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Home > Politics

Coathangers at Dawn

28 January 2006

The funny thing about Roe vs Wade, the 1973 court case that led to the legalisation of abortion in America, is - well, it's not any funnier than anything else about it, really... But the woman who fought for the right to abort her unborn child is now fighting for everyone else not to have it. Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey filed a federal motion three years ago to reopen the case. The judge denied it, perhaps balking at one of the biggest U-turns in legal history, imagining that it couldn't but be driven by some extreme, irrational force of guilt. (McCorvey was baptised and born again in 1995.) And, presumably, thinking that any country that would seek to revoke something as basic as the right to abortion has got to be irretrievably batshit.

Last Sunday saw demonstrations by sanctimoniously-named pro-lifers and the still rather unpalatably-named pro-choice contingent to mark the 33rd anniversary of Roe vs Wade. The anti-abortionists continued to miss some fundamental points about human rights, about quality of life and about a grim reality that we all wish were otherwise, but must assimilate. However, like the Christian groups with whom they are often aligned, the anti-abortion movement in America is growing in confidence. One of Bush's very first actions upon taking office in 2001 (just after he brushed his teeth on January 20th, pretty much) was to pull the plug on abortion funding for overseas organisations, and now one of the most conservative and anti-abortionist judges in memory is taking charge of the Supreme Court. These are, well, fertile times. Sure enough, one state is making a play for an outright abortion ban, throwing in a clause about the compulsory consumption of dung and bringing in new 'flagon' measurements for alcohol while they're at it.

South Dakota is not an especially happy place - with few graduate-level jobs to be had, its bright young people are leaving the Midwestern hole in droves and its population is falling. It's still got Mount Rushmore to bring tourists in, but fickle swine that they are, they need more in the way of thrills than a big rock with faces on. So in order to put themselves back on the map, South Dakota studied the brilliant PR offensive of the southern states, which bring themselves to world attention by a) insisting that the 17th century is the absolute best century to use as a template for the future and b) making a lot of extravagantly unrepentant noise about same. Nothing says 'we've arrived' like a healthy bitchslap of a landmark human rights case, and thus it is that suddenly South Dakota is back. An abortion ban would suit the state, effectively forcing many young women to start upping the population again and keeping them in situ when they might otherwise have fucked off to Vermont. (Although of course this will backfire - in the event of an abortion ban, young women will leave the state by the Greyhound-load, either to get a legal abortion or to make sure they never have to become trapped by circumstance.) The cunning plan is to simultaneously act to prevent unwanted pregnancy, by passing a law that makes it a felony for unmarried women to have intercourse with anything but a horse.

The Dakotas are among the most religious of the states, which is saying something, and the best they are willing to offer in terms of prevention is the usual abstinence solution, a church-and-government-sanctioned programme inducing pre-emptive fear and guilt. South Dakota has had it in for abortion for a long time. It almost got its way in 2004 - a law breezed through both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by the Governor. This was on a technicality, so were it not for a squashed fly obscuring part of clause 8.2 on page 14, that step back would already have been completed. As it stands, five laws restricting abortion were passed last year, and now a task force is planning to tackle Roe vs Wade on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Enough has been said about why abortion must stay legal, it hardly seems worth repeating; but, staggeringly, it all seems to need repeating again and again. Supporters of the law as it is are now finding that they need to maintain serious vigilance. The South Dakota law is called the Woman's Health and Life Protection Act, which says much in itself about how badly views are slanted; the law will allow doctors to perform abortions only to save a woman's life. (Doctors will also be bound to warn women of the risks of abortion, in writing - more guilt, more fear.) It may be harder to prove that a woman's life is in danger if an unwanted pregnancy makes her consider killing herself, but that's no excuse to deny her the right. Religious leaders are saying the time is right for a ban, and cite the kind of scientific evidence they blithely discount when it suits them; arguing that a human becomes as human as he or she is ever going to get at the moment of conception. It's no wonder that many Christians feel so strongly about the evils of contraception - it kills or subverts the cells that coalesce to make the other bunches of cells that may or may not become people. Eggs may in actuality only be cells like any other, but they are held sacred. (Sperm aren't, quite so much - well, they're all wriggly and pervy and not quite so

Such infinitesimal bundles of DNA amount to one of the biggest battlegrounds in the US - their rights are stridently championed above those of the already well and truly living. What is overlooked by pro-lifers is that no one who believes in the right to abortion thinks it is anything to gloat over. No one treats it lightly or thinks of it as an unmitigated good. It's a horrible thing. It's accepted that abortion can be a devastating event that changes - even ruins - a woman's life. No one denies that removing a foetus from a womb and tossing it in a bin with the used syringes is, on an immediate level, horrific to anyone with human feeling. But it is better than the alternative; manifestly the lesser of two evils, even if it is the more immediately gory. A woman being obliged to give birth to a child she does not want is unspeakable, for both of them and for society. If she aborts she may destroy her life as she puts an end to the potential other; if she does not, she may destroy her own and the child's. Ideally, she would fall in love with it at first sight and forever give thanks that she came so close to ruining everything - ideally, that would happen every single time. The South Dakota lawmakers are idealists, and while idealism is often admirable, it is often... just really, really fucking stupid and dangerous. Dr Anne Turner, the British woman with an incurable disease who was this week helped to die by Swiss doctors, railed before she went to Switzerland about the fact that she had to leave the country to end her suffering. Before she developed her terminal condition she was a family planning doctor. The right to abortion and the right to die sit right next to each other, as ugly as they are essential. While the US stands by the Iraq war as a necessary not-even-that-evil-evil and considers state execution to be just, believers in human rights have to keep a very tight hold on Roe vs Wade. Otherwise before you know it they'll be fucking horses in the streets.

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