Were I living in Texas, it would be completely illegal for me to ever have an abortion.
The new law that came into force this week bans terminations after six weeks of pregnancy. The timer starts ticking not from sexual intercourse, as one might expect, but from the date of a woman’s last period.
I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects between 6 and 12 per cent of women. One of the most common symptoms of PCOS is a very irregular menstrual cycle. I have no idea when I’m “due”, as the gap between my periods can be anything between five and 25 weeks. By the Texas metric, it is highly likely I would miss the window to get a legal abortion before I even became pregnant, let alone realised I was – which, with such an unpredictable cycle, would take weeks.
I apologise if that’s too much information about the inner workings of my reproductive system. People – particularly men, a demographic who, by chance, hold nearly three quarters of the seats in the Texas state legislature – generally don’t like hearing about a woman’s periods. It makes them uncomfortable. And because it’s considered “icky” or “oversharing” to talk about it, we don’t.
But this squeamishness about reproductive health enables myths to persist – myths that provide cover for anti-choice activists who want to police women’s bodies and ban abortion outright to pretend their invasive, draconian, dangerous new law won’t have the effect of ruining, and in some tragic cases ending, women’s lives.
In the days since the law came into force, I have lost track of the misinformation I have seen spouted on social media by men who do not understand women’s bodies. The most common is the idea that six weeks is plenty of time to decide whether or not to continue with a pregnancy. The reality is that under this law even a woman with the most regular cycle will have barely two weeks from conception to discover she is pregnant, decide what she wants to do, and arrange to terminate. The lack of clinics in the state (efforts by anti-choice activists over the past decades have driven down the number of providers to just 22 in 2019, for a state of 29 million people) makes that virtually impossible. Women don’t stand a chance.
There are other biological realities that are being conveniently ignored. Between 10 and 20 per cent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. In cases of miscarriage after 12 weeks, medical attention is required to ensure women don’t die from remaining foetal tissue becoming infected. The uniquely cruel litigation aspect of the Texas bill, which encourages private individuals to sue (and profit from) anyone they suspect of assisting in any way with an abortion past the six-week limit, will put doctors at risk of lawsuits if they provide vital miscarriage care. It could take just one person to wonder whether a woman’s miscarriage is the result of a desperate attempt at termination for anyone who helps her to become embroiled in legal action that could prove financially devastating. Miscarrying women will put off seeking, and will be denied, care. Doctors will be discouraged from providing life-saving treatment.
None of the “pro-life” legislators and activists who have pushed for this law have mentioned this. A lack of public understanding of female biology allows them to conceal the fact that their efforts to “protect life” will lead to women dying in horrible circumstances.
And that’s before we even contemplate the desperate women – scared teenagers, rape victims, impoverished mothers with existing children to support – who will inevitably try to terminate a pregnancy themselves in the absence of a safe legal option. There will be more deaths from unsafe abortions – the stricter a country’s abortion laws, the higher the rate of maternal mortality. According to the World Health Organisation, seven million women are admitted to hospitals every year in developing countries as a result of unsafe abortion. To developing countries, we can now add Texas.
Anti-abortion activists may believe, sincerely, that the life of a woman who tries to terminate a pregnancy is not worth saving. If that is their stance, they should be honest about it. They should be honest too that what they have just done will not, as the (misnamed) Texas Alliance For Life argued, “celebrate the lives of unborn children who will be protected from abortion”. It will kill women, whether they were seeking an abortion or not, and leave many more with life-changing injuries, or with the trauma of giving birth to a child they are not financially, mentally or emotionally able to raise.
It’s tempting, here in the UK, to look away from the horror of what is about to occur in Texas. It’s a place 5,000 miles away, with a history and set of political trends radically different from that of Britain. But what happens in the US matters to women everywhere because misconceptions about the Texas law fuel the anti-abortion cause across the world.
They enable anti-choicers to peddle biologically inaccurate claims about foetal “heartbeats” (the sound referred to as a “heartbeat” in the scan of a six-week embryo is not produced by a heart, which at that stage does not exist), and to pretend women who want to terminate after six weeks are simply careless, and therefore undeserving of any consideration. It erases victims of rape and domestic violence, as though the claims of one Republican congressman in 2012 that women could not get pregnant from rape (“the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”) were reality, rather than scientifically illiterate gibberish. It ignores the existence of women like me who have PCOS or a host of other medical conditions. And it provides a template for other states and other countries to follow, using the “pro-life” fig leaf to cause untold misery.
So I’m sorry if you don’t want to hear about the irregularity of my periods or the messy details of miscarriage or the women who are about to start dying in Texas. But I have to believe it is scientific misunderstanding and our aversion to speaking about female biology that got us to this point – and that if men only understood more about women’s bodies they’d fight harder against laws that will put those bodies in the ground.
Because the alternative is that they just don’t care.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire