For many on both sides of the abortion debate, the Dobbs decision may feel like the end of it. But it’s become clear in the days since Roe v Wade was overturned that, a) there are not just two ways to think about abortion, and b) the work is far from over.
Whether one agrees with the overturning of Roe is a vastly different question from whether one agrees with the near-total abortion ban now in place in Arkansas. I’m a pro-choice Democrat who strongly disagreed with the Dobbs decision and will continue to fight for a woman’s right to choose. But I’ve come to learn I have much more in common with my pro-life neighbors than I ever knew. My inbox has been flooded with women who wanted Roe gone and, at the same time, are also terrified and saddened to learn just how far-reaching Arkansas’s law is. For a very long time, Arkansas policymakers have had the luxury of not having to deal with any actual consequences of the extreme abortion laws they’ve passed, because we’ve had the backstop of Roe. Now that that’s gone, it’s time for Arkansans – policymakers and otherwise – to seriously and compassionately contend with the reality of our all-out ban.
Under Arkansas law as it stands today, all abortion is banned, with one exception: “to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.” Treatment for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies are not defined as “abortions” under this law and so remain legal.
Though rhetoric around abortion often involves making women take responsibility for choices they have made, Arkansas’s extreme law covers far more than that. First: There is no exception for rape or incest. So, a child who is raped by her coach or uncle will be forced to carry her rapist’s baby to term in her tiny body. Some Arkansas politicians have signaled their willingness to add a rape or incest exception. We need that exception immediately.
Second: There is no exception for parents who discover that their baby has a lethal fetal anomaly. If a woman finds out that her baby will die during, or immediately after, childbirth, she cannot terminate the pregnancy to ease the suffering of her baby and herself. Instead, Arkansas law forces women whose babies will certainly die to carry them to term, endure full-term labor and childbirth, and then watch those babies die painful, inevitable deaths.
Since the Dobbs decision came down, I’ve heard about this particular hole in the Arkansas law more than any other, including rape or incest. Women who say they’ve always identified as pro-life have reached out to share the stories of receiving the news that their babies wouldn’t survive outside the womb. They’ve shared the choices they made for themselves and their babies and expressed their deep grief that other mothers wouldn’t have those options available to them under Arkansas’s law. A mother may well choose to give birth in these instances, but she should also be able to choose against the physical and mental risks of carrying for months and then birthing a baby whose body is incompatible with life. My heart goes out to any woman who is faced with such a loss, whatever she chooses. But she should be able to choose.
Third: Though the law states that abortions will be allowed to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency, what this means in practice remains very unclear. When, exactly, does a pregnancy become a threat to the life of the mother? That’s often not apparent until it’s too late. For instance, a woman could have a risk of uterine rupture. She could be told by a doctor that the rupture may or may not happen, but if it does, she will die. Would that count as a medical emergency under Arkansas’s law? That’s a question only a healthcare professional can answer. However, the law is written so narrowly, that it would allow a judge to find this and an untold number of other very dangerous scenarios to fall outside its protections. Surely this isn’t what Arkansas lawmakers wanted when they passed this trigger bill years ago. But it is the reality.
So, what is the work to be done moving forward? Start by being gentle with the women in your life when you talk about abortion. Whether a woman is pro-life or pro-choice, you just don’t know what she may have been through. Then, contact your policymakers about any of your concerns with Arkansas’s current ban. And finally, beyond the parameters of this specific law, continue to ask the question: In a state where virtually all abortions will be banned, how do we show compassion for those women and children in other ways? Because we must. If the government mandates their pregnancies from the moment of fertilization, it is incumbent on the government to care for those women whose choices it has regulated in such a profound way, and the children who are born as a result. Some things we should think about include paid family leave and improving infant and maternal healthcare, as a start.
If you find yourself worried about Arkansas’s laws, know that you aren’t alone. Many of us who disagree with one another on Roe, agree on many ways to ease some suffering for Arkansas’s women and children going forward. We owe it to those women and children to put those beliefs into action. Pro-life, pro-choice, or wherever we fall in between, our work is far from over.
Editor’s note: State Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, was first elected to office in 2018. The opinions expressed are those of the author.