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Will Reproductive Rights in the US Ever Be Secure?

On the 20th January 2021, the repeated and sustained attack on reproductive rights was over, as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris took their respective oaths of office to assume their new roles. Simultaneously, the future of women’s reproductive rights was confirmed, following the dichotomous campaigning between the presidential candidates — or was it?

The division between Biden and Trump was clearly advertised in their standpoints on women’s reproductive rights, with them having diametrically opposing views on the liberties afforded to women over their own bodies. This is a standpoint that Donald Trump was strong to uphold throughout his campaigning, as he sought to appeal to the conservative voters.

State Attempts to Ban Abortion

A notable feature of the term of Donald Trump’s hellish presidency was the conservative legislation that was enacted in order to restrict access to safe and legal abortion, particularly in the Midwestern and Southern states. During 2019, there were lawsuits filed which were designed to stop these detrimental bans going ahead, which aimed to stop access to abortions either in totality or partially, when past a specified gestational age. The most complete ban was attempted by Alabama, which enacted a total ban on abortion – regardless of the gestational age – and was shortly followed by Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio; all of which banned abortion after the point at which a foetal heartbeat can be detected, which may be as early as six weeks. Various bans and restrictions were also enacted by Missouri and Arkansas. However, legal action was taken and every single ban was blocked in the courts, as filed by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union which enables women to continue to be able to access safe and legal abortions. It is not hard to identify the states that are repeatedly attempting to restrict abortion as being areas of high religious belief and a large proportion of Republican voters, as described by many as the “Bible Belt” which marries the idea of religion and female healthcare provision. It continues to reinforce the ideology of many that religion has a place within female healthcare and their bodies are the only ones open to some form of ‘divine intervention’. Furthermore, the idea that reproductive rights in the United States were only protected by liberal and left-leaning judges and governors particularly highlights the fundamental misogyny and discrimination, which is present in the country through this continued attack.

The crux of the legal challenges towards these bans is the judgment in Roe v Wade from 1973, a Supreme Court case which held that, under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, women had a constitutional right to access safe and legal abortion free from unreasonable federal intervention or restriction. The principles established in Roe v Wade continue to be under attack, however, with the fear of the new Republican and pro-life majority of justices in the Supreme Court. After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, Amy Coney Barrett was appointed, who appeals to the conservative Republicans with her pro-life views. In the event that Roe v Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, there are a number of states that have already enacted legislation that provides for a ban on abortion if the overturning takes place, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Utah and Idaho. Following the introduction of this new majority in the Supreme Court, the overturning of Roe v Wade is a very real possibility and the ethical and moral compass of the Supreme Court is arguably Donald Trump’s most dangerous legacy, upon the end of his presidential term. This is Trump’s way of exercising his control over women and blatantly disregarding their wellbeing from beyond his ‘presidential grave’.

However, the systematic attack on women’s reproductive rights does not end with the legality of abortion, but extends to the practicality of being able to access safe abortion. The Hyde Amendment was introduced in 1976 and blocked federal Medicaid from being able to fund abortion services. It provides three situations when Medicaid can fund an abortion: when the pregnancy is as a result of rape, as a result of incest, and when continuing the pregnancy would endanger the patient’s life. It requires a woman to either be in a “life or death” pregnancy, or to have already had her rights and bodily autonomy violated. The Hyde Amendment directly restricts the reproductive freedom of those with low income, making it an elitist and classist right that only those in a comfortable financial position are able to access – establishing the idea that abortion is a legal right, for millions, in all but name. Joe Biden, stated that he would repeal the Hyde Amendment which was in direct contrast to the standpoints held by Trump which once again displays women’s liberty as a partisan issue. Repealing the Hyde Amendment is a keystone way in which President Biden would be able to protect the rights of women and ensure their right to privacy, as he has appeared so keen to do — however, whether he does this in practice is yet to be shown.

Implication of “Gag Rules”

Contrary to common belief, reproductive rights go beyond just abortion; it includes other examples of sexual and reproductive freedom such as birth control — another point which demonstrated the difference between Biden and Trump. Under Trump’s presidency, a number of rules were put in place that restricted access to birth control, including healthcare workers being able to use “moral beliefs” to refuse care to those that need it. He also implemented both domestic and global “gag rules”. The domestic gag rule dismantled the Title X programme which was the federal programme providing grants to health care providers to enable them to treat uninsured or under-insured patients and to give access to various services, such as birth control, sexually transmitted disease tests and breast/cervical screenings, in addition to other preventative care. Through the domestic gag rule for Title X, grants were also prohibited from being used by programmes where patients can be told how to legally and safely access abortion. The Trump administration put the health and welfare of millions of women at risk in an attempt to politicise women’s bodies and to introduce religion and politics into the provision of healthcare to those of low income – an issue which also disproportionately affects women of colour – therefore extending the problem beyond that of misogyny and making it a racial issue too. The domestic gag rule and the dismantling of Title X is an issue which would need to be addressed by President Biden, in order to proactively secure the rights of women and to ensure reproductive and sexual freedom for all. If President Biden does not reverse former president Trump’s policies, women’s liberty will continue to be at risk.

However, the reach of Donald Trump’s misogynistic and oppressive iron fist is not limited to solely the United States; under his administration, he reinstated and expanded the “global gag rule”. This is a rule that prohibited US funding from going to overseas groups if they “refer to, provide or even mention abortion or abortion-related services”, which affected approximately $12 billion worth of aid and 26 million women and families from accessing basic healthcare. This global gag rule exemplifies the strength of the misogyny and racism that was apparent during the Trump administration, as the countries that were directly affected by it were almost exclusively black, Asian or minority ethnic countries, in areas such as South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Donald Trump and his entire administration were never silent on their views for the BAME community but this is a method of oppression that had previously been unseen and affects women disproportionately on an unprecedented scale.

Whilst President Trump left the state of reproductive rights in a dangerous and precarious position, it is now up to the new administration to reverse the policies that are in place which work to silence the options available to women and their families; to stop the politicisation and religionisation of healthcare providers; and to ensure equal reproductive and sexual freedom to all. In the absence of proactive steps on the part of the Biden-Harris administration, the rights of millions of women can never truly be secured.

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