This essay first appeared on Huffington Post
You’d think, what with the incessant campaigns to hobble, harass and vilify them, that abortion providers would be somewhere right up there with ax murderers, and at least lying low under the radar. But you would be wrong.
The National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers is at hand. It is officially celebrated on March 10 by Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, assorted other reproductive rights organizations and every woman whose life has been honored and restored following the decision to have an abortion. The day comes exactly 21 years after the murder of Dr. David Gunn at his clinic in Pensacola, Florida, a tragedy that was followed by the killings of Dr. John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett in 1994, Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 and Dr. George Tiller in 2009.
The irony of such losses is that abortion providers – who still face serious risks – save the lives of countless women every day. Is a day of appreciation enough? One day, in return for all the millions of days of life returned to millions of women? I vote for celebrating at least throughout the month of March.
My own abortion, a back-alley experience following a 1956 workplace rape, was emblematic of a time when there were no such people to honor. Luckily, I got my life back. No one will ever know how many women did not, how many were left maimed or dead because they had no safe, legal option. Since 1973, thanks to passage of Roe v Wade (but no thanks to those who are trying to send us back to the dark ages) they have had trained professionals motivated by compassion – and stories of women like me.
Early on there were individuals like Dr. Harry S. Jonas, now retired after long years of medical practice, teaching, and advocacy for family planning. Jonas speaks of a woman he met when doing an Ob/Gyn residency some years before Roe v Wade. She was dying of massive infection and multiple abscesses from a botched self-induced abortion after having endured 14 pregnancies. “I still remember that patient,” Jonas says, “I remember what she looked like. I remember the bed she was in on Ward 1418. I will never forget it.”
Today there are providers in heavily regulated states – most of whom remain anonymous for very good reasons – with similarly tragic stories. They tell of women who misuse abortion-inducing drugs because they can’t get to a clinic, or girls barely past puberty too frightened by protesters to access care that is their constitutional right. Of a 14-year-old incest victim pleading for help to reach the nearest clinic many miles distant. Of a sick, troubled mother of five having to choose between multiple required – and unnecessary – trips to the clinic and the job she desperately needs to keep. The physicians who are there for these women often face the need to treat their souls as much as their bodies.
Among those who choose to be open in their activism is my personal hero, Willie J. Parker. I have never met Dr. Parker, an African-American Ob/Gyn, other than on phone calls while researching Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. He speaks with passion and conviction. Currently Associate Medical Director of Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Chicago, Parker grew up Southern Baptist, in a community which taught that abortion is wrong. His own views changed on hearing a sermon about the Good Samaritan preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. “(King) said that what made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen to him if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop to help. That led me to …place a higher value on compassion. I couldn’t stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.” In addition to his day job, Parker offers help in other parts of the country where help is critically needed. He shrugs off questions about personal risk.
Almost any one of today’s providers could make more money, and have a far easier life, in another job. Instead, they choose to do what they do, so women can choose to control their bodies and their lives. That’s worth celebrating.
So light a candle. Write your congressperson. Send a few bucks to the nearest clinic and the organizations that fight for women’s reproductive rights. One national day is just a fraction of the appreciation abortion providers deserve.
Shameless theft from ThinkProgress: a great source for progressive truth, and some new insight into Arizona craziness
Every now and then, when you’re dismayed and distressed about having zero time to put down any thoughts worth someone else’s time, you remember the excellent thoughts of someone else. In this case, a blog about recent goings-on in Arizona that was posted last week by my friend and very astute reporter on reproductive justice, Tara Culp-Ressler, Health Editor of ThinkProgress.org.
Arizona actions are a little difficult to follow, but they have to do with large issues. Issues like: when does your right to your religion trump my right to be who I am? Or, can your religion control my life? As in, does your religion have the right to determine whether or not I may choose to abort an 8-week fetus?
There is also a great deal of word-play going on (see ‘On choosing one’s words’ below.) As a general rule in these Arizona debates, “religious liberty” can be translated “I really don’t like gay people.” And “protecting women’s health” usually refers to limiting access to abortion. It’s easy to get lost in the wording and inuendo, and that’s why I appreciate others’ careful reporting and analysis. Here is the beginning of a thorough explanation of recent happenings in Arizona, lifted from Tara Culp-Ressler’s ThinkProgress page, which you may want to bookmark.
