Reproductive Rights Under Attack – Sliding Towards Gilead

Reproductive Rights Under Attack – Sliding Towards Gilead

“This is happening in your real life. Wake up, people. Wake up.” This was the exhortation of Elisabeth Moss who plays Offred in the television series based on the Margaret Attwood novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale, when asked during an interview with The Guardian about the not uncommon reaction that the show is just too scary to watch.[1]  Sadly, Elisabeth Moss is right; it is time to wake up and acknowledge that women in the United States are under attack as their rights to reproductive health, and in particular access to abortion, are systematically and comprehensively eroded and women are increasingly treated as hosts to be denied autonomy and agency in the interests of the developing fetus. If ever there was a time to “wake up” to this fact this week was it.

The Guardian piece was published on Saturday May 5th. The week had begun with an opinion piece in Monday’s edition of the Washington Post by Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America[2] entitled “Think abortion should be punished? Take a look around,”[3] and ended with the Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, signing the so-called “heartbeat bill” into law on Friday 4th.[4]

By signing Senate File 359[5] into law Governor Reynolds ensured, at least until such time as the law may be successfully challenged, that physicians in Iowa are required to test for fetal heartbeat, and having detected one, which can occur as early as 6 weeks’ gestation, to then inform the pregnant woman in writing of that fact. The physician is then prohibited from performing an abortion unless the physician, exercising their “reasonable medical judgment,” considers there to be a medical emergency or that abortion is otherwise “medically necessary.” The law, as it now is, defines those terms such that abortion may only be performed following detection of fetal heartbeat if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk, or there is “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function..” arising from some physical, but not psychological factor, the fetus has an abnormality incompatible with life, miscarriage, or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape (provided these acts were reported to law enforcement  or health agencies within 140 days of their occurrence).  It should be noted that in January 2017, in response to the introduction by representative Steve King of Iowa of similar draft legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement strongly opposing the prohibition of abortion from the time of detection of fetal heartbeat, describing the bill as an “unconstitutional and unnecessary political interference in the practice of medicine.”[6]

In her opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Hogue, responding to calls for punishment for women who have abortions such as those made by Kevin Williamson[7] articulates the fear engendered by such chilling calls for punishment, and what those calls should tell us about prevailing attitudes to women in this country now – not in some imagined dystopian future. Hogue provides a litany of the ways in which “women are now punished every day for seeking reproductive health care in this country” citing legal, logistical and financial barriers to the access of abortion services. She reminds us that in March of this year legislators in Ohio introduced a bill, which if passed, would ban abortion completely thereby extinguishing the constitutional rights of the women of Ohio and putting those who subsequently access an abortion at risk of life imprisonment or possibly the death penalty.[8] Ohio is not alone in seeking to criminalize abortion. For example, the civil society organization, Abolish Abortion Idaho, is endeavoring to have its proposal that both abortion-providers and women undergoing abortions be charged with first-degree murder on the ballot at elections this November.[9] The issue is also featuring large in the race for Lieutenant Governor in Idaho with a Republican candidate, three term senator Bob Nonini, stating that he would like to see the re-criminalization of abortion as a deterrent measure.[10]

His claims that women are not prosecuted for having an abortion are sadly untrue.  Several highly-publicized cases over recent years prove the point. In 2011 Bei Bei Shuai was charged with murder and attempted feticide by the criminal authorities of Indiana following her attempt to commit suicide by ingesting rat poison when 33 weeks pregnant and the subsequent death, ten days later of her baby delivered via emergency C-section. Shuai served 14 months in prison awaiting trial before accepting a plea deal; she pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness and the murder charge was dropped.[11] Also in Indiana, in 2015 Purvi Patel was sentenced to twenty years in prison for self-inducing abortion using drugs purchased online when 25 weeks pregnant. Her conviction and sentence were subsequently overturned on appeal and she was released from prison on 1st September 2016.[12] Most recently, in Tennessee, Anna Yocca, who had attempted to self-induce an abortion using a coat hanger was released from prison having pleaded guilty to attempted procurement of a miscarriage. She had spent more than a year in prison initially facing a charge of attempted murder.[13] Research conducted by Lyn Paltrow, lawyer and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and Jeanne Flavin, sociology professor at Fordham University,[14] suggest that these highly-publicized cases may not be extremely rare outliers but rather reflect a small, but not insignificant, and consistent use of the criminal law to punish women who resort to self-induced abortion.[15]


Attempts to re-criminalize abortion, to punish women with incarceration or death for having an abortion, and the artificial sustaining of brain-dead women in order to permit the delivery of a viable fetus[16] should leave us in no doubt that women, pregnant women, are at grave risk in the United States in 2018. Arguably these developments reflect a narrative that women, once pregnant, are mere incubators for the fetus, to be stripped of their rights, subjugated to the needs of a fetus, and robbed of their human dignity, even in death. It seems that we do indeed live in a state dangerously close to that in which Offred and her fellow handmaids are property to serve the State, mere vessels for reproduction, incarcerated, deprived of any rights, autonomy and agency and made to suffer monthly rape in order to bear the next generation.

This IS real people – Wake up! Wake up!










[10] Id




[14] “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973-2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health” Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law, April 1, 2013


[16] See my last post, dated 4/16/2018

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