The documentary Birthright: A War Story looks closer at American women’s long struggle for the right to decide over their own bodies. Even though the struggle for women’s right to abortion was won with “Roe vs. Wade” in 1973, the anti-abortion campaign has only increased in intensity since then, in accordance with a general trend in which conservatives have achieved power at the local, state and, with time, federal levels of government.
A neglected struggle to Norwegian observers
Since 2010 no less than 300 restrictions against women’s reproductive rights have been passed by states around the US.
According to the documentary the US has the highest maternal mortality rates in the West, and they keep rising in tandem with America’s lurch towards the right. The right-wing Tea Party movement has experienced enormous growth, and one of their key rallying points has been precisely the fight against abortion.
Till now we’ve closed our eyes to what’s been going on in the US; perhaps because we don’t dare think of what the end result may be, or because the consequences can become so dire for women that we can’t even process it. I’m a woman and a feminist, but not even I have understood this campaign in anything more than superficial terms (i.e. watching footage of how doctors and patients at abortion clinics have been harassed, and in some cases even murdered).
Life begins at…?
What I haven’t noticed is how the conservative raft of legislation, in its eagerness to promote the rights of the foetus, is simultaneously dismantling women’s rights. This is a difficult dilemma, and much of it boils down to when a foetus should be regarded as human being (or indeed as a person) and thus enjoy the rights accorded to humans. Is it at conception or at a later point during the pregnancy? At what point during a pregnancy should a woman lose the sovereignty over her own body? The religious and conservative groups vehemently argue that life begins at conception. Which brings us to the present situation, where the violations of women’s rights and the negative consequences they entail are becoming increasingly glaring.
«In poor areas people often only have access to clinics run by religious charities, which “can’t” offer abortion, prevention or sterilization services.»
It’s no longer only about abortion. It’s also about prevention and access to adequate medical care during a woman’s pregnancy. It’s about the right to make your own choice; about not being forced to choose based on what health services are available in your area. A woman in the documentary recounts how she’s been forced to perform a caesarean even though she wanted a natural birth no less than three times. The last time she was rolled into the operating room without having signed a paper of consent; the hospital threatened had to threaten her with judicil consquences in order to have the caesarean performed.
Restrictions produce high risks
I’m a woman of almost 41 who is voluntarily childless and who uses prevention, and the stories about these women and the violations they’ve been subjected to by the authorities are hurting my soul. Some of the women have been imprisoned for having had an abortion or for having provoked one because they, for different reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t have the child. Some became critically ill because a hospital or a doctor refused to perform the abortion they asked for. Then there’s the child who had to die before they could remove it, so that it wouldn’t be considered murder. The fact that mothers get seriously ill with infections is secondary to the rights of the foetus.
To me it’s incomprehensible that US politicians are unable to stop a destructive development whereby women’s sovereignty over their own uteruses has become the subject of a political power struggle. It’s equally incomprehensible that they don’t realize that these restrictions, and the consequences that accompany them, lead to more deaths among both women and children. In poor areas people often only have access to clinics run by religious charities, but the services they provide are generally limited either by laws or by their own charters. As a result, they are often unable to offer abortions, prevention or sterilization services, no matter what the reason may be. And it’s primarily the poor and the unemployed, whose only other access to health care is through Medicaid, who’re affected by this type of restrictions.
«The us has the highest maternal mortality rates in the west, and it keeps rising in tandem with America’s lurch towards the right»
What happens when a pregnant woman knows that she risks imprisonment if she sees a doctor during an unwanted pregnancy, or if she knows that she won’t get the help that she needs? Most likely she’ll take the matter into her own hands. In practice this either means having an abortion on the black market (like in the 1950s), or going through with the pregnancy without access to qualified medical staff and thus giving birth practically without assistance. Both can lead to serious infections and, in the last resort, death. Where does that leave us with children’s rights? A child’s rights should in fact be about more than life at any cost. Is it better to grow up in the “system” after your mother died while giving birth? Or to be born by a woman who doesn’t want to take care of you or is unable to do so?
I’m glad I live here
Was Margaret Atwood ahead of her time with the dystopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale? I can see where the US is heading and I don’t like what I’m seeing. Having watched the documentary, I’m glad I live in Norway – where I have the right to decide over my own body and what to do with it. Where I can decide whether I want to have children or not. Where both me and any future children will be taken care of throughout the pregnancy and followed up closely afterwards. I have real alternatives and I’ve been informed about all of them before I make my decisions, and I face no condemnation when the choice has been made. I don’t risk going to prison if I choose what I think is the most responsible option and the best one for all the parties concerned. Let’s hope that this never changes.