“All eyes were on Arizona this past week, after the legislature approved an anti-gay bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals under the guise of preserving religious liberty. The intense national backlash culminated in Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) decision to veto the legislation. But that doesn’t mean the lawmakers in the Grand Canyon State are putting controversial social issues to rest.
“Just one day after Brewer’s widely publicized veto, lawmakers in Arizona advanced new legislation to attack abortion rights. HB 2284, misleadingly named the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” would allow for surprise inspections at abortion clinics to try to catch them violating state law. The measure also stipulates that abortion clinics need to “report whenever an infant is born alive after a botched abortion and report what is done to save that child’s life,” inflammatory language that the anti-choice community often deploys to suggest that some doctors are committing infanticide.
“HB 2284 is being spearheaded by the Center for Arizona Policy, or CAP, the same right-wing group that was behind the controversial “right to discriminate” bill.
“State lawmakers gave the measure preliminary approval on Thursday. “I mean, for goodness’ sake, we even do unannounced inspections of Burger King and McDonald’s, but we’re not allowing them at abortion clinics?” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R), the bill’s sponsor, said during the legislative hearing on the measure.
“In reality, Lesko’s legislation is seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Abortion is already one of the safest medical procedures in the country, and the clinics that perform these procedures are already highly regulated. There’s no good reason to single out abortion providers for this additional red tape. Enacting these type of laws simply gives abortion opponents the opportunity to trigger state investigations — and, depending on the political affiliations of the people who serve on state health boards, this can be an avenue to force clinics out of business.
“’As an organization, we support bills that truly protect patient safety, but House Bill 2284 opens the door to provider and patient harassment,’ Jodi Liggett, the director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Arizona, told ThinkProgress in a statement.
“HB 2284 is part of a coordinated strategy to close abortion clinics that’s advancing across the country. And it’s also a clear reminder that, regardless of Brewer’s recent veto, the fight against “religious liberty” legislation isn’t over. This line of argument is driving efforts to restrict LGBT rights in other states across the country — and it’s directly related to attacks on reproductive freedom, too.”
For the rest of the story, surf over to ThinkProgress. Click those buttons at the top of the page if you appreciate it as much as this writer.
This essay first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com
Recently released figures from the Guttmacher Institute show a drop from 1.2 million abortions in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2011, and that’s something to cheer about.
The question is, who’s cheering, and why.
Anti-abortion forces are not even cheering very loudly. Instead, as reported in National Right to Life’s News Today, they are proclaiming that the new report “downplayed the role that public debate over the rights of unborn children have played in this trend.” Well, that role is, in itself, debatable. I would suggest that those on all sides of the issue might do well to put aside the fringes — “Abortion on demand and without apology!” as well as “The unborn must have rights!” — and focus instead on the good news: Fewer women are having abortions. Unintended pregnancy rates have dropped. Abortion has decreased to its lowest level since 1973 when Roe v Wade was decided.
As a woman who had a back-alley abortion in 1956, I hear that as good news on many counts. No one, I repeat, no one, has an abortion without anguish. The decision is always complex, difficult, unique and intensely personal. One woman may have been raped, another impregnated under equally horrendous circumstances. One woman might already have more children than she can adequately care for and know that continuing her pregnancy will threaten her own health and her children’s future. Another woman could have learned her pregnancy has severe fetal anomalies, leaving her heartbroken at the prospect of bringing a child into the world who will only suffer and quickly die. If she’s poor, her choices rapidly disappear. Like the young woman denied access and unable to end a tragic pregnancy in 2009 who told me tearfully, “we couldn’t raise the money.”
A decrease in stories like these is great good news.
But it will not happen by continuing to deny access to safe procedures or creating more and more layers of restrictions. It will not happen by rolling back access to the very things that can limit the unintended pregnancy rate in the first place, like sex education and birth control. Insisting that every woman in the U.S. must be compelled to carry every pregnancy to term will not prevent unintended pregnancies, and unintended pregnancies will always drive up abortion rates.
When I began work on my recently published book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, I spoke first with women like me who had had no access to safe and legal abortion. Our stories are of frightening trips in strange cars, blindfolded and defenseless, to kitchen-table abortions performed by untrained criminals. But soon I began hearing equally distressing stories from young women today, like the distraught woman above who “couldn’t raise the money.” Or the pregnant 14-year-old who was rescued by Loretta Ross of SisterSong in Atlanta after the abused child — “she was still sucking her thumb,” Ross said — had been unable to terminate her pregnancy because of time limits in her home state.
