Sunday, August 14, 2022

After Dobbs: Our Nation without Bodily Autonomy Rights

Why is bodily autonomy important?

  • The fundamental human right of bodily autonomy (the bioethical principle on which the right to abortion rests) was formalized shortly after World War II’s Doctors' Trials, during which details regarding the medical experimentation, and consequent torture, done by Nazi doctors on nonconsenting, mostly Jewish, prisoners, came to light.i

  • The history of bodily autonomy violations in the United States can easily be seen in the many instances of “experiments” run on non-consenting racial and ethnic minorities. The 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study promised treatment to Black men suffering from syphilis, but denied those men access to readily available penicillin regimens that resulted in 128 out of 400 dying from syphilis, 40 of their partners being infected, and 19 children born with fatal congenital syphilis.ii 

  • The Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling Buck v. Bell upheld the legality of forced sterilizations, mostly performed on minority women arbitrarily deemed mentally ill or disabled and women under legal conservator or guardianships.  Because this decision was never formally overturned, thousands of people since have endured brutal sterilization procedures with no real legal recourse available.iii 

  • On June 24th, the Supreme Court upheld a highly restrictive Mississippi state law, effectively overturning Roe v. Wade and 50 years of abortion rights.iv Thirteen states had previous “trigger bans” – legislation that were automatically enacted once the ruling became official. The three liberal justices, in their joint dissent, wrote, “As of today, this Court holds, a state can always force a woman to give birth, prohibiting even the earliest abortions.” 

What are the real, measurable consequences of Dobbs?

National pregnancy-related mortality ratios by racial and ethnic group, 2014–2017, projected increases one year after abortion bans upheld, and projected increases in subsequent years, source

  • A study published last year in Duke University’s journal Demography estimated that if the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade, triggering abortion ban laws in 13 states, pregnancy-related deaths would increase for all pregnant individuals by 21% over time. But because of structural, racial and economic inequalities in health care access and treatment, minorities would be disproportionately affected. For example, Black people were projected to experience a 33% increase in maternal mortality in the years after bans were enacted.v

  • As many states’ abortion ban legislation carry heavy penalties for doctors accused of even assisting with termination of a pregnancy, health care professionals are erroring on the side of not providing care at all. Additionally, pharmacists who fall under the same vaguely written laws are often unwilling to dispense prescriptions for medications that reduce suffering during a miscarriage because they can also be used as

  • Because of this, primary care and OB-GYNs are refusing to work in states with abortion bans. The ambiguity of the laws allow lawsuits to be brought against care providers, even those not performing abortions. Certain states' legislatures, such as Texas, have considered letting private individuals be “deputized” to bring civil lawsuits against people suspected of having or assisting with an abortion.vii

  • Any person who could become pregnant but also takes prescription medications that are harmful or fatal to a fetus is faced with a new, unwelcome challenge without access to abortion care. This is particularly true for disabled persons, who are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy, and more likely to die during childbirth.viii It also threatens the lives of pregnant people who discover they have aggressive or late stage cancers. Most chemotherapy treatments are not compatible with fetal development and/or viability. But in states with restrictive abortion bans, those people are now forced to carry their fetus to term and begin treatments after birth.ix

A timeline of needless suffering:

  • On June 30th, a ten year old child underwent a medical abortion in Indiana, after being raped in her home state of Ohio, which had a “trigger ban” that took effect once the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling was made official. Republicans in Ohio’s General Assembly have a veto-proof majority and are expected to further restrict abortions, allowing for no rape/incest exceptions and possibly including language that would prohibit terminations after fertilization, thus eliminating some forms of birth control.x

  • In July a Texas woman requested an abortion after miscarrying one of her twins at 15 weeks but was told her life wasn’t sufficiently endangered in order to receive the procedure. Weeks later, with sepsis and resulting kidney damage, she was allowed an abortion.xi

  • In August a woman in Nebraska who previously assisted her 17 year old daughter obtain abortifacient medicines and induce an abortion, was charged with a felony because of Nebraska’s 20 week abortion ban. Prosecutors then waited until the daughter turned 18 a couple months later to charge her as an adult.xii 

Where are forced-birth advocates focusing next?

Forced-birth extremists are divided as to where they should next direct their assault on basic human rights. The majority of these groups are now working to erode legal exceptions to abortion bans that allow abortions in cases of rape and incest. Many organizations are looking to redefine when and how abortions can be used to preserve the life of a pregnant individual. Some groups are also building on state laws that allow the genetic father of a fetus (or related family members) to bring legal claims against health professionals that provided abortion care to a pregnant person or that pregnant person themselves.xiii 

Abortion is health care.
Abortion rights are human rights.

In addition to violating the bioethical imperative of bodily autonomy as a fundamental human right, abortion restrictions and bans are an effective distraction technique used to keep poor and low-wealth communities at odds. In European countries where abortion is easily available, free of cost, and not stigmatized, the actual rate of abortions performed is roughly half that in the US, adjusted for population differences. 

Life-saving abortion access is a poor and/or low-wealth person’s issue – one that crosses all political, geographic, racial, ethnic, and religious lines.

iWikipedia contributors. (2022b, August 2). Doctors’ trial. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
iiWikipedia contributors. (2022a, June 21). Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
iiiVenkataramanan, M. (2022, July 24). She survived a forced sterilization. Activists fear more could occur post-Roe. Washington Post. 
ivBarnes, R., & Marimow, A. E. (2022, June 25). Supreme Court ruling leaves states free to outlaw abortion. Washington Post.
vStevenson, A. J. (2021). The Pregnancy-Related Mortality Impact of a Total Abortion Ban in the United States: A Research Note on Increased Deaths Due to Remaining Pregnant. Demography, 58(6).
viHesse, M. (2022, July 22). One month in, abortion bans are hell on Earth. Washington Post.
viiRowland, C. (2022, August 6). A challenge for antiabortion states: Doctors reluctant to work there. Washington Post.
viiiVenkataramanan, M. (2022b, July 25). Their medications cause pregnancy issues. Post-Roe, that could be dangerous. Washington Post.
ixSekeres, M. A. (2022, July 28). Abortion ruling may restrict options for pregnant cancer patients. Washington Post.
xTrombly, B. M., & Bruner, T. C. (2022, July 21). Arrest made in rape of Ohio girl that led to Indiana abortion drawing international attention. The Columbus Dispatch. 
xiGoodman, D. J., & Ghorayshi, A. (2022, July 21). Women Face Risks as Doctors Struggle With Medical Exceptions on Abortion. The New York Times. 
xiiFunk, J. (2022, August 10). Nebraska woman charged with helping daughter have abortion. AP NEWS. 
xiiiRoubein, R., & Beard, M. (2022, July 25). Antiabortion groups differ on the details over where to take their fight next. Washington Post.

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