HR3, the latest attack on Roe v. Wade from an increasingly hostile Congress, has gotten an incredible amount of attention in the past week. It is called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” and it does what it says on the tin, and more: cuts funding for abortion in invasive, aggressive, unprecedented ways–by attacking private health insurance abortion coverage. Following Nick Baumann’s article in Mother Jones, which outlined its unprecedented attack on survivors inherent in the re-definition of rape and incest, the bill has been subject to widespread protest, some of which I participated in myself, under the Twitter hashtag #DearJohn. Within a week, that rape clause was gone. But the bill, dubbed a “top priority” for Congress by Speaker John Boehner continues on apace – it is in the Ways and Means Committee, there will be a hearing for it on February 8 – and a new and more aggressive anti-choice bill, HR358 (the “Protect Life Act,” which has one of the more darkly funny names in bill history) is picking up steam.
I admit it: I probably wouldn’t have protested HR3, had it not included the rape clause. That clause rewrote the standard exemption which allows federal funding for pregnancies resulting “from rape or incest.” The new clause was a complicated, deceptive barbed-wire fence of a sentence, only allowing for federal funding exemptions when pregnancy resulted from “an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest.” Which eliminates coverage for the survivors who are most often denied legitimacy by society: People raped while drugged or intoxicated, people raped while unconscious, statutory rape survivors. That made me very angry. It made a lot of other people angry too. I worked with other feminists to fight it, and we won.
But, by the time that happened, I had been educated by several feminists who’d spent a major portion of their lives protesting and organizing for the right to abortion, and was aware that striking the bad exemption language wasn’t actually a win. Not for survivors, not for anyone else. In fact, the process around this bill is a bait-and-switch. We protested one violent outrage, but the rest of the bill represented several different forms of violent outrage, and HR358 was more violent still.
The history of abortion reveals one unavoidable truth: Abortion will always happen, in every society where people get pregnant. Attitudes toward abortion have ranged from total condemnation to acceptance to partial and complicated legality to a cultural agreement to look the other way, but it has always been with us, and it always will be. It has happened everywhere, from ancient Greece (“when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured,” proclaimed Aristotle, before opining that it was best to get it done early, before the fetus became viable) to Edo period Japan to medieval Persia to the Victorian-era U.S., where cures for “menstrual suppression” were advertised in the newspaper, with sly disclaimers that ladies should not take them if they were pregnant, for they caused miscarriages. Making abortion illegal has never stopped abortion. It has only created thriving black markets. What changes when abortion is restricted or banned is that people start to suffer or die as a result of pregnancy. Despite all the ideological and emotional rhetoric around the issue, it has to be legal and accessible for that reason alone.
Strong state bans on abortion took hold in the U.S. in the late 1800s. But they remained for less than a century. Many physicians simply would not uphold a law that required them to let patients die or suffer harm. Sterile surgical abortion became increasingly possible in the early 20th century, and once physicians actually had a reliable and safe method for ending pregnancies, the conscientious ones refused not to use it. They were particularly adamant about performing abortions when the lives of their patients would otherwise be at risk. The privileged and well-connected could often find doctors operating under the radar, should they need them.
But not everyone was privileged or well-connected. And there was the black market, where people performed abortions with dirty knitting needles, home vacuum cleaners, and the ubiquitous coathanger. Banning abortion oppressed many women and trans men. But privileged cissexual women had – as we usually do – more options to negotiate and mitigate that oppression. Low-income, isolated, young or desperate pregnant people just died, or were maimed. If abortion is once more restricted to a privilege enjoyed by well-off people, or if it is no longer regarded as a routine and necessary part of health care, these very people will start to die again.
Enter HR3. And, now, HR358. Both of which are explicitly intended to restore this order of things. HR3 aims to strengthen the federal funding restrictions that make it all but impossible for people covered by Medicaid to get abortions, and to strengthen medical exemptions which only apply if the patient is in immediate danger of death (if it will take you a year or two to die, as the result of your pregnancy, you will not be covered), effectively strengthening the class and privilege hierarchy of abortion and making it law. And there is the even more heinous HR358, the “Protect Life Act,” which aims to do the very thing which made the criminalization of abortion unsupportable in the first place: Encourage and allow physicians to let people die if they require abortions in order to live. Under HR358, hospitals would simply be allowed to refuse. Doctors would get to start killing patients more often. Which seems counterproductive, but there we are.
The fact is, these bills are so much more deadly than the mere “forcible rape” clause that thinking about how to oppose them is daunting. The scale of the violence is so huge that one doesn’t know how to maintain hope or focus. When you’re protesting a clause, you’re protesting a clause. When you’re dealing with elected officials who want to let your doctor kill you, the process of framing a retort is more difficult. What do we say? “Dear Congress, I don’t want to die?”
Well, yes. I think we should say exactly that: We should tell Congress that we hear they are planning to kill us, and are pretty upset about it, because we want to live. And we can start by speaking to the parts of Congress that are going to have to listen, the Democrats who have colluded with anti-choice forces on HR3 and the HR358 because they rely on our support. It’s necessary to put pressure on Democrats to openly and vocally oppose these bills. It’s necessary to call out and condemn those Democrats who support them; there are several on HR3’s sponsor list.
The left in this country does not have a Congressional majority. What it can have, and should have, is a united front on choice, which includes rejecting and condemning Democrats who cross party lines to create or pass legislation that violently harms pregnant people. If we have reached the point that Democratic politicians are going to start killing their supporters, then we have reached the point of no return. Aside from the fact that we deserve to live even if we have risky pregnancies, we are their base; it’s time they treated us that way. We can go back to the old ways: We can march, we can call, we can get right in their faces until they are too scared to act as if we don’t exist when they make our votes.
It’s what we did last time they were killing us. It’s what we have to do again.