Friday, June 28, 2019

New Abortion Bills are a Direct Threat to Roe v Wade

May 2019 has seen a sweeping passage of anti-abortion laws across the United States and at its current number, nine states have passed extreme laws restricting a woman's access to vital healthcare procedures. The laws that have been passed, luckily without effect, for now, are extremely vague and ambiguous leaving out abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The new 'heartbeat' bills, as they have been misleadingly labelled give women a very short cap of six weeks to have an abortion, the time in which most women do not even realise they are pregnant. If this bill is to truly come into effect, the women it will affect the most are those who are already vulnerable and suffering from deep inequality in society. With President Trump vowing to appoint only conservative justices and Brett Kavanaugh taking his seat at the increasingly conservative Supreme Court, the United States is regressing in its attitudes to women's healthcare and reproductive rights. Abortion has not only just become an issue of health and human rights, but also an issue of social justice.

Georgia's Governor Brian Kemp signed a law entitled the 'heartbeat bill,' in early May this year, which bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is said to be detected. The implications of this bill are terrifying, as it amounts to a near-total ban on the procedure because most women do not find out they are pregnant before six weeks. This concern has been echoed by the public, doctors and women's health advocacy groups. Dr Krystal Redman, executive director of Spark Reproductive Justice Now, a group that is focused on reproductive rights for women of colour, queer and trans people in the South, said that the bill is a "forced pregnancy bill. It's a health care ban."

The bill has a harsh penalty for doctors who are willing to perform this procedure for women. They can face up to ten years in prison. But, what is even more sinister about this bill is that it does not cover women who perform abortions with drugs themselves and this bill could potentially criminalise these women, who may even face murder charges. The effects of this can already be seen in the case of an Alabama woman, Marshae Jones who was arrested earlier this week, for initiating a dispute last December which led to another woman shooting her in the stomach. Jones has been indicted for manslaughter after losing her baby during this altercation, yet the charges against the shooter have been dismissed. This shows how the state's ambiguous laws towards abortion have led to an innocent woman's arrest. The argument from the police was that Jones started the fight and endangered her baby's life, so she will face the charges of manslaughter. Marshae had got into an argument, she did not expect to be shot, does that now mean every pregnant woman must not get into arguments or disagreements because that is now classified as 'child' endangerment. This is all before these laws have come into effect, yet it is very clear that the announcement of these bills has already affected the opinions of jury members. Amanda Reyes, executive director of the pro-choice group, The Yellowhammer Fund, who are assisting Jones on her case said in a statement "Today Marshae Jones is being charged with manslaughter for being pregnant and getting shot . . . Tomorrow, it will be another black woman, maybe for having a drink while pregnant. And after that, another, for not obtaining adequate prenatal care."

Another problem that comes along with the early time limit of six weeks is that even in the rare case a woman realises she is pregnant that early, her chance of abortion is already limited by access to the resources to make the procedure happen. Planned Parenthood notes the average cost for an abortion nationwide is from $350 (£275) to $950 (£748), and this varies even more so depending on the clinic and without factoring travel costs, especially when you have to travel upwards of 1,200 miles between Idaho and the Dakota's to even reach a provider. Further emphasising the detrimental effect this bill will have for women on a low-income salary.

Fundamentally, there are massive problems with the bill is in its name, the 'heartbeat' bill. The term has come under criticism because at six weeks a doctor is able to detect "a flicker of cardiac motion" on a transvaginal ultrasound, as Dr Catherine Romanos, who carries out abortions in the state of Ohio. Even then, the naming is problematic, as Dr Jen Gunter notes, the fetus itself does not have a heart at six weeks gestation, and the cardiac activity detected comes from tissue, named the fetus pole. News outlets have faced criticism from Doctors who accused the BBC of using medically inaccurate and biased language after they refused to stop describing US legislation as the 'heartbeat' bill. This is why I put it in quotations from the beginning, it is extremely difficult to talk about the bills without calling it by its name, but it is possible as for most of this post I have only named the bill three times, once for clarification and twice to criticise the terminology. Planned Parenthood, the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics and Marie Stopes International say it helps weaponise descriptions of abortions. Especially, when the BBC's editorial standards and royal charter require the corporation to act impartially. The BBC responded to the criticisms by saying it is now in common usage so they should not refrain from saying it, but could they just not refer to stories pertaining to the issue as "X state passes harsher abortion laws." As Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Dr Alvaro Bermejo asks the BBC to think again, especially when they share the blame for spreading the term.

The tough abortion laws are seen to be the gateway for conservative pro-life groups to overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark legislation that granted women access to the vital healthcare procedure of abortion. In a four-minute video for AJ+, president of Planned Parenthood, Dr Leana Wen declares a "state of emergency," announcing the "threat to Roe v Wade is very real." The Roe v Wade ruling in 1973 made it unconstitutional to ban abortion. But, with these new bills, that ruling is being challenged. Wen highlights that there are six states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia), which only have one provider of abortion services and when she visited the one place in Missouri that offered this service, upon arrival they were unable to provide. If they become unable to provide, they would go dark, there would be no abortion services for over a million women of reproductive age living in the state. If Roe v Wade is to be overturned that would mean one in three women of reproductive age living in the states, where abortion is banned, outlawed and even criminalised. The threat becomes much more real when the United States had a president like Trump, who said that he will only nominate judges who oppose women's health and rights, as well as appointed justice Kavanaugh, who has expressed clear contempt for Roe v Wade. With people like them in charge, it emboldens politicians who are anti-abortion, anti-women's health and reproductive rights. Dr Wen describes the acts of these politicians as methods of power and control over women's bodies and they are the ones who have made the issue political. She ends her message well by saying "the millions of women, and men, and youth, and LGBTQ people and all people who walk through our doors every year, they're not coming here to make a political statement."

