Women’s Rights are Human Rights

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Missouri. Georgia. Alabama. Arkansas. Kentucky. Mississippi. Louisiana. Ohio. Utah. These are all states that have made news recently for passage or enactment of extreme abortion legislation.

It is important to understand that even in those states where such bills have been passed and signed into law, such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Ohio, those laws have not yet gone into effect. They will be challenged in court, and will likely be struck down, as recent attempts at such restrictive abortion laws have been in other states, including North Dakota and Iowa. The legality of abortion, as constitutionally guaranteed by Roe v. Wade since 1973, will not change… yet. Accessibility and affordability of safe and legal reproductive health care are other matters, but these laws will not be enforceable until and unless the Supreme Court decides to take one of them up.

What is more worrying right now is the hostility and hypocrisy of the purportedly “pro-life” legislators who have written, defended, and voted for these bills. There is no way to understand the abortion debate without recognizing that supporting these policies is exactly the opposite of life-affirming or life-supporting. When abortion is illegal or inaccessible, more women die. That’s it. More women die. This is a known fact, and has been for decades, and any legislator who writes or supports these laws, and any governor who signs them, is signaling as clearly as possible his or her belief that women’s health—women’s lives—are not worth protecting.

Restricting access to legal abortion has only a minimal effect on abortion rates. When they are denied access to reproductive care, including safe and legal abortion, women and girls are driven in desperation to ingesting toxic substances, self-inflicted abdominal trauma, other attempts at self-induced abortion by horrific means. They turn to unregulated “back alley” practitioners who may or may not have training, experience, or knowledge, who may or may not practice proper hygiene, who may or may not have benevolent motives, and who in all cases are unsupported and disincentivized to seek qualified medical support should something go wrong. So, more women and girls are injured, sometimes permanently. More women and girls die.

The Guttmacher Institute, one of the most widely respected and cited research organizations in the area of reproductive health and rights, reports that abortion rates remain about the same regardless of legality, concluding that “restrictions simply make the abortions that do occur more likely to be unsafe.” This reality is worth restating: restricting legal abortion does not appreciably lower abortion rates. It only increases rates of injury, illness, and death in women. Supporting restrictive abortion laws is not a pro-life position.

Debates rage in this country about basic issues concerning the well-being of children and parents, including maternity leave, subsidized child care, public preschool, and so many others. Policies that force women to give birth against their will are doubly cruel because they strip women of their rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy and then abandon mothers and babies to a system that is currently without strong social safety nets.  

The unfortunate conclusion to be drawn from this contradiction is that these anti-abortion policies do not arise from “pro-life” beliefs at all, but instead from a wish to control women’s lives through their bodies. Were this not the case, there would be far fewer examples of so-called “pro-life” politicians who have insisted on and paid for abortions for women in their lives—indeed in some cases, when the women did not want to terminate the pregnancy. Nor would legislation be written or enacted that forces women to carry to term fetuses that can never survive outside the womb.

There are many examples of laws and social standards that recognize the right of humans to protect their own lives when competing interests exist. We require prior permission or consent from immediate family to use the healthy organs of people who have passed away, even when people’s lives depend on those livers, hearts, and kidneys. We do not require bystanders to risk their own lives by entering a burning building to save others’. It is commonly accepted, even a cliché, to put on our own oxygen mask before helping someone else. Women need no less protection for their bodily safety and autonomy and their physical, economic, and social resources, and no less acknowledgement and respect for their inherent human rights.

Maria Wood returned to academic life in 2014, after a two-decade career in the music business, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College in 2018. Most recently, she served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Jesse Colvin for Congress.

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