As a young feminist studying South Asia in 1990, it was de rigueur for American feminists to decry the “barbaric” abuses from which “third world women” needed to be liberated. Sati, which became resurgent in Rajasthan briefly, along with female foeticide, infanticide and dowry deaths were their cause célèbre as was the Taliban’s use of death by stoning to execute Afghan women for various crimes real and imagined. The enforced hijab in Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the latter’s ban on female drivers all drove American feminists over the edge as did—and does—female genital mutilation (FGM) by some Muslim communities “in Africa”, that everyone refers to without specificity.
This hot wash in “white saviourism” never sat well with me because American women have never been as liberated as they imagined. And now, Donald Trump-ruled America is waging a war on women’s bodies. The battle for the right to choose safe abortion has intensified as we watch an agonising reversal of the strides made with the landmark US Supreme Court case Roe V. Wade, in 1973.
As many as nine states have passed legislation to further restrict access to abortion. Several of these have passed so-called “heartbeat” bills that criminalise abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when most women don’t even know they are pregnant. In most circumstances, these laws cruelly and deliberately exclude exceptions for rape and incest. The penalty for securing an illegal abortion under these laws actually exceeds the penalty for rape and incest or even the actual murder of a human being. The laws themselves reflect an asinine lack of scientific understanding of the chemical process that gives the illusion of a “heartbeat” as there is no foetal heart at six weeks.
Also read: India’s abortion law — ahead of its time in 1971 but now behind science, societal demands
The right to abortion is one that I hold dear because of personal reasons. My biological father impregnated my mother under false pretences and unmarried in 1967. Abortion was illegal and thus the exclusive privilege of wealthy women who could travel abroad or pay someone to provide a safe, but still illegal, abortion in the United States.
Poor women who had illegal abortions risked their lives and many died from sepsis or blood loss. So, my mother ran away, by bus, to Arizona where she lived with my aunt Carol—after whom I am named. Had abortion been legal, my mother could have imagined a different life than that inscribed for women with “illegitimate” children. There may have been a future for her that didn’t rely upon being married to a “meal ticket”. She may have been a more capable provider for her future children. In this statement, I am reaffirming the value of my mother’s life rather than undervaluing my own.
While Roe V. Wade conferred upon women the right to choose, proponents of traditional while-male-dominant patriarchy fought tooth and nail to squash this right as soon as we got it. The ability to plan our fertility has been the cornerstone of our ability to pursue higher education, gainful employment and marriage by choice rather than compulsion. And it is this access to economic justice that has enabled women to walk out from abusive or unhappy marriages or not marry at all.
Also read: Abortion has been legal in India since 1971 but it is still not a woman’s right
While the racism of the contemporary Republican party is talked about around the world, it is also waging a war on women and our bodies. While the white male Republicans fear ethnographic change and the loss of their race privilege, they also fear women and the erosion of their gender privileges despite the fact that women consistently earn less than men for the same work and that white men still occupy the most lucrative and important positions in all sectors. Still, white women have allied with white men to protect their own race privileges, leading to the inherently non-intersectional character of white American feminism.
To eviscerate our hard-fought gains, the Republican party has endeavoured to roll back access to affordable birth control as well as pharmaceutical and surgical abortion. It has stacked our courts with misogynistic conservatives in hopes that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. In the meantime, Republicans hollowed out abortion access by terrorising physicians who perform the procedure. They waged legal cases throughout the country to endow foetuses with rights at the expense of women’s civil liberties. They have imposed waiting periods and, in some states, they force women to pay for expensive transvaginal ultrasounds in hopes that after seeing their snowy foetus, they will change their minds. They have sought to impose absurd standards upon the clinics themselves.
Indiana has passed a law that requires the “products of conception” be buried or incinerated separately from other surgical waste, which is merely intended to increase the cost of an increasingly costly procedure.
Due to the concatenating impacts of these varied efforts, today, there are many states in which surgical abortion, for all intents and purposes, is unavailable. In such states, there are so few abortion providers that women must undertake lengthy and expensive journeys—sometimes to other states—and endure the commonly-imposed three-day waiting period and other burdens such as the transvaginal ultrasound. This, in addition to several hundreds of dollars, to pay for the procedure, which cannot be subsidised with federal monies. All of this requires days of missed work and arranging childcare. Such restrictions disproportionately affect America’s most vulnerable women who tend to be poor and/or persons of colour.
Also read: Train grassroots health workers in medical abortions to keep women from quacks, say doctors
Despite prosecuting this relentless war on our bodily agency in the name of “life”, other Republican policies belie any genuine interest in either increasing the quality or quantity of Americans’ lives. They oppose universal and affordable health care for the same foetuses they fetishise and the mothers who care for them as well as their families.
Republicans nearly universally oppose education budgets that would provide for quality education at all levels, which is the most effective way of ensuring equal access to opportunities and outcomes. They reject efforts to expand civil liberties and are actively rolling back those already attained. Whereas the Republican party of the past freed American slaves, the party of today is most known for its racism and bigotry. Most cynically, they support the death penalty without any effort to reconcile this with their “pro-life” positions.
And once that foetus becomes a child, it is on its own. Its odds are best if it’s a white, cis-male. While that demographic comprises only 30 per cent of the population, it commands the best access to opportunities and outcomes.
More galling yet, some protect the parental rights of rapists when their victim becomes impregnated from their criminal conduct. In other circumstances, sex offenders are not permitted to be around children. Recently, Alabama—which has passed the most draconian law essentially outlawing abortion—ordered a woman to permit her rapist to visit the child resulting from his assault. She will have to spend 48 hours in jail for every visitation she declines.
Also read: Tweaking India’s abortion law: Fear of foeticide trumping women’s reproductive rights?
In 2015, before the “Trumpocalypse”, the United Nations sent a fact-finding team to investigate the state of American women and were horrified by what they found. The “myth-shattering” mission noted that American women are lagging in rights. More recently, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore did not mince her words when she declared the onslaught against abortion rights as “extremist hate” and “torture”.
As other countries in the world, like India, continue to make strides in empowering women, perhaps the disempowered American Woman, reduced to foetal incubators, will become the next poster child of feminist movements that are steaming ahead elsewhere. I look forward to the day when crowds of “third world” women gather outside American embassies and consulates demanding that the US government stop its relentless war on women and children.
C. Christine Fair is the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War and In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Views are personal.