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July 25, 2017

That Darn 'Contraception is Abortion' Loophole

Lately, Missouri is really living up to its nickname, ‘the show-me state’ – as in, ‘show me your medical records if you want to work or live on your own and happen to be a woman.’

In February 2017, St. Louis city council passed Ordinance 70459, a bill protecting women from discrimination based on their reproductive health decisions. This update to the city’s existing anti-discrimination ordinance offered specific protection to women who have had abortions, use contraception, or who are pregnant from being denied employment or housing for those reasons.

St. Louis Alderman Megan Green sponsored the bill because she felt women needed protection at the local level, as the current Republican state government has shown a penchant for restricting women’s reproductive rights. Republican Governor Eric Greitens reportedly stated that the St. Louis ordinance turned the area into “an abortion sanctuary city,” proving Green’s logic frighteningly correct. Not even she could have predicted the run-around state politicians would concoct to stop the city from asserting this law, however.

In response, the Republican-dominated Missouri Senate and House extended their spring sessions into the summer in order to pass SB 5 – a bill intended to impose stricter regulations on abortion providers and add protections for ‘pregnancy centers.’ Passed by the Senate on June 14, it went on to be expanded by the House before they passed it June 20, sending it back to the Senate. They were expected to pass it sometime the next week; however, I have not been able to find confirmation as to whether it passed or not (if you have a link, please send it along!).

Among the several provisions added by the House, there’s this particular gem of a clause:

188.125 4. A political subdivision of this state is preempted from enacting, adopting, maintaining, or enforcing any order, ordinance, rule, regulation, policy, or other similar measure that has the purpose or effect of requiring a person to directly or indirectly participate in abortion if such participation is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of such person.

Thus, if SB 5 passes, the St. Louis ordinance will be null and void, and all other local governments in Missouri will be barred from enacting protections for women to make their own reproductive decisions without fear of retaliation by… just anyone. For all their talk about small-government, the Republicans sure do like to impose their influence from the top down.

At first glance, this clause may not look dangerous; I mean, it sounds like it would really only apply to those in the medical field who may have to actively participate in an abortion, or businesses that abortion clinics may approach for services. However, many religious people – including members of the internationally powerful Catholic Church and members of the politically-powerful Christian fundamentalist movement in the United Statesconsider using contraception a form of abortion; or, at least, as sinful as having one, stemming from the belief that all sex should be for procreation only.

This leaves open a loophole for discrimination against women using contraception not only by employers and landlords, but anyone who may have to interact with a woman. By employing, housing, or otherwise dealing with or supporting a woman while she’s using contraception, they would be indirectly participating in ongoing, continuous abortions.

Considering the Guttmacher Institute reports that 99% of all sexually active women in the United States have ever used contraception, and that 62% of all women between the ages of 15 and 44 years old currently use some form of it, this law has the potential to impact a significant portion of the Missourian population, directly or indirectly – regardless of their religiosity. According to Guttmacher, 99% of Catholic and Protestant women who have had sex have used a form of contraception, the same overwhelming proportion as the general population.

Planned Parenthood estimated in 2012 that at least 700,000 Missouri women were on birth control. Many of these women were given prescriptions to not (only) avoid pregnancy, but as treatment for a variety of health issues. While some feel those who use hormonal birth control will be exempt from discrimination because they’re not using it to prevent pregnancy, I doubt those looking to express their religious rights as defined above would split such hairs – especially considering the attitudes expressed above are so intertwined with the belief that women are manipulative liars: even if she claims it’s just for endometriosis, you can’t be sure that’s the truth, and since it will prevent pregnancy if she does have sex, better punish her just in case.

And that is what is at the crux of this law and all abortion-restricting laws – the belief that a woman should be punished for having sex, especially sex for the sake of pleasure and not procreation. While Republicans insist the bill is about regulating abortion providers and protecting pro-life pregnancy centres (a whole topic of its own), the wording is vague enough to allow for legal challenges based on the belief that contraception is a form of abortion – especially in the “post-fact” era, where arguments are successfully made that personally-held convictions are just as important as the facts of a case.

