Women, Abortion Rights & Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker
Dr. Willie Parker

Noted physician/activist Willie Parker was in San Francisco recently explaining why he does what he does.

What Willie Parker does is regularly put his life on the line in behalf of poor women and their reproductive health. Why does he do it? “It’s the right thing to do.” Among other things Parker does is to fly regularly into Jackson, MS to provide abortions at the one remaining clinic where Mississippi women without power or resources can go for this constitutionally-protected health service.

His belief that it would be morally wrong not to help the women who come to him, Parker once told this writer, was rooted partially in a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the good Samaritan (who stopped to help a stranger after others had passed him by.) “What made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop. 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.”

Parker headlined an event celebrating the 43rd anniversary of Roe v Wade that was organized by Carol Joffe, PhD, of the University of California San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health – and which quickly sold out.

“Most (abortion) providers keep a low profile,” Joffe said in her introductory remarks; “but Willie has chosen to be very public. (Despite his multiple degrees and honors, everybody seems to call Dr. Parker ‘Willie.’) He is building bridges to the past and to the future.” Joffe went on to speak of Parker’s connections to progressive causes, faith communities and, most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement. “What he is doing,” she said, “helps all women to live lives of dignity.”

Parker, who treats the issue of personal danger as not worth his time to worry about, calls the anti-abortion efforts “domestic terrorism,” especially with the murder of providers. The incessant efforts to overturn Roe, and passage of more and more unnecessary state laws making abortion inaccessible for women without power or resources are, he maintains, in the same “domestic terrorism” category.

The author with the doctor
The author with the doctor

So in return Parker says he tries to “radicalize” every young woman he sees in Mississippi. Since the state mandates he spend time with her, unnecessarily and repeatedly, before allowing her to have the abortion which is her constitutional right, Parker considers it only fair to put that time to best use. “I tell her, ‘these people who are trying to close this clinic – they don’t think you’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ And I explain change will only happen if she fights for it. Then I tell her to go vote.”

All of which helps explain why Willie Parker does what he does. This writer is among the uncounted others, women and men believing in humanity and justice, who give thanks.

 

 

Men Against Women’s Rights

Lady justiceThere is something unnerving about the rush of Republican presidential candidates to go on record as standing firmly against women’s reproductive rights.

Addressing a recent gathering of the National Right to Life Committee – which itself stands firmly against reproductive rights for women; its sole concern is with the fetus – a handful of the leading Republican candidates tried to outdo each other in expressing their anti-women positions. This was before Wisconsin governor Scott Walker threw his hat into the ring with a stirring promise to work for “the unborn.” What Walker means is this: he has zero interest in the mothers of those “unborns;” but he welcomes the political support of anti-abortion forces.

And anti-abortion forces have a lot of political muscle. A sample of the comments being made by candidates seeking to capture it would include:

Jeb Bush, whose “moral absolutes” do not include a woman’s moral right to make her own reproductive decisions, points to the laws passed during his tenure as governor of Florida: the funding of adoption counseling – but not abortion counseling, banning late term abortion, and imposing medically unnecessary regulations on clinics offering abortion.

Rick Perry wanted the anti-abortion group to understand that when he was governor of Texas his record on denial of a woman’s right to choose was best of all. “That’s a fact,” he said. “We passed a parental notification law. I signed a parental consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing that agonizing choice can actually see.” Forcing parental involvement on very young women who often need to keep their decision private, and all women to view a medically irrelevant sonogram whether they wish to or not – these are the sources of Perry’s pride.

More recently, we have the ever-articulate Donald Trump entering the fray with the comment that “it really, really bothers me, the whole concept of abortion.” Trump’s interest in women, which is well-documented if problematic, does not extend to an interest in their right to make their own reproductive choices.

And lastly, Marco Rubio seeks to enter the White House because it “needs an occupant who values and prioritizes life.” Read: life of “the unborn.” If Rubio gave a fig for the lives of uncounted thousands of women put at risk by the restrictive laws he supports – his values and priorities might shift.

All of the above are men, without the vaguest notion of what it is like to be pregnant as a result of abuse, incest, assault or a multitude of other wrongs, or simply what it is like to be a woman denied control of her own body, her own most private and personal decision-making.

