Abortion Rights: the X(treme) Games

The “pro-life” publication that ran an article suggesting Robin Williams’ depression – and subsequent tragic suicide – was related to a girlfriend’s abortion many years ago hit a new all-time low. One can only hope that nobody with a brain reads such drivel, but then, this writer… oh, never mind.

On the heels of that one comes Rand Paul saying he doesn’t “think a civilization can long endure” unless fetuses get “personhood rights.” There may be no way to get through to Mr. Paul’s brain – which is reported to be a highly functional brain indeed – that for every fetus to whom “personhood rights” are granted one woman is denied womanhood rights.

The black tar-pit of extremism into which this abortion issue has descended can make a body weep. Especially if you are somebody who remembers the day when there were no womanhood rights. Those days, before Roe v Wade changed them in 1973, were desperate times in the extreme.

Women died. Doing things such as drinking or douching with poisonous substances, which desperate women without access to abortion are doing today. The extreme distress of women denied access to reproductive rights is what results from the extremism of the anti-abortion forces.

To be honest, there is extremism on both sides. This writer is uncomfortable with the “Abortion on demand and without apology” slogan, not because of any disagreement with the message, but because the in-your-face tossing of the gauntlet seems to push the sides into ever more ferocious conflict.

It was Senator Barry Goldwater, campaigning for the presidency a decade before Roe v Wade, who famously said that “extremism, in defense of liberty, is no vice.” The remark got him a bunch of votes – though not quite enough to win—and is widely quoted and misquoted (or quasi-quoted.) It could be applied here.

But whose liberty?

It is not possible to preach liberty for a pre-viable fetus – which would not enjoy life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness outside of the womb – without preaching bondage for the woman. The extremist interpretation of anti-abortion aims (“Abortion is never the right choice”) is just that: A fertilized egg = nine months of bondage.

There may be no middle ground on reproductive rights. But if the fetus wins, if a girlfriend’s abortion decades ago gets blamed for someone’s suicide, if “personhood rights” take precedence over women’s rights, we will be back in the dark ages,

We’ve been there before. Some of us remember.

Boot Camps for Talking about Abortion

Decision making 101

“Rape,” the instructors say, “is a four-letter word. Purge it from your lexicon.” And as to anything else abortion-related, “Keep it brief.”

Such is the strategy reportedly being taught Republican candidates in “Boot Camps” on how to talk about abortion. This news came in a recent New York Times article by Jeremy Peters.

But in case the reports are not clear, or should anti-abortion strategists need help, this space herewith offers an outline for surefire future political Boot Camps:

Avoidance is #1. Just don’t talk.

If you actually start talking, and talk about women, it becomes problematic to take away their rights. Say as little as possible. Candidates who do try to say more than two sentences tend to trip up on “legitimate rape” blunders or “abortion causes cancer” misstatements. Therefore, it’s best to talk only about fetuses, call them “babies,” speak only in tiny sound bites, and then shut up.

These are the recommended sound bites:

We mustn’t kill babies. Abortion hurts women.

These are the messages that get votes. Unfortunately, they are untrue, and thus difficult to defend. But if you say no more than seven or eight words, say them over and over and avoid actual dialog, enough people will believe the words to get you or your candidate elected.

But please, definitely, avoid:

Discussion of the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘baby.’ Some voters do not believe a fetus becomes a baby until it is born. There are also too many very smart scientists who do not believe that tiny fetuses feel pleasure or pain.

You must also avoid the stories.

Stories told by 12- and 13-year-olds who were raped by a favorite uncle or family friend and might then have to endure the further brutality of continuing the pregnancy he caused – these stories make people think that abortion decisions might not be so simple. Or that banning abortion might not make it go away.

Stick to the script. Those stories cannot be told in eight words.

Stories in general just cause trouble. Avoid stories of pregnant women without jobs and with more children than they can care for already, or stories of pregnant women too poor to travel 300 miles to a clinic, or women with physical or emotional problems whose lives are being wrecked by unintended pregnancies…or stories of mothers and fathers facing the wrenching prospect of bringing a baby into the world who will suffer terribly and quickly die. Voters with a compassion gene might question your intention to force all these women to give birth.

And above all, avoid talking about women.

Women, when told what they may or may not do with their bodies, can become unruly. Enough unruly women can derail your election plans.

Beverly Whipple: Unsung Hero, Unstoppable fighter for women’s rights

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Together at the National Abortion Federation Awards Luncheon: Beverly Whipple, recipient of a C. Lalor Burdick ‘Unsung Hero’ award, with fellow award winner Sarp Aksel (the Elizabeth Karlin Early Achievement Award) and writer Fran Johns.

 

At first glance, you would not take her for a warrior. Slim, blond, pretty with a deceptive tilt toward fragility, Beverly Whipple could be answering a call from central casting for all-American housewife. But if such an opportunity ever presented itself, Whipple laughed it out of town.

