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Opinion The chipping away of U.S. abortion rights should be a wake-up call for us all

Pro-choice activists have been saying this for years: The foes of women’s reproductive rights play the long game. The drastic erosion of abortion rights in the United States seems sudden, but it is not new, it is not random and it offers a lesson for countries such as Canada where reproductive freedom feels more secure.

The fight against abortion access in the United States is not new, but it has a fresh urgency as restrictions pile up in Republican-controlled statehouses. Georgia recently became the sixth state to enact a ban on abortion after six weeks (for those of you who slept through health class, the majority of women don’t even realize they’re pregnant at six weeks). North Dakota passed the first of these bills – misleadingly sometimes called “heartbeat bills” – in 2013, and Iowa, Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio followed.

None of the six-week bans in those states is currently in effect, due to legal challenges. However, the mere existence of these state laws is damaging: They stigmatize the very act of seeking an abortion; they warp the debate by misleadingly referring to the “heartbeat” of a fetus; and third, the laws are intended as gateway to overturning Roe V. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the country.

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That ultimate goal – the overturning of Roe – is also at the heart of Alabama’s anti-abortion legislation, which will be the strictest in the country. On Tuesday, Alabama passed a bill that will outlaw abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, and will make performing the procedure a felony. Doctors who perform them could face 99 years in jail. “This AL abortion ban should make everyone stop in our tracks. It’s no time for sorrow or for apologies. It’s time to sound the alarm and take action,” wrote Ai-jen Poo, co-founder of the new women’s rights group Supermajority about the decision. The state’s legislators deliberately voted against an exception for rape and incest because they wanted a “clean” bill – that is, one that would be challenged in courts, possibly right up to the Supreme Court, where it would test the Roe V. Wade decision.

That has been the end goal all along, and anti-choice campaigners have not been secret or coy about it. Vice-President Mike Pence has spoken repeatedly about his desire to see Roe consigned “to the ash heap of history.” President Donald Trump has fanned the flames by lying about doctors and parents conspiring to “execute” babies after they’re born. The message is carried from the top, and is disseminated by well-funded, well-organized campaigns acting methodically at the local and state levels.

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice health-care think tank, notes that there were 424 state-level abortion restrictions introduced between 2011 and 2018, and 304 in the first three months of this year alone. Those involve everything from TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers, such as legislating the size of a clinic’s hallways) to restrictions requiring that women receive counselling, watch ultrasounds or endure a waiting period for a procedure that has been federal law for 46 years. Other states have introduced restrictions on the use of medical insurance to pay for abortions. The consequences of these laws fall disproportionately on low-income women. The purpose is, ultimately, to make all abortion illegal in the United States.

The anti-choice movement isn’t restricted by national boundaries. Any success in the United States will embolden activists in Canada who also want to see women’s reproductive rights curtailed. In Ontario, three Progressive Conservative MPPs spoke at an anti-abortion rally outside the provincial legislature, with one of them, Sam Oosterhoff, declaring, "We have survived 50 years of abortion in Canada and we pledge to fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime.” Those are words that wouldn’t sound out of place in Birmingham, Ala., or Columbus, Ohio.

It is an endless battle: Women have always known that the price of reproductive freedom is eternal vigilance. Canada’s pro-choice community has to keep a sharp eye on what’s happening in the United States, and support our southern neighbours as they refuse to be thrown into the darkness of the past.

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