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State abortion policies use surveillance and social control to obstruct women, study finds

Tuesday, January 28, 2020


LAWRENCE — Abortion remains among the most polarizing topics in America. Despite the perceived notion of legality, actual access has become increasingly restrictive due to shadowy and deceptive control mechanisms, according to a new research study.

University of Kansas researcher Alesha Doan has co-written the article “Father Knows Best: ‘Protecting’ Women through State Surveillance and Social Control in Anti‐Abortion Policy,” published in the February issue of Politics & Policy.

“Our research examines the growth in anti-abortion policies across the states and the implications they have for women in particular,” said Doan, an associate professor with a joint appointment in women, gender & sexuality studies and public affairs & administration.

“People assume abortion is accessible and readily available, when in fact it’s not. In many respects, it was much easier for people to access abortion care shortly after Roe v. Wade and the ensuing decades than it is in 2020.”

In the wake of the landmark ruling (which became law 47 years ago this week), Doan scrutinized 282 state anti-abortion bills passed from 2010 to 2015. She found that of the 727 measures contained in this legislation, 622 incorporated surveillance or social control provisions.

She asserts these laws often incorporate erroneous or misleading misinformation. Even more alarming, she said, is the way in which they view females as a sub-class of mainstream society.

“These laws erode women’s autonomy,” she said. “They don’t have agency. Women are portrayed as ill-informed, so they’re treated like children in many anti-abortion policies. And what do we do with children? We protect them. These policies create a pathway for the government to surveil and exert social control around women’s reproductive health and sexual behavior.”

Such restrictions have been happening with the states when abortion-rights advocates were concentrating more on federal fights.

“This has been a strategy 30-plus years in the making. ‘Let’s chip away at these rights and play the long game at the state level,’” she said. “Incremental policy is just that: small changes. Over time, small changes amount to big changes.”

The Chicago native said she’s been interested in abortion politics and reproductive justice “as far back as I can remember.”

Doan said, “One of the things I tell my students is that if you hear enough stories, you will always find somebody in your family whose life went a direction they did not want it to go when they did not have reproductive autonomy. So I grew up hearing the whispers about my grandma and an aunt. Their life plans were hijacked because they did not have agency over their reproduction, and I always found it fundamentally unjust.”

The professor said these stories often intersect with other issues not necessarily directly associated with reproductive justice, such as sexual harassment and intimate partner abuse.

Doan co-wrote “Father Knows Best” with Corinne Schwarz, a former KU graduate student in women, gender & sexuality studies, who is now an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

“It was a great, collaborative mentoring experience,” Doan said.

“The best way to train graduate students is to partner on a research project. They can see how much work goes into an article from when you start thinking about a research question to when it actually sees publication. It’s like golfing: seems so easy until you try to do it.”

A KU faculty member since 2007, Doan is the author of several books, including “Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom” (with J. Shoshanna Ehrlich) and “Opposition and Intimidation: The Abortion Wars and Strategies of Political Harassment.” In addition to her joint appointments, she is currently the interim chair of KU’s Department of Spanish & Portuguese.

“I hope this article inspires other people to continue to look at what the content of the policies are actually saying — not only the degree to which abortion rights have been chipped away but also the changes in how the law treats women,” she said. “It’s a fundamental shift. It’s one we’ve seen before … in the 1800s.”

With so many freedoms removed recently, what does she predict would happen if abortion once again became criminalized?

“If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, we already know how it’s going to go,” Doan said.

“People with fewer resources are the most impacted by restrictive anti-abortion policies. When we look at who has access to contraception or abortion care, we know middle-class people tend to do much better, and women of color and poor women disproportionately suffer the most because they do not have resources. It was very similar back in the ’50s and the ’60s. We think that’s a really good preview of what will happen if Roe is either overturned or returned back to the states.”

Photo credit: iStock.