Do you remember the uproar that created the dolphin-safe tuna movement? People discovered that fishermen, with nets trawling the ocean searching for tuna, captured and killed whole pods of dolphins. Nets, as big as two kilometers long and two hundred feet deep, were used to encircle schools of tuna. Once the tuna were surrounded in the net, the bottom was pulled tight, and the catch was hauled onto the boat. The practice is still continued today, with about 60% of tuna being caught by this method. It turns out many different species of marine life are caught in those giant nets. It is called “bycatch.” It is the unintended consequence of the business of industrial tuna fishing, and it kills hundreds of thousands of non-targeted sea animals, including endangered sea turtles, sharks, barracuda, and a number of other species.
Every time I read about the anti-abortion legislation being passed in states around our country I think about the dolphins and other majestic creatures that die in those giant nets as bycatch. I think about them because to me they represent the collateral damage of a sweeping, indiscriminate practice that is wasteful and damaging, and that is how I see this legislation.
If the reproductive rights movement was viewed on a spectrum, one end would be those fighting for access to birth control and abortion, and at the other end would be those of us who are demanding access to optimal maternity care for women so they can have their babies in a safe and healthy way. As an advocate for healthy birth, I am at the forefront of a movement that involves reproductive rights, and I fight for women who have made the decision to follow through with their pregnancies.
I have experienced the unintended consequences of anti-abortion legislation, including limited access to healthcare and polarized community. The birth-related organization I work for decided to remove the tagline, “It’s your birth. Know your options,” that we used for marketing because I and several other chapter leaders reported being confronted at events on several occasions by angry people who thought the word “options” referred to abortion. How many women did not approach our booths to get information about healthy birth and breastfeeding because they mistook our mission? A woman I know who desperately wanted another child had to wait to miscarry a pregnancy that was not viable (no heartbeat was detected) because she was in a place that did not allow “abortions” and they would not do a D&C.
The whole idea of “personhood” seems to put the needs of fetus before the needs of the already living, breathing mother. Both anti-abortion and personhood legislation seem to make it acceptable to view the mother as simply a vessel for growing life; an incubator that has no need for healthcare, human rights, personal autonomy, or bodily integrity. Every woman who is denied a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) because the risks to the baby may be slightly greater than a repeat cesarean, regardless of the fact that cesarean surgery exposes the mother to serious risk, is affected by this attitude. Women who live in places where women are denied homebirth with a qualified birth attendant are victims of the same philosophy. A friend of mine who moved to North Carolina had to go through the “underground railroad,” sending carefully coded emails and having furtive phone conversations to find a homebirth midwife who would attend her. She felt a homebirth was a safer choice for her than a hospital birth because of all the unnecessary interventions to which she would be subjected in the name of ensuring a “healthy baby,” even at the sacrifice of her own health. And heaven help the women who attempt a home birth but need to transfer to a hospital and are seen as criminals and undergo investigations by child protective services or are arrested for child endangerment.
Women have been carried out of their homes in shackles while in labor and forced to undergo cesarean surgeries. This video by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women describes incidents where pregnant women, some of whom are anti-abortion, were denied their rights in order to protect the rights of the fetuses they were carrying. While this video focuses on personhood legislation, what we are seeing with much of the current anti-abortion legislation which is closing down clinics is that women will have less access to all kinds of healthcare, including well woman exams, cancer screenings, and STD and HIV screening.
The other type of anti-abortion legislation that has unintended consequences for women who want to be pregnant involves mandatory ultrasound. I have already heard stories of women who have found out that their babies suffered from genetic defects that are incompatible with life or who died in utero who had to endure mandatory vaginal ultrasounds before undergoing medically necessary abortions. How much more pain and grief must these women suffer?
These laws being enacted are just like those giant fishing nets, catching their target but also capturing women who are pregnant and have very different needs than those of the women the laws seek to thwart. Yet, women’s reproductive health runs along the full spectrum, and all women need individualized care. Each woman has a different story, different needs, different circumstances, and different health concerns. Women need to make these healthcare decisions with their doctors and have access to the full package of reproductive healthcare in order to remain healthy. Legislation is too broad and general to adequately answer women’s healthcare needs when it comes to pregnancy. It is wasteful and damaging, and produces too much bycatch in the form of personal pain and suffering for individual women and societal damage because so many women are unintentionally caught up in the sweeping net.