Last November the United States signed into law a rule banning a procedure known by supporters as partial birth abortion. Coined by the National Right to Life Committee, the term is as spurious as it is emotive.
Despite this, it's been adopted by an unquestioning mainstream media and has led to an uninformed public somehow believing that by supporting the legislation they are saving thousands of babies, on the verge of viable birth, from being killed.
In reality, Dilation and Extraction was a rare procedure, used in the case of a fatally impaired fetus or to save maternal life. Elective abortion after healthy fetus viability was already illegal, and no one had a problem with that. After all, when was the last time you heard of a woman aborting a healthy fetus at eight months? Or a doctor willing to do such a thing.
Doctors across America say the legislation, with its deliberately ambiguous language concerning gestational age, and no provision for maternal health, leaves ample room for the government to interfere with sound medical judgment, and could be interpreted as criminalizing all abortions.
Put simply, if the fetus you're carrying threatens your life, the fetus's right to life trumps yours. While in America women no longer have the right to choose not to bear a genetically damaged or severely retarded child if the diagnosis is made in the second or third trimester.
But the machine to unravel reproductive rights in the US doesn't stop there.
Late last month the House of Representatives adopted the so-called Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Under the guise of protecting pregnant women from violence. A situation already covered in law, the new legislation covers bodily injury to a child in utero, during the commission of a crime. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes the bill as a thinly veiled attempt to create fetal rights and further erode women's reproductive rights. If the legislation is passed to the next stage, it will be the first time a fetus at any stage of development is recognized as an independent "victim" of a crime, with legal rights distinct from the woman.
And then there's the new Teen Endangerment Act. This would make it a federal crime for anyone other than a parent - including a grandmother, aunt or older sister - to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion unless the young woman has already met the obligations of her state's parental involvement law. According to the ACLU, a third of teenagers who do not tell their parents about a pregnancy have already been the victims of family violence and abuse.
In essence, this Act will separate young women from help and support in desperate times, will give parents ultimate rights over their teenage daughters, and turn legitimate help into criminal acts.
Take a wider view and look at Asia, where unsafe abortion accounts for 12 per cent of all pregnancy-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization thatís 38,000 maternal deaths each year. Worldwide, 78,000 women die annually from complications related to unsafe abortions.
But that hasn't stopped President George W. Bush enacting a policy known as the global gag rule. One of his first acts in office, the rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, prohibits any organization receiving funds from the US Agency for International Development, or other private funds, to provide abortions or even inform their patients about abortion.
Combine all these things with the stacking of the US federal judiciary and other key political positions with anti-choice proponents. Combine them with the increasing attacks on doctors providing abortion. One commentator said recently that a termination was the only medical procedure where the risk of dying was greater for the doctor than the patient. And, finally, combine all these with the battle to ban emergency contraception, which, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, prevents 51,000 abortions a year, and it's not hard to envisage a time when every ovum and spermatozoa will be defined as "pre-born", a time when contraception will be banned and women will once again be little more than wombs, their rights as citizens sustained only so long as they quietly grow future humans.
New Zealand is not America and for now our right to choose is intact. But given the deceptive ways in which reproductive rights are being steadily eroded in the US, we can't sit back, confident in the gains our older sisters and mothers made to ensure our freedoms.
Today, the old war cries of feminism sound dated. Cries like "Our bodies, ourselves" seem little more than quaint slogans from a battle fought, won and almost forgotten. But get ready to dust them off, because here we go again.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/. © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn