As the Talibangelists in the Ohio General Assembly rush to restrict the right of women to determine their own reproductive destiny, I've spent fascinating hours reading testimony for and against HB 125, the "Heartbeat Bill." Its purpose is to criminalize abortion after a heartbeat is detected, even in embryos barely larger than a pencil eraser, when women may not yet know they are pregnant.
Since a heartbeat in this nub cannot be detected through the abdomen, women must submit to a transvaginal ultrasound. (Virginia ditched the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound provision from a similar bill following accusations of instituting state rape with an ultrasound probe.)
The talking points in the testimony ranged from constitutional issues to the health of women, freedom of and freedom from religion, the economics of population growth and decline, the social and fiscal costs of unwanted pregnancy, ultrasound technology, the correlation between heartbeat and live birth, informed consent, and personal views about when life begins.
Nowhere did I see the simple question asked: Who owns the bodies and lives of women? Or the issues which this overarching question gives rise to:
• When a woman who may be pregnant visits the doctor, who is the patient?
• Are women to become wards of the state during pregnancy?
• The courts have held that people cannot be compelled to use their bodies as instruments to preserve others. If a parent isn't compelled to donate bone marrow to an ailing toddler, why are women compelled to host and deliver an unwanted fetus, with all the risks this entails?
• Servitude is a condition in which one lacks liberty to determine one's course of action or way of life. Service to the fetus and birthing are not called labor for nothing. Should it be forced labor? Involuntary servitude reserved for pregnant women?
The assumption is that because women are biologically capable of bearing children, they have a special responsibility to sacrifice their own very real lives, health and wellbeing for the sake of what can only be a potential life. As a premise for regulating women's bodies, this assumption is oppressive. Biology is not destiny.
Everybody's first duty is surely to live a meaningful life. And for women this may or may not include motherhood and the sacrifices they make voluntarily. These very same sacrifices might include an abortion to protect the survival and interests of their existing children — for example when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Motherhood is much more a state of mind and an expression of socially recognized relationships than a mere biological function. An infertile woman who adopts a child is a mother. A surrogate who bears a child on behalf of another is not its mother. A fertile woman is a mother only when she wants the fetus she is carrying.
Because a fetus is not an autonomous person with intrinsic and constitutional rights that can supersede those of the woman, the value placed on it ultimately depends on one's perspective. Thrilled to be pregnant, a woman and her partner will bond very quickly with her pea-sized embryo and think of it as their "child." This is a subjective perception, and the fetus is accorded a high value. But this is not everyone's experience. Mere pregnancy does not make a woman a mother if it is unwanted, whether because she doesn't like children, thinks she'll be an inadequate parent, can't afford children, is homeless, or faces a serious health condition. If we truly value the potential life of the fetus, motherhood should not be an accident of biology.
The rash of informed consent legislation we're seeing aims to add layers of guilt to the abortion option, though — unlike post-partum depression — guilt is cultural, not a biological inevitability. But the radical right has made it its business to pile on the guilt by floating such memes as "preborn children," and now the heartbeat with all its mystical and affective associations (why not a functioning liver?) while it neglects born children and people of all ages whose own hearts may need emotional care and medical care.
The purported interest of states in ensuring informed consent by women seeking abortions assumes they are unable to make thoughtful decisions through their own moral agency. Time and again the testimony I read referenced the need for women to be able to make "mature" decisions. This infantilizes women, and is intolerable. And what's the point of informed consent if, as in Ohio, the door will be barred to you anyway?
It's sheer hypocrisy, of course. Shouldn't women rather consent to pregnancy and parenthood? Many more women die in childbirth than from abortions. Many more suffer pregnancy complications or post-partum depression than experience post-abortion sequelae. And parenthood is not for everyone.
Ohio's proposed abortion ban runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution as interpreted in Roe v Wade and re-affirmed in Planned Parenthood v Casey. Given that gestation exists on a continuum, the Supreme Court, implicitly recognizing that the United States is not a theocracy and women must finally be liberated from the stranglehold of religious dogma, outlined a careful scheme that drew the line at viability: the developmental stage when a fetus can survive outside the womb. As viability is variable, only birth can be the true bright line, but at least the Roe decision, as a compromise in a nation so sharply divided, is reasonable. Ohio's Heartbeat Bill by contrast is completely unreasonable, an affront to women. Where do they get off, writing our life script!
I urge anyone who believes in the rights and dignity of women to shout their disapproval of the Heartbeat Bill before it is enacted at the end of March.
Editor's note: Lyrr Descy lives on Angel Ridge Road outside of Athens.