What We Have to Learn from Arkansas

In the onslaught of anti-abortion bills that have been proposed across the United States this past year, one particularly insidious one has managed to pass through the Arkansas legislature.

Debra Sweet / Creative Commons

The Arkansas Final Disposition Rights Act of 2009 requires that family members must agree on how to dispose of remains after someone dies. Arkansas legislators have contorted that piece of legislation to include fetal remains from abortion. Under H.B. 1566, both biological parties must agree on how to dispose of the fetal remains. That means that providers may be forced to get legal confirmation of the disposal agreement prior to an abortion—delaying time-sensitive care and creating undue burden for people seeking abortion care.

This particular piece of legislation has drawn widespread media attention due to its callous lack of exceptions for domestic violence survivors, rape survivors and other cases where disclosing an abortion could put a person at risk for violence and trauma. But let’s be clear: all abortion restrictions aim to shame women and strip away their agency. There is no such thing as a compassionate abortion restriction.

Anyone watching Arkansas’ anti-reproductive rights agenda closely should not be surprised at this new measure. Arkansas already has strict restrictions on abortions—including mandated counseling, 48-hour wait periods, parental consent laws, a 20-week ban and restrictions to public funding for the procedure. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arkansas, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit challenging four of Arkansas’ anti-choice bills—including HB 1566—last month.

“Instead of protecting women’s health, Arkansas politicians have passed laws that defy decency and reason just to make it difficult or impossible for a woman to get an abortion,” said Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, in a jointly-released statement about the impending lawsuit.

Another Arkansas bill being challenged in court, HB 1434, is a sex-selective abortion ban passed earlier this year that prohibits medical providers from performing abortions if they even suspect the abortion was sought due to “sex preference.” The bill, based on antiquated notions of son preference in Asian countries, has racist and anti-immigrant underpinnings. In a press statement, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, said that the sex-selective abortion ban showed a “clear disregard for the rights of women of color.”

Arkansas is just one of many states across the country attempting to chip away at abortion access. And they’ve found a strategy that has been relatively successful: start by undermining the rights of poor women and women of color first.

Attacks to reproductive rights are not new. With legislation like the Hyde Amendment, which restricts public funding for abortion-related care, to sex- and race-selective abortion bans, legislators have been undermining the legal right to abortion for decades. It’s easy for people who may not rely on public funding for their health care to turn the other way as abortion access is chipped away. Or to turn attention on to the other dozens of anti-reproductive rights bills introduced into the state legislature when a niche sex- or race-selective ban is introduced.

But it never stops there.

Reproductive rights are not secure unless they are secure for everyone. We need to start showing up the hardest and the strongest for those most vulnerable. When we stand firm for the rights of poor women, women of color and other marginalized people, we prevent the eroding of our basic human rights. In order to do that, we need to start seeing the interconnectedness of our issues. We need to show up just as fiercely—if not more—for those whose battles are slightly different than our own.

Everyone should have the freedom to make decisions about their bodies and families—no matter their gender identity, sexuality, race, ethnicity or income. The reproductive rights movement must stand firm on this.

Certainly, we need to protect against the barrage of anti-choice bills that are being introduced across the country. But we can’t lose sight of our larger mission. The freedom to make choices about our bodies and families is inherent to all us, not just some of us.

This is not the time for compromises. We need to be vigilant. And we need to be visionary.





Aliya Khan is a political activist and freelance writer. She holds an MS in Counseling, Family, & Human Services from the University of Oregon. She is a proud Midwesterner, currently living and writing in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter at @Wrong_Akhan.