This blog is cross-posted from Law Students for Reproductive Justice.
Yesterday Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and Julie Burkhart of Trust Women participated in “Pro-Life or Pro-Lives: What the Difference Means for Women and Families” at the OU College of Law. Both speakers focused on the possible consequences of criminalizing abortion and on the need for policies that value the lives of pregnant people and their families.
Julie Burkhart, a former colleague of the late Dr. Tiller, works in Wichita, the home of Operation Rescue. Wichita is the largest city in Kansas and now has no abortion clinic thanks in no small part to the efforts of Operation Rescue (though Trust Women is opening a new clinic this year). Despite this, literally thousands of people seek abortion services in the state every year and must travel far to do so. Julie and her colleagues face unimaginable harassment, but Julie said she continues to work in Kansas because it is simply un-American that based on geography some people are not able to obtain reproductive health services. If Kansans go to such great lengths to obtain abortions, criminalizing abortion will not deter people from obtaining the procedure. Anti-choicers swear that criminalizing abortion will mean punishment for doctors not patients, but we need to be wary of giving the State power to interfere into the decisions we make about our bodies. Once the State is given a little power, we cannot be sure how far and in what direction state policies will go.
Lynn Paltrow highlighted the danger of giving the State power to interfere into our lives. She spoke of several instances of courts using fetal rights claims to violate a pregnant woman’s right to medical decision making, right to due process of law, right to liberty, and right to life. For example, Laura Pemberton was attempting to have a home birth when a sheriff knocked on her door. Doctors at a hospital had used fetal rights arguments to get a court order to force her to have cesarean surgery. She was taken into custody, restrained while in active labor, judged without representation and forced to undergo the surgery. Other examples include Amber Marlowe and Angela Carder who were also forced to have court-ordered cesarean sections without due process of law. In every case, the judge determined that a state interest in fetal life trumped the rights of the pregnant person. Many fetal rights claims originated in state feticide laws that were meant to protect the pregnant person but are now being used to harm them.
I was so glad that OU LSRJ was able to be part of bringing conversations about the potential for State abuse to the law school. Unfortunately, the student population at most law schools is still overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class. For most, privilege allows us to ignore the ways state policies like the drug war are being used in a racist and classist manner to target certain populations for control. We are more likely to trust state actors because our experiences with police and judges are often positive. It is critically important that we be exposed to discussions on ways State power can be used to oppress not protect people since we are the next generation of policy makers. It is unlikely that many law students will ever experience this oppression firsthand, but it is a reality for countless people in this country. Ignoring this reality perpetuates an unjust judicial system – an unjust judicial system that, as last night’s talk and the recent push for personhood amendments across the nation show, has the potential to be used to strip anyone of their status as a full Constitutional person upon becoming pregnant.