Ultimately, those who argue pro-life, where are you in protecting mothers and decreasing maternal mortality rates? Where is Governor Kemp in tackling this issue that plagues his state, which suffers some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the U.S.? Where are you in protecting the lives of women and minorities who are already suffering? Where are you in defending the life of Marshae Jones, a woman who has suffered an immeasurable tragedy of charges at the consequences of the perception of your bill, which is soon to be in effect? How many more Marshae Jones' will there be to come?

Friday, June 21, 2019

From Rahaf Mohammed to Dua and Dalal: The Brave Women Fleeing the Oppressive Saudi Regime

2019 saw the high profile case of Rahaf Mohammed's escape from her repressive home state of Saudi Arabia highlighting the new phenomenon of Saudi women fleeing the country in vast numbers. Around 1,000 women flee the country every year in order to gain autonomy over their minds and bodies. A right that sometimes in the West we forget the privilege we have. These escapes are not new, they have been occurring for numerous years, but it is through the power of social media that they are becoming publicised and reaching Western news outlets.

Rahaf Mohammed's escape was the famous case of 2019, which brought global attention to the repressive, patriarchal society that exists in Saudi Arabia. A place where women have to gain consent to simply leave the house. Under the male guardianship system, approval from a male guardian is needed to travel outside the country, to study abroad on a government scholarship and even to get married. Mohammed faced familial abuse from her mother and brother who supported the restrictive laws against women in their country. She told reporters that she was locked up for six months for simply cutting her hair because in Islam it is forbidden for a woman to dress like a man. After removing the niqab, which she was forced to wear, she was beaten and locked up again.

At eighteen years old Rahaf took the bold decision to escape the abuse from her family, which was supported by the regime of her homeland. Whilst on a trip to Kuwait with her family she took a flight to Bangkok on January 5th with the intention to make her way to Australia, as she had already obtained a visa. Unfortunately, a Saudi diplomat seized her passport when she got off the flight, leaving her stranded in Bangkok. Mohammed barricaded herself in a hotel room for six days, where she pleaded for help on Twitter, and through this, her case was taken on by Human Rights Watch and various journalists. While she was in Thailand, she renounced Islam, a decision which is punishable by death in the country. Luckily, she managed to gain asylum in Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing that his country would accept her as a refugee. Now, Mohammed is safely living in Canada with the freedom to think and decide for herself, to gain an education and career of her choosing and marry if and when she chooses to do so. Rights she previously did not have living in the Saudi state.

The Saudi government responded to her case by accusing countries of inciting 'Saudi female delinquents' to rebel against their family values and seek asylum, in a statement made by the Saudi government-funded National Society for Human Rights. Calling the actions political, not humanitarian. The problem with the use of 'their family values,' is that they were not the values Rahaf believed in nor wanted for herself, and what can be derived from that is a free-thinking woman, a woman's right to choose does not fit in with Saudi's family values.

Rahaf's case is not an entirely unique one, earlier this month two sisters, Dua and Dalal al-Showaiki fled from Saudi Arabia to Turkey with the help of Saudi activist Ali Hashim. The girls fled to escape being forced into marriage with men twice their age, one of which already had two wives and Dua was to become the third. Dalal, the younger sister, had allegedly been subject to sexual harassment by her older brother and raped by a cleric. They faced systematic oppression, as Dua says the women's security at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah harrassed her because of her appearance and she has been transferred to a psychologist because of her short haircut. The controversy with this case arises when their Twitter account was suspended after two days to which they created two more accounts, which were taken down within hours. Hashim gave the sisters access to his account, which was then suspended as well. Luckily, with help from Radha Stirling's organisation Detained in Dubai, the girls have managed to get the help they need and their story is beginning to see some positives with the girls working towards an asylum application and protection from the United Nations.

The examples of these three women mirror the journey of the many who try to escape every year. The case of the al-Showaiki sisters highlights the lengths the Saudi government is willing to go to silence the women who are brave enough to escape the repressive, patriarchal society that exists in the Saudi state and the government are well aware of the problem. As Abdullah Al-Shuaibi said that he wished the Thai police took Rahaf's phone away from her instead of her passport. It is fair to infer that the Saudi government had involvement in shutting down the accounts of Dua and Dalal after The New York Times published a report detailing the government's attempts at tackling dissent across social media platforms. This involved the grooming of one of Twitter's employees Ali Alzabarah, who was convinced by the Saudi intelligence officials to spy on the accounts of dissidents. The governments attempt to silence its critics does not stop there, as of recent discovery the Saudi government has employed the use of military-grade technology to track women who have escaped the country via their phones IMEI numbers, which can be obtained through the original packaging of the device.

The stories of these women highlight the dangers of religious laws, which are aimed at controlling, limiting free choice and free thought of women, government and religious critics and LGBT citizens, who are the most heavily affected by these laws. In the current state of the world in which we live, full of all kinds of people with different religious beliefs and interpretations of religion, sexual orientations and gender identifications there is no need for a religious state, especially if it is persecuting its residents to the extent they have no choice to flee their country to gain full autonomy over themselves.

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