A domestic war appears to be brewing in the United States over a highly sensitive issue: abortion. While abortion has long been a controversial topic in America, it was, at least temporarily, laid to rest following the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which granted women across the United States the right to abort their pregnancy up until the point of fetal viability, which usually occurs after 24 or 25 weeks. Yet as conservative sentiments have risen in the U.S., a string of laws emerged in various states that seek to prohibit abortion from the moment a heartbeat is detected.
The most recent one, which passed on Wednesday in Alabama, places the harshest restrictions and effectively prohibits and criminalises all cases of abortion in the state. As the turmoil surrounding these laws mounts, experts seek to puncture holes in their scientific soundness, particularly as far as their ‘heartbeat’ arguments are concerned.
The controversial Alabama law—which outlaws abortion even in cases or rape and incest and stipulates that doctors who perform it could face up to 99 years in prison—is merely a hyped-up version of other anti-abortion laws instituted by six other states and is in the pipeline in fourteen others. All such laws mark the point of ‘heartbeat detection’ as an indication of fetal viability of an “unborn human individual.” This language though is highly misleading, particularly the usage of the terms ‘human individual’ and ‘viability’.
At the point when fetal viability is first detected, roughly six weeks into the pregnancy, the ‘unborn individual’ is on average a three-to-four millimetre concentration of cells, making it even more understandable why many question the validity of referring to this creature as a human being.
Yet particularly problematic is the law’s usage of the term heartbeat, which at the six-week mark-up constitutes more of a basic electrical activity of cell clusters. “At six weeks, the embryo is forming what will eventually develop into mature systems. There’s an immature neurological system, and there’s a very immature cardiovascular system,” Jennifer Kerns, an ob-gyn at UC San Francisco tells WIRED. Kerns goes on to state that the rhythm referred to by the heartbeat bills is in fact “a group of cells with electrical activity. That’s what the heartbeat is at that stage of gestation.” Adding that “We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system.”
Opponents of the bills highlight the countless negative ramifications they will have on women. Firstly, many women are still unaware of their pregnancy within the first six weeks (when a heartbeat is detected), and so female residents of states like Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia will get no chance whatsoever to abort their pregnancy. And the linguistic ambiguity of some of the laws would criminalise the termination of pregnancies that pose a health-risks to the mothers once a heartbeat is detected, and even go so far as prosecute mothers who experienced a miscarriage. The heartbeat laws are also predicted to disproportionately affect women of low-income backgrounds, as they are the least likely to be able to afford to travel and abort their pregnancy outside of the state.
Let us make one thing crystal clear: this is not a righteous crusade to protect innocent lives by benevolent lawmakers. This is a calculated and deliberate attack on women—on their right to sexual and personal independence. It is an aggressive rebellion launched by men and women who dread the prospect of female liberation, agency, and advancement. It is evident, for instance, in the countless other bills that surface alongside the heartbeat laws that attempt to cripple women, such as the one in Ohio seeking to ban access to birth control pills and IUDs.
In 2019 alone, over 300 anti-abortion bills were drafted across the United States. While some have already been challenged in court—as will the ones currently being passed—by organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood, it is unclear what their fate will be. Given the Supreme Court’s increasingly conservative make-up, it is certainly possible that while deliberating on one of those bills its majority will decide to overturn its landmark 1973 decision and officially re-open the door to abortion bans.
Americans can no longer afford to view this as a ‘women’s issue’ exclusively. This is a race issue; it is a class issue; it is an LGBTQ issue; it is a human rights issue, and it warrants a collective reaction.
Amid growing restrictions of women’s rights policies in Western democracies, moves made by ‘women’s rights’ organisations to shut down strip and lap dancing clubs around the U.K. are exposing the dangers of allowing exclusionary campaigns to influence local government policy. Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEV) licensing legislation differs throughout the U.K., but many local authorities are pressured by anti-stripping campaigns (under the general title of SWEFT, sex worker exclusionary radical feminism) to give way to the Nordic Model.
