TOM LEONARD: Is America turning into the Handmaid’s Tale?

Doctors who conduct abortions in the U.S. have for decades been attacked in their homes, had their clinics firebombed and their families threatened. Almost a dozen doctors and staff have been murdered — one doctor as he was handing out hymn books during a Sunday church service.

Such have been the brutal tactics of America’s ‘right-to-life’ militants — but these zealots’ illegal acts appalled other Christians, even when they also believed that life begins at conception.

Now, however, doctors who perform virtually any abortion face up to 99 years behind bars in one southern state. And their punishment will be completely within the law.

Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hartline, dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama

Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hartline, dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama

Alabama’s state Senate voted 25-6 on Tuesday night to approve a hugely controversial law that will ban all abortions in the state, except for cases where the mother’s life is at serious risk. Even pregnancies that are a consequence of rape or incest must be allowed to run their course under a measure pushed through by the conservative Republicans who control the state’s legislature.

Myriad other southern and Midwestern Bible Belt states are doing the same, emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency, which has tipped the balance towards the Right in the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court — America’s ultimate arbiter of abortion law.

The abortion bans have sparked protests by women dressed as 17th-century Puritans, an actors’ boycott of anti-abortion states and even a call by female Hollywood stars for women to go on a ‘sex strike’. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil last week suggested to U.S. conservative commentator Ben Shapiro that the abortion ban was taking America ‘back to the Dark Ages’, his interviewee walked out in fury.

Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act despite protests

Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act despite protests 

Although women who have an abortion won’t face punishment, Alabama has criminalised the procedure as a ‘Class A felony’ for the doctor, following a four-hour debate in the state’s Senate.

The argument that some abortions must be morally justifiable was swept away by senators who have compared abortion to the Holocaust.

‘“Abortion is murder”. Those three simple words sum up my position on an issue that many falsely claim is a complex one,’ said Will Ainsworth, who presides over the Senate.

One of the few women senators — a Democrat — suggested an amendment to also make it a crime for a man to have a vasectomy (it didn’t pass) to emphasise the point that an all-male group of lawmakers had imposed the new rules on women.

However, the split is really about ideology rather than gender. The bill’s sponsor was congresswoman Terri Collins, a mother of three. Passionately anti-abortion, she says her measure recognises that ‘that baby in the womb is a person’. The legislation must be approved by the state’s female governor, Republican Kay Ivey, who is expected to wave it through.

Although women who have an abortion won’t face punishment, Alabama has criminalised the procedure as a ‘Class A felony’ for the doctor, following a four-hour debate in the state’s Senate

Although women who have an abortion won’t face punishment, Alabama has criminalised the procedure as a ‘Class A felony’ for the doctor, following a four-hour debate in the state’s Senate

Opponents promised to challenge the new law as unconstitutional — but that is precisely what the bill’s sponsors want. Any legal challenge may be referred to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in the famous Roe v Wade case of 1973 established that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion.

The ultimate goal of the right-to-lifers isn’t an statewide abortion ban — but a national abortion ban. And they believe a reconsideration of Roe v Wade could go their way.

With America’s highest court now leaning heavily towards conservatives, thanks to President Trump — who has been able to appoint two of its nine judges and may soon also choose a successor to the ageing liberal firebrand Ruth Bader Ginsburg — pro-life advocates believe they have an opportunity to reverse Roe v Wade. (Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.)

‘This bill is about challenging Roe v Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn,’ said the victorious Terri Collins. ‘I have prayed my way through this bill. This is the way we get where we want to get eventually.’

Alabama is hardly alone. Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have already approved bans on abortion when a foetal heartbeat is detected. This usually happens five or six weeks into a pregnancy — and, given that many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at that early stage, opponents insist it’s effectively a total abortion ban.

Opponents promised to challenge the new law as unconstitutional — but that is precisely what the bill’s sponsors want. Any legal challenge may be referred to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in the famous Roe v Wade case of 1973 established that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion

Opponents promised to challenge the new law as unconstitutional — but that is precisely what the bill’s sponsors want. Any legal challenge may be referred to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in the famous Roe v Wade case of 1973 established that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion

Other states — Indiana, North and South Dakota, Utah, Arkansas and Louisiana — restrict access to abortions, while five more states have restrictions pending. Republican Ed Setzler, who pushed through Georgia’s ‘heartbeat’ bill, claimed the legislation was just ‘common sense’, as even a child at kindergarten would call a six-week-old embryo a baby.

Amid warnings of a return to the days of back-street abortionists, the move to a ban has been met with fury, but not surprise.

When Donald Trump became president, partly thanks to votes from the Bible Belt states, the voters on the Christian Right, who chose to ignore the thrice-married and alleged serial philanderer’s tawdry reputation, made clear they expected something in return. Dismantling Roe v Wade and so protecting the rights of the unborn has long been their ultimate ambition.

They will face fierce opposition. Hillary Clinton yesterday condemned the abortion bans as ‘appalling attacks on women’s lives and fundamental freedoms’. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat presidential candidate, warned: ‘This is a war on women, and it is time to fight like hell.’

Alabama’s statehouse was picketed by pro-choice women wearing the eerie red Puritan costumes familiar to viewers of the recent TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a brutally repressive U.S. ruled by Christian fundamentalists.

Hollywood, predictably, has weighed in, with actors refusing to work in hardline anti-abortion states. Georgia, for example, which earns a tidy income as a location for films and TV shows, passed its law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy in March. Now, some 50 actors, including Amy Schumer, Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin, have signed an open letter pledging not to work there while the abortion ban remains law.

Actress Alyssa Milano, who films a Netflix comedy-drama called Insatiable in Georgia, went further, calling on women to join her in a ‘sex strike’. Milano argues that women can’t risk pregnancy until further notice, and that they must stop having sex, or at least with heterosexual men. After she was ridiculed, she claimed the strike was more about ‘awareness’ and not something she wanted to implement.

Meanwhile, Trump — who was pro-choice before he ran for president — seems happy to oblige the anti-abortion diehards as he tries to shore up support for his re-election run in 2020.

He eggs them on at rallies, saying: ‘Democrats are aggressively pushing late-term abortion allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb, right up until the moment of birth. The baby is born and you wrap the baby beautifully and you talk to the mother about the possible execution of the baby.’

Critics say he’s grossly exaggerating, as federal government data shows very few babies are born alive during failed abortions. Likewise, only 1.3 percent of abortions take place after 21 weeks and these often involve severe foetal problems.

Legal experts are divided on whether the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade.

Its current head, Chief Justice John Roberts, is too cautious, say sceptics. Others counter that the ruling was legally shaky and that, with the appointment of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by Trump and then forced to defend himself against rape allegations, Roe v Wade is doomed.

Either way, senators in Alabama have shown that the passionate debate over abortion in the U.S. is very far from over.

 

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