Policing LGBTQ Bodies: The Current State and Effects of Fetal Homicide Laws on the LGBTQ Community
In 1994, a young mother of a three-year-old boy fired a gun into her stomach, in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy. In 2011, a pregnant teenager hired a man to beat her, hoping to induce an abortion. Last year, a woman filled her bathtub with water and attempted a wire coat hanger abortion. All three were prosecuted for attempted murder. All three were exercising control over their own bodies in states where legal, safe, and affordable abortions are practically impossible to obtain.
These are not isolated incidents – the most recent cases are part of a rising return to unsafe self-induced abortions across the country. And the problem does not affect women only. There are many people – transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and others, who can get pregnant. LGBTQ people need the full range of healthcare services to make important medical decisions.
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court recognized an individual’s right to terminate a pregnancy in Roe v. Wade in 1973, this right has been chipped away by state legislatures. State level fetal homicide laws, adopted by at least 38 states, are part of this anti-choice wave. In 23 states, these laws apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy.
These laws, often driven by the religious argument of “personhood from conception,” criminalize abortion and punish people who can get pregnant for choosing to terminate their pregnancy. Although legal abortions are supposedly not affected by these laws, a cocktail mix of other anti-choice laws have made legal abortions virtually impossible to obtain for anyone who does not have the privilege of financial stability.
LGBTQ people’s access to healthcare is limited by many intertwined factors, including poverty and race. 24% of lesbian and bisexual women are experiencing poverty, compared to 19% for heterosexual women. Transgender people are four times as likely to be living in extreme poverty, making under $10,000 a year. LGBTQ people of color are more likely to be poor than white members of the community. In fact, Black, Latino, and Native American same-sex couples have the highest percentage of poverty. These numbers show what LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ people of color already know – our community is vulnerable to poverty and lacks access to comprehensive healthcare. A safe, legal abortion is not a feasible option for many.
So a combination of these laws trap pregnant people in a difficult situation: legal abortions are practically impossible to obtain and illegal abortions are criminal. Today, at least thirteen states have precedent of criminally prosecuting self-induced abortions. Purvi Patel’s conviction and 20-year sentence is a well-known example of such criminalization. As many reproductive justice advocates have highlighted over and over again, restricting access to abortion does not eliminate the need for it. These laws only force people who can get pregnant to seek other, dangerous forms of terminating an abortion.
LGBTQ people continue to be policed in other ways as well. We are policed when we bend traditional expectations of gender and sexuality; when we use public spaces such as streets and bathrooms; when we seek housing, employment, and education. Social, political, and legal institutions, along with individual citizens, continue to attempt to control our bodies and our lives. The fight for LGBTQ liberation is a fight to have dominion and control over our bodies. The right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a fundamental part of that dominion.
The choice to have a legal abortion that is practically impossible is no choice at all. Criminalizing and punishing people who attempt self-induced abortions criminalizes poverty and further robs LGBTQ people of control over their bodies and lives. So what can we do about it?
First, we can overcome the invisibility of LGBTQ people in the reproductive rights and justice movements by using gender-neutral and inclusive language. As a community, we understand the importance of language and visibility – and we can work together to make LGBTQ voices heard in conversations that concern our ability to plan our families. Second, we can create change by mobilizing as a community, and demanding accountability from our state and federal representatives. And lastly, we must continue to recognize that we are all intersectional beings. Poverty and race are only two of many other factors that affect LGBTQ people’s access to healthcare.
Our strength as a community lies in our diversity and compassion. We must come together against criminalizing poverty. We cannot stand by as legislators continue to strip people in the LGBTQ community of our basic human right to have dominion over our own bodies.
By Shirin Makhkamova, 2016 Holley Law Fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force