By Rita Henley Jensen, Jane Crow Founder
On the July 4th weekend, I belatedly tuned into the first episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” series. Got there six weeks after it debuted on Hulu and, having read the noveI by Margaret Atwood and several reviews, I thought I knew what to expect.
Yet, I had to turn it off before the hour was up. It was too real.
It did, however, give me an “aha” moment.
As founder of the Jane Crow Project, focusing on the rising maternal mortality rates in the United States, particularly among African Americans, I have often asked anyone who would listen: What Are They Thinking? The “they” in this case are members of Congress and state legislatures who compete among each other to propose and pass the most extreme attacks on reproductive health.
At the same time, they ignore the growing public health disaster: More American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications than any other developed country. Only in the United States is the rate of dying new mothers rising.
What are they thinking in Indiana, for example? Don’t they care about new moms?
The home state of Vice President Mike Pence is outpacing Texas at the moment. Republicans there, and in Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, are the leading contenders to receive first prize in the race to be the state with the most regressive anti-reproductive health laws.
Early this year, the legislatures entertained “personhood laws” seeking to classify fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos and fetuses as “persons,” and to grant them full legal protection under the U.S. Constitution, including the right to life from the moment of conception. If enacted, the laws would criminalize abortion, with no exception, and ban many forms of contraception, in vitro fertilization and health care for pregnancy.
Pence served as a co-sponsor for a similar personhood bill in Congress.
Texas began a mission in 2011 to shut down Planned Parenthood, other sources of reproductive health care and abortion clinics. The state's budget for family planning was cut by two-thirds at the same time, forcing 82 family planning clinics to close — a third of which were Planned Parenthood centers.
The Texas maternal mortality rates began to rise dramatically. Between 2000 and 2010, 72 Texan women died from pregnancy-related causes. In the following two years, 148 Texan women lost their lives due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
What could they be thinking? How could they be aware of the possible fatal consequences to pregnant women of their legislation and still support it?
Back to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The recent women’s health data indicated that in 2016, the fertility rate in the United States was the lowest it has ever been.
The National Center for Health Statistics researcher reported that the U.S. fertility rate dropped to 62 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, down 1 percent from 2015. There were 3,941,109 babies born in 2016; birthrates declined to record lows in all groups under age 30. Among women ages 20 to 24, the decline was 4 percent. For women 25 to 29, the rate fell 2 percent.
Oooh. And the “aha” moment.
While I have been worried about the rising maternal mortality and morbidity rates, the anti-choicers apparently have come to the conclusion that if U.S. women are choosing to forgo the joys and pains of motherhood more often, the proper strategy is move toward compulsory pregnancy.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is fiction, but elimination of women’s access to reproductive health care is not. In the first quarter of this year, Guttmacher Institute’s report found that state legislatures across the country have introduced 431 proposed measures to limit access to abortion and other reproductive health services.
The speculation for the series’ second season is that might be even darker than the first. Knowing that antagonists to women’s reproductive health are controlling the White House, the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures for at least another season, I don’t expect I will be watching. Just too close to home. Just too much work to do.