Honored recently by the National Abortion Federation with an Unsung Hero award, Whipple stepped to the dais to accept the award, thanked her longtime supporters and co-workers at the Washington State women’s clinics she co-founded decades ago, expressed confidence in their continuing strength, and took off immediately thereafter to roam around Europe for a few months on a motorcycle. She’s done this three or four times before, accompanied by husband Mike, who is equally open to exploring the world.

In what seems definitely another life, Beverly Whipple worked her way through college, earning a degree in music education. She married, taught school, and had “a pretty good life.” On her way to a long tenure as an unsung heroine of reproductive justice she left that life and held down a job driving an 18-wheeler truck. In the middle of the night, one night, the air pressure in her truck’s braking system “went away,” and the brakes failed. A turnout happily positioned on one downhill stretch saved truck and driver from oblivion. The experience may have persuaded her that truck driving wasn’t the wisest career choice, but her love for the open road continues. She and Mike were delighted to meet fellow NAF Award recipient Sarp Aksel, who sent them off with introductions to his family in Turkey.

The career choice Whipple did make has been a literal lifesaver to countless women in Washington State for more than a quarter-century. In 1979, she and Deborah Lazaldi, both natives of Yakima, founded Feminist Women’s Health Center in Yakima, to offer reproductive choice and healthcare. Known as Cedar River Clinics, FWHC in Yakima (and now also in Renton, Seattle and Tacoma) shares some of the innovative elements of the first Feminist Women’s Health Center, founded by Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman in 1971 in Los Angeles. Beyond providing reproductive services, the clinics empower women by involving them in their own healthcare – performing their own pregnancy tests, learning about their own bodies, joining support groups.

Whipple and Lazaldi worked nights and used their own money to get the clinic started, and within several years had opened a second clinic in Everett, WA. The Everett clinic – which could stand as a micro-image of battles fought and challenges met – immediately became the target of pickets, harassment and arson. “After the first two fire bombs,” Whipple says, “we rebuilt, renovated and purchased new equipment and supplies. But after the third arson (the arsonist was eventually arrested and admitted guilt) our insurance company canceled our policy and the landlord canceled our lease and confiscated our property.” Neither Whipple nor her clients & associates go down without fighting. “We had women coming in, stepping over the debris after a fire bomb, saying ‘I have an appointment.’” But within a year, the Everett FWHC was forced to close.

Not so the work to protect reproductive rights of women in the area. Throughout the late 1980s Whipple and her associates continued to fight for those women, and their children. Among other things, they established an on-site childcare center in Yakima for children of clients and staff – which was forced to close after a few years because of intense harassment of the children by antiabortion protesters. With assistance from volunteer attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild they filed a RICO (Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organization) lawsuit against several antiabortion individuals and groups alleging conspiracy to close the clinic through a campaign of terror, criminal acts and violence. They took the money that some defendants paid – for damages that would seem hard to estimate – and used it for a down payment to buy the clinic “and our independence” in Yakima.

For the next two decades, Whipple and her FWHC colleagues continued to demolish (or often simply ignore or circumvent) opposition while contributing to the progress of women’s rights in a dizzying array of ways: expanding care and clinics, co-sponsoring the historic “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington DC in 2004, sponsoring or co-sponsoring films, forums and fundraisers, political initiatives and medical research in behalf of women’s rights and reproductive justice. Whipple’s significant part in all this was cited in her “Unsung Hero” award from the National Abortion Federation.

Which would be a good excuse for most of us to retire and ride off into the sunset, even on a motorcycle. Whipple already has a new business underway; sitting around doing nothing is not exactly her style.

Should Abortion Be ‘Rare’?

This first appeared on Huffington Post

Beware the Rare-word.

Many of us — fiercely pro-women, fiercely pro-choice — bought into the “keep abortion safe, legal and rare” mantra of several decades back. It was, in fact, a useful mantra — until it was sunk by the potential anti-women interpretation of the word “rare.” The endless focus on the ‘rare’ word at times approaches the “it-depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-the-word-‘is’-is” hubbub.

In defense of both sides:

Make abortion rare! By supporting universal contraceptive coverage. By supporting Planned Parenthood. By expanding education. By reducing unplanned pregnancies in all ways that empower women and reduce violence against women.

But get rid of the ‘rare’ word. It is, apparently, sending the wrong message. Jessica Valenti covered the issue well in a recent piece in The Guardian, citing two leaders in the area of women’s reproductive justice. One is Dr Tracy Weitz, co-founder and former Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. In a paper published in 2010, Weitz wrote that “rare suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur. It separates ‘good’ abortions from ‘bad’ abortions.”

None of this — ‘good’ abortions, ‘bad’ abortions, whether or when there should be abortions — is anybody’s business but the woman involved. Only she and her physician can know the circumstances, and the circumstances of no two women are the same. So if the ‘rare’ word is clouding the issue, let’s dump the rare word.