Lower abortion rates will come from more widespread use of more effective contraception. And from educating women, and men, about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
How can effective, non-judgmental, accurate education happen? Not through the organizations that run “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” and spread misinformation, while telling women that abortion is “murder.” If education is to be effective, it can only happen in an arena of full truth, and be built on scientific fact.
Physicians for Reproductive Health is a good place to start. This professional organization keeps its focus on women’s health. Remember when trained doctors and healthy women were the heart of the debate rather than unscientific data and political rants? The National Abortion Federation, which has a strong educational arm, is another. And finally there is — gasp — Planned Parenthood. Targeted as the Essence of Evil by anti-abortion forces because some Planned Parenthood health centers offer safe and legal abortion, in reality Planned Parenthood is the logical place to begin advocating for… planned parenthood: safe, informed ways to avoid unintended pregnancies and promote healthy women and children. The organization is already providing extraordinary services. According to PPFA’s website, “every year, more than 700 Planned Parenthood health centers provide birth control to more than two million patients from all walks of life.”
The latest Guttmacher report could be a catalyst for change. But only if those on both sides of the highly polarized and overly emotional abortion issue will use it for the good of women. And I, an eternal optimist, am not holding my breath.
If abortion rights disappear, it’s the millennials who will be most affected. Some of them are worried. Many of them are unaware and unconcerned — but more of them are beginning to take up the fight for reproductive justice. Or, at the least, beginning to pay attention.
I got my first anecdotal glimpse of how the issue is playing out when I spoke to a class at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA recently. It was, by and large, heartening. The students listened attentively to my own story of an illegal abortion that took place when their grandmothers were young. Most were somber or nodded in sympathy; one young woman put both hands to her cheeks, partially covering her eyes and shaking her head as if in disbelief. I read that with encouragement: maybe if more of the millennials realize how dangerous those pre-1973 days were for women they will help prevent a return.
The several young men in the class turned out to be the most vocal in support of abortion rights. I asked one of them why. “Because I don’t believe anyone should tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her own body,” he said. He knew several women of his generation who have had abortions, and he believed it was nobody’s business but their own.
Then I asked if anyone in the class — which did seem generally supportive of abortion rights — felt differently. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not being judgmental or argumentative; everyone’s got a right to his or her own opinion. I’d just like to hear from anyone who does not believe abortion should ever be permitted.” One courageous young woman raised her hand.
“I know three people who have had abortions,” she said in response to my request for explanation. “Two of them later had regrets, and it has ruined their lives.” And on that basis she feels no one should be allowed to have an abortion? “Yes.”
It would be ridiculous to draw any conclusions from one brief encounter with several dozen bright millennials, but I have some theories. One is that the anti-abortion spokeswoman, in addition to knowing several women “whose lives are ruined,” is rooted in a religious community that reinforces this view. It’s the stance of the religious and political right that abortion is murder — and if you’re in such a community and have an abortion you would undoubtedly feel ruined afterward. Forever? I hope not.
A second theory is that the articulate young man has been around a lot of people who encouraged him to ask questions and think things through. While the young woman was not anxious to elaborate on her views, he seemed perfectly ready to defend his.
My hopes are on the millennials who are thinking things through.
… but it won’t be quite the same.
I’m just home from a trip to Washington, DC
for a nice event at The Corcoran Gallery that included a wide-ranging assortment of events — business, pleasure and in between. There were old faces, new faces and vastly altered landscapes, familiar turf and unfamiliar weather.
There were serendipitous treats like catching up with old friends I’ve not seen in a few years or a few decades… in the case of old friend Roger Mudd, it was a matter of catching up on some 60 years.
And a side trip to my childhood hometown of Ashland, VA, where the characters of many of my short stories roam.
Thomas Wolfe, whose book title inspired this blog post, put it this way: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” I wasn’t inspired to lean down my ear on the frosty February earth of Ashland (although the phrase brings fond memories of leaning our childhood ears upon the train tracks to figure out whether a locomotive was en route,) but it was fascinating to find things changed, and unchanged:
The dining room where I ate dinners for some 20+ years features a different wallpaper and is decorated with different art, but it’s still a warm and welcoming room and I was incredibly blessed to be invited to a “Homecoming Dinner” therein with family, old friends and the now residents of the home.
