Pro-Life or Pro-Power? Alabama’s New Abortion “Law”
On 15 May 2019, Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed into law the nation’s most restrictive abortion measure, banning abortions state-wide and prescribing lifelong prison sentences for doctors who provide abortion services. Ivey justified her decision to ratify House Bill 314 by saying that the provocative legislation “stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and every life is a sacred gift from God.” Not only does the bill openly defy the law of the land as delineated in Roe v. Wade, but it also has anything but the health of women in mind as it seeks to impose an androcentric, elitist standard of morality over an entire population. The Human Life Protection Act was never about saving lives: it was about maintaining legal power over women at the expense of their autonomy over their own sexuality and fertility and about flexing Alabama’s defiance of women’s guaranteed constitutional right to privacy.
The civil rights struggle for women in Alabama today is inextricably linked to the legacy of racism and sexism created by a one-dimensional hierarchy of power that ultimately seeks to control women’s bodies. Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, against a white supremacist system that codified racial violence and segregation into state law; for “breaking the law” he was imprisoned under cruel conditions and was condemned by church and civil authorities for his resistance. In his letter from prison, he responded to their objections by pointing out the alleged error was in the law itself, saying: “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.” To our disgrace, this is exactly what happened on May 15: the majority making a law about a minority that was completely inconsequential to their own bodily rights.
According to Alabama State records, only four women were present in the final Senate hearing of the bill before it was presented to the governor; none of their votes counted. What was effectively a group of (mostly white) men passed a law blocking women from safe abortions and criminalizing dissenters. These men will never understand what it is like to occupy the space into which they’re herding over 2.5 million Alabamian women—a state that will force them to have children while failing to provide them with adequate resources to plan a family or to access quality health care. It is clear from this injunction that the purpose of this bill is not to preserve the life of unborn children; instead it has everything to do with shaming women for encountering unexpected circumstances in their lives and loudly decrying them for not having another option (a systemic issue which House Bill 314 conveniently fails to address). The irony of ironies is that Ivey, a woman, is signing off on a law that hurts women, highlighting the deeply skewed social ideologies and political agendas at work in the bill.
In fact, governor Ivey’s outspoken challenge to the supreme court of the United States might shed further light on the political objectives of this new law. In her statement to the public after ratifying the bill, she said: “Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.” Even though abortion rates have actually declined to their lowest level since Roe v. Wade, the message this bill sends is very clear: we don’t like the way you defined women’s rights, so we are going to openly defy you because we can. Clearly, then, women’s wellbeing is the last thing on the Alabama legislature’s agenda. Stirring the political pot is more important. It is truly disheartening to witness that the alleged concern for the sanctity of human life is merely a political ploy to perpetuate a system which oppresses women and especially poor, non-white women.
It is not my intention to diminish the fact that abortion is difficult, because it is. But the reality is that 1 in 4 women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45. Unfortunately for lawmakers, words on paper cannot act as the conscience of God. All humans choose their own path and are granted free will without the hierarchy of preferred outcomes. And so it is time to challenge what it means to be pro-life and pro-choice. Too often these days being pro-life really just means being anti-abortion, and being pro-choice means voting for abortion. By hyperfocusing on the act of abortion itself rather than the social conditions that induce women to feel like they have no other options, the polarization of pro-life and pro-choice parties is splintered along the perverse obsession of abortive procedures. But our real priority should be to honor women, who should be the only ones to define laws surrounding women’s health.
The facts show that unintended pregnancies which end in abortion ultimately spawn from systemic inequity and privileged access to the means to raise a child. Approximately 75% of all patients who chose abortion in 2014 were of low economic status (over half of them women of color). Abortion outcomes were also greatly influenced by “a combination of factors that stem from a long history of racism and discrimination, as well as lack of access to high-quality, affordable health insurance and care,” according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute. People who choose abortion statistically feel as though they have no other option: of those 75%, the most common reasons given for having an abortion were inability to afford raising a child and inability to care for a child. If the state of Alabama re-allocated even half of the funding necessary to enforce this self-admittedly “unenforceable” law to providing marginalized women with the adequate resources to raise a new infant—childcare, insurance, a solid health care plan, and paid maternal leave—the state might actually be able to extend a lifeline to the infants they hope to be born.
There are ways for pro-life supporters to practice their politics in a way that is not antagonistic to women. Take, for example, The Source for Women, a not-for-profit agency founded in 1982 in Houston. This pregnancy medical clinic does not offer abortion services out of religious conviction; instead, they emphasize the importance of “empower[ing] women to choose life by offering services like counseling, parenting classes, material assistance, prayer, adoption referrals, Medicaid assistance, and more,” including STI testing/treatment and well woman exams. This attitude of respecting the woman for everything she is and holistically addressing her needs during pregnancy creates a safe space for the woman to make the best decision for herself without judgment. This sensitivity to the tough realities women face in day-to-day life achieves something that harsh legislation can never accomplish: meaningful connection to the woman’s humanity and dignity. Being pro-life is not defined by how stringent a state’s abortion laws are; it’s about a commitment to take care of women and to honor their individuality and autonomy.
It is incredibly disturbing how the abortion rights tug-of-war is playing out in contemporary media. As we continue to watch rising tensions between “pro-lifers” and “pro-choicers” in general discourse or the court of law, we must remind ourselves that the fundamental tension between the two is caused by a false dichotomy voiced by passionate people on either side of the abortion debate. It’s so dangerously easy to let these news flashes blur in the subconscious of today’s clamor of hotly contested social issues. Let us never forget that behind the political games our self-interested lawmakers play are real people: women who are already struggling so hard to make it. Abortion affects someone you know. Reach out your hand in understanding.
About the author: Camilo is an artist from Houston, Texas. You can find him at the water's edge with a mug of coffee in hand.