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20 December 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:36pm

Alabama has passed America’s most restrictive abortion ban – what happens next?

By Sophie McBain

Lawmakers in Alabama on Tuesday passed America’s most restrictive abortion bill. The bill, which cleared the state senate 25-6, would outlaw abortion at any stage of pregnancy, including for survivors of rape or incest, and threatens abortion providers with a prison sentence of up to 99 years.

It is obviously, glaringly unconstitutional – the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v Wade established access to safe, legal abortions as a constitutional right – but that is the whole point. Alabama’s lawmakers are joining a national race by anti-abortion extremists to push the issue back up to America’s highest court, in the hope that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade. Just last week, Georgia became the fourth state this year to pass a ban on abortions after six weeks.

The architects of these bills are quite transparent about their intent. “This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn, because an unborn baby is a person who deserves love and protection,” Alabama state representative Terri Collins, the bill’s sponsor, said.

On a practical level, it’s important to note that, to date, every one of these anti-abortion bills has been struck down by local courts before they could be implemented. Women across America must know they still have a legal right to obtain a safe abortion. (As this New York Magazine article notes, these abortion bans are already serving to spread confusion, with one 2018 survey finding that a third of women searching online about self-termination didn’t know if abortion was legal in their state.) This doesn’t mean these radical bans do not represent a chilling threat for American women, however. It would be dangerously complacent to simply assume that, should the Supreme Court weigh in on the issue, it would uphold Roe v Wade and protect the reproductive rights that American women have held for almost five decades.

What is alarming, too, is the extent to which the Trump presidency has emboldened the most radical fringes of the anti-abortion movement. In recent decades most anti-abortion activists have tended to conceal their deeper intentions. They have sought to chip away at abortion rights by pushing for the defunding of family planning clinics, the placement of onerous restrictions on abortion providers, or the introduction of provisions such as mandatory 48-hour waiting periods, which can serve as an effective barrier to obtaining an abortion if you’re a low-income woman who lives far away from a clinic. Now, anti-abortion activists are wielding sledge-hammers. They feel no need to hide their contempt for women, or the extent to which they would prioritise the survival of an embryo, a mere cluster of cells, over the rights and well-being of the woman carrying it.

During Barack Obama’s presidency it was easy to believe the Martin Luther King precept the former president was so fond of quoting, that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. The Trump administration instead offers a permanent reminder that we must take nothing for granted, not the persistence of liberal democratic norms, nor the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement, not the triumph of tolerance and inclusivity over bigotry and hate, or the dominance of reason over superstition and emotion.

Anti-abortion activists have been waiting and preparing for this political moment for decades, but that doesn’t mean that that the three-quarters of Americans who support abortion rights, or the quarter of American women who obtain abortions, should give up hope and allow themselves to be wrong-footed. There’s never been a more important time to lend support to the organisations who are on the frontline of the legal battle to preserve women’s reproductive rights – groups such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, as well as the invaluable network of smaller family planning clinics providing abortions in increasingly hostile states. We cannot afford to stop talking about, writing about, marching for abortion rights, and we cannot afford to ever forgive the state legislators who have voted for such cruel and backward bills.

Most American women, and men too, might struggle to believe that in 2019 they could be called upon to defend a woman’s fundamental autonomy over her own body, her rights over her own womb, her authority to determine whether she wants to pregnant, whether she wants to become a mother. But we must defend it all the same.

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