Willie Parker vs Reproductive Oppression

Dr. Willie Parker
Dr. Willie Parker

“The Racialization of Abortion,” Willie Parker titled his talk; “A Dirty Jedi Mind Trick.” He then spent about 45 lively, provocative minutes elaborating on the theme.

The occasion was a recent Grand Rounds presentation at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he addressed a standing-room-only crowd of (mostly) young interns for an event that more commonly draws a smattering of attendees. But when Willie Parker comes to town, it’s a good idea to bring in extra chairs. Parker is an African American physician, a provider of abortion and reproductive health services to women who would otherwise be denied them, current board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, a ferocious defender of women’s rights and fearless citizen. He is also this writer’s personal hero.

Parker explained in his opening remarks that his “is heart work and head work. Dr. Martin Luther King said the heart can’t be right if the head is wrong. (King) also said we have guided missiles and misguided people.” On the podium, delivering a rapid-fire lecture in behalf of reproductive justice, Parker is akin to a guided missile consisting of equal parts passion, outrage and statistics. The youngest of six children whose mother sent them to church three times a week, he speaks with the cadence and conviction born of those roots.

“There are over six million pregnancies per year in the U.S.,” he says. “Half of them are unintended. Of the unintended pregnancies, half end in births; half in abortions. One in three women under 45 will have an abortion. While unintended pregnancies have fallen among the upper classes, they have increased 29% among the poor. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to have unintended pregnancies…”

And it is at this point that Parker’s inner preacher takes over. “People,” he says, “we’re gonna get ugly for Jesus.” It is his challenge to those who attack him, most often fundamentalist Christians, for protecting the reproductive rights of his mostly young, Black clients. Often they also accuse him of participating in “Black genocide.” It is this myth — that abortion is a government plot to eradicate the Black race – that leads to the Dirty Jedi Mind Trick theme.

“It is epidemiological mischief,” he explains. “They take data, put a spin on it that is not intended, and then start a ‘call-and-response’: You have white people saying abortion is racist, getting Black people to say Amen. They can put a cultural war in your framework. It’s important that we recognize the significance of this message, and debunk it.”

In addition to the epidemiological mischief there are outright lies. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain, an African American Tea Party Republican, said in one speech that 75% of abortion clinics were in Black neighborhoods, to encourage African American women not to have children. Parker says the correct figure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is 9%.

“At its core,” Parker says of these efforts, “it is patriarchal and insulting. They assume a woman is not capable of making her own decisions about her own body.”

What’s needed now, to combat all this, Parker says, “is a new framework, to define this community problem as Reproductive Oppressionon. Reproductive oppression is the control and exploitation of women and girls and individuals through our bodies.” Parker cites the long history of reproductive oppression that includes “forced breeding during slavery, sterilizations, and human experimentation on Puerto Rican women for the contraceptive pill.

“Current examples of reproductive oppression,” he says, “include limiting access to reproductive healthcare, family caps in welfare, and federal and state laws restricting access to abortion.”

But there is hope. Parker cites Atlanta-based SisterSong and its formidable co-founder Loretta Ross as embodying the principals of reproductive justice. Parker lists these as:

1 – Every woman has the right to decide when to have children.

2 – Every woman has the right to decide if she will not have a child.

3 – Women and families (deserve) the resources to parent the children they already have.

4 – Every human being has the right to primary sexual pleasure.

Anti-abortion forces would certainly argue against at least the first two. Parker’s message to the young interns was that it’s not just argument, but twisted myths and dirty tricks that are being used to deny those rights. He maintains it’s the responsibility of the medical community, among others, to stand up for women who are suffering from being denied, to fight against reproductive oppression.

In all likelihood, Willie Parker will keep right on leading that battle.

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(Read Dr. Parker’s statement on the recent Supreme Court ruling against restrictive Texas abortion laws: http://prh.org/)

 

My Problem With the Pope

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis the Good is one truly uplifting presence on the world stage. Millions of us welcome and rejoice over his messages about helping those less fortunate, building tolerance and seeking justice – all goals that could use reinforcing in almost every corner of this turbulent planet. Even for us Protestants, it’s a good time to share the name Frances, by whatever spelling.

But the pope and I have a small disagreement.

Should a woman have control of her own body? Not if it contains an embryo, or if she might want to prevent it from growing an embryo, according to the pope.

Abortion? Absolutely not, says the pope. Being a forgiving sort, he has empowered more priests to “forgive” women who have chosen to have abortions and would like to continue practicing their Catholic faith. But once conception occurs – no matter that it’s the result of rape, incest, abuse or a limitless range of very personal issues – the woman must be shoved aside and all focus be on bringing that unwanted fetus into a life of questionable care. And any woman who has made this very personal decision must “seek forgiveness”?

