A new front line is emerging in the battle to (re)institutionalize patriarchy and control and to disempower women—the bodies of undocumented immigrant girls. Under President Trump’s leadership, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for paying for and providing care and shelter to unaccompanied minors detained at the border, is denying pregnant minors access to abortion care. Moreover, Scott Lloyd, Trump’s Director of ORR, is signaling interest in utilizing so-called “abortion reversals,” an unproven method for disrupting medical abortions in-progress. In the current climate, undocumented girls are among the most powerless of all detained immigrants. The calculus seems to go something like this: undocumented person + detained + girl x pregnant = person with zero autonomy.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that this revving of the machinery of state-sanctioned fundamentalism and its emphasis on controlling these girls’ bodies is not only cruel, but a giant red flag. As we debate the extent to which this constituency deserves access to a currently constitutionally-guaranteed healthcare services, we are slowly and surely normalizing and reinvigorating patriarchy. This has more than a few uncomfortable data points in common with the dystopian landscape painted by Margaret Atwood’s novel (and Hulu’s hit series) The Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s bodies are ruthlessly controlled by the government and used as nothing more than incubators for the rich.
We are witnessing the incoming tide of extremism.
To recap: the ORR oversees the treatment and care of undocumented minors in federal custody, which includes providing them with healthcare. The Trump administration is refusing to “facilitate” abortion procedures for detained teenagers on the grounds that teens have the “choice” to return to their homes if they want an abortion. Instead, they are referred to so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are renowned for being light on accurate medical information and heavy on anti-abortion Christian ideology. This provides them no real choice at all.
Case in point: Jane Doe’s situation.
This past fall, a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor living in a federally-funded shelter in Brownsville, Texas, named Jane Doe in legal proceedings and pregnant as a result of rape, was one of several detained immigrants to request access to an abortion. The ORR denied her request for an abortion; the legal challenge mounted on Jane Doe’s behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union highlights the particular vulnerabilities of immigrant girls, the administration’s increasingly conservative political sensibilities with respect to abortion, and the connectedness between the struggles for agency by both women and immigrants. Jane Doe’s case forces us to reckon with the fact that sexism and xenophobia have to be understood together to be understood at all.
What is important about Jane’s story is not whether or not she, as a minor, had the right to an abortion. That question has already been asked and answered in the 1979 Supreme Court case Bellotti v. Baird. Girls under the age of 18 do have the right to access abortion, and Jane had already obtained a judicial waiver to get an abortion in Texas.
At stake is the egregious and blatant manner in which Jane’s human rights, not to mention her constitutionally-protected rights to abortion and privacy, were ignored and circumvented in service of an agenda that articulates explicitly that women’s bodies ought to be subject to state control.
Here, the Trump Administration is dangerously on-trend.
Just this year, Kevin Williamson was hired as a columnist at The Atlantic despite having argued that women who get abortions should probably be executed. That he was eventually fired is beside the point. The stunner is that his advocacy for executing women who have had abortions (that is, one-quarter of all women over their lifetime) was not disqualifying.
Also recently, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor in Idaho, Bob Nonini, has advocated for limiting access to abortion as well as criminalizing both the women who have them and the healthcare providers who help those women. Legislation in both Idaho and Ohio has sought to make this law.
States are punishing women and forcibly asserting their right to control women’s bodies. This is no longer just the stuff of literary nightmares; it’s the stuff of policy debates.
And it is already happening.
First, Jane Doe was compelled to undergo an ultrasound following her request to the ORR for an abortion. Then, her mother was contacted, and her pregnancy was disclosed without her consent, even though she had affirmed that she feared for her life if her family found out she was pregnant and was planning to have an abortion.
In late March, Federal Judge Tanya Chutkan declared the ORR’s actions in the case of Jane Doe to be unconstitutional. She issued a ruling prohibiting the government from preventing detained immigrants from accessing abortions. Judge Chutkan’s ruling also allows the case to continue as a class-action suit on behalf of all teenagers who have been denied access to an abortion while in federal custody. Her ruling makes clear that the federal government not only has a responsibility to provide access to abortion services to detained immigrants, but is also accountable for their treatment while in custody.
While Jane Doe ultimately did have an abortion, this battle is far from over. It is uncertain how many other Jane Does are out there—but their numbers are surely rising as Trump once again ratchets up his anti-immigrant rallying cry. The first week of April brought news of Trump’s order to mobilize National Guard troops to the Mexican border despite the fact that illegal border crossings are at a historic low. This move is likely to further constrain efforts to ensure that every Jane Doe’s rights are upheld.
We must recognize that in some very real ways, we are all Jane Doe. Just as her medical needs—as well as her personal hopes and dreams—were overridden in service of a patriarchal vision of the role of the state, so could ours be. If the bodies of immigrant girls are the new front line of this battle, then we as young people must raise our voices to unmask and resist the rise of this new fundamentalism that is co-opting the concept of life and exploiting the plights of people in the most perilous circumstances.
We want freedom and democracy, and this is not what they look like.
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