The photo ops in the first few days of Donald Trump’s presidency showed a lot of flashy penmanship. We saw the new president, brassy coif in place, lips pursed, putting his loopy-polygraph signature on document after document with all the enthusiasm of Game Of Thrones’s Joffrey authorising executions.
It didn’t take long for abortion rights to come under threat. In week one, the self-proclaimed “pussy grabber” now occupying the Oval Office reinstated a global gag rule that bans US-funded groups, like NGOs or health organisations, from even discussing abortion with their patients, mostly poor women in poor countries.
During his campaign, Donald Trump had emphasised he is now – if he wasn’t before – decidedly “pro-life”. Debating Hillary Clinton, he declared, wrongly, of late-term abortion: “In the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the mother.” He needed votes from evangelical, anti-abortion states to win and they loved what he had to say.
That early stroke of the pen was the opening salvo in a freshly stoked conservative campaign to regain historic control over women’s bodies. Its aim is simple: to “abolish” abortion, but at the same time make it hard to get contraception. Sex? Just say no!
Early in January, House Speaker Paul Ryan stated the Republicans would attempt to strip all federal funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion and reproductive services. Then in late January, heartened by Trump’s victory, tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists – many of them men with “Life” taped across their mouths – marched in Washington. Vice-President Mike Pence spoke at the rally, declaring “life is winning again in America”. Pence, who as governor of Indiana signed some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, praised “the election of pro-life majorities in the Congress of the United States of America”.
Many of those anti-abortion advocates are hoping Trump-nominated judges will overturn the famous Roe v. Wade ruling, made in 1973, that found a woman has the right to make her own medical decisions without any interference from politicians. Trump has already nominated one apparently anti-abortion judge, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court, to fill a vacancy. Yet even with that appointment, it’s expected the court would be split 5-4, with the majority likely to support existing abortion rights, although nothing is certain. The real danger is when one of those five dies or retires (and three are over 78) and another vacancy arises.
But every war has two sides. Around the world, bands of outraged pro-choice women have risen up, declaring they won’t accept a wind-back of this or any other hard- won right without a fight. At the Women’s Marches staged across the globe on January 21-22, millions stormed the streets in protest.
The US anti-choice forces are in the minority, but now have a strangle- hold within the Republican party. Even so, how far they will be able to push their agenda on the rest of the US remains to be seen. A post-election sur vey found the number of voters who believe abortion should be available in all circumstances was more than double the number who think it should not be legal in any circumstance.
The US isn’t the only government attempting to tighten the screws. In ultra-conservative Catholic Poland legal abortion is widely banned, the only exceptions being for severe and irreversible damage to the foetus, a serious threat to the mother’s health, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Even then, it’s hard. Contraception is also frowned upon.
(Rather than reduce abortion rates, restrictions have sent it under- ground. Eastern Europe has the highest abortion rate in the world. In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that in parts of Eastern Europe, unsafe abortions cause more than 20 per cent of all registered maternal deaths.)
Yet the nation’s existing restrictions didn’t go far enough for some. In October 2016, a citizen’s initiative called for an even-more complete ban on abortions and came within a whisker of being passed in parliament. Only people power stopped it. Some 100,000 Poles, mostly women, sacrificed a day’s pay to take to the streets in protest in an event known as Black Monday.
It’s not so very long ago that women in Australia were resorting to the bloody and often fatal horrors of back- yard abortionists or even attempting DIY abortions with wire coathangers or other desperate methods. Many ended up with punctured uteruses and/ or died from sepsis.
The bad old days? Yes and no. Safe abortion, including with the drug RU486, is available and currently legal in most Australian states, under cer- tain conditions. However, the laws are a muddle, often ambiguous and vary across states and territories.
In NSW and Queensland, abortion still sits in the criminal code. Even though women currently have access to abortions in both those states – because of case law – in theory the woman, the doctor and anybody else who assists could all be prosecuted under the NSW Crimes Act 1900 and the Queensland Criminal Code Act 1899.
In Queensland, a judge ruled in 1986 that an abortion would be lawful if carried out to prevent serious danger to the woman’s physical and mental health. But it’s still not open and shut. Only last year, a 12-year-old girl had to get the permission of the Queensland Supreme Court to have an abortion, delaying the procedure by a month.
Two MPs have put forward private members’ bills, in NSW and in Queens- land, to get abortion decriminalised but at the time of writing, the bills were still awaiting debateˆ.Here, as in the US,the political wind may be blowing the other way. In February, the new NSW Minister for Women, Tanya Davies, acknowledged her personal “pro-life”stance on her first day in the job, adding that her role was to support all women. Globally, the spotlight is burning hot on a fight many believed was done and dusted. It seems abortion rights are set in jelly, not concrete, and the future is now looking shakier than ever.
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