Abortion, Mortal Combat, and TRAP Laws

We’ve all heard the phrase mano-a-mano, literally hand-to-hand, but often understood as man-to-man. The phrase originated in bullfighting, where two matadors would compete for audience attention. In English, it conjures up any one-on-one battle, the fiercer the better. May the best man win, because only the strong survive. Since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in America, this country has been locked in a patriarchal, mano-a-mano battle over a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. But in this case, the battle is not between two fierce men: instead, it is between a woman and her womb. May the best man win, because only the strong survive.

Here’s how the battle works:

  1. Tactics: People (mostly, but not all, men) in power who want to prevent a woman from terminating a pregnancy use any means at their disposal, including physical violence, emotional coercion, and political bullying, to push back against legal abortion.
  2. Rhetoric: These violent—and unconstitutional—tactics are legitimized via the rhetoric of love and motherhood. Any loving (read, real) woman would never terminate a pregnancy. Any woman who would try deserves what she gets. Any woman—such as a feminist—who would speak out in favor of abortion is an aberration, a femi-nazi who not only supports abortion but actively encourages it. She is the opposite of a mother, which means she must be a whore.
  3. Victims: The victims of this battle include some very heroic doctors, many of them male. But by far the greatest numbers of victims are women, most of them mothers (according to the Guttmacher Institute, 61% of women who have abortions have one or more children). The ways in which mothers are wounded and maimed by the mano-a-mano insistence on death by womb are beyond horrifying.

Of these three elements, it is rhetoric that drives the machine of battle. I’ve read a few op-eds by women who support tactics to limit or stop abortion because they believe a woman who is considering it would change her mind if she just knew the joys of motherhood, or saw the image from a sonogram. This argument misunderstands who gets abortions and why, but that doesn’t matter: the argument serves its purpose, because women, mothers and non-mothers alike, understand the language of loving motherhood on many levels. Intellectual, emotional, physical, political.

If the stories of women who needed abortions were common knowledge, the language of motherhood would be required to expand, and the womb would no longer be pitted against the woman. These stories will break your heart—for the women, and for their existing children. Here’s one: in Sexism in America, Barbara Berg relates the experience of Martha Mendoza, a journalist whose fetus died in the womb at nineteen weeks. She needed a late-term abortion to remove the dead fetus from her body, and couldn’t find a doctor to perform the procedure—there were too few, and they were too scared. So she had to carry the dead fetus, hoping she wouldn’t pass the body from her own when her two children were around. Eventually, she was able to find a doctor: but she was middle-class, a privilege that has historically allowed a woman to safely terminate a pregnancy, regardless of the rules for others.  This happened in 2004.

Most victims of the battle against abortion are the women who die bleeding, from infections, from illegally performed abortions. This was life pre-1973, and if conservative lawmakers have their way, it will be life again very soon.  Berg quotes LeRoy H. Carhart, a Nebraska doctor who spent many years in the airforce, a lifelong Republican and churchgoing Methodist, a family man who supports legal abortion because he saw the aftermath of illegal abortion.  In his words, watching some women die and others left sterile was “…horrible, worse than watching people die in a war.”

The Role of TRAP Laws

One of the most recent tactics in this ongoing war, supported by the rhetoric of loving motherhood and feminine health, takes the form of TRAP laws: Targeted Regulations on Abortion Providers. Here, the battle is a war of attrition: starve the possibility of abortion right out of existence. As a Virginia resident, I am concerned about these laws, which are under review in my state. The laws require abortion clinics to meet building requirements designed for new hospitals, a restriction not applied to any other kind of clinic. The rhetoric insists this is for the health of women, but doctors disagree: many have spoken out about the ways these laws endanger women, preventing access to safe abortion as well as cancer screenings and other care.

A 2013 statewide survey showed that a majority of Viginians (58%) oppose these laws.  If you are among them, and know others who are, now is the time to speak up:  there is an open comment period from June 16 to July 31, and you can comment here.

Raising our voices against these laws is vital, but we must also meet the rhetoric of womb against woman on its own ground: motherhood. Listening to the stories of women who needed abortions, my mother’s heart full of compassion for the circumstances of their lives, opened the floodgates to my activism. This is the power held within the transformation of language and understanding—it can change a decades-long guerrilla war into a mother’s-compassionate-conscience approach to the lives, bodies, and choices of other women, mothers or not.


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