An abortion of human rights

There was a time when you knew where you were with anti-abortion activists. They were the ones waving "Abortion is genocide" placards outside family planning clinics, wearing "Satan is pro-choice" T-shirts and vilifying abortion doctors and patients as "murderers". Their case was simple: protection of the foetus trumped any concern they might have for a woman carrying one.

In South Dakota, however, the terms of the debate have shifted. This state is currently at the heart of the US abortion wars as residents prepare for a 7 November ballot that will determine whether a ban signed into law in March is upheld. The ban criminalises all abortions - including those sought as a result of rape or incest, or in the interests of a woman's health - the only exception being to prevent a woman's death.

Rather than just arguing that the ban is necessary to protect "unborn children", the state legislature and its supporters have co-opted feminist language, claiming that a ban is necessary in order to "protect women" from being "exploited" by legalised abortion. The report on which the ban is based argues that abortion should be criminalised because it harms women, causing long-term emotional and physical damage, including suicidal thoughts and an increased risk of breast cancer. (The American Psychological Association has, in fact, found that abortion has "no lasting or significant health risks", and links to breast cancer have been discredited.)

They don't stop there, though. The report's authors go on to suggest that the idea of women freely choosing abortions is a myth, because to do so would violate "the mother's fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child" (under this formulation, a woman is automatically a mother, whether she has kids or not).

Accordingly, they state that any woman seeking an abortion must have been coerced by family members, a boyfriend or husband, or a bloodthirsty abortion doctor. To save women from the horror of what must always be an unwanted abortion - however desperately a woman might argue she wants one - they state that the procedure should be made illegal.

This change in tactic apparently stems from a desire to capture the "middle majority" of people who are concerned about the idea of abortion, but also about women's needs. And it seems to be working. A poll in June found 47 per cent of South Dakotans opposed the ban, while 39 per cent supported it; following avid campaigning, however, another poll last month found that while 47 per cent still opposed the ban, 44 per cent were now in favour.

These new arguments completely dehumanise women. They suggest that we are explicitly programmed to be incubators, that we are incapable of making free choices about our bodies, and that we therefore have to be protected from ourselves. They reduce women to non-beings.

In South Dakota anti-abortion activists have organised their campaigns around the voices of "post-abortive" women who regret their choice. For instance, they are running a radio ad with 29-year-old Kayla Brandt, who had an abortion four years ago and says she was overcome with guilt and shame. "Please, to protect women like me," she pleads, "vote yes on Referred Law 6."

Though it's awful to hear of any woman who does feel scarred from an abortion, it is no argument against the procedure being kept legal. It's in the nature of big decisions that we sometimes make a choice we regret - but who would argue that our right to make choices should therefore be removed? For every woman who regrets having an abortion - and access to good one-to-one counselling before a procedure could help ensure that there are few - millions of women feel nothing but relief that this option was available.

In South Dakota, pro-choice activists are focusing their campaign on the ban's lack of exception for rape and incest victims. This is understandable, and necessary, because it seems the ground on which they are most likely to win. Yet it is regrettable that they are forced to do this, because it implicitly sets up a hierarchy between abortions that are seen as justified, and those which, wrongly, are not.

It's important that we continue making the argument - as strongly as possible - that women have a right to choose safe, legal abortions, whatever their circumstances. Otherwise we jeopardise something wider than our access to abortion: our right to make our own decisions and control our own bodies. We jeopardise, in fact, a woman's right to be a sentient human being.