Such is presidential politics today.

The Shame of Abortion?

scarlet A“Help us protect the unborn, and save women from the shame of abortion” read the invitation.

It was an invitation to a fundraising event – this writer is on a strange variety of mailing lists – for a pregnancy crisis clinic. A friend who works at the clinic, and whom I respect although our opinions about abortion are poles apart, told me they never pressure or deceive women who come to the clinic. “We just explain that we don’t counsel on abortion,” she says. The fundraiser invitation sounds decidedly less compassionate.

The Shame word tears at my soul.

Thirteen-year-old Natasha, brutalized by more than one relative, is given another chance at childhood through an early abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic. On top of all the trauma she has borne, she is supposed to feel shame?

Or the couple with a developing fetus they desperately wanted and loved, who decide to terminate the pregnancy later in its term to spare their baby a brief life of terrible suffering. In addition to their deep sorrow, anguish and grief, they should be ashamed?

Or the countless young women in circumstances similar to my own: after choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy for widely varying, compelling, always unique, deeply personal reasons because we are rational women in control of our own bodies – we need a shameful scarlet ‘A’ tattooed on our foreheads?

Words matter.

LIES 5 (2)

The banners proclaiming “Abortion Hurts Women” – posted by groups that seek to end legal abortion – testify to this fact: The posters work, but the words lie. Abortion is in truth far safer than childbirth. It does not hurt women, it protects women. The words are not true. But they work in exactly the same way that the shame word works.

Some words, even when they lie, go straight to the emotions. Emotional appeals become tools to generate support for political positions which hurt women. They should shame those who seek to deprive women of dignity, health and autonomy.

‘Shame’, ‘hurt’ – the emotional trigger words are being used to turn the clock back to the dark ages when women had no voice, no power, no control of their own lives.

As one who has been hurt, not by abortion but by powerlessness, and who strenuously objects to shaming, I declined the invitation.

Women deserve better.

 

Abortion rights, women’s rights: A major victory

Lady justice

The government has finally been ushered out of the exam room.

In a definitive step protecting women and their very private decision-making, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth District on December 22 permanently blocked a 2011 North Carolina law that created huge physical and emotional trauma for women seeking abortions. Not to mention trampling on doctor-patient relationships and the rights of physicians themselves to have rational conversations with their patients.

Those fighting the extremely punitive law included the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood and others

The law required providers to show an ultrasound and describe what’s on the screen. That is certainly right and proper if patient and provider so choose. But suppose the woman chooses otherwise? The law allowed her to close her eyes and cover her ears, but said the provider still had to go through this narration, regardless of circumstances. Suppose this pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or there were serious health risks or fetal anomalies — the woman still had to cover her eyes and ears, perhaps singing “La, la, la, la…” to drown out the narrative. Is there any conceivable way in which any of this makes sense?

Fortunately, the Fourth District Court of Appeals thought not.

What has been so appalling about the evolution of this law and the political fight to keep it in effect is the total absence of empathy or concern for women. The same is true for literally hundreds of other state laws still on the books that are designed to shame or coerce women out of having abortions. Public outcry is raised about “protecting the fetus,” often by politicians and others whose concern for that fetus ends as soon as it becomes an unwanted child. With these laws, sanity, good medical practice and women’s rights go out the window. And who loses? The woman. Particularly if she is poor, or disempowered and thus can’t travel to somewhere safe and free from harrassment.

None of us, whatever our politics, want to see women’s lives made worse. None of us really want to see children brought into the world to suffer, other children forced to bear babies who are the result of personal tragedy, or families plunged into chaos and despair. Most of us credit women with having perfectly good brains and don’t want to see them denied use of their brains or control of their bodies. But these are the results of punitive abortion restrictions. At least this one punitive law is now gone, a holiday gift to us all.

Thank you, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth District.

 

WHI: Strengthening Women’s Health

WHICould the health and wellbeing of a few million women be improved, and a few billion dollars saved in the process? A very big dream.

