As surely everyone knows by now, the decades long constitutional right to abortion in the US was recently overturned by rescinding the precedent made in Roe vs Wade (1973) which set out the right of access to abortion. This outcome had been feared for years, and had been largely confirmed prior to the formal announcement, due to the leak of a draft of the majority court decision. Shortly after the leak, US comedian, Kate McKinnon, performed a sketch on Saturday Night Live in which she impersonated Amy Coney Barratt, the latest Trump Justice of the Supreme Court. The sketch focused on Coney Barratt’s line of questioning during the oral arguments for Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in which she suggested that pregnancy should not be a concern, because of ‘safe haven’ laws – US laws that allow parents to hand over babies and young children without questions in designated places. As the sketch repeatedly mentioned, women should just ‘do the nine’, endure pregnancy, give birth and then give up babies that they cannot or do not want to raise. This understanding is rooted in essentialised ideas about women, motherhood and maternal sacrifice.
For most of those opposed to abortion, womanhood is synonymous to motherhood (Lowe and Page, 2022). Women are mothers, they are either destined for motherhood, have children, or unfortunately can’t have children but can perform ‘mothering’ in other ways. This essentialised understanding of motherhood also arises from, and reinforces, the idea that ‘good motherhood’ is sacrificial in nature, and whether in utero, born or even not yet conceived, the needs of children should always take priority. Hence the lives of women are always secondary when pregnant, and they should ensure to maximise the welfare of a foetus, by for example, refraining from eating certain foods, and stopping from drinking alcohol, despite the lack of evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption has a negative impact on the developing foetus (Lee et al., 2022). In contrast, the putative ‘bad mother’, needs to be subject to discipline and sanctions, up to and including criminalisation (Flavin, 2008). In the US, there have been cases where pregnant women using prescribed medication have been charged with endangering their foetus.
The ultimate sacrifice that women can made for potential children is of course to reject abortion and proceed with a pregnancy, regardless of the impact on their health, welfare, and lives. The anti-abortion position can include, refusing abortions to child victims of rape, or risking sepsis when women are having a miscarriage by refusing to give treatment even when there is no possibility that the pregnancy is still viable. Whilst these examples illustrate the life-threatening cruelty of the anti-abortion position, it is also important to remember that pregnancy has a profound biological impact on the body, even in the most straight-forward of pregnancies. Not only are there a huge number of physical implications, from waves of nausea, pressure on the bladder, to difficulties in climbing ladders or even cutting toe-nails. Visibly pregnant women also become subject to public scrutiny, with any apparent deviation from ‘acceptable’ behaviour being open to public criticism from family, friends, and the general public (Lowe, 2016).
Moreover, the suggestion that abortion is no longer needed also ignores the evidence of what happens when abortion is inaccessible. The Turnaway study found that women denied abortions did not usually relinquish their babies, but it did have a negative impact on their income and employment which also affected their other children (Foster, 2020). Adoption is also often problematic and leaves birth mothers with feelings of grief and loss (Coleman and Garratt, 2016). It can also have a profound negative impact on children, especially if the adoption breaks down and children are moved to foster care (Goodwin and Madden, 2020).
The rolling out of abortion bans across different states in the US will lead to a worsening of health inequalities around social class and ethnicity. The more affluent will be able to travel (https://www.abortionfinder.org/ ), or be able to safely navigate ordering abortion pills on line (https://www.plancpills.org/). Whereas the costs to low income families, who are disproportionately people of colour, will be huge. The US already has one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the developed world (MacDorman et al., 2021), maternity leave is often not guaranteed (Jou et al., 2018), and the disproportioned number of Black children removed from their families (Dettlaff and Boyd, 2020) is likely to increase.
‘Doing the nine’ means regardless of your situation, if pregnant, you are ‘sentenced’ to enduring the physical and emotional impact of pregnancy, and subject to constant judgement, no matter what the impact on your health and wellbeing. It also reaffirms the ideas that women are mothers, and motherhood means actual or potential children come first. This is likely to impact all pregnant people whether or not they want an abortion.
By Dr Pam Lowe
You can read more of Dr Lowe’s work on anti-abortion activism in the UK in her new book here
‘Anti-Abortion Activism in the UK: Ultra-sacrificial Motherhood, Religion and Reproductive Rights in the Public Sphere’
Coleman, P.K. and Garratt, D. (2016), ‘From birth mothers to first mothers: Toward a compassionate understanding of the life-long act of adoption placement’, Issues L. & Med., HeinOnline, Vol. 31, p. 139.
Dettlaff, A.J. and Boyd, R. (2020), ‘Racial disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system: Why do they exist, and what can be done to address them?’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA, Vol. 692 No. 1, pp. 253–274.
Flavin, J. (2008), Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America, New York University Press, New York.
Foster, D.G. (2020), The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thosand Women, and the Consequences of Having – or Being Denied – an Abortion, Scribner, London.
Goodwin, B. and Madden, E. (2020), ‘Factors associated with adoption breakdown following implementation of the Fostering Connections Act: A systematic review’, Children and Youth Services Review, Elsevier, Vol. 119, p. 105584.
Jou, J., Kozhimannil, K.B., Abraham, J.M., Blewett, L.A. and McGovern, P.M. (2018), ‘Paid maternity leave in the United States: associations with maternal and infant health’, Maternal and Child Health Journal, Springer, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 216–225.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Arkell, R. and Murphy, C. (2022), ‘Beyond ‘the choice to drink’in a UK guideline on FASD: the precautionary principle, pregnancy surveillance, and the managed woman’, Health, Risk & Society, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 24 No. 1–2, pp. 17–35.
Lowe, P. (2016), Reproductive Health and Maternal Sacrifice: Women, Choice and Responsibility, Reproductive Health and Maternal Sacrifice: Women, Choice and Responsibility, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, available at:https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-47293-9.
Lowe, P. and Page, S.-J. (2022), Anti-Abortion Activism in the UK: Ultra-Sacrificial Motherhood, Religion and Reproductive Rights in the Public Sphere, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley.
MacDorman, M.F., Thoma, M., Declcerq, E. and Howell, E.A. (2021), ‘Racial and ethnic disparities in maternal mortality in the united states using enhanced vital records, 2016‒2017’, American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, Vol. 111 No. 9, pp. 1673–1681.