Opinion Antiabortion laws are forced-birth laws. Here’s what that looks like.

(Jin Xia for The Washington Post)
(Jin Xia for The Washington Post)

Kate Manning is the author of “My Notorious Life,” a novel about a 19th-century midwife and abortionist. Her new novel, “Gilded Mountain,” comes out in November.

Embarrassing, but I am going to talk about my bladder.

I’d prefer not to. But it seems important to mention how it’s been leaking since my first child was born (common after childbearing) now that Roe v. Wade appears poised to fall. Should the Supreme Court overturn that decision, more than half of U.S. states plan to severely restrict abortion care and will thus mandate pregnant women to give birth and suffer such physical consequences.

Leaking urine is only one impact of childbirth on the female body. And it’s not the worst of a long list.

Like abortion foes who wave photos of bloody fetuses outside clinics (fetuses that could not survive outside a woman’s uterus), we who oppose the annihilation of our bodily autonomy ought to plaster statehouses with photos of our episiotomy incisions, our Caesarean scars, our intravenous-line hematomas, our bloody postnatal sanitary pads and bloodstained bedsheets, our cracked nipples and infected breasts.

Or maybe we should erect billboards featuring women who have died in childbirth — two or more every day in the United States — especially those whose deaths left their existing children motherless.

Perhaps we could stop these brutal laws by playing films of women in labor on loop in judges’ courtrooms, sound full on, the agonies of laboring women loudly audible, not reduced to 30 seconds of soft-focus grimacing, as in the movies.

Antiabortion lawmakers — most of them male — cruelly dismiss this suffering and a woman’s right to opt out of it. If they respected women and focused on that suffering, on the risks and toll of childbearing, perhaps they would stop treating women as mere incubating machines.

To expose abortion bans and restrictions for what they are, let’s call them what they are: forced-birth laws, or government-mandated childbirth. This language centers the pregnant woman in the law — her suffering, the toll on her body.

Our graphic and public accounts of this toll are called for to make the case for our rights.

My first child was born after a high-risk pregnancy by emergency Caesarean section. The procedure left a six-inch scar across my abdomen. My uterus was also cut, then sutured (causing scar tissue that now, years later, may require me to have a hysterectomy). As the doctor prepared to stitch me up post-delivery, I heard her say: “Put the bladder back in first.”

Like most women, I took all this — the IV drips, the surgery, the aftermath — in stride. After several miscarriages, I was overjoyed to become the mother of three kids. But the pain and risk of childbirth — motherhood itself — were things I chose. They were not inflicted on me by some guys in a statehouse.

Bladder matters got worse after the birth of my second child, which entailed 50 hours of labor and a surgical cut to the perineum — that bit of flesh between vagina and anus — to prevent a tear during delivery. The labor caused such dangerous high blood pressure that I was prescribed days of bed rest and intravenous medication. After that birth, a catheter was removed and my urethra was temporarily paralyzed; the resulting hours of agony nearly equaled the pain of labor.

Childbirth has been likened, by many of us who have experienced it, to a kind of torture. The waves of severe contractions, the pushing and splitting open, the exhaustion and suffering were such that if anyone had asked me, in labor, to reveal state secrets, I’d have divulged all, invented fabulous plots, implicated my loved ones. Anything to stop the torment. But again: I chose to endure that pain.

Forced-birth laws inflict risks and suffering without a woman’s consent. They amount to a kind of abuse by legislation, violation by fiat, instruments of the law invading women’s body cavities and sentencing women to a host of minor and major agonies. Some are embarrassing (the breaking of amniotic waters in public), some inconvenient (the inability to bend over an enormous abdomen to tie shoelaces), some exhausting (the shortness of breath caused by compression of the lungs). Others are more serious and debilitating. Even lethal.

Forced-birth advocates should consider this partial list of the varieties of suffering and risks that government-mandated childbearing imposes on women who would otherwise choose to end a pregnancy: preeclampsia, eclampsia, heart attack, stroke, fistula, breast infection, hemorrhage, gestational diabetes. Death.

Then keep in mind other body- and life-altering consequences: exhaustion, severe vomiting, hair loss, stretch marks, incontinence, weight gain, breast distortion, postpartum depression, painful sexual intercourse, emotional trauma.

Yes, women have braved childbirth forever. It’s natural. Women are strong. Our bodies (usually, mostly) recover well enough. But:

The impregnator — a clarifying term for a man who starts an unwanted pregnancy — suffers not one twinge of pain related to childbirth, only pleasure in the sexual act.

And none of the new laws forcing pregnant women to give birth have mandated consequences for the impregnator. When he causes an unwanted pregnancy and birth, these laws do not require him to share the medical expenses of childbearing or the lifelong cost of child-rearing — emotional, physical, financial or practical. Economic hardships of government-forced childbirth include a woman’s job or income loss, years of unpaid child care, and increased household expenses. Women most often bear the brunt of these costs when a child is unplanned and unwanted.

Forced-birth laws have an especially severe impact on low-income women and women of color, who already experience higher rates of compromised health and mortality in pregnancy and childbirth. Many women can’t afford to travel for abortions to states that preserve those rights — can’t afford to miss work or pay for child care for their existing children while they’re away from home.

Forced-birth laws mandate a woman not only to withstand childbirth but also to choose: either raise a child she does not want or surrender that child for adoption, a decision that some women embrace but others describe as a lifelong grief. In this way, abortion bans and restrictions could also be called “forced child-surrender” or “forced motherhood” laws.

Women are the best judges of the right time to give birth, the best judges of what their bodies, and families, can endure. Most who elect abortions are already mothers, and a common reason they cite for that choice is to protect their existing children — to give them better care so that these children may thrive. What right has a judge or legislator to make such crucial decisions for a woman and her family?

A wise grandmother once told me: “The decision to have a child is a decision to have your heart go walking outside your body for the rest of your life.” What happens if that decision is made in a statehouse? A courtroom? Does the lawmaker’s heart walk with a child — the one whose mother was denied an abortion — for life? Does that lawmaker ensure that an unwanted child will have love and care, food and shelter? Will that lawmaker protect that child from abuse?

Legal abortion is safer than childbirth. A majority of Americans support keeping it legal.

The Supreme Court justices who ignore these facts, who pave the way for states to restrict or remove abortion care — states that are home to more than half of women of childbearing age in this country — should understand that by doing so, they will personally inflict physical and emotional agony on countless women and risk neglect and abuse of the children the government has forcibly brought into an increasingly heartless world.

Forced birth is cruel and unusual punishment.