When the Women’s Health Initiative was established more than 20 years ago, no one was talking in grandiose terms and few would have anticipated the wide-ranging health benefits (and huge cost savings) that would result in the decades ahead. Many of us were simply saying, “Imagine this. At last we’re studying women to find answers about women’s health issues.”

This writer was proud and happy to enlist in the first WHI study. I joined more than 100,000 other postmenopausal women volunteering to fill out forms, have blood drawn and answer questions over the next 15 years. That initial focus was on tracking the effects of hormone therapy, dietary patterns and/or calcium/vitamin D supplements on prevention of heart disease, cancer and osteoporotic fractures. I had not yet had breast cancer – that would come about 10 years into the study; a family history of osteoporosis added to my personal interest in WHI. Over the years I volunteered to participate in some of the wide-ranging ancillary studies looking at other health-related things like physical activities, lifestyle, tobacco and dozens of peripheral issues. (My personal favorite question appeared on one of the multi-page annual update forms. It read – Yes or No – “When you enter a room full of other people, do you have the feeling they are talking about you?” There may someday be a report on women and paranoia.)

Mysterious questions aside, WHI is serious business. Here, excerpted from the latest Extension Study newsletter are a few facts about what has been learned from the historic initiative, and a little of what is still ahead.

Those hormones millions of postmenopausal women were taking, widely thought to be miracle answers? Studies showed the risks far outweighed the benefits, and millions stopped taking them. Hormones in different combinations had been commonly taken to minimize chances of cardiovascular disease, cancers, fractures, diabetes, gall bladder disease and a variety of quality-of-life measures; quitting the hormones proved a better choice. Health benefits can’t be precisely measured, but the reduction in hormone use has led to a decrease in rates of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.

And in dollars and cents? Some $37.1 billion, (in 2012 when all costs and quality-adjusted years of life are considered, has been the total economic return of the WHI trial.

By June, 2014, over 1000 papers based on WHI data had been published in scientific journals. What’s ahead? Researchers are looking at pet ownership and risk of cardiovascular disease; physical activity during childhood and risk of Alzheimer’s disease; breast cancer distribution by rural/urban areas and geographic differences in cognitive decline/dementia.

Every year on their birthday, WHI study participants receive a card – some of us call it the “Hooray, you’re still alive” card. For women everywhere, it represents something worth more than gold.

Abortion in Texas: The small fraction

Medievalpreg

Only a small fraction of Texas women will suffer.

With the closing of thirteen abortion clinics in Texas, one out of six Texas women seeking an abortion will have to travel 150 miles or more, and never mind all the other obstacles about waiting periods, increased costs, hassling protesters and having to listen to medically incorrect messages. But one out of six? That’s only a small fraction, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

“In our circuit,” wrote Judge Jennifer Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, “we do not balance the wisdom or effectiveness of a law against the burdens the law imposes. We do not doubt that women in poverty face greater difficulties.”

What a bother, those “women in poverty.”

Judge Elrod argued that the court had to find that “a large fraction” of women would be affected by the law – the medically unnecessary requirement that all abortion clinics in the state meet the same building equipment and staffing standards as hospital-style surgical centers. And those 900,000 women in rural Texas the judge acknowledged would be affected, well, they’re just a “small fraction.”

Judge Elrod may not know a lot about what it feels like, being part of the small fraction. Born in 1966, she grew up in the Houston-area city of Baytown, Texas, which bills itself as a city “where oil and water really do mix.” She graduated from Baylor and Harvard Law School. Her Wikipedia and Judgepedia pages make no mention of marital or family status, but presumably she never sought to have an abortion. If she had, she would have definitely been in the large fraction – women with money who always have access to safe and legal procedures, even in Texas.

This writer was in another large fraction: women without access to safe or legal abortion in the days before Roe v Wade. Much like today’s small fraction, faced with no viable options we took desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies. Some of us survived, countless others did not.

This is the fate to which the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit is consigning the small fraction. Danger, expense, family trauma, health risks and occasional death. Even for a small fraction, that seems hardly what America is about. And hardly in tune with the antiabortion forces’ proclaimed wish to “protect women.”

Some in the small fraction will face primarily family distress and exorbitant costs (usually upwards of $1,000 or $1,500) like “Maria,” whose story is recounted by RH Reality Check Senior Political Reporter Andrea Grimes. Some will face very real danger traveling to Mexico for drugs that can cause permanent injury or death if improperly created or improperly used. Some will maim or kill themselves in efforts to self-abort.

There will be hundreds of women like Elvia Yamell Hamdan, whose story was reported in a recent New York Times article by Laura Tillman and Erick Eckholm. Ms. Hamdan, 44, showed up at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, TX with her husband after a three-hour drive from their home, only to find that clinic professionals could suddenly no longer provide abortions. Ms. Hamdan already has four children and three grandchildren, and seeks to end an unplanned pregnancy. The U.S. Constitution says she has a right to make that choice – but Texas law says her best remaining option is an appointment three weeks later in San Antonio, 240 miles north.

Denise Burke, Vice President of Legal Affairs for Americans United for Life, is quoted in the New York Times story as saying the Fifth Circuit decision endorses anti-abortion forces’ argument that “abortion harms women, and states may regulate in the interest of women’s health.”

“Maria” and Ms. Hamdan seem likely to secure, eventually and at significant risks to their own health and wellbeing, the safe and legal abortion guaranteed to American women. How many others will now, instead, wind up sick, maimed or dead because of this latest ruling will never be known.

Because those others are just part of “the small fraction.”

Abortion, Four centuries later…

Suffragette-that-knew-jiujitsu

Was the abortion debate really going on four hundred+ years ago? Indeed. And who knew?

As it turns out, Donald Foster knew. Foster, Jean Webster Chair Professor of English at Vassar College, knows a lot about an astonishing range of things – Jon Benet Ramsey’s possible murderer, the “Anonymous” author of Primary Colors (Joe Klein), Unabomber Ted Kacynzki, Shakespeare – and women’s medicine in the sixteenth century. The first three of those instances of Foster’s endeavors – he provided expert help on all three cases – explain his sometime ID as a “forensic linguist;” the fourth relates to his day job. His day job also covers almost all things literary.

This writer’s esteem for the distinguished professor is of course unrelated to the email he sent which began, and I quote, “Let’s hear three cheers and see three billion readers for Perilous Times.” Well, maybe just a teeny bit. But an opportunity to reinforce the argument for women’s reproductive rights with the scholarly writings of a Vassar professor is not to be ignored.

This essay, henceforth, is shamelessly lifted from an attachment to the above email, excerpted from Volume 2 (pp.355-360) of Foster’s four-volume Women’s Works, a study of the issue covering the years from 900 to 1650.

Abortion, which was decidedly a part of women’s works, was also part of the debate all those centuries ago, beginning (if not earlier) with the “herb-wives – women who supplied the herbs and spices used for health care.” Women not only nursed those who were ill, we learn from Foster’s extensively documented studies, “they supplied much of the medicine, or physic.” They passed along their knowledge and skills from generation to generation, and were appreciated more by some than by others. Foster quotes Robert Green’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier in which a poor man mocks a wealthy lord: “I make my wife my doctor, and my garden, my apot’ecary shop – whereas Master Velvet-Breeches cannot have a fart awry, but he must have his purgations, pills and clysters, or evacuate by electuaries…” (It gets worse, but you’ll have to read the book.)

Getting to the specifics, Foster tells us “It will come as a surprise to some modern readers that there was enormous demand, throughout the medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods, for abortifacient herbs, with many effective recipes and a plentiful supply.” As reported in John Gerard’s Herbal (1597), a handful of herbs seemed to have taken care of the conception needs of barren women, whereas there were “more than sixty herbs used to induce menstruation after one or two missed periods. Not all of the treatments that he names were reliably effective, and some were dangerous, bringing a risk of hemorrhage and death if taken in too strong a dosage.”

Does this sound familiar? If not, we respectfully refer you to the stories in Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, of women in 20th — and 21st – century America who, denied access to safe procedures, wind up dying in back alleys or emergency rooms. The abortifacients have, sometimes, fancier names in the case of contemporary drugs, but taken without proper advice or supervision can leave women with unwanted pregnancies today just as dead as their sisters in Tudor England.

