20-Week Abortion Ban Bill Treats Abortion as Issue of Criminality, not Healthcare

Jenny Brown of National Women’s Liberation says that if representatives are concerned about pain, they should support access to health care and not force women into labor

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DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. This week, the US House voted 237 to 189 to pass a bill that would ban abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill makes exceptions for cases of rape, incest against minors, and saving mothers’ lives and would not discipline people seeking abortion. Instead, it criminalizes those who perform the abortions or attempt the procedure with fines or up to five years in prison. The Trump administration has shown that they support the measure. And it’s already been enacted in several states. But critics say it’s unconstitutional.

Here to talk about all this is Jenny Brown. Jenny Brown was a leader in the grassroots fight to win the contraceptive morning-after pill over-the-counter in 2003 to 2013. She’s the co-author of the Redstockings’ organizing guide, “Women’s Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America.” And she’s also currently project director for National Women’s Liberation. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jenny.

JENNY BROWN: Yeah, good to be with you.

DHARNA NOOR: So, I just want to start by talking about your initial reactions to this bill passing in the House. Versions of this 20-week abortion ban bill or the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act failed in 2013 and 2015. But this time there’s support from the White House. So what would this bill passing mean for people seeking abortions? And who would be the most affected?

JENNY BROWN: Well, the bill passing, which I have to say is fairly unlikely because they need to get 60 votes in the Senate, but what would happen, we’re told, “Oh, well, they’re not going to criminalize the women. They’re just going to criminalize the doctors.” When abortion was illegal, women were dragged from their sick beds after having illegal abortions, taken down to the police station and interrogated. The whole idea that you can make something illegal and yet somehow the women will not be affected, the whole point of all of this is, of course, to make it so that women can’t get abortions.

And when they have a 20-week limit, then that works very well with the other regulations that are now in place in most states where you have to wait for 24 hours, you have to go back to the clinic, you have to get an ultrasound, all of these things create delays in women’s lives. And the idea is, I think it works with this 20-week ban to push a larger number of women over that line until they can’t get abortions. So, that’s the goal here, I think we should be very clear.

DHARNA NOOR: I wanted to get your response to sort of one of the ways that this measure is being backed up. So here’s a co-sponsor of the measure speaking on the floor of the House. Michigan Representative Paul Mitchell said, “Science has confirmed that fetuses born after 20 weeks feel pain.” Here’s that clip.

Paul Mitchell: It is said that nations are judged by how we care for our weakest members. There are no more vulnerable than a pre-born child whom unfortunately we fail to protect. The United States is one of only seven nations that allow elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy when science confirms that the babies feel pain. Accompanying us on this list are China and North Korea.

DHARNA NOOR: What’s your response?

JENNY BROWN: Well, he didn’t mention that Canada is also on that list. Abortion in Canada, for example, is not in the criminal code. That should be the goal here. Abortion is not a criminal thing, it’s a health care thing. And it’s also women’s right to self-determination. So, that needs to be the focus, I think, of the movement on this.

The whole idea that they’re concerned about fetuses feeling pain, this is ridiculous. They’re not concerned about women being forced into labor. They’re not concerned about the child; for example, they just failed to renew the Child Health Insurance Program. So, that’s going to mean a lot of pain for a lot of children. Clearly this is not what’s going on. They’re trying to chip away at Women’s Rights and that’s the fundamental thing that’s going on here.

DHARNA NOOR: It’s also been shown that over 98 percent of people who get abortions actually get them before the 20-week mark. So, how did this procedure or this measure, rather, elicit such strong support if it actually affects so few instances of abortion?

JENNY BROWN: Yeah, well, and it affects, it goes along with this thing of trying to delay women’s abortions and then force them to come to term. Most women who are having abortions after 20 weeks are doing it for medical reasons or they have been prevented from getting an abortion before 20 weeks by the expense or the restrictions that have been put in place in many cases. In a country like Canada where abortions are funded through a national health system, there aren’t any delays while you try to scrape together the $500 to get the abortion. So, women who want abortions can get them. It’s much easier. Here there are all these hurdles that are put in front of us. And so our experience is that the reason that women are often, go past 20 weeks is precisely these anti-abortion laws that are trying to prevent us from getting an abortion in the first place.

DHARNA NOOR: I want to talk a little bit more about some of the sort of motivations behind those who supported this measure. So, Representative Tim Murphy from Pennsylvania who backed this bill was just found to have told an extra-marital girlfriend to terminate a pregnancy earlier this year. What does that sort of say about the motivations to back such a bill?

JENNY BROWN: Well, I think we spent about 10 years in a struggle to get the morning-after pill over-the-counter. And the morning-after pill is contraception, but we still ran into all of these opponents. In fact, it was both the Bush and the Obama administration were opposed to putting it over-the-counter which made us consider what is actually going on behind all of this stuff.

