Health 14 November 2018 | 18:59

The new Arkansas law is a grave threat to women's reproductive rights

14 November 2018 18:59

It has become de rigueur, ever since the wildly successful television adaptation, to make a world-weary reference to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in response to erosions of gender equality, particularly women’s reproductive rights. Is this how Gilead starts?

But even in the face of so much backlash against feminist gains, every so often a story seems so dystopian as to make us pause and catch our breath. Or at least, it should.

For while the media once again froths over Trump’s latest Twitter gaffe (failing to reference Hindus in a Diwali tweet ­– twice – which would be shocking were it not for the fact that this is the man who omitted Jews from a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement), the Supreme Court has just quietly let through a new law in Arkansas.

The law, first passed in 2015, demands that providers of medical abortions (which uses pills up to the first ten weeks of pregnancy) have contracts with the doctors with privileges in local hospitals. Planned Parenthood could not find any qualified doctor willing to sign such a contract, fearing ostracism, harassment or even violence.

The law was blocked in 2016 on a federal level (and a similar law in Texas was struck down) but the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit just agreed to dismiss that outright.

There are only three abortion clinics in Arkansas, providing for about 1.5 million women. Two out of three only perform medical abortions, and do not offer surgical options. So, this law will force two out of three of the state’s clinics to close, and effectively ban the safer medical abortions.

But look closely at the “Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Abortion Act,” and you’ll see something even more worrying. Buried within the legal jargon is a clause that allows the woman’s husband to file a court order blocking her from having the procedure at all. Even in the case of rape.

Do you think Arkansas is an extreme example, or an aberration? Think again. At least six other states are down to their very last clinic. With Arkansas as the bellwether state, 13 other cases currently facing federal appeals courts could reach the Supreme Court, including a parental consent law in Indiana.

The fact that a few determined policymakers can use the federal structure to wear away at a landmark piece of legislation like Roe v Wade until it becomes all but meaningless is a legal travesty, as well as a gasping violation of human rights. When a right is dependent on geographical location, social background, financial situation and marital status then it is no longer a right – it’s a lottery. And as reproductive rights have become contingent on men like Trump, Pence and now Kavanaugh, the odds are narrowing.

But it’s the fact that a husband can effectively take control of his wife’s womb that should really horrify us – whatever your position on abortion.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, when the woman first loses her job and her salary, she looks to her husband Luke for comfort. He responds in a somewhat proprietal way, stressing that he will take care of her. The woman is unsettled, wondering if he is already beginning to see her as somehow subservient, or whether secretly he had always assumed a superior role in the marriage; whether deep down men had ever really come to terms with losing their absolute control of women. Of course, in Gilead, it turns out that they hadn’t.

And in the US, we now face a situation where men who reserve the right to wash their hands of parental responsibility can simultaneously dictate the outcome of a pregnancy. In the US, where many who would happily let people die to defend their constitutional right to bear arms, would equally happily let women die rather than defend their constitutional right not to bear children.

It’s difficult to empathise with this level of disempowerment, just like it was for Luke. But even so, men in positions of power are conspicuously silent on this issue. While politicians toe a careful line on reproductive rights and pander to a mixed base, restrictions to reproductive rights are violating the most basic human right: the right to freedom.

It’s time for a reckoning in the US over gender equality, and the battle will play out in women’s bodies. And those who pretend to be pro-equality but hum and haw about being pro-choice; those female enablers who participate to cement their own power: to be aunts instead of handmaids, are all complicit in an unparalleled violation of human rights.

People of America, at this point, if you’re not actively pro-reproductive rights, you’re anti-human rights. If the robes fit, wear them.