By Barbara Alvarez
Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation
“The Church is an obvious target for us because they should be separate from politics, and yet they have immense influence over politics.”
These words were spoken by a young Polish woman who was one of countless protesters swarming into Catholic churches in Poland during mass last Sunday, chanting “Catholics need abortions too” and “We’ve had enough” while throwing abortion rights leaflets into the pews.
These actions are a direct result of the country’s latest abortion restriction, which occured on Oct. 22 when Poland’s highest court enacted a near total-ban on abortions. Already highly restricted in Poland, abortion was still permitted for fetal abnormalities, which accounted for 98 percent of all legal abortions in the country. However, the court’s tribunal President Julia Przylebska declared that such abortions were eugenics practices and effectively banned abortion in totality. (Although technically the law still permits abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the health of the pregnant person, such abortions seldom take place in Poland.)
For nearly a week now, protesters have flooded streets across Poland demanding that their voices be heard. In the face of pepper spray-wielding police, Polish women have clashed with the authorities outside of landmark churches in the heavily Catholic country. The country’s deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has held firm and said that the court’s decision could not be reversed. He has further derided the women’s voices and actions as an attempt to “destroy” the country and urged people to not only defend the ruling, but the Catholic Church as well.
The United States may not be far away from a similar nightmare.
Abortion in the United States has been in peril for decades as state-level anti-abortion laws have ramped up. In fact, since 2010, hundreds of anti-abortion laws have been enacted throughout the United States, 25 in 2019 alone.
However, since the U.S. Supreme Court has significantly changed in the last few years, most recently with Amy Coney Barrett replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a champion of abortion rights), the future of Roe v. Wade is in greater danger than ever before. Barrett has laid bare her willingness to impose her religious convictions into courtroom decisions.
Indeed, Barrett’s first judgeship on the 7th U.S. Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals eerily mirrors Przylebska’s rhetoric about abortion and eugenics. In Commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky Inc., an abortion case that would have banned abortions in Indiana on the basis of race, sex or Down Syndrome diagnosis, lower courts struck down the law. However, Barrett joined fellow dissenters and declared that the law was a “eugenics statute” and that the case should be reheard. (Shockingly, the Supreme Court upheld a related Indiana law requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated.)
Now that Barrett sits on the highest court, it is chilling to fathom how she will rule on abortion cases. And we may find out sooner rather than later.
There are two abortion-related cases that have currently reached the Supreme Court and 17 more cases in the pipeline. As Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center of Reproductive Rights, explains, “Some are test cases to overturn Roe v. Wade or to render it meaningless by upholding laws that make abortion impossible to access.” Should the Supreme Court decide to hear them, these cases will be the first related to abortion to be determined by the new 6-3 ultraconservative majority.
This Friday, Oct. 30, the Supreme Court will decide whether to review one of these cases at their doorstep: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, over the constitutionality of a Mississippi law virtually banning all abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy. The core standing of Roe v. Wade has nationally legalized the procedure until fetal viability, or roughly 24 weeks’ gestation. The newly archright Supreme Court may rule against this nearly 50-year precedent.
Should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade in toto or in part, abortion rights would become a state issue. Currently, there are 10 states with post-Roe trigger laws on the books that would render abortion illegal immediately upon a Roe reversal. Wisconsin, FFRF’s home state, is among them.
While this is deeply unsettling (and completely counter to science and public opinion), there are bills and organizations to which we can lend our support:
• Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) is a measure “to protect a woman’s ability to determine whether and when to bear a child or end a pregnancy, and to protect a health care provider’s ability to provide reproductive health care services, including abortion services.” It protects abortion access by preventing restrictions that do not advance women’s health and safety. Additionally, it prohibits restrictions that are more burdensome than those imposed on medically comparable procedures. As abortion restrictions are not rooted in science, but rather based on religious ideology, the act would be a major step in curbing extremist anti-abortion measures.
• Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act of 2019 would end the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion care to federal Medicaid recipients, including individuals in the military, Peace Corps and Native Americans who receive health insurance from Indian Health Services. The Hyde Amendment was introduced by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a staunch Catholic who was praised by bishops and the Religious Right.
• Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would remove the Helms Amendment from the Foreign Assistance Act. The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” The act would replace the Helms Amendment with language stating that U.S. funding would provide comprehensive reproductive health services and information, including abortion services, training and equipment. Like the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment imposes Christian Nationalist beliefs internationally.
We can also donate to abortion funds such as the Women’s Medical Fund of Wisconsin, co-founded by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder. Gaylor oversaw this fund as a volunteer from the late 1970s until her death in 2015. The fund annually helps an average of 900-1,000 Wisconsin residents without means exercise their constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade. It is all-volunteer, with donations paying for abortion care. Make a donation, deductible for income-tax purposes.
The future of abortion rights in the United States is grim, and a future similar to Poland’s isn’t a far stretch. We must remain vigilant of the Christian Nationalist takeover of reproductive health in the United States and around the world. Sharing our secular voices is imperative.
Barbara Alvarez is from Madison, Wis., and attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on a Ph.D. in library and information sciences with a minor in gender and women’s studies. Alvarez was a major winner in last year’s FFRF essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle. She is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing.