Reproductive Rights Are Just a New Frontier for Mass Incarceration

By Chandra Bozelko

May 17, 2019 5 min read

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill this week that made it a crime to perform an abortion in that state. Alabama is the seventh state to legislate abortion restrictions that will pave the road back to the U.S. Supreme Court where the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade will be re-litigated. As part of this push, nearly 300 anti-abortion bills have been introduced in 36 states in 2019 alone.

A prohibition is only as good as its penalty, and the punishments written into these proposed anti-choice policies are severe: 99 years in prison in Alabama for performing one abortion.

It's happening in other states, too. The so-named heartbeat bills, such as the one signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp last week and the others passed in three states, and pending in 10 more, allow police to subject women who suffer miscarriages to homicide investigations that can result in prison time. One bill in Texas would impose capital punishment on those receiving or performing abortions, an embarrassing homage to the sanctity of life.

We know that the anti-abortion crusade isn't about protecting the unborn. It's not about controlling women and regulating their bodies, either, although that's part of it. Ultimately the assault on reproductive rights happening nationwide is about finding a new frontier for criminalization now that old battlegrounds are closing.

Throughout history, we've hitched health and honor in ways they don't deserve. It's why criminalizing mental illness and substance abuse is so easy. Even though they're indisputably medical problems, we label behavior that stems from these conditions as bad character and penalize it.

We're starting to move away from that connection, though. The recent Republican embrace of prison and justice reform is an admission that mental illness and substance disorders are not moral failures. Some progressives have celebrated this GOP epiphany as a social justice turning-point. And it is just that in many ways. But we might have been fools to believe that conservatives would simply pack up their moral marbles and go home.

That a fierce and wide-ranging anti-abortion agenda appeared in state legislatures mere months after the Trump administration relieved some draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders in late 2018 was no accident; abortion bans and drug wars are the same game, played against people with unwanted health conditions.

This was a Republican decision to switch fields, that is not to target mentally ill or addicted people so specifically but instead go after another group whose virtue is jeopardized by their health status: the more than 600,000 allegedly wayward women who suffer the physical and mental stressors of an unintended pregnancy every year and seek to terminate it. The GOP didn't abandon being "tough on crime" like we hoped they would. They're just going to be tough on different crimes, and they're all related to a woman's right to choose what happens to her body.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, either. Ever since Trump ran for office, Republicans have seen reproductive rights through a punitive lens. The president signaled the new frontier back in his 2016 campaign when he said that "there has to be some form of punishment" for women who abort. Looking back, I see it was practically a promise of increased incarceration.

While the "heartbeat" bills subject doctors to possible manslaughter and murder charges if they induce an abortion, Alabama's new law lacks any criminal or civil penalties for women who receive them, interestingly enough. Surely, the way to clamp down on abortions is to scare women into not asking for them.

But when receiving an abortion is outrightly criminalized, others who help women get these procedures risk becoming accomplices under expansive conspiracy laws. Maybe the Alabama exception for abortion recipients is a way to protect a man who assists a woman he's impregnated in getting an abortion when termination would benefit his life and protect his honor and health. In time, we'll see whether this is strategy or screw-up for the first state-level abortion ban.

There's so much hypocrisy and contradiction in the criminalization of reproductive freedom that it's easy to become confused about the purpose of policy. Remember that anti-choice legislative agendas are ultimately about one thing: finding new and different ways to lock up weakened people.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at

Photo credit: QuinceMedia at Pixabay

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