This writer does not profess to be a Biblical scholar, but I have not found, or ever had anyone point out, anywhere in the good book that it says Thou Shalt Not Abort. In all the centuries of mostly men who wrote and have subsequently interpreted the Bible, somehow they – including centuries of presumably celibate priests – have simply opted to deprive women of all reproductive freedom. And today they would still deny a woman’s right to exercise free will.

But it is on the issue of contraception that the pope’s messages ring false, and harsh. One cannot fight poverty and simultaneously demand that poor women bear more unwanted children. If one so adamantly opposes abortion, how can one ignore the fact that adequate contraception would prevent millions of unintended pregnancies – and reduce abortions exponentially?

According to a recent New York Times editorial, a “2014 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries found that 78 percent supported contraception; in Spain, France, Columbia, Brazil and the pope’s native Argentina, more than 90 percent supported its use.”

The Guttmacher Institute, quoted in the same Times editorial, reports that some 225 million women who want to avoid unintended pregnancies do not use (often cannot access) reliable contraception. “Providing them with contraception would prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies, 14 million unsafe abortions and 70,000 maternal deaths a year.” Even if you don’t care about the maternal deaths – as is clear with “Pro-Lifer’s” everywhere – how does it not make sense to prevent the 52 million unintended pregnancies and 14 million unsafe abortions?

Could someone please ask the good pope to consider these facts? He probably won’t get that request from House Speaker John Boehner, one of twelve children, but he could get it from his equally faithful follower former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pope Francis is reportedly a very good listener.

One can only hope.

“Personhood” by any other name

Personhood

A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute took a new look at an old game being played – anew – by anti-abortion, anti-women forces. It is called the Personhood Game. If anti-women forces win, a fertilized egg becomes accepted as a person. Which means that every fertilized egg is accorded rights above those of the woman in whose body it is housed – fine for eggs, but pretty dismal for women.

Not a lot of rational people, including rational people who vote, think it makes sense for eggs to be deemed persons. This was made clear last year by the failure of such bills in several state legislatures. Not to be dismayed, players of the Personhood Game have simply switched their energies to fighting contraception. The more contraception bans succeed, the stronger the eventual case for declaring fertilized eggs sacrosanct. Why? Because contraception bans are based on religious doctrines that hold such a view. Though keeping their distance on personhood politics for now, anti-abortion groups including Americans United for Life, the Heritage Foundation, Susan B. Anthony List and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are among those working hard and widely to ban access to contraception.

Is there a disconnect here? Since effective contraception lessens the number of unwanted pregnancies, and thus the number of abortions? Well, yes. But the people playing the Personhood Game simply have their eye on the prize: Fertilized egg wins, woman loses.

Writer/blogger Joanne Valentine Simson, who is credentialed in both science and poetry, has posted a number of thoughtful and informative essays on contraception. Simson points out three critical factors seldom considered in all the arguments for and against contraception: women’s physical wellbeing, women’s social wellbeing, and overall environmental impact. “These are larger issues about long-term human survival,” Simson writes, “(than) the false debate about whether a cell (or cluster of cells with 46 chromosomes) is a human being.” To conflate contraception with abortion simply bypasses every one of them.

But the Personhood Game players are as adept at bypassing reality as they are at steering the debate.

“The influential organizations behind this anticontraception agenda,” writes Joerg Dreweke in a recent, comprehensive Guttmacher policy review, “have compartmentalized the debate, which allows them to pick and choose when contraception should be viewed as abortion and when it should not. They are essentially able to pursue a “personhood” argument in areas where doing so is politically feasible, but at the same time feign moderation by keeping the full-fledged, politically toxic “personhood” agenda at arm’s length. This deception is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy to limit women’s access not only to safe and legal abortion, but to common methods of contraception as well.”

If this seems devious, and underhanded – well, it is. But it’s the way the game is being played.

For women – who are both pawns and victims – it is a dangerous game.

Wanted children, planned families… Why not?

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

The wanted child, the planned family. Can anybody argue that the wanted child and the planned family are not infinitely better off for everyone: child, family and society in general?

So why are we fighting these battles?

The Supreme Court, for example, is taking up the question of whether Hobby Lobby — which presumably prefers unwanted children and unplanned families — can refuse to provide contraceptive insurance for its employees because doing so would somehow offend (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act uses the word “burden”) the religion of its corporate soul. Assuming corporations have a soul, which may or may not be true for Hobby Lobby — this is subject to individual opinion. The RFRA is, of course, also about people, but the Court has already hopelessly blurred the line between people and corporations.

