50.50: Opinion

Mifepristone ruling shows we need to fight attack on US abortion rights

OPINION: The right’s assault on abortion in post-Roe America is becoming bolder. We mustn't normalise it

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
12 April 2023, 12.19pm

Abortion rights activists call for abortion and mifepristone to be legal across America at a protest in New York city in March 2023


Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress

Conventional wisdom says if you want to bury bad or controversial news, the best time to release it is Friday afternoon, when most people’s minds are on their weekend plans and not current events. This truism holds up even in our age of nonstop social media and a 24/7 news cycle.

Extreme anti-abortion advocate and federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Donald Trump appointee based in Amarillo, Texas, might have factored this into the timing of his decision to put a hold on government approval of the safe and widely used abortion drug mifepristone.

Kacsmaryk’s decision was designed to immediately block access to mifepristone across the US. Thankfully, a federal district judge in the state of Washington, Thomas O. Rice, ruled shortly after Kascmaryk in favour of 17 state attorneys general who sued to keep mifepristone legal.

US conservatives have long been trying to de facto ban the drug – which was first approved in 2000 and is used in more than half of all abortions in the country – by overturning its official approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Kacsmaryk dropped his ruling, which has huge implications for reproductive healthcare and the wellbeing of anyone who can get pregnant in the US, not just on any Friday, but on the one that Christians call Good Friday, when they commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus ahead of his ostensible resurrection on Easter Sunday.

According to The Washington Post, Kacsmaryk was “subdued and seemed to lack his usual joy” ahead of issuing his ruling and had been “particularly concerned about security threats”.

While there have been a few incidents of vandalism at deceptive anti-abortion ‘crisis pregnancy centres’, it’s hardly privileged and powerful conservative Christians such as Kacsmaryk who need to be concerned about their safety.

The uptick in violence and intimidation against abortion providers in recent years is beginning to draw comparisons with the 1990s, which was a particularly dangerous time for abortion providers in the US.

Bad faith

The National Abortion Federation released statistics for 2021 showing “a significant increase in stalking (600%), blockades (450%), hoax devices/suspicious packages (163%), invasions (129%) and assault and battery (128%).” We don’t yet have the figures for 2022, when Roe v Wade was overturned, but it is likely that anti-abortion violence is still increasing.

The use of mifepristone alongside misoprostol is the gold standard for medical or medication abortions, and the right-wing attack on the drug’s approval is self-evidently being done in bad faith.

And I do mean faith. If the US enforced the legal separation of church and state that our constitution theoretically guarantees, there is no way a ruling like Kacsmaryk’s – which is clearly motivated by hardline Christianity – could stand. But given the current state of the illegitimately stacked Supreme Court, it is likely that mifepristone will end up being banned indefinitely when this fight inevitably ends up there.

Of course, judges such as Kacsmaryk know better than to state explicitly that their formal decisions on cases related to abortion and other culture war flashpoints are made on the basis of their Christian beliefs, rather than proper legal grounds.

But Kacsmaryk is a well-known anti-abortion advocate, and his ruling contains telling language – terms such as “unborn human”, “unborn child” and even “abortionist”, for example – as well as disinformation about the (non-existent) prevalence of regret and shame among women who have abortions, and a discussion of abortion as “eugenics”.

All this rhetoric is straight out of the anti-abortion movement. None of it is remotely scientific or objective (ditto the reasoning given by Republicans for their attacks on gender-affirming healthcare).

American conservatives have been screaming about “activist judges” for decades, all the while stacking the courts with their own right-wing Christian activists who make rulings that impose the standards of Christian extremists on all Americans.

They also pretend to be advocates of “states’ rights” and small government, but their ideological attack on a proven drug that’s been in use for over 20 years is an attempt to ban early-term abortions nationwide, thereby ending the bodily autonomy of anyone who can get pregnant, even in states governed by Democrats. In so doing, they are following a well-known authoritarian playbook: As Physicians for Human Rights puts it: “Banning the medications required for abortion is a key strategy used by political leaders internationally who are seeking to limit reproductive autonomy.”

I am under no illusion that pointing out this hypocrisy will cause any American conservatives to change their minds. At the same time, I think it is important to let them know we see what they are doing and are not taking their rhetoric at face value, as unfortunately happens all too often in the major papers. As we continue the rearguard battle to protect reproductive rights where possible, we must resist the impulse to normalise the right’s authoritarian dynamics.

The right’s assault on abortion in post-Roe America is becoming bolder. And the devastating consequences of the end of Roe are already being felt. Currently, 13 states ban abortion at any point in pregnancy. In Florida, where a 15-week ban has been in place for about a year, hospitals have turned away women facing a life-threatening emergency – a rupture of the membranes – despite a legal exception for danger to the life of the mother. And Florida, whose state senate recently passed a bill that would introduce a six-week abortion ban, is not alone in making it difficult or impossible to obtain access to abortion in exceptional cases. The inhumanity of it all is staggering.

For now, access to the drug appears safe in Democratic “blue states,” some of whose governors have been stockpiling the drug as the legal battles play out. But this situation is ultimately untenable, and the Supreme Court will almost certainly rule in favour of any new abortion restrictions that come its way in the coming years.

It is my hope that blue states will engage in civil disobedience, defying the theocratic imperatives placed on them by Republican “red states” and, very possibly, a future Republican-controlled federal government. While it’s impossible to say exactly how things will pan out, we will certainly not secure the human rights of marginalised groups in a functional democracy if we fail to fight.

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