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In America, as gay rights expand, women’s rights shrink.

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The United States is no stranger to unintentional irony. The Star Spangled Banner, with its proud ‘land of the free’ proclamations, was adopted as national anthem in 1931, even as segregation and lynchings abounded, and Jim Crow was the law of the land.

Last Monday, Americans celebrated Independence Day, secure in the knowledge of their place as the world’s greatest bastion of freedom and democracy. But the familiar Fourth of July spectacle once again masks a barely concealed hypocrisy, evident in the way the rights of two groups, long the victims of discrimination, are currently faring in America’s legal system.

For the gay community, the long march towards equality continues. The latest, and many say most important, victory came three weeks ago, when New York legalised same sex marriage. As civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson told CBS News, “Now that we’ve made it here, we’ll make it everywhere”.

For millions of American women, however, there is not much to celebrate as their right to bodily autonomy comes under greater threat than ever.

Anti-abortion activists have for some time realised their likelihood of overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision which legalised abortion in 1973, was slim.  In recent years, they have, instead, set about undermining the ruling in such a way as it make it all but meaningless in practical terms.

This tactic is working. In 2010, the New York Times reported that by June of that year, at least eleven states had passed laws regulating and restricting abortion. These include forcing women to undergo and view an ultrasound before an abortion can proceed, the intention being that once a woman ‘knows’ what she is aborting she will naturally change her mind. This leads one to wonder just what the law-makers believe these women think they are pregnant with.

Other measures include the current push to defund Planned Parenthood, the national women’s health clinic. Despite a Senate vote in April blocking its federal defunding, some states including, Indiana and Tennessee, are passing bills to strip the organisation of funds on a state level. According to Planned Parenthood’s own records abortion only makes up 3% of its total services. Others include routine pap smears, STI checks and birth control advice. This targeting of Planned Parenthood is less an attack on abortion, and more a full-scale assault on American women’s health and reproductive rights.

Last year, Mississippi passed a law barring insurance companies from covering abortions, whilst Oklahoma now requires doctors to answer 38 questions about each abortion they perform, including the reasons for the abortion, a seemingly clear violation of the right to bodily autonomy and privacy.

Some states, including Kansas, have just one abortion clinic servicing the entire state. With a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, it makes for a time consuming and expensive trip, which many simply cannot afford. This, presumably, is entirely the point. Roe v Wade is fast becoming an empty statute granting ‘rights’ that women have no means to exercise.

It doesn’t end there. A recent article in The Guardian revealed some American women who miscarry are being charged with murder. One of them was 15 years old at the time and faces life in prison if convicted.

All these factors combine to make America, in the words of feminist blogger Melissa McEwan, “a scary place to be a woman.”

What is ironic, however, is that the push of the anti-abortion movement to grant ‘personhood’ at the moment of conception (a battle they appear to be slowly winning), ignores the fact that, historically, abortion in the early stages of pregnancy was never seriously challenged. The absence of any serious taboo is evident given the late 19th century’s plethora of newspaper advertisements appealing to women to act before the ‘quickening’, it being generally accepted that the ‘soul’ entered the body at around eight weeks into the pregnancy.

Abortion’s status as a religious and moral issue, and the general distaste with which it is viewed, was not created until abortion was legalised. Far from progressing in a straight line, the rights of American women are in danger of regressing to pre-19th century standards.

All of which goes to show, that despite our tendency to believe that each generation lives better than the last, society rarely progress in a straight line on any issue. Whilst the hard-earned victories of the gay community deserve to be celebrated, it is ironic that they come even as the hard-earned victories of feminists are being obliterated.

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Written by Ruby

July 15, 2011 at 8:33 am

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