Forced to abort?

Why anti-violence advocates aren't rushing to criminalize "coerced abortion."

Published April 7, 2009 3:22PM (EDT)

Legislators are moving to address the problem of forced abortion in China Missouri. (Again.) As Missouri resident Pamela Merritt writes at RHRealityCheck, HB 46 & 434 (PDF) (passed in the House, stalled in the Senate by Democratic filibuster) (1) heaps requirements onto the "informed consent" procedure for abortion (e.g.: "Provide the pregnant woman with printed or video materials from the Department of Health and Senior Services that describes the anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child's brain and heart functions, extremities, various methods of abortion, risks associated with each method, possibility of causing pain to the unborn child, alternatives to abortion, and that the father of an unborn child is liable to provide child support, even if he has offered to pay for an abortion") and (2) creates the crime of coercing an abortion. Coercing how? Say, if someone threatened to pass you over for promotion, fire you, or revoke your education scholarship -- or hurt you, or kill you -- because you're pregnant.

So yeah, that does sound like something you'd want to outlaw. Here, in theory, there is some "common ground." Except: according to Merritt, not even anti-violence advocates like this bill. That's because in this context (if you weren't already tipped off by #1, above), criminalizing "coerced abortion" is really about legalizing coerced pregnancy.

Surely women are subject to many forms of coercion, related to abortion or otherwise -- few of which are excusable, and most of which should be punishable. But surely discrimination, battery, assault or stalking laws should address any legally actionable coercion. Merritt notes that an earlier version of this bill did not arise in response to "a rash of complaints by women who have been coerced into an abortion. Rather...[it] is about devaluing the intelligence of women and questioning our ability to make decisions about our medical care."

The bill would make doctors and anyone assisting them criminals for helping women get an abortion if they have "knowledge" that she has been "coerced." This "knowledge" would nullify her ability to consent. "Consider a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape who, with her doctor, decides that an abortion is the best course of action. Imagine that rape survivor also mentions to her doctor that her boyfriend agrees with her decision, but has been aggressive with her about it. With HB46, now the doctor must turn the situation over to the government which mandates that the doctor label that rape survivor a "victim of coerced abortion" who "lacks the consent required by law," Merritt writes. 

"No one wants women to be forced to do anything against our will, but denying women our right to make decisions with our doctor if we are survivors of crime is not the definition of protection any more than forcing a rape survivor to carry a pregnancy resulting from rape to term is the definition of empowerment. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, the reality is clear. In the world that HCS HB 46 & 434 would create, women are denied a voice and subjected to half a dozen new legal hurdles to access reproductive healthcare, doctors and healthcare providers are made criminals for following their patient's clearly expressed wishes, family members and counselors risk criminal prosecution for giving advice and the all powerful state gets an instant medical degree complete with a front row seat to private medical appointments."

All true, but really, the key word above is "hurdles." The folks in that meeting didn't say, "How can we protect women from this very real problem?" or even, more to the point, "How can we codify our contempt for women into law?" Rather, they said, "Let's brainstorm more misleading laws that make abortions harder to get." The "coerced abortion" movement (hawked by certain not-unbiased "Institutes") is, above all, a tactic, a means of obstructing access to abortion, clad -- unlike its cousin, the fetal "personhood" movement -- in the sheep's clothing of language purporting to protect women. Which, depending on how you look at it, is either sanctimonious, patronizing women-can't-decide bullshit, or faux-feminist "it's about the women" bullshit (see last paragraph here).

And it's also a red herring. Violence against women comes in many forms, and "forced abortion," such as it is, is only one of them. As covered earlier in Broadsheet, researchers are now beginning to notice and study what's turning out to be another hallmark of relationship violence: forced pregnancy. As in: abusive partners who tamper with, destroy or otherwise refuse to use contraception (which can lead, obviously, to unplanned pregnancy, along with STIs and other health problems). In fact, advocates now say that teen pregnancy should be considered a canary in the coalmine of partner violence.

As Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund (click here for their campaign against all reproductive coercion) has said, "We need laws that promote violence prevention; train health care providers to assess patients for abuse; ensure women's access to a full range of reproductive health services; and prevent violence and coercion in the next generation by teaching young people the importance of building healthy relationships." Not specious "forced abortion" laws or -- also pending in the Show-Me-The-Irony state, which also just voted not to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- laws that would allow pharmacist refusal for emergency contraception, or that would criminalize pregnant women who carry to term before overcoming a substance abuse problem.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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