Texas lawmakers considered a bill that would make abortion punishable by death

The bill didn't pass the committee stage – but it reflects how radical America’s anti-abortion movement has become

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Earlier this week, Texas state legislators began considering a bill that would allow a woman who has an abortion, or a medical professional who performs one, to be charged with homicide – a crime that carries the death penalty in Texas.

The bill was introduced in the Texas House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee and because the committee chairman has voiced his opposition to it, it won't pass onto the House floor. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. The fact that such an extreme and misogynistic bill should be under discussion at all points to the alarming escalation in efforts by anti-abortion fanatics to overturn Roe v. Wade, and demonstrates how toxic the debate over women’s reproductive freedom is becoming.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group dedicated to advancing women’s reproductive rights, 28 state legislatures introduced a variety of abortion bans in the first quarter of 2019. While the overall number of abortion restrictions passed in the first quarter of 2019 is the same as in 2018, “the extreme nature of this year’s bills is unprecedented,” the organisation argued.

Among the most radical proposals to pass through state legislatures are a series of “heartbeat bills” that would ban abortion after a heartbeat can be detected, which is usually around six weeks well before many women know they are pregnant. Earlier this year, Mississippi and Kentucky joined Iowa and North Dakota in enacting heartbeat bills, and such bills have passed the legislature in Georgia, as well as one chamber in Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee.

To date, the courts have prevented heartbeat bills from being implemented – but to think that represents a defeat for the anti-abortion movement misunderstands its aim.

The reason so-called “pro-life” extremists are so bent on introducing legislation that patently contradicts the protections granted to women under Roe v. Wade is that they are hoping their legal battle will be kicked up to the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, where they may have an opportunity to overturn abortion rights.

The Texan bill also demonstrates the creeping influence of inflammatory anti-abortion rhetoric, a sort of natural conclusion to the arch-conservatives’ insistence that abortion is no different from murder – as though the one in four American women who has an abortion would equally kill a child, as though a cluster of cells, an embryo that cannot survive independently of a woman’s body, is the same as a fully-formed human, as though “pro-life” were an accurate label rather than an insistence that some lives – the lives of the preternaturally innocent and apolitical unborn – are more valuable than others.

As I have argued before, it’s no coincidence that the states with the most restrictive abortion policies also have the worst records for women and children’s health. The tools used by the so-called “pro-life” movement to restrict women’s ability to access abortions – such as the defunding of Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics – directly contribute to America’s shocking rates of maternal and infant mortality.

This is why in December, a Mississippi judge striking down a proposed 15-week abortion ban accused the state legislature of “gaslighting”. “This Court concludes that the Mississippi Legislature’s professed interest in “women’s health” is pure gaslighting… Its leaders are proud to challenge Roe but choose not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room: our alarming infant and maternal mortality rates,” argued District Judge Carlton W. Reeves.

By suggesting that, say, a scared teenager or an impoverished single mother or a woman who just does not want a baby should be executed by the state for having an abortion, the Texas lawmakers behind the bill make explicit whose lives they really care about – and whose they don’t.

The president is contributing to the ramping up of misleading, divisive and inflammatory rhetoric around abortion that makes the consideration of such bills possible.

After New York state passed legislation making it possible for women to obtain late-term abortions (classified as abortions after 24 weeks) if they are facing health risks or serious foetal complications, Trump falsely claimed the Democrats were allowing “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth”.

In another gross and dangerous mischaracterisation, Trump said that the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, who supported a similar bill in his state “would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world and wrap the baby and make the baby comfortable and then talk to the mother and talk to the father and then execute the baby”. If you believe Trump’s lies, then the criminalisation of abortion makes perfect sense. If you view them as baby-executors, why would you even hear out the views of the pro-choice movement?

What happened in Texas is utterly chilling because it demonstrates what is possible when the anti-abortion movement becomes untethered from fact or reason, because it shows how radicalised the so-called “pro-life movement” is becoming, and because it is unlikely the last such bill to be given a hearing in America’s state legislatures.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.