From Alabama to Armagh, women are on the front line waging the ‘war on abortion’ | Catherine Bennett

Far from being driven just by men, many female voices are heard in the anti-choice lobby

Intensifying campaigns to criminalise all abortion in the US have been summarised, accurately, as a war on women, one that calls on women to, as the presidential contender Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has put it, “fight like hell”.

In terms of knowing the enemy, much of it, in the US, will certainly resemble the Alabama misogynists – the 25 white, male, no longer young Republicans who have just stripped half their state’s population of reproductive rights. Photographs have been generously distributed. But, as the men would probably be the first to admit, they couldn’t have ushered in a generation or more of unwanted children without assistance from at least two women combatants, Terri Collins and the state governor, Kay Ivey.

Anyone who believes that women are, essentially, incubators is indebted, in the first place, to Collins, the Alabama bill’s sponsor. She ensured, by refusing exclusions for rape or incest, that the extreme decision would force a review of Roe v Wade, the case that established US abortion rights, and thereby threaten the physical autonomy of every fertile woman in the US.

If ever classical statuary records this historic triumph over human decency, Collins might justifiably be portrayed as Patroclus to Kay’s pitiless Achilles. Or, anyway, Sergeant Bilko to the governor’s Colonel Hall. Signing the ban into law, Ivey celebrated “a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God”. Give or take, as they appreciate on Alabama’s death row.

Hours after criminalising abortion, Ivey ruled that the life of a convicted murderer, Michael Samra, was not sufficiently precious for her to feel like saving it. He was killed by lethal injection, with witnesses to testify that this particular sacred gift from God had been returned dead, with the governor’s compliments.

Kay Ivey signs into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act
Kay Ivey signs into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act on 15 May 2019. Photograph: Alabama Governor Office Handout/EPA

The Montgomery Advertiser supplied a vivid variant on those pro-life descriptions of the developing foetus, as it develops microscopic limbs, fingers, signs of life. “Samra stretched and drew his fingers outward, attempted to raise his right hand against his wrist restraints before curling his fingers inward. He then stilled.”

While it’s useful, in the war on women, to have the uglier, stupider aspects of anti-choice encapsulated in a single combatant, Ivey’s contribution also illustrates the potential hazards, in the US debate, of using a battle of the sexes as a pro-choice rallying cry. If deep ideological divisions among women have early parallels in the anti-suffrage movement, this new battle is one in which reactionary campaigners, such as Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, enjoy a privileged platform, propagating Trumpian falsehoods about infanticide on Fox News, on Twitter, at media briefings. How effective is the sex-war metaphor in a public debate where some female participants make internalised misogyny look like a great career choice?

Moreover, as tempting as it is to think of Ivey, the executioner’s friend, as a monster who happens to be female – in which the worst qualities of Agatha Trunchbull, Dolores Umbridge and Margaret Atwood’s Aunt Lydia manifest as a homely-looking 74-year-old – she runs a state in which a majority of both sexes oppose abortion rights. Nationally, the slight gender differences on abortion choice have been related by one US pollster, Celinda Lake, to religious faith. “Women are more religious than men, and so women are slightly less pro-choice than men.” Either way, even the US televangelist Pat Robertson, who describes the Alabama development as “extreme”, appears to recognise that it’s possible for a religious person to be both anti-abortion and resigned to other people’s choices. Indeed, it surely reflects a marked lack of confidence in divine justice and the eternal affordances of hell if you have to invite someone with the reputation of the supreme court’s Brett Kavanaugh to get in there first.

Given that, unlike some male agitators, most anti-choice women must comprehend the insanity of criminalising abortion at six weeks pregnant, or the torture of a woman forced to gestate an abuser-generated foetus, their indifference to the obvious consequences – botched abortions, deaths, miserable children – is all the more mystifying.

In her 2017 preface to The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that looks more prescient with every reading, Atwood notes that, dismaying as it is, women will persecute other women. “Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even – and possibly, especially – in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: all power is relative and in tough times any amount is better than none.” Even pending the distribution of uniforms, for women who have achieved, say, the high status of an Ivanka or Sanders, it’s a compelling explanation for the behaviour of women hoping to prosper in the land of Trump. The Alabama law is the collaborators’ cattle prod.

Coverage of the US vote and its consequences has prompted justified reminders of the complacency that has left British women subject to various reproductive controls if they want an abortion, usually enforced supplication. The different, extreme punishment in place for women who abort in Northern Ireland is defended by that celebrated stickler for NI harmonisation with the rest of the UK, Arlene Foster, the continuation of whose tyranny relies in turn on Theresa May.

That some British women remain subject to punitive womb patrol probably owes much to the indifference and ignorance that gave them Karen Bradley (who considers non-introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act “a subjective matter”) for a Northern Ireland secretary. But as in the States, it can’t but help a war on women if it features women demanding, in effect, their own subjugation.

Towards the end of Atwood’s novel, we learn, by way of mitigation, that the alternative for some Aunts – female allies of a murderous religious patriarchy – might be exile to “toxic clean-up squads” in the colonies. In the current US dystopia, no such inducements seem necessary.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Catherine Bennett

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