This writer is not a Supreme Court judge, which most U.S. citizens would deem a good thing. But can we think this through? Hobby Lobby goes to a church that thinks sex should occur strictly for purposes of procreation, and conception should therefore never be prohibited. Never mind any Hobby Lobbyists who may have planned their own families; Hobby Lobby still finds it offensive that he should be required to help an employee plan his or her own family. Excuse me?

In particular, Hobby Lobby does not want poor people to plan their families. People of means (and Hobby Lobby is definitely a corporate person of means) have plenty of access to contraceptives enabling them to plan their families. Poor people could use a little help. According to a report recently completed by the Guttmacher Institute (full disclosure, this writer supports the Guttmacher Institute; Hobby Lobby does not), almost nine million disadvantaged women every year get help protecting their health and planning their families through the successful U.S. family planning effort. This effort — which includes funding for contraceptives — substantially reduces the rates of unintended pregnancy. In the process it saves us taxpayers some $10 billion per year.

Some of the details of the Guttmacher report, excerpted below, are worth noting:

• Nearly nine million women receive publicly funded family planning services each year. Three-quarters of these women (6.7 million) received this care from safety-net health centers and about 2.2 million from private physicians. Of these nine million women, 4.7 million obtained care from a health center that receives some funding through Title X.

• Publicly supported contraceptive care enables women to avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies each year; absent these services, U.S. rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth and abortion would be two-thirds higher than they are.

• Underscoring the critical role these safety-net providers play in women’s lives, six in 10 women receiving contraceptive care at a health center consider that provider their usual source of care. For four in 10 women who visit a reproductive health-focused health center despite having other options, that provider is their only source of medical care throughout the year.

• Every public dollar invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they did not want to have saves $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures that otherwise would have gone to pregnancy-related care; in 2010, that amounted to a net government savings of $10.5 billion. Safety-net providers that receive some funding from Title X accounted for $5.3 billion of those net public savings.

Dollars saved, wanted children, planned families, individual rights and everything else aside, Hobby Lobby insists that provision of contraceptive coverage infringes upon its religious rights.

It is encouraging to note, though, that 47 religious organizations, through their leaders, have weighed in on the side of wanted children and planned families. They are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others.

This Presbyterian is proud to join them.

Reading the data on declining abortion rates

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.

Is bifurcation good for our health?

Blank map of the United States
Blank map of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New York Times Columnist Charles Blow posted a column titled “Carving up the Country” not long ago that paints a sad picture of how this country is, in his words, “drifting back toward bifurcation.” He outlines the deep division of our not-so-United States into one group of states, primarily coastal, multi-ethnic , urban, liberal and leaning Democrat: and another group, mostly Southern and Western, rural, conservative and Republican.

Most of Blow’s focus is on how legislators in the latter group are rushing to enact laws that will strengthen Republican control following the Supreme Court’s essential voiding of the Voting Rights Act. It cannot feel good to be a citizen of one of those states and watch your right to vote disappear. It’s all about “sanctity of the vote,” the Republicans say; anybody with a brain knows it’s really about suppressing any votes that might go to the Democrats.

The other root of bifurcated America is deep in reproductive rights.  Blow cites a recent Guttmacher Institute report that in the first six months of 2013 a total of 106 laws restricting reproductive rights were enacted, the great majority of them in Republican-controlled states. Twelve in Kansas alone, for example. Six in North Dakota, five in Oklahoma. It’s all about “protecting (fetal) life,” and “women’s health,” proponents say; anybody with a brain knows it’s simply about making abortion inaccessible. Only women without money or resources face suffering and danger from these restrictive measures — but then, they are less likely to vote anyway.

My question is: couldn’t some better solution be found than just to condemn millions of poor women to desperation and danger? Even the staunchest among pro-choice advocates (among which I strongly stand) would like to see fewer abortions. So common ground actually exists there. Not even the staunchest of anti-choice advocates really wants women to wind up maimed or dead: more common ground. Nobody wants more children who are unwanted and uncared for. Nobody can say when exactly life begins, unless their religion tells them so — but we still have remnants of common-ground belief in the separation of church and state.

Couldn’t we talk? Rather than expending every ounce of energy in making abortion impossible to increasing numbers of mostly poor women, couldn’t we talk about sex education, contraception, compromise? Many of us would give a little on, say, gestational limits if we could gain a little in protection for women whose reproductive rights are denied as clinics are forced to close because they don’t have enough parking spaces.

That good word “compromise” may have disappeared from the American scene. But all this win-at-any-cost, or my-way-or-no-way isn’t making us a better country.