Red Clocks and Rising Anti-Abortion Laws

illustration by Jake Johnson

“You can’t say it was rape or incest—nobody cares how it got into you,” muses the Daughter while waiting to be busted at the Canada border for the crime of trying to leave the country to get an abortion, in the best-selling 2018 novel Red Clocks by Portland State’s Creative Writing Program Director Leni Zumas.

“What if your bio mother had chosen to terminate?” asks the Dad in another scene. The Daughter answers, “Well, she didn’t but other people should be able to… Why can’t everyone just decide for themselves?” The Daughter eventually gets the procedure—secretly, illegally, dangerously, and late. Her pregnancy is in the second trimester when she finally arrives at a “term house”—a clandestine abortion clinic where the doctor “worked at Planned Parenthood for almost 20 years. Until the day they shut it down.”

In the world of Red Clocks, it has been two years since “the United States Congress passed the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional rights to life, liberty and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception.” It’s been a year since Zumas’ book hit the shelves; in that time, a five-seat majority was created on the U.S. Supreme Court—a majority that can and probably will overturn or limit federal abortion rights.

The characters in Red Clocks are all grappling with a different reproductive issue, and they’re frustrated. They are forced to sneak, lie, hide, and subvert. The book takes place in Oregon in the near future, but it could be Ohio right now: In December, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a law prohibiting the procedure called “dilation and evacuation,” commonly used in second-trimester abortions (13–28 weeks). Effectively, there will be no more legal second-trimester abortions in Ohio. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest. However, at the same time, Kasich vetoed the “heartbeat bill,” which would have outlawed abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected (approximately six weeks). This must have been disappointing to Rebecca Kiessling, who has testified before the Ohio Congress and has been urging the U.S. Congress to approve a national heartbeat bill without exceptions.

Kiessling is a family law attorney from Michigan who made headlines for her pro bono representation of a woman who became pregnant after being raped at age 12. Some eight years after the child was born, the rapist was granted paternity rights under unusual circumstances: A judge signed the petition without the mother’s consent and without any knowledge that the child had been conceived in rape; an assistant prosecutor was fired, and the judge’s decision was reversed. But it was in the news, and the world became aware that most states did not have any laws in place to prevent rapists from seeking custody of children they conceived. Now they do, thanks in part to the activism of Kiessling and Analyn Megison. They are co-founders of Hope After Rape Conception, and while their work has garnered some positive results, it is clear they have a disconcerting agenda.

Conceived in rape. This is Kiessling’s identity, an identity which she proudly embraces and proclaims at every opportunity. Having been conceived when her mother was raped, Kiessling survived because her mother couldn’t obtain an abortion. She refers to her own biological children as “second generation abortion survivors.” This distinction is important to Kiessling because she uses it as the touchstone of her quest to end abortion rights for women.

Analyn Megison is the mother of a child conceived when Megison was raped. Like Kiessling, she uses her personal story to persuade politicians toward her anti-choice views. Megison was instrumental in drafting the Rape Survivor Custody Act, which Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) filed, and which then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2015. As of June 2018, 45 states are taking advantage of the incentive made possible by this act: more funding to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault for states that allow women to petition for termination of a rapist’s parental rights.

So an anti-choice lawyer who co-founded a pink website which outlines “Ten Steps to Shut Down Planned Parenthood” and directs visitors to a site called Personhood USA, where they can “adopt” aborted fetuses, is the same one who worked with a Democratic Senator to manage a legislative effort, hailed as bipartisan, that takes parental rights away from rapists. Most people would agree this is a good idea. But we need to remember that Megison and Kiessling have a much bigger goal in mind.

Their work to establish the importance of parental rights for rape survivors is couched in a larger effort to promote the idea of personhood. While claiming to empower women and using trauma-informed language in line with the #MeToo movement, they stress the horrors of extreme cases—the outrageous situation of custody being awarded to a man who raped a 12-year-old, for example. But what is really important to them is that babies be born, regardless of circumstances. Their work on behalf of rape survivors, which most would agree is absolutely important and necessary, paves the way to prove their larger case, which is that fetuses conceived in rape are valuable. Thus they can argue for an end to rape exceptions. Without exceptions for rape, women who have become pregnant without their consent will not be able to access state Medicaid funds to exercise their legal right to abortion.

Oregon is the one of 10 states identified by Planned Parenthood as safest for abortion rights, according to a Dec. 22 article in The Portland Mercury. Oregon has many protections in place, including the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which Governor Kate Brown signed into law in 2017. This law requires insurance companies to cover abortions regardless of a person’s income, gender, or immigration status. So it’s reasonable that in Red Clocks, the Daughter ended up getting good care in her home state of Oregon when she was finally able to visit a “term house.” These places are painted as scary death-traps out in the sticks where the Daughter lives, yet her determination takes her all the way to Canada, before she gets what she needs in good old Portland, Oregon, where there are secret places run by hardcore feminists who provide illegal abortions and also organize protests to “repeal the 28th Amendment” (the Personhood Amendment in the world of Red Clocks).