Valenti also quotes Steph Herold, Deputy Director of the Sea Change program, who says abortion needing to be rare “implies that abortion is somehow different than other parts of healthcare. We don’t say that any other medical procedure should be rare.” Sea Change is working to remove the stigma attached to abortion and other reproductive issues, a laudable, and monumental task. More than a few of the women who share their stories in Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade speak of suffering almost as much from the stigma attached to this most personal of women’s issues as from any physical harm, real or feared. While breast implants, sex-change details and erectile implantation (among other personal decisions) are fair game for cocktail party conversations, when is the last time you heard anyone volunteer information about her abortion? One in three women have an abortion; we Do Not Talk About It.

But here is the fact: There are bad abortions. They happened before 1973; they are happening today.

A mother of two physically challenged toddlers, pregnant with a third in 2014, unable to get to the nearest clinic — which is hundreds of miles away and impossible to access (despite the famous comment made by Texas Judge Edith Jones that it’s easy to go 75 mph on those flat roads) — punctures an interior organ trying to self-abort the old-fashioned way. She lives, but this is a bad abortion.

A desperate teenager in the rural midwest manages to get what she hopes is the right abortifacient through an internet site. Wrong drug, wrong instructions, wrong outcome. She gets to an ER before she bleeds to death. She lives, but this is a bad abortion.

This writer, pregnant from a workplace rape, overcome with shame and sheer terror, managed to find a kitchen-table abortionist in 1956. It was a bad abortion. We thought those stories were ended in 1973 when abortion was made legal and safe. But they are being repeated daily in this country, the land of the free; every one of them speaks of a bad abortion.

Women are suffering and dying again today from bad abortions, or because they are being denied access to safe, legal care. Whatever it takes, whatever words we use, the lives of those women are worth fighting for.

 

Hobby Lobby, 1 – Women, 0

(This first appeared on Huffington Post)

It is hard not to despair.

A woman entering a clinic for personal healthcare now must wade through potential hordes of obnoxious strangers getting in her face with stuff – often angry stuff, often misinformed and always unrequested. Where is the right to privacy, to lead one’s own life without the interference of obnoxious strangers?

And now, a woman working for Hobby Lobby, or for that matter any other corporation headed by a religious fanatic who believes his employees must submit to his beliefs, can be denied healthcare coverage for the most basic, most personal reasons: the need to control her own body, to make her own reproductive choices and family decisions.

Following the Supreme Court these days is hazardous to one’s health.

But let’s hear it for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg read the riot act to the five men – surprise, surprise, all of them were men – who dealt this latest blow to the women of America.

Saying that religious freedom demands “accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, is likely to wreak havoc. The havoc is only beginning. And only a small part of it will be the suffering of Hobby Lobby employees. No contraceptive coverage, no abortion coverage, no options, and – because we are not talking about rich people here – no justice.

One wonders. Are mandatory burqas next? Stranger things have happened than corporate CEOs whose religious sensibilities are offended by women’s uncovered heads. There are serious concerns that the ruling could lead to other corporations denying coverage for things that bother other religious groups – blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians Scientists), psychiatric treatment (Scientologists) for example.

Freedom of religion? Bah, humbug, Ginsburg says in so many words. “(Y)our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” She might more properly have said, “where the woman’s uterus begins;” because indeed the religion-guarding gentlemen are swinging directly at women’s guts.

Call it what you will – religious freedom, protecting the unborn, freedom of expression, social conservatism – the denial of women’s rights will always, eventually run up against the voices of women who will not be denied.

Thanks, Justice Ginsburg

Chris Christie, Anais Nin and the Enforcement of Motherhood

What do New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and writer Anais Nin have in common? Not a whole lot, Christie would probably say. But a case can be made for their similar positions on one major issue: the importance of motherhood.

Christie has been everywhere in the news since his speech to the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, in which he drew loud applause when explaining his anti-abortion stance. Christie, like Mitt Romney and assorted other deft politicians, was pro-choice for a while. But he reportedly changed his mind when his wife was pregnant and he heard a heartbeat.

The way this works, for Christie, Romney and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is that life in utero becomes sanctified to the exclusion of its carrier. The woman becomes simply that, a fetus-carrier, until she delivers a baby. And there it is: Motherhood.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition, along with Christie, Romney and conservatives everywhere, promotes the notion that once conception occurs motherhood must be enforced, and the fetus protected. This creates the noble, if tragically erroneous, belief that if abortion is banned it will simply never happen. But forced motherhood is not always possible.

This writer claims no insight into Gov. Christie’s soul, or expertise on Anais Nin, but I do know a lot about illegal abortion. If you tell women with unintended pregnancies that they may not terminate those pregnancies, they won’t listen. They will simply do desperate things to end their pregnancies, and unfortunately a lot of them will die trying. This is already happening in the U.S., thanks to conservatives’ success in denying access to safe abortion: poor women desperate to terminate unwanted pregnancies are again facing suffering and possible death.

Knowing of my interest in preventing more unnecessary deaths, a friend recently forwarded this comment made by Anais Nin in a 1940 diary recounting her abortion experience:

“Motherhood is a vocation like any other.”

Gov. Christie would agree, or proclaim it more exalted than others – except, perhaps, politics. But he and the Faith & Freedom folks would doubtless take umbrage with Nin’s following line:

“It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon women.”