Randolph-Macon College is unchanged in some of its gracious, over 100-year-old buildings and long familiar original campus on which I grew up, but surely changed in the rapidly expanding new campus… and the student body which was all male in my long ago childhood. It was a very special treat to meet with some of the current students and faculty, in class and at lunch. That story follows in a few days here; I hope you’ll stay tuned.
The day has just passed, but it’s worth celebrating for a while. Especially while “Marches for Life” are going on around the country.
Aren’t we all wanting the same thing? Life?
Even those whose focus is only on the life of the fetus: many of them are at least interested in the lives of women and girls, some of them support education, family planning, healthy people. Some of them will talk about contraception, our mutual wish to make abortion rare, our mutual interest in everyone’s health. Life.
Forty-one years ago the Supreme Court made it legal: women (and girls) like me would never again face the shame, danger and often death that came from trying to end an unintended pregnancy. Though it came too late for me, I was lucky; I survived a back-alley abortion, even to have healthy, wanted children. I mourn those who did not, or who wound up maimed. I am saddened and dismayed by the efforts today to send us straight back to those dark days. It is my hope and prayer that we can find ways to make abortion rare — through diligent work on things like education and contraception — while keeping women and girls safe, healthy and autonomous with protection of the right to choose what happens to their own bodies.
Which brings us back to the celebration, of Roe v Wade. Of life.
I don’t personally know Eleanor McCullen, so I have no reason to believe she is not a sincere, well-meaning woman who honestly believes it is her Christian duty to inject herself into the lives of perfect strangers. Ms. McCullen — if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks — is lead plaintiff in a case now before the Supreme Court. She and her fellow “Operation Rescue” protesters argue that they should not be prevented from encountering women trying to enter a clinic in Boston where abortions are performed. And that the 35-foot buffer zone currently protecting such women interferes with the protesters’ free speech right to speak directly into their faces.
Lord help us all.
But first, back to Ms. McCullen. According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, she “looks like a cheery grandmother.” McCullen told Totenberg that she asks women to “just talk a minute before you rush in. You rush in so quickly, and then you come out in tears.” She tells women: “There’s another option other than taking the child, the small boy or girl, from the womb.” On her refrigerator she keeps pictures of the “babies she has saved.” That has to make her cheery. Perhaps every one of those babies is healthy, happy and well-fed, and living in a warm, loving home. One hopes.But I am still inclined to wonder about the other women. The women (and girls) who might appreciate the buffer zone because on that particular day in their very private lives they would prefer not to be accosted by a perfect stranger. Suppose you were one of them.
Suppose, for instance, you are a 14-year-old (who might look older to Ms. McCullen) who had been raped — probably repeatedly — by an uncle, or some other family favorite. Already traumatized beyond imagination, you might wish not to spend the next 6 or 7 months with this ugly reminder of unspeakable abuse, but rather try to struggle back into some sort of a life of your own. Is it really Ms. McCullen’s business if you want to make this choice?
Or suppose you have an eagerly anticipated, greatly wanted pregnancy, but have learned of a fetal anomaly that will mean it can only face a few hours or days of terrible suffering. Do you need to explain the wrenching decision to spare your child that suffering to a perfect stranger?
Possibly you are a young mother unable to care for too many children already, or perhaps a woman with so many drugs in your system you’re not willing or able to handle a drug-addicted infant. Maybe you’re a strong, independent woman with a promising career and complicated life, or maybe you’re an older woman who had difficulty with your last pregnancy and know another could be fatal. Does Ms. McCullen need to be let in on all of these details?
If Ms. McCullen needs baby pictures on her refrigerator, could she not go to the homeless shelters of Boston, or hang around the police stations where abused and neglected infants regularly turn up?
I don’t personally know any Operation Rescue people. So I have no reason to doubt their Christian commitment, even if my own Christian commitment is somewhat different. Their web site declares they seek “to restore legal personhood to the pre-born and stop abortion in obedience to biblical mandates.” Several of those words and phrases could be called into question, but the Supreme Court is only concerned, for now, with Ms. McCullen’s right to speak loudly in the face of innocent women, and odds are they’ll vote in favor of the cheery grandmother.
This cheery grandmother wants to weep.