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Freedom vs. Compelled Birth: Dorothy Roberts on Abortion Fights in Texas, Ohio & Across the U.S.

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Image Credit: Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates East (photo right)

We look at the fight for reproductive rights in the United States with Dorothy Roberts, director of the University of Pennsylvania Program on Race, Science and Society, who has long warned against the criminalization of pregnancy and has been hailed as a pioneer in the reproductive justice movement. A judge in Texas ruled Friday the state’s abortion ban was too restrictive in cases of dangerous pregnancy complications, allowing doctors to perform abortions in such instances without risk of criminal prosecution, but the state’s Attorney General’s Office filed an immediate appeal and effectively blocked the order. This comes as Ohio voters head to the polls this week to vote on a ballot measure that could raise the threshold for changing the state’s constitution to 60%, an effort fueled by right-wing activists to prevent a simple majority of voters from enshrining abortion rights later this year. “We’re in a battle in this nation on this question of being free or being compelled to give birth,” says Roberts.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show looking at the fight for reproductive rights. On Friday, a Texas judge ruled the state’s abortion ban was too restrictive in cases of dangerous pregnancy complications. The judge also ruled doctors must be allowed to perform abortions in such instances without risk of criminal prosecution. But within hours of the ruling, Texas’s Attorney General’s Office filed an appeal, effectively blocking the order.

In July, the court in Austin heard testimony from women who sued Texas over its abortion ban. In a dramatic moment, one of the plaintiffs, Samantha Casiano, vomited on the stand as she recounted her traumatic experience. Casiano was forced to carry out her pregnancy even after receiving a diagnosis of anencephaly, a severe congenital disorder that results in a baby being born without portions of his brain and skull. Another plaintiff, Elizabeth Weller, spoke at a press conference.

ELIZABETH WELLER: I was sent home to wait for my baby to die or for my infection to start showing physical symptoms, even though they were already there. But I wasn’t sick enough to get the care that I needed. There is no statement of pro-life in this state when you send me home to wait for my baby to die inside of me and for me to wait for myself to get to a point where I have to gamble my uterus and gamble my life and gamble any future possibility of becoming pregnant. That’s not pro-life. In a sense, it’s almost pro-torture.

AMY GOODMAN: The Texas lawsuit was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights. It’s believed to be the first lawsuit brought by women denied abortions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

We’re joined now by Dorothy Roberts, director of the University of Pennsylvania Program on Race, Science and Society. She has long warned against the criminalization of pregnancy and has been called a pioneer in the reproductive justice movement. She’s author of several books, including Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.

Professor Roberts, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about the significance of the federal judge’s ruling striking down a part of the Texas abortion ban?

DOROTHY ROBERTS: It’s good to be on your program. Thanks so much.

I think this is a significant ruling in the sense that the testimonies of the women we just heard part of shows how cruel — in fact, I think the word of “torture” is appropriate — that bans on abortion are, the kind of position they put doctors in to have to gamble the lives of pregnant people in order to avoid prosecution. I think it’s one of the most unethical, inhumane aspects of compelling birth, which is what abortion bans do, is this way of completely devaluing the life of the pregnant patient and putting doctors in a position to decide: “How sick, how close to death should I let my patient go before I perform a needed medical procedure for fear of being prosecuted, fear of a crime?”

Now, having said that, I think it’s also important to note that that is only one of the many, many cruelties, injustices of banning abortion. I think it is a mistake to just focus on cases where the patient’s life is at risk and to ban those portions or overturn those portions of laws restricting access to abortion or banning it completely. What these laws do is compel people to give birth. They are fundamental, atrocious violations of people’s autonomy. And they are a form of misogyny against women, who are the main people who become pregnant, but also end up criminalizing pregnancy, in general, by any birthing people, or even potentially birthing people are at risk of arrest and prosecution and incarceration if they don’t meet the standard of the state for producing a healthy baby.

And so, let me explain what I mean by that. We see, and we’ve seen for decades — this is something I worried about back in 1997 in my book, Killing the Black Body — that it’s not only prosecuting women for terminating a pregnancy, but also prosecuting women who are accused of being pregnant and using drugs or some other conduct that the state claims is harmful to a fetus. And we’ve seen women incarcerated for stillbirths. These are women who wanted to give birth but are now punished because they didn’t produce a healthy baby.

We see the excuse that the Supreme Court gave, that you could just turn over your child to a safe haven, turn over the baby for adoption, this idea that people can be forced to turn over their babies for adoption, which is a complete lie. It’s false. Most women end up keeping their babies when they’re prevented from terminating a pregnancy, only making their lives more [inaudible] their struggle to take care of their families [inaudible] which puts them at risk of having their children taken from them.

So, I think this is an important victory, although it’s been stayed on appeal, but important victory for me, because it shows the cruelty and torture of bans on abortion. But it doesn’t capture the full extent of harm. These bans should be overturned as unconstitutional altogether.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to turn to Ohio. Tomorrow, Tuesday, Ohio residents will vote on a single statewide ballot item called Issue 1, which would raise the threshold to amend the Ohio Constitution from a simple majority to 60% of the vote. Republican state lawmakers introduced Issue 1 in order to make it harder for voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution when they vote on a proposed pro-choice amendment in the November general election. Now, this is very interesting. It’s a little convoluted. They’re not voting on the abortion referendum tomorrow, but Republicans are trying to invalidate that referendum to be put to Ohioans in November. It was funded by Richard Ellis Uihlein, who is from outside the state, an Illinois billionaire. Can you talk about the significance of what’s taking place, this vote tomorrow?

DOROTHY ROBERTS: Well, we’re in a battle in this nation on this question of being free or being compelled to give birth, a question which we could trace all the way back to the institution of slavery and a question that was on the ballot or on — before Congress when it passed the Reconstruction Amendments: whether we’re going to have a nation that’s free or a nation that compels people to give birth for the benefit of the state.

And so, part of that battle is those of us who want a free nation, where you can’t be compelled to give birth and where there actually should be support for reproductive justice, support for our reproductive autonomy, are being then protested against and trying to put impediments for us to allow the people of states to protect the right to abortion. So, this is a ploy by the political right wing, and Republicans included, to make it harder for the people of states to take legislative efforts to ensure the right to abortion. And so, you know, when the Supreme Court says, “Well, all we’re doing is giving the freedom to states to decide the question of abortion,” that’s actually not true, because now you have the right wing trying to put barriers in front of people passing laws or amendments to constitutions that enshrine the right to reproductive freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say Richard Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth Uihlein are billionaire businesspeople, founders of Uline, conservative donors. He is also heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune.

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