Anti-choice propaganda has placed a hyperfocus on the fetus while completely ignoring the woman carrying it.
On January 22, 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law making it a crime to assist a woman to get an abortion violated her due process rights afforded by our nation’s constitution. Though Roe sparked national debate about the legality of abortions, who should decide reproductive health, and what approach courts should use during adjudication, women’s reproductive choices continue to face grave limitations.
From mandatory ultrasound laws to fetal homicide laws to “legitimate rapes” to parental notification and consent laws, it is clear that the war on women is ongoing. For several years, anti-choice policies have restricted women’s access to healthcare and ability to exercise agency and autonomy. Through propaganda, rhetorical and legislative attacks, and systems of patriarchy, women are forced to enter into a war where those who pretend to care about their health use the fetus as both a sword and shield. And this is true whether a woman is dead or alive.
Make no mistake about it, the same mindset that threatened women’s reproductive choice in Roe is also behind a fetus having more legal rights than Texas mother Marlise Muñoz. On November 26, Erick Muñoz discovered his wife on the kitchen floor unconscious from a blood clot to the lungs. When Ms. Muñoz entered John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth she was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family said she did not want to be kept alive by machines, officials at the hospital said a Texas state law required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient.
Sadly, Texas is not alone in having laws that infringe on women’s reproductive choices, even when lying in a hospital bed. According to a report by the Center for Women Policy Studies, at least 31 states restrict doctors from ending life support for terminally-ill pregnant women.
Finally, last Friday, Texas judge R.H. Wallace Jr. ruled that the hospital may not keep a brain dead pregnant woman on life support against her family’s wishes, and ordered doctors to take her off the machines. The hospital previously said the Texas law addressing life support for pregnant women prevented it from granting the family’s wish, but the judge said the law did not apply to Ms. Muñoz because she is dead.
Though the family can finally grieve the loss of Ms. Muñoz, the question remains: What does this law and similar laws mean for women’s bodies?
From Roe to Ms. Muñoz, laws and policies, usually through the lens of patriarchal frameworks, rarely allow for women to have control over their own body. All too often, instead of recognizing a woman’s body as autonomous and capable of exercising agency, society views it as a tool for (sexual) gratification and nothing more. The anti-choice propaganda has also placed a hyperfocus on the fetus while completely ignoring the woman carrying it.
So what does patriarchy have to do with Roe, Ms. Muñoz, and reproductive choice? Everything.
Patriarchy is a system of male dominance that is often rooted in control, coupled with the systematic imbalance of power for women. And it is devious and pervasive—so much so that it has convinced society that it’s protecting women by impeding reproductive choice.
Forcing a woman to give birth, while she is alive or dead, will not honor the legacy of Roe, and neither will restricting other reproductive choices. We should celebrate Roe by understanding that agency, autonomy, and choice are fundamental rights for women that do not stop during pregnancy.
Preston Mitchum is a civil rights advocate and policy analyst in Washington, DC. He has written for The Atlantic, Huffington Post, EBONY.com, and Think Progress. Preston is obsessed with incorporating intersectional frameworks to laws and policies. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum.