It’s been a long time since Texas was anything other than a hostile environment for reproductive choice. But the state-wide law put in place yesterday — which effectively overturns Roe v. Wade — means than Texan women are now living under one of the most tyrannical and invasive abortion laws in the world.
Previous legislation in America has attempted to outlaw the procedure after a certain gestational point, or imposed wholly unnecessary barriers and regulations, such as requiring that women wait 48 hours before they can have abortion. But the Republican-backed Senate Bill 8 takes a wholly different approach: it pays private citizens up to $10,000 to spy on, snitch on and sue anyone who has “aided or abetted” a woman in having an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (which, to be clear, is just two weeks after a woman misses her period). There is no exception for women pregnant from rape or incest.
In true dystopian fashion, “aided or abetted” is defined broadly enough to cover any health care provider who performs or assists in performing an abortion, anyone who goes with a woman to an abortion appointment and anyone who gives a woman money to pay for her procedure. Even a taxi driver who takes a woman to a reproductive health clinic could now be sued — and potentially bankrupted.
It didn’t have to be this way. Abortion providers in Texas challenged SB8 in July, and called on the Supreme Court to prevent it from going into effect while it is litigated in the lower courts. This is pretty standard when a law clearly violates Roe v. Wade. But this time, the Supreme Court did something shocking and unprecedented: they let the Texas law stand. And so for the first time since Roe v. Wade broadly legalised abortion for American women in 1973, abortion is effectively illegal in an American state (roughly 85% of women who seek an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy).
What’s so galling about this law, though, is how unprecedented and invasive it is. It harkens back to some of the worst eras of authoritarianism and paranoia in modern history, when citizens were encouraged by their governments to spy and snitch on their family members, friends and neighbours. It’s the kind of state-sponsored civilian surveillance we associate with the Stasi, China’s cultural revolution and Soviet Russia.
More acutely, it harkens back to dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania. Ceauşescu banned both abortion and contraception, and engaged a broad network of secret police called the Securitate who, like Texas’s lawmakers, also relied on civilian informants to snitch on women who ended pregnancies or sought to prevent them.
Doctors went to jail. Women were forced into humiliating and invasive gynaecological examinations every three months, just to make sure they were obeying the law. If these examiners found evidence of a pregnancy, it was noted down — and if she didn’t give birth in the expected period, she could be prosecuted. By the 1980s, Romania’s orphanages were overflowing with malnourished, neglected and abused children. But Texas’s conservative lawmakers appear to view it as an aspiration.
There is little more intimate and important than deciding whether or not to continue gestating a pregnancy, and little more invasive than legally forcing a woman or girl to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth against her will. Pregnancy and childbirth remain life-threatening acts for millions of women. Forcing women into unwilling motherhood is among the cruelest acts of misogyny imaginable.
And yet Texan politicians have imagined one way to make it crueler. Not content to simply outlaw abortion, they have constructed a law that maximises the humiliation, stigma and degradation on any woman who seeks to end a pregnancy. In Texas, every woman’s entire community has been deputised to police her most private choices. And even when the woman in question isn’t the person being sued, she is still the one being ritually shamed and humiliated. This law, in other words, doesn’t just punish women who seek abortions; it intends to isolate, shame and ostracise them.
How to decrease the abortion rate is a solved question: give women full and free access to the long-acting contraceptive methods that are the most effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy; teach young people accurate information about sex; and make sure that any woman can choose to have a child knowing that she and her baby will be housed and fed.
Texas has repeatedly done the exact opposite. Time and again, the state has cut funding for contraceptive services for poor women and shut down clinics that offer contraceptives. As a result, low-income women in Texas started to have more babies they didn’t plan to have. And when they had those babies, they found that they are offered scant support: one in six Texan women and one in five Texan children lives in poverty — yet the state continues to slash the kind of welfare assistance that would enable struggling pregnant women to choose to give birth.
In the name of being “pro-life”, then, Texas makes it harder for women to prevent unwanted pregnancies, now legally forces them to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and then refuses to elevate those women’s children out of poverty when they’re born. And make no mistake: other states will be watching, too. If SB8 isn’t reversed, conservative lawmakers across the US will move to pass similar laws.
In Texas, meanwhile, it will become increasingly clear that anti-abortion laws are not about preserving life. They aren’t even the most effective way to prevent abortions. But they are about controlling women’s bodies, because removing her ability to plan her reproductive life is the single most effective way to remove the ability of a woman to plan anything about her own future.
Anti-abortion laws are always about shame, stigma, and misogyny. They are always authoritarian — there’s no other word for the state forcing women to continue pregnancies and give birth. Yet for women in Texas, they are now a part of daily life.