional right to choose, established by Roe v. Wade, which calls for abortion to be exempt from punishment when performed by “health care workers with the consent of the woman or in medical emergencies, and self-abortions.”
Clearly, fetal protection legislation fosters the policing of pregnancy, just as it did in Romania. It makes it more likely that practitioners will become overzealous, thereby complicating routine healthcare decisions. In Florida, for example, a woman was told by her doctor that he would send law enforcement to her home if she didn’t get to the hospital immediately for a C-section. A New Jersey mother lost custody of her newborn after refusing a surgical delivery.
All of this raises the larger, deeply troubling issue of social control, which usually comes at the expense of women. Writing in The Atlantic’s latest issue, editor Peter Beinart sounds this alarm: “Authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries [for various reasons, but] right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”
The question is why, and Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has this answer: “It’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: ‘Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.’ This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order.”
In other words, keeping women “barefoot and pregnant” is essential to patriarchy. Autonomous women liberated from childbearing, empowered with reproductive choice, unleashed into the marketplace, the academy, and government threaten male power. That reality has played out in various forms throughout history.
Seeing it happen in the 21st century is unacceptable.
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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com