Are pregnant women people? Not if those who believe in the concept of legal fetal “personhood” have their way. Forty years since Roe v. Wade, the steady rollback of reproductive rights that has taken place in Statehouses across America doesn’t merely affect women who want to prevent or end pregnancies. It creates an alarming legal standard that hurts pregnant women carrying to term, too.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women conducted a comprehensive — and alarming — study in which they investigated the incarceration, detention and forced medical intervention of hundreds of pregnant women based on a wide-range of cases since Roe was enacted.
Their report contains tough-to-read stories, including an instance where a woman was forced to have a C-section against her will (she later died), another case where a woman was kept in jail to deny her an abortion, and a case where a woman who refused prenatal testing was locked in a hospital to force it on her — and the testing was never done. Reproductive justice advocates have long warned that proposed “fetal personhood measures” meant miscarriages could be investigated as crimes, and indeed in some cases, they already have been.
You won’t be surprised that women of color and other marginalized women were far more likely to suffer these sorts of violations — but everyone with child-carrying capabilities is affected.
The NAPW report explains that even though Roe is “the law of the land,” a spate of new anti-abortion measures have “encouraged” this routine violation of pregnant women’s rights:
Yet, since 1973, many states have passed anti-abortion and feticide measures that, like so-called “personhood” measures, encourage state actors to treat eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they are legally separate from the pregnant woman. We found that these laws have been used as the basis for a disturbing range of punitive state actions in every region of the country, against women of every race, and disproportionately against women in the South, low-income women and African-American women.
In fact, Lynn Paltrow of NAPW told Democracy Now! that in these cases women are being “deprived of their physical liberty, their right to life, their due process rights.” She even referred to cases where lawyers were appointed for a fetus before the pregnant woman herself was granted access to counsel. It’s “not only about reproductive rights, but about whether under the guise of ending just abortion we’re going to remove pregnant women from the community of constitutional persons…” Paltrow explained.
At the same time as this groundbreaking survey came out, another Pew opinion survey arrived, and with it the revelation that many millennials don’t even associate the landmark Roe decision with abortion. Much handwringing ensued, but EJ Graff offered some sympathy for the youngsters at the American Prospect:
Young people quite reasonably believe that the question of whether or not they are in charge of what they do with their bodies is, as they say in the land of constitutional lawyers, “long settled.” Need an abortion? Get one. Oppose it? Don’t get one. You have the final say. …The woman whose body those dividing cells are occupying is the one who gets to decide what to do.
Graff pointed out that when these rights were threatened by extremist politicians in 2012, young people responded. It’s true that extreme anti-choice measures and candidates have been defeated, but it’s also true that away from the national stage, the message has been sent by and from local politicians and law enforcement: pregnant women’s lives don’t count.
And the NAPW survey certainly raises the question that if Americans, young or old, don’t fully understand what Roe means and what has happened to it, how can they understand the far-ranging consequences of Roe’s ever-lessening power, both for those who want to seek terminations and *also those who want to keep pregnancies?
The NAPW survey deserves attention: Everyone planning to start families ought to be free from state coercion and able to make their own decisions. Even if the term pro-choice is out of favor right now, these stories of pregnant women brutalized by the state demonstrate what happens when reproductive choices are taken away.
Roe v. Wade: In Danger and Misunderstood