In the same Volume 2 of Women’s Works, Foster offers an historical perspective of the root of the abortion debate, which seems unchanged over the centuries: do rights of the fetus prevail over those of the woman, and whose theology says what? “For the first seventeen centuries of Christianity,” he writes, “no authority of record, either Catholic or Protestant, taught or suggested that the fetus during the first two or three months after insemination was a human being. Ensoulment or quickening was an act of God: in His own good time – typically, in the third or fourth month – God infused the dormant seed with a human soul, created ex nihilo.” About the ensoulment business, Foster adds, “it was deemed an essential point of Christian ontology that the individual life was created by an act of the Almighty in Heaven and not by a horizontal act of the parents.”

God, in other words, probably wouldn’t back the 20-week ban. This writer is disinclined to get into theological argument (despite wishing today’s politics could be dictated by medical science rather than conservative religion.) But you are again referred to the “What’s God Got To Do With It?” chapter of Perilous Times. Or to pages 357 – 360 Vol. 2 of Women’s Works, for a fascinating overview of how assorted popes and Anglicans (“About the sixth month the immortal soul is infused,” wrote Rev. Christopher Carlile in the 16th century) changed the rules and differed in opinions. Which also sounds familiar.

In 1856, Foster tells us, “Dr. Horatio Storer organized a national drive by the American Medical Association to end legal abortion altogether.” His efforts resulted in actions by the various states and territories to strengthen laws against abortion, and by 1880 there were restrictive laws and practices virtually everywhere mandating that a woman, once impregnated, had no safe or legal means to alter the course of what was going on with her body.

Leaping ahead to 2014, has any progress been made in the name of women’s reproductive justice?

Celebrating Women’s Equality

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women's Equality Day crowd in San Francisco
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a Women’s Equality Day crowd in San Francisco

This is for all those who missed the party:

Women’s Equality Day quietly came and went recently, not quite 100 years after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment – the law that said women were equally entitled, along with men, to the right to vote. Since ratification of that groundbreaking law – women should make choices just as men do?! – an assortment of other rights have been won. But equality? Not quite.

It was the indomitable U.S. Representative “Battling Bella” Abzug who figured that all those rights – won and yet to be won – should have their own day. The New York Democrat introduced legislation establishing Women’s Equality Day, to be observed annually on August 26th in commemoration of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. A lot of other indomitable women, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her suffragette friends Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, laid the groundwork for the women’s movement.

Fast forward to Women’s Equality Day, 2014. In his official proclamation, President Obama mentioned “all those decades spent organizing, protesting, and agitating,” and took the occasion to list (in the proclamation) a few of the things that his administration has indeed accomplished to advance women’s equality.

But in commemorative events such as the one this writer attended in San Francisco with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, there was a lot of talk about areas in which women are still not quite equal. Pelosi’s focus, she explains, is a three-pronged “Middle Class Jumpstart,” aimed at achieving equal pay for equal work, paid sick leave, and quality affordable healthcare – actions that would unquestionably boost equality for (and the lives of) women in the U.S.

What those ferocious ancestors of ours like Abzug and Anthony were fighting for was not just equality but justice. There’s not much justice if you’re a single mom having to send a sick child to school because you can’t afford to lose a day’s pay or manage a trip to the doctor. Nor is there much justice if that day’s pay is 10% less than men on the same job are getting.

There’s also not much justice for women in non-metropolitan areas who seek abortion services. Ninety-seven per cent of them have to travel long distances, navigate a maze of medically unnecessary restrictions and often also struggle through hostile protesters – assuming they can find the time and money to do this.

Are such issues – reproductive rights – equality issues? It’s hard to feel equal – to the men who don’t face these issues, or to people with more money and power than you — if you are a woman in any of the situations cited above. And given the strength of the conservatives who want to tip the scales ever farther downward, it’s hard to feel optimistic.

But Pelosi and her “Middle Class Jumpstart” plans, reproductive justice groups like NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (to name just a few) and women’s rights organizations of every sort are hard at work trying to keep the scales from tipping farther against U.S. women. Bella Abzug would be proud.

It’s not too early to start planning for Women’s Equality Day 2015.