Forced-birth advocates are using a misogynist playbook from the past.
Last week saw a wide reporting on a rash of extremely restrictive abortion laws in state legislatures in Georgia, Ohio, and Alabama. As the details of the bills and their implications have circulated, it has become clear that this new wave of anti-abortion legislation, in addition to being meant to provide a case for a Supreme Court challenge of Roe V. Wade, is a sign that the gloves are coming off the forced-birth agenda.
In Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 481, a so-called “heartbeat bill,” on May 7 that included provisions for banning any abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. Despite the fact that this usually occurs at about six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant, the bill makes getting an abortion a felony. An earlier law excluded people who self-terminate, but this provision is absent from this latest piece of legislation. As Slate reports, this change, combined with the bill’s provisions for legal personhood for the unborn, could — and will — mean that people who miscarry or experience stillbirth can be subject to investigation and prosecution for murder.
In Ohio, the entire complement of Republican legislators has signed on to a bill, introduced in April, that is in many respects even more horrifying that Georgia’s. In addition to banning insurance providers from covering the procedure, the bill’s sponsors believe it provides for unscientific provisions for medical procedures that do not exist, such as re-implantation of the fertilized egg from an ectopic pregnancy back into the uterus, and they have grossly mischaracterized how hormonal contraceptives work.
In Alabama, the Senate was forced to halt a vote on May 9 on a similar bill that would outlaw abortions, with sentences up to 99 years for convicted practitioners, because Republicans set off an uproar trying to remove exceptions to the law for incest and rape.
It’s been, to put it mildly, an extremely trying week as a person with a uterus. The pro-choice conversation on social media has taken on a slightly different tone from previous instances of such bills being introduced, debated, and passed. There is a much more urgent current of fear flowing alongside the usual anger, solidarity, and myth-busting that goes along with a news cycle like this one.
These increasingly draconian laws put the lie to the forced-birth rhetoric of prevention over punishment. What we have known about this agenda since before Roe, that abortion bans are about punishing people for not exercising their reproductive capacity in accordance with conservative pro-natal values, is now being explicitly enshrined in law. Forced-birth advocates have shed the last fragments of their pro-life propaganda and embraced punitive, cruel policies to enforce their control over reproductive bodies.
Part of what may be so frightening about these new laws, beyond the grisly prospect of being subjected to medical procedures cooked up by the fevered minds of Republican politicians or being prosecuted for a miscarriage, is the way this new legislation so openly embraces what were once considered antiquated and misogynistic ideas about pregnancy and motherhood. In holding pregnant people responsible for anything that happens to them, within and without their control, echo other legal precedents such as coverture and the responsibility of producing male heirs under primogeniture, the eugenic direction of reproduction by the state, and theories of “maternal impression.” The latter, popular even into the 19th century but dating back to ancient medicine, held that the both the physical characteristics and psychological makeup of a baby was determined in utero by the behavior of the mother.
One proponent of this theory, Charles Bayer, published Maternal Impressions in which he outlined “a theory as to how a mother, through her mentality, changes the formation of her child from a normal to an abnormal structure.” In the preface to the second edition in 1897, he responded to criticism that his theory took no account of the father’s contributions in this manner, insisting that “the father may transmit traits to his progeny,” but that “[t]he mother is able to change or modify those traits if cognizant of them, but to do so she must be educated up on the line of maternal impressions.”
Although the strict causality of maternal impressions, which might suggest that a mother’s cravings appear on the baby as a birthmark in the image of the desired food, is now largely regarded as superstition, it has its roots in both medicine and theories of criminal psychology. Bayer was particularly interested in the possibility of educating pregnant women to prevent the transmission of criminality to their babies. He viewed his theory, and his prescription for careful control of the behavior of pregnant people, as a contribution both to science and to health of the state.
Underlying the justification for such extreme legislation is the idea that the primary function of a woman is to reproduce, and to do so successfully and frequently. These new abortion laws criminalize not only the willful termination of pregnancy but also the the failure to carry a pregnancy to term for any reason, including miscarriage or nonviable pregnancy in the case of ectopic implantation. These laws are explicitly about punishing women for not conforming to misogynist ideas about their “natural” function.
While they are targeted at women, particularly in their appropriation of these ideas about women from the past, these laws threaten the bodily autonomy and the well-being of anyone who can become pregnant. By criminalizing the act of seeking and obtaining an abortion as well as having a miscarriage or stillbirth, the forced-birth agenda has moved definitively from performative concern for the life of the fetus to open, harsh policing of reproductive capacity.