Reproductive rights

Womxn, Wombs, Vessels: US Reproductive Rights

How will the US election result impact reproductive rights in America and the rest of the world? Mari Ellis Dunning shares her thoughts on the matter of womxn, wombs, vessels, reflecting on a recent poetry event called ‘The Hexing Circle’.

Womxn, Wombs, Vessels: US Reproductive Rights | hexing circle
Womxn, Wombs, Vessels: US Reproductive Rights | The Hexing Circle

Two days before the 2020 US election, a writer friend puts together a poetry event which she names ‘The Hexing Circle’. The purpose of this, she tells me when she invites me to read, is to instil us all with a little power and levity during the worrying election season. It will be an event that, through poetry, projects a message of ‘fuck patriarchy’, ‘fuck transphobia’ and ‘fuck racism’. 

My time in hospital with my newborn son during the COVID-19 pandemic is what prompts me to share a handful of poems that speak to my experiences of mothering as well as to global reproductive rights, or lack thereof, at this event. What is at the forefront of my mind at this point in time is governmental control of the female body, in all its forms, and what the result of the US election might mean for womxn and childbearing people worldwide.

I consider the Global Gag Rule, a Republican policy reintroduced in January 2017 which blocks government funding to non-US organisations that provide abortion services, counselling, or referrals, or advocate for the liberalisation of their country’s abortion laws. Since its introduction, this policy has put millions of womxn’s lives at risk, particularly poorer womxn, and counterintuitively resulted in a higher number of abortions, as well as an increase in dangerous and deadly procedures.

The impact of this withdrawal of funding under America’s anti-abortion rhetoric has had far-reaching consequences beyond restricting reproductive rights, impacting on contraceptive services, antenatal care, HIV testing and treatment, and screening for cervical, breast and prostate cancer across Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa.

In a recent essay, Zoë Brigley described the 2020 presidential race as a ‘referendum on abortion’. Ironically, studies have repeatedly shown that abortion figures are lower under a Democratic Government, due to better access to reproductive information, healthcare and birth control. Nonetheless, Republican candidates often seek to sway pro-life voters by adopting a pro-life, or ‘anti-choice’ stance, thus endangering the lives of womxn everywhere. That the global gag rule, which has been in place in one form or another under each Republican Government since its introduction by Ronald Reagan in 1984, ultimately increases the number of abortions by reducing access to contraception is not just an unfortunate irony – it reveals the way in which womxn’s bodies repeatedly become political spaces used to control and coerce.

With this in mind, I write a poem for the event which I title ‘The Womb Speaks’, speaking back to the global gag rule, and to the fear surrounding an empty womb. What is it about womxn’s bodies that drive the state to repress, control and undermine our choices? Is it the power we have as womxn and child-bearing people to create, grow and nourish new life? To sustain a collection of cells from conception to birth? Does the ability to occupy the space between life and death, the almost supernatural magic of pregnancy and birth, ignite fear in some government officials and heads of state? Enough fear to strip us of our rights to our bodily autonomy?

In November 2019, an Ohio bill ordered medical practitioners to re-implant ectopic pregnancies. The bill asks doctors to re-implant ectopic embryos into a woman’s uterus or face charges of ‘abortion murder’, despite the procedure being physiologically impossible.

In the UK, 1 in 90 pregnancies is ectopic. In America, this jumps to 1 in 50. For many womxn, learning that their pregnancy is ectopic is a tragic and devastating experience. These new laws seem designed to stigmatise and shame womxn who have survived an ectopic pregnancy after life-saving, medical intervention. Rhetoric that inaccurately suggests something could have been done to save the embryo is likely to be traumatic for patients who are already grieving the loss of their pregnancy, as well as wrongly placing the blame firmly on the mother – another state-mandated case of ‘victim blaming’.

In a Twitter thread that went viral, Dr David Grossman argued the notion was pure ‘science fiction’. Why I wonder, weren’t medical practitioners like Grossman, and countless other doctors, obstetricians and gynaecologists who spoke out afterwards, consulted in the construction of the bill?

The Ohio bill is part of a problematic, misogynistic trend of lawmakers (often majority-male, often proclaiming themselves Christian) inventing unproven therapies related to reproductive health. Again, it is an example of the people who decide what womxn can and cannot do with their bodies possessing very little understanding of those bodies. It is yet another example of what Margaret Atwood described as ‘the requisitioning of women’s bodies by the state’.

In addition to ordering doctors to perform impossible surgeries or face prosecution, the bill defines any fertilised egg as an ‘unborn child’. Despite this, in 2019, an Ohio court case that saw a couple suing for loss of frozen embryos from a fertility clinic came to the judgement that a cryopreserved embryo, ‘which is neither a foetus nor in a mother’s womb, is not a person under Ohio law’, thereby contradicting the bill.

This decision cements a very real problem and demonstrates that many pro-life campaigns are issues of politics rather than of morals. Effectively, in Ohio at least, an embryo only has human rights once encased in the female body, granting the state the ability to exert control over that body in some sort of twisted performance of morality. In America and beyond, the message is clear – womxn and childbearing people are valid only as vessels.

In 2019, an Alabama woman, Marshae Jones, was indicted for manslaughter after losing a pregnancy having been shot in the abdomen, while her shooter remained free. She was charged on the grounds of having ‘provoked’ the attacker. Similarly, in El Salvador, womxn who suffer the tragedy of miscarriage and stillbirth still face prison sentences on charges of murder. I write a poem about this too.

While we’ve come a long way, there is still so much wrong.

During the elections, I follow the news obsessively, watching for results from the swing states. My husband asks why I am so concerned with what he deems ‘American politics’, as though it won’t affect us here in the UK, in Wales. America, I remind him, is the most powerful country in the world. Their policies affect millions of people worldwide. Their proposed policies also speak to the zeitgeist and mindsets of voters.

In the run-up to our poetry event ‘The Hexing Circle’, with the elections looming, we are waiting, with bated breath, to see whether womxn and childbearing people’s reproductive rights will be protected, whether immigrant children separated from their parents will be protected, whether institutional racism will be challenged, whether LGBTQ+ rights will be secure, whether healthcare in America will be available only to the well off, an issue which might also affect us in the UK, given our current government’s desire to privatise our much cherished NHS. We are waiting to see whether white supremacy will still have a hold in the white house.

Most of all, I long to know that there remains a level of basic humanity amongst voters, that the majority will choose to challenge the repeated injustices faced by millions daily. Regardless of the result, we know that there will still be battles to fight and challenges to overcome, but this event, our Hexing Circle, will give us a united voice. We will speak back to power and gather strength from one another.

Two days before the 2020 US elections, we gather for our Hexing Circle. We channel our poetic powers against misogyny, against a government that fears feminine power and works constantly to thwart female bodily autonomy, and against the policing of reproductive rights. The energy of the international event is palpable. The magic stirred up by womxn and their allies is otherworldly. And it works. The Democrats win and Joe Biden becomes the President-Elect, supported by Kamala Harris, who will become the first female Vice-President, as well as the first Vice-President of colour.

As the year draws to a close, I vow to leave 2020, despite its repeated challenges, setbacks and struggles, with an air of optimism. There is hope yet.


This piece on Womxn, Wombs, Vessels: US Reproductive Rights and the poetry event, The Hexing Circle is written by Mari Ellis Dunning is a Welsh writer based in Aberystwyth.