Taking a giant step back on the issue of women’s rights, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (a woman!) signed into law an abortion bill that would punish doctors who perform abortions with life imprisonment.  She is reported to have said, “Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act, a bill that was approved by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

The highly restrictive law only allows exceptions “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly.” It does not even exempt victims of rape or incest. According to a report by Marisa Iati and Deanna Paul, in The Washington Post, “Some bills, like the one in Georgia, prohibit abortion after the detection of what the bills call the fetal heartbeat, which usually happens about six weeks into pregnancy. This time period is about two weeks after a woman’s missed period when many women do not yet know they are pregnant.”

The law is not in force immediately, because of the revolutionary ruling by the US Supreme Court, in the case that came to be known as Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in all 50 states. The laws passed by Alabama and a few other states aim to challenge that decision.

Roe vs Wade, (1973), was a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court that ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution provides a fundamental “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Unfortunately, it did not help Jane Roe – whose real name was Norma McCorvey — she gave birth before the judgment, and the child was given up for abortion – but saved millions of women from endangering their lives with illegal back-alley abortions.

Astonishing, McCorvey herself appealed against the judgment, and later (according to information on the net), became a member of the anti-abortion movement in 1995 and supported making abortion illegal until her death in 2017. In 1998, she testified to Congress, “It was my pseudonym, Jane Roe, which had been used to create the “right” to abortion out of legal thin air.

But Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee never told me that what I was signing would allow women to come up to me 15-20 years later and say, Thank you for allowing me to have my five or six abortions. Without you, it wouldn’t have been possible.” Sarah never mentioned women using abortions as a form of birth control. “We talked about truly desperate and needy women, not women already wearing maternity clothes.” (Weddington and Coffee were attorneys).

The irony is that a society that considers itself progressive, allows for religious and far-Right groups to decide on what should be the matter of a woman’s choice. The anti-abortion lobby calls itself pro-life but does not think it wrong to kill for their belief, by attacking health centres and murdering medical personnel.

Nobody in their right mind would say that termination of unwanted pregnancies should be taken lightly; it extracts an emotional price from women who opt for it, but the alternative is women — often poor teenage girl’s — being forced to give birth to children they are unable or unwilling to care for. The girl’s future is wrecked, while the man, in most cases, simply walks away from any responsibility. It is even worse when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Still, clambering on to a moral high ground, the people who profess to care for an unborn foetus inflict pain and misery on the woman. The case of Savita Halappanavar, in Ireland, would still be fresh in the mind — the young woman, who was denied a life-saving abortion, after an incomplete miscarriage, because of the existing laws, and died from the resulting complications. Her death led to the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 and later Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.

Conservatives fear that easy access to abortion will lead to immoral behaviour, but in a society already so sexualised (pornography is protected under freedom of expression), is it possible to turn back the clock? Is it fair to put the burden of morality entirely on women? A Human Rights Watch report said, “There was a clear pattern of distress among the women and girls they interviewed about abortions. Interviewees repeatedly used words like “depressed,”, “terrified” and “desperate” to describe how they felt when they learned they were pregnant.”

The pro-lifers also oppose sex education and availability of effective birth control solutions and promote abstinence as the correct way. But then, chastity is also mocked in popular culture and a toxic machismo admired. Countries that have harsh anti-abortion legislation, do little to prevent exploitation of women or have stringent rape laws.

The real fear is of women having control of their bodies and reproductive choices. Forcing them to bear and raise children is just another way of putting obstacles in the path of women’s progress and independence. What is disturbing is that these anti-woman laws are rising not from repressive societies, but from one that prides itself on equality, free speech, enterprise, and individualism. Clearly, women do not qualify for these benefits.

Deepa Gehlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.