According to a recent United Nations report, North Dakota is torturing women. Seriously. Juan Méndez, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture, has included lack of access to abortion in his yearly report on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Considering North Dakota’s new lawwhich bans abortion after six weeks, it stands to reason that the state is torturing its female citizens.
I’m not trying to be trite—I do believe, as Méndez does, that forcing women to carry pregnancies they don’t want is cruel:
International and regional human rights bodies have begun to recognize that abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. Examples of such violations include abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; involuntary sterilization; denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care.
But if you believe abortion is a “convenience,” rather than a human right, saying as much is controversial. To the American anti-choice movement, it’s even laughable.
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But how else would you describe laws that are meant to punish women for being sexually active? Sure, anti-choice legislation and activism prides itself on showy pro-woman rhetoric. Women’s Right To Know! Women Deserve Better Than Abortion! But at the end of the day, forced pregnancy is less about protecting women or “life” than it is about punishment and humiliation.
Rape exceptions are the clearest example. While I agree that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy that is the result of rape is an even further assault on women’s bodily integrity, the foundation of a rape exception is that some women “deserve” abortions and some don’t. The underlying message is pretty clear—a woman who has been forced to have sex has done nothing wrong, a woman who had consensual sex has. (Bill Napoli’s now-infamous example of a “sodomized virgin” comes to mind.”)
Other restrictions and attempted limits on abortion access prove just as transparent. In 2007, for example,legislators in Ohio pushed a bill that would have mandated women get a written not from the father of the fetus before being able to obtain an abortion. If they didn’t know who the father was, they would not be allowed to access the procedure. This is about humiliating women and making the decision to have an abortion as difficult as possible.
A report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Rights Violations as Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Critical Human Rights Analysis, points out that degrading treatment is defined as an act “aimed at humiliating the victim, regardless of whether severe pain was inﬂicted.” Anti-choice legislation seems to be written with that exact goal in mind.
Ultrasound laws—frequently called women’s “right to know” laws—are pushed under the guise of making sure women fully understand what they’re about to do. As if women are so stupid that they don’t realize what getting an abortion is. One Rhode Island doctor said a bill mandating ultrasounds before abortions “turned the ultrasound into a torture machine.” And for women whose wanted pregnancies are ending, these laws are beyond cruel. One woman in Texas who was forced to have three sonograms in one day and listen to a doctor describe her doomed fetus in detail called the experience a “superfluous layer of torment” and recalled sobbing throughout the procedure.
Can anyone really argue that Savita Halappanavar was not tortured in Ireland? Despite excruciating pain and the fact that her pregnancy was ending, Savita was denied an abortion because doctors wanted to wait for her fetus’s heartbeat to stop. She died in pain asking for help. It’s the same fate Republicans would have for American women—don’t forget the ironically named “Protect Life Act” that would have allowed hospitals to deny dying women life-saving abortions.
Americans are catching on. The majority of people in the U.S. consider themselves “pro-choice,” and though most support some sort of limits on access, many are wary of punitive legislation like ultrasound laws and laws that allow health care providers or pharmacists to deny procedures or medications. And the more people find out what these restrictions are really about—as they did with ultrasound mandates thanks to media and social media—the more likely, I believe, they’ll be to oppose them.
So perhaps there is progress being made. But the fight won’t end until all women—whether they’re in North Dakota, Ireland or anywhere else—can access abortion without shame, fear, humiliation or government interference. Anything else is cruel—and yes, torture.