Because frequently we’re told that these abortion votes aren’t really to get rid of abortion, they’re really just to excite a grassroots religious base who uses that as a litmus test on voting. But what we discovered is that there is considerable unease if you read conservative think tanks. And even occasionally you’ll see it in the New York Times, like Ross Douthat had a column a couple of years ago, it was “More Babies, Please.” They’re very concerned about the birth rate which is below replacement in the US right now. Replacement rate is 2.1 and it’s at 1.86 right now. So they’re looking long term at economic growth, at social security. They’re very concerned and they want us to have more children.

Of course women are resisting this because the conditions for having children in the United States are some of the worst in the world. We don’t have any paid maternity leave. We’re one of maybe five countries that don’t have any paid maternity leave. We don’t have guaranteed health care as so many other countries have. Our wages are basically supposed to cover child care as opposed to countries where you have a child care system that provides child care to any child that needs it. So, we have very bad conditions, and as a result women are having fewer children because simply it’s hard to do. And so in Europe, for example, they’ve responded to a lower birthrate by coming up with even more subsidies for child care. Or providing even more, you know, six months, a year of paid parental leave, paid parental leave for the dads. Here what we’ve been getting in response to the lower birthrate is we’ve been getting more and more difficulty getting abortion rights and also facing restrictions on birth control.

DHARNA NOOR: Some people have just sort of speculated that a late-term abortion ban like this would just encourage women to get abortions earlier if they actually want them. What’s your response to this? Is that really what’s going to happen?

JENNY BROWN: That it would encourage women to get abortions earlier? Women know when they want abortions. It’s not like, oh, it’s a mystery and then suddenly at four months you decide. This is crazy. I mean, the whole idea is that we should be able to get abortions immediately when we want them and not have these terrible waiting periods and hoops and trying to come up with the money. All of this should be in the past.

DHARNA NOOR: And in light of all this, a new report from the World Health Organization shows that almost half of all abortions performed worldwide are unsafe and that most of the unsafe ones are performed in developing countries, under-resourced countries. In light of all this, talk about why protecting the right to abortion is important and how we can do so.

JENNY BROWN: Well, in our group we think that it’s good to look at the history of how we won abortion rights in the US. And it really was a struggle that was very connected to women’s freedom, the women’s liberation movement. It was just part of all of the things we need to be able to exist in the society as first-class citizens and full human beings.

So, we think that we’ve gotten away from that and we are now sort of fighting brush fires defensively. Like on this one, we’re going to hear a lot of stories about women who had abortions after 20 weeks and the tragic circumstances and it was a terrible thing. But we think it’s better to just talk about the fundamental right to abortion. That we need it, this is why they’re denying it to us. Rather than having a defensive brush fire on this or that restriction, which there are almost 500 different restrictions now in the states, we should demand that abortion not be covered by the criminal code. It’s not a crime. It’s a health issue. In Canada it works fine.

We also think that we should have a national health system like they do in so many other countries and that abortion should be covered. In fact, under Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Plan, abortion would be covered. And that’s how it should be.

DHARNA NOOR: I just want to finish up by asking you about what efforts you’re engaging in to protect abortion rights with National Women’s Liberation and otherwise. And what viewers can do to ensure that women have rights to abortion access.

JENNY BROWN: Yeah, womensliberation.org, you can go there. We have actually been researching the restrictions on the abortion pill. The US. got the abortion pill, basically it was approved because they were able to make it as expensive and as difficult to get an abortion with the pill as it was to get a surgical abortion. But what we’re looking at is that they’re, a whole consortium of doctors have written about this in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There are these restrictions that make it impossible to get it at a pharmacy. You have to have it at a clinic. It has to be dispensed by a hospital or a clinic. And these regulations really are designed for extremely dangerous drugs. The abortion pill is not a dangerous drug. In fact, it’s extremely safe. It can also be taken much earlier than a surgical abortion can be done. There are a lot of advantages to it. But it’s very restricted because you can’t just get a prescription from your doctor and go to a pharmacy and fill the prescription. It has to be dispensed by a clinic. That clinic has to be licensed. The people involved have to have gone through a licensing process with the FDA. It’s all very complicated. So we think, and there’s recently the ACLU has sued on behalf of a Hawaiian doctor, we think that freeing up the abortion pill is an important front in the struggle.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Jenny Brown, she was a leader in the grassroots fight to win the contraceptive morning-after pill over-the-counter. She’s the co-author of the Redstockings’ organizing guide called “Women’s Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America.” And she’s currently the project director for National Women’s Liberation. Thanks so much for being with us today, Jenny.

JENNY BROWN: Thank you very much.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.