SB 5 should be enough to give every Missourian woman pause about how much their state representatives have shown they care about women’s well being.

‘Show-me’ state, indeed.

Ireland's Equality Paradox

It may be tempting to celebrate Leo Varadkar’s confirmation as Ireland’s new Prime Minister: he’s openly gay, the son of an Indian immigrant, and young – a veritable dream trifecta of equality and inclusion in politics for any social justice warrior.

But as his historical coming to power unfolds, a report in the most recent publication by the Child Care Law Reporting Project has come to the fore of national and international discussion, throwing doubt on Ireland’s newfound claim to political and social egalitarianism. It tells the harrowing story of a young teenage woman who requested an abortion and believed she was going to receive one, but found herself involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward by her psychiatrist under the Mental Health Act instead.

The young woman had informed her psychiatrist that her unplanned pregnancy was making her depressed and suicidal. The mental health practitioner did not agree that terminating the pregnancy was the best way to treat the young woman, instead reporting her as having a mental health disorder under Section 25 of the Mental Health Act.

The Abortion Rights Campaign was just one of several women’s and pro-choice advocacy groups to question the medical practitioner’s motives. Spokesperson Linda Kavanagh commented to the Irish Mirror, “Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs.”

Once detained, the young woman met with hospital and court-appointed psychiatrists, both of whom found that, while she was depressed, she did not suffer from a psychological disorder and should not be held. The court agreed and discharged the order, releasing the young woman from the hospital’s custody. The report does not elaborate as to whether she ultimately received the treatment she was seeking.

This is particularly disturbing, as it not only highlights the draconian restrictions on abortion in Ireland – they are only legal if the mother’s life is in immediate physical danger – but it seems to fly in the face of a 2013 amendment which added  ‘risk of loss of life from suicide’ as the third scenario when abortions may be permitted. This amendment followed the Ms. Y case, where a pregnant woman went on hunger strike after being denied an abortion, and was subsequently force-fed by court order. Ms. Y was seeking the abortion after becoming pregnant from a rape and falling into a suicidal depression. Ms. Kavanagh called the parallels between these two cases “alarming.”

Not only did the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act supposedly enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion if her mental health is threatened by a pregnancy, but it’s meant to protect women against health practitioners that do not agree with abortion. Subsection 17 of the act states: “A person who has a conscientious objection referred to in subsection (1) shall make such arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned as may be necessary to enable the woman to avail of the medical procedure concerned.”

Although this seems to suggest the psychiatrist in this case acted illegally, there has been little to no discussion of this in the surrounding conversation. Indeed, it appears Irish women may not even be aware they have the right to a transfer of care, and there appears to be no systems in place to ensure they know their rights and how to act upon them. As Ms. Kavanagh stated to the Irish Mirror, “It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”

So as this new era is ushered into Ireland, it’s hard not to feel as though the new sense of equality is still only available to a select few – namely, men. To his credit, Varadkar has promised a referendum on abortion access. However, this comes across as merely paying lip service to women’s bodily autonomy (pun intended), as Irish attitudes still seem to favour only allowing abortions in cases where the mother’s life or the life of the fetus is in danger.

For example, an October 2016 Irish Times/Iposos MRBI poll found that only 19% of the Irish population agreed that abortions should be provided in all cases requested. A January 2016 Newstalk/Red C poll showed slightly more promising results, with 41% of voters reporting that abortions should be available in any circumstances a pregnant woman felt necessary; however, this estimate still falls short of the necessary majority to pass a legally-binding measure.

So while some communities and their allies celebrate this new era of visibility in Ireland, it is important to remember the fight for true equality and inclusion for all is not yet won. It is imperative that this new visibility is wielded in the continuing battle for women’s right to make their own reproductive and health care choices.