A critical review of Red Clocks on Bitch Media complained, “When she finally gets an illegal abortion, it magically takes place in a clean, loving, warm place with skilled medical professionals—thanks, one supposes, to her network of connections.” While it’s true that this is a character with white privilege, it isn’t so “magical” to think that secret, skilled abortion clinics would be possible in this plausible future Portland.

In fact, The Mercury reported that Planned Parenthood is constructing a “network of pro-choice outposts [to] ensure that those living in states that ban abortions can still safely access the procedure.” While it’s still in the early stages, it’s interesting that Planned Parenthood will focus its efforts on strengthening the areas where they already have good standing. They are getting ready for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and preparing for the time of Red Clocks. Right now, 22 states are poised to outlaw abortion immediately if Roe is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The big problem will be in funding the care of all the women from these states who will need to travel to one of the 10 stronghold states, such as Oregon, to receive abortion services post-Roe. A national Personhood Amendment, as in Red Clocks, or a heartbeat bill, would make this even more difficult. Maybe Planned Parenthood will start converting neighborhood homes into underground pop-up clinics and setting up decoy houses to throw the feds off the scent, like in the novel, when the Daughter has to wear a mask while being driven across town from a fake term house to the real one. This could be our future!

Let’s look again at the co-founders of Hope After Rape Conception. As a lawyer, Kiessling appears to fight for women’s rights, stand up against sexual assault, and demand punishment for rapists and a trauma-free future for survivors. Megison, also a lawyer, is another of the so-called “Feminists For Life,” which has the registered motto “We refuse to choose.” The tactic here is to persuade a pregnant woman that she really can have it all. She should “refuse to choose” between having a child and pursuing an education and/or career. Nevermind if she becomes pregnant without her consent. In refusing to choose abortion, she will be empowered, which means bearing all responsibilities of unplanned child-rearing and also somehow having a wealth of advantages and privileges that make it possible to parent while working and/or studying full-time.

By providing links to “resources” for single mothers, these people think they’ve taken care of the problem. Worse, by using the language of choice to talk about the difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, and framing it with a rebellious-sounding imperative that echoes the slogans of the resistance, they bring to mind the pro-choice/anti-choice argument and take a stand against those who uphold “choice” as the basic tenet of individual freedom and the locus of the battle for reproductive rights. The call to “refuse to choose” gives women who don’t choose abortions a sense of their own superiority in rebelling against the thing they hate: having to make choices. Slogans like this are carefully employed to coerce women into giving up their rights and feeling good about it. The slogans, the “resources,” the ability to terminate a rapist’s parental rights—these are all cushions for the blow, gestures intended to make women content and resigned to a lack of abortion access as more and more clinics are closed and the nation steps closer to the world of Red Clocks.

With a strong emotional appeal driven by religious zeal and a strategic plan that includes working with Democrats, Kiessling and Megison chip away at abortion access, supplying part of the answer to the question, “How can a Red Clocks world be possible?” The Rape Survivor Custody Act seems to solve a universal problem; it appears to transcend politics. But its anti-choice authors, by eliminating the potential trauma of custody battles with rapists, see themselves as boldly breaking down barriers which make rape victims likely to seek abortions, as if being raped is not enough reason to not want to bear a child. Instead, rape survivors will get full custody. This is supposed to be an incentive; it’s supposed to be empowering.

In some ways, this legislation anticipates a post-Roe future when, without the means of safe and legal abortions, many more children will be born of rape. Nipping the question of custody in the bud now gives women a false sense of empowerment and choice. Perhaps it’s intended to prevent a total uprising of women; the amazing single moms-of-children-conceived-in-rape of the future will be too busy “doing it all” to mount any protest against the latest patriarchal onslaught.

“Feminists for Life” are the endgame of feminist-sounding, anti-abortion organizations who are shaping laws in conservative states right now. Their goal is that anyone with a womb who becomes pregnant will be forced to use that womb to bear a child, without exception. This is not feminist. Yet this is the work that is being done by religious-minded people who are leading us straight to the world of the Personhood Amendment as described in Red Clocks. And that is a very real and clear danger, evidenced by Planned Parenthood’s decision to concentrate its efforts in a 10-state network. It could happen at any time, and we can look for the workings of the anti-choice machine not just in anti-choice legislation, but also in policies which seem to be pro-woman but can be used as stepping stones to a bleak future.

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