What's Going On With Abortion In The US? Alabama's 'Heartbreaking' Law Explained

"We’re really facing a moment of regression on women’s access to basic rights."

Alabama’s Senate has passed a near-total ban on abortions.

In a terrifying shift against women’s rights, the state passed some of America’s strictest regulations on the procedure – outlawing terminations even in cases of rape or incest.

It’s part of a wider effort across the country to challenge the long-standing right of a women to be able to choose to terminate a pregnancy that was established in the landmark Roe vs Wade ruling of 1973.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Amanda Klasing, co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost UK. “You see the whole life’s work of feminist leaders and icons crumbling – and I don’t know that progress will hold.

“I think we’re really facing a moment of regression on women’s access to basic rights.”

Protestors dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, known as the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama Statehouse last month.
Protestors dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, known as the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama Statehouse last month.

So what just happened in Alabama?

Alabama’s governor signed a bill on Wednesday to ban nearly all abortions in the state.

The legislation makes performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a crime punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison.

This is more than the maximum sentence of 10 years for incest and sexual abuse.

The bill was approved by a Republican-controlled state Senate. All 25 Republican senators who passed the bill are men.

After senators rejected an attempt to add an exception for rape and incest, Democratic Senator Bobby Singleton, said: “You just aborted the state of Alabama with your rhetoric with this bill.”

What does the bill say?

One illuminating segment of the legislation lists the millions of people killed during various genocides including the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags.

It then says: “All of these are widely acknowledged to have been crimes against humanity. By comparison, more than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.”

Why Alabama?

Alabama is a conservative and religious state in the heart of the US deep south where 86% of people identify as Christian and nearly half of them as Evangelical, a group with a zealous anti-abortion stance.

Evangelical members of the First Baptist Church of Luverne pictured last year.
Evangelical members of the First Baptist Church of Luverne pictured last year.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

A number of other states in the same area with similar demographics have strict abortion laws on the books but Alabama’s is the strictest yet.

Klasing says: “Neighbouring Georgia just passed a similar bill and there have been a number of these ‘heartbeat bills’ across the US. The idea is you can’t access an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be monitored.

“So essentially even before a woman knows she is pregnant.”

But those behind the bill say this doesn’t matter. Republican Representative Terri Collins, the bill’s sponsor, said on Monday: “Our bill says that baby in the womb is a person.”

Democratic state Senator Linda Coleman-Madison called the Republicans hypocritical for advocating small government that ought to stay out of private matters but “now you want in my womb; I want you out”.

Why now?

It’s all about the Supreme Court and Roe vs Wade.

Roe vs Wade was a landmark ruling in 1973 that essentially protected a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

The Supreme Court gets the final say on the most important and often most controversial and divisive issues in the USA.

There are nine judges and each serves for life unless they resign, retire or are impeached and each is either a Republican or Democrat.

New judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, meaning replacements are usually liberal or conservative depending on who is in power when they step down or die in post.

The number of each is key and a dominance of one over the other means that party can shape national policy on crux issues.

The US Supreme Court in Washington DC.
The US Supreme Court in Washington DC.
Bill Chizek via Getty Images

The life tenure of judges mean Presidents can shape the US policy for decades after their terms end. Justice Anthony Kennedy was nominated by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and only stepped down last year.

Until recently the court had four justices picked by Democratic presidents and five picked by Republicans but Justice Kennedy often sided with the Democrats meaning a liberal slant on rulings has been common.

But this has all changed since Trump took office – he has had the opportunity to appoint two conservative judges, Neil Gorsuch and the hugely controversial Brett Kavanaugh.

As a result, those in the US who want to overturn Roe vs Wade are seizing the chance to take advantage of this new conservative lineup of the Supreme Court.

Infographic supplied by Statista.
Infographic supplied by Statista.

Won’t anyone object?

Yes, and those behind the bill are counting on it. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama are already drafting challenges and this is how the bill enters the court system and ultimately, the Supreme Court.

“It was passed to be a lightning rod or direct threat to Roe vs Wade,” says Klasing.

“And what’s very clear is that they want it to get to the Supreme Court so it can directly challenge Roe because they think they now have enough justices on the Supreme Court that they could get an overturn or significant curtailing of the constitutional protections.”

What about other states?

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states, four of whose governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

On Thursday Missouri passed a similar bill that bans abortions eight weeks after conception, except for medical emergencies.

Additionally, seven other states including Arkansas and Kentucky have enacted so-called “trigger laws” that are on the books and will become law automatically if Roe vs Wade is overturned.

Infographic supplied by Statista.
Infographic supplied by Statista.

What’s the reaction?

Actress and activist Alyssa Milano has called for a sex strike under the social media hashtag #SexStrike in response to the campaigns against abortion rights, urging women to refuse sex with men “until we get bodily autonomy back”.

Lady Gaga and Jameela Jamil have joined a long list of celebrities condemning the move.

What about the rest of the world?

While outrage has been directed mainly stateside, a number on commentators have pointed out that abortion laws in Northern Ireland are still similarly regressive.

In a blog for HuffPost UK, Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, wrote:

″[In northern Ireland} abortion is only permitted in the most exceptional of circumstances and the warning that Alabama’s bill could create a “desert of abortion provision” in the US is already the reality for the people of Northern Ireland.

“Last year, only 12 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland, while more than 900 women travelled to England at a huge personal and emotional cost.

“A parliamentary inquiry in January heard that a 12-year old rape victim travelled for abortion care in England under police escort so that the foetal remains could be collected as evidence.”

Campaigners also worry that the US example could prompt other countries to enact similar laws.

“The US is sending a message, both at the state level and certainly at a national level that it’s backing away from the protections that have supported women over the last four decades,” says Klasing.

“It’s heartbreaking that the US with access to information and access to data that has shown such important progress in women’s rights over the last 40-50 years is now actually leading the backlash and against it.”


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