This model, some feminists argue, protects women from violence and poverty by criminalising those purchasing sex, rather than sex workers, and banning strip clubs allegedly increasing demand for this. Yet, in Ireland, the introduction of Nordic-style legislation with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has since seen increased crime and abuse reported by users of sex worker safety app, UglyMugs.ie, and the recent criminalisation of two vulnerable migrant female sex workers in Kildare, who were sentenced to nine months in prison. Many are quick to report on such matters as the latest schism in modern feminist thought, with an unbridled scepticism reserved for strippers’ views and lived experiences.
Comparatively few, however, seem as concerned with the hypocritical ethos of influential anti-sex work campaigners, as their refusal to engage with or ever set foot inside their workplaces compounds a willingness to overlook the autonomy and safety of dancers. One such group, Not Buying It, was revealed to have paid for male private investigators to enter Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino and film dancers working semi or fully nude without their knowledge earlier this year. Apparently left with “no choice” but to resort to “drastic measures” to get the club’s SEV license revoked, Not Buying It, with Women’s Equality Party (WEP) Sheffield branch leader, Charlotte Mead, presented this to Sheffield City Council as evidence that a Nordic style ‘nil-cap’ policy on SEVs be should enforced.
Although the WEP has since declared it was not part of the sting, it nevertheless teamed up with the campaign to present footage drawing parallels to revenge porn as a misogynistic method used to intimidate, harass, and manipulate women. The argument that such tactics have any place in a feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression is an undoubtedly alarming one. A feminist trade-union representing sex workers alongside migrant, low-paid, and vulnerable workers, United Voices of the World, attested to this in its statement aligning the ‘harmful’ actions to the WEP’s “misguided campaign to abolish strip clubs for the imagined benefit of the women involved”.
Teela Sanders, Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester and researcher on stripping and sex work, asserts that “other feminists doing this to women […] is as damaging as the misogynist policies found in other labour environments that the women’s movement has been working so hard against”. In turn, Sanders locates the “harmful speech, influence and actions by so-called women’s organisations” as reflecting a wider trend: “We see across the globe the stripping back of rights for women, most recently in the abortion laws in the U.S. What we see in the U.K. is feminist organisations attacking other women for the work they choose, under a range of circumstances and real-life options, to make a living from”.
Those campaigning for strip and lap dancing club closures insist strippers are treated solely as ‘sex objects’, that the choice of women to work in SEVs is mere ‘myth’ or illusion, and that these women are either victims or in denial of their circumstance. This “cowardly” approach, declares Sanders, whereby “sex workers, marginalised, stigmatised and sometimes vulnerable, are denied platforms to rebut claims of victimhood which many do not recognise as their experience”.
In Scotland, where the government considers stripping and lap dancing forms of ‘commercial sexual exploitation’, calls for a Scottish Model that criminalises sex work clients could gain greater influence over local legislation. In response to Glasgow City Council’s current consultation on SEV licensing, GMB Scotland deemed the process an “opportunity” for female strippers and sex workers to be heard by “a political establishment that, so far, has tried to exclude them from the conversation”. GMB Scotland Organiser, Rhea Wolfson, stresses that “the council must realise what is at stake here: hundreds of jobs in Glasgow could potentially be lost. The real consequences of ending club licences would be that workers no longer have access to their trade union and the industry would continue unregulated and underground”.
The refusal to listen to, engage with, or empower the legitimate concerns of strippers and lap dancers exposes the inherent hypocrisy, harm, and hierarchical control of anti-sex work campaigners. As the United Voices of the World (UVW) Union emphasises that “dancers are best placed to advocate for their own rights and safety at work” and GMB Scotland supports “the regulation of clubs with workers’ safety at the core of any regulatory scheme”, better ways to protect strippers are clearly to listen, respect, and support their own, self-led campaigns for workplace equality.
Indeed, often lost in a surge of dogmatic, sensationalised stances on the morality of sex work are solid suggestions as to how regulation could safeguard strippers from the precarity of working as self-employed while sometimes being expected to pay steep house fees to perform at their club of choice. Banning clubs completely limits any opportunity for the decriminalisation of sex work to be guided by strippers and their unions, shaped by experience, and vested in the interest of protecting dancers’ employment rights, job security, and safety above all else.