Vessel: New documentary, powerful voice

Working with Women on Waves – the organization determined to make safe abortion available around the globe – is not for the faint of heart.

Vessel, a new documentary currently being shown around the U.S., traces the progress of Women on Waves from its beginning more than a decade ago and through its now sister organization Women on the Web. That progress winds through angry protest mobs pushing, shoving, shouting “Murderer!” “Go Away!” and worse, and throwing eggs (and worse.) The women of WoW, mild-mannered though they may appear, retaliate by cutting the ropes of police boats attempting to tow them away, going nose-to-nose with burly guys on protest lines and breaking the seals of locks placed on their supply cabinets.

Meanwhile, the movement steadily grows.

Women on Waves was founded in 1999 by Rebecca Gomperts, MD, MPP, who was trained in both medicine and visual arts in her native Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (It doesn’t hurt, for the film, that Gomperts is also attractive, articulate in several languages and highly photogenic.) As a young Ob/Gyn Gomperts traveled – one might say trained – with the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior as its doctor and an environmental activist. While sailing in South America she was struck by the numbers of women suffering from lack of access to reproductive health services and safe, legal abortions – and inspired by their stories to start Women on Waves.

The group built a clinic-in-a-box, loaded it onto a ship and sailed into such unwelcoming ports as Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Poland and eventually scattered cities around Africa, Central and South America. The strategy was to anchor 12 miles offshore in international waters, where local authorities had no jurisdiction. Local authorities were seldom pleased. Gomperts was often on land, hanging banners announcing the phone number for pregnant women to call, drumming up press – usually unfriendly press – agitating the authorities and spreading the word, smiling pleasantly in the face of incredibly hostile opposition.

Once the medical abortion procedure using misoprostol became widely available and safe, if used as directed, Women on the Web began its own ambitious program of making the procedure available through the internet. And safe abortion slowly gained through changing laws.

The movement has one simple goal: to reduce the number of deaths from unsafe abortion. It is the same goal that motivates every other reproductive justice organization, from the Center for Reproductive Rights to ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But the film ends with a litany of places where poor women (if you’ve got money, you can manage to find a safe abortion somewhere) remain at risk for lack of access to safe abortion, notably including much of the U.S. Watching it in the U.S., where abortion has been legal since 1973, and being reminded again that women here are suffering and dying today, is sobering, and indescribably sad.

The sadness comes from hearing the same, tragic stories that first inspired Rebecca Gompers, and some years ago inspired this writer to create the book you see at the right. They come through the voices in the film:

“I’m scared to death.”

“I tried hitting myself in the stomach…”

“My family would disown me if they found out.”

“Can you help me?”

How can we be ignoring these voices in the United States today?

 

 

 

Can 70% of us be wrong?

Depending on which poll you read, anywhere from 55% to 70% of the people of these United States believe that abortion should be safe and legal. At the high end of that percentage are those who believe Roe v Wade should remain the law of the land.

How, then, could we be where we are? Today, more than half of the states have restrictions that effectively deny many women access to safe and legal abortion, never mind the Constitution.

Reproductive justice organizations, though, are far from caving.

Donna Crane, Vice President for Policy, NARAL Pro-Choice America, recently met with groups of supporters in the San Francisco Bay area to go over details of all this, and to reassure supporters that “although these (restrictive state laws) keep happening and we are losing ground, we’ve not lost power.” That power, Crane says, comes from the solid, and growing, percentage of people who want to keep abortion safe and legal and believe it is a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body.

“The public,” Crane says, “is not the problem. The problem is that our opponents have figured out how to get their way: they have switched (from working to overturn Roe v Wade) to the state legislatures. And there is a disconnect with American values.”

Crane outlined the dramatic increase in TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), state regulations designed to put unnecessary burdens on abortion providers – but not other medical professionals – as a way to drive doctors out of practice and to make abortion care more difficult and expensive to obtain. Anti-choice measures in the states have increased from 18 in 1995 to a cumulative total of 807 by 2013. They include such requirements as unnecessary hallway widths in clinics, forced untrasounds, repeat visits and forcing physicians to lie to their patients. That’s just to name a few.

To this writer, none of this is about one side winning and the majority losing, it’s simply about justice. Anybody, anywhere with money and resources can access safe and legal abortion. But if you’re poor, down on your luck, living in a remote or impoverished area, and you want or need to terminate an unplanned pregnancy? Forget it. Legislators don’t have time for you; you probably don’t vote much. Politicians don’t care about you; you aren’t funding their campaigns. Anti-choice forces don’t care about you, only about your fetus. For you, there is no justice.

NARAL, however, has your back. Now we just need to get the rest of the 70% out front.,

 

Honesty in women’s healthcare? We wish.

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

A small victory for reproductive justice: Google recently removed deceptive “crisis pregnancy centers” ads that come up when users look for abortion services. (Tara Culp-Ressler has an excellent summary of the issue on ThinkProgress.) The ads imply that CPCs offer abortion services, although their primary purpose is often to dissuade women from considering abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America, which pressured Google to take down the ads because they violate the company’s “credible and accurate” policy, found that some 79 percent of CPC ads on Google were misleading.

What would happen if we instituted a Total Honesty policy on women’s health facilities?

For instance, the finger-pointing messages about Planned Parenthood clinics being “abortion clinics”? Those clinics, which are being forced to close at an astonishing rate, do a lot more than offer occasional abortions or abortion counseling. They serve men and women alike with information about birth control, contraception, family planning and STD’s. They provide women’s health information, counseling, breast exams, mammograms and a lot of critical healthcare for people of all ages, sometimes the only such care they can access.

Then there are independent clinics such as the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in several locations and Women’s Health Specialists in others, struggling to find funding. A godsend to many, they offer a wide range of excellent services to women of all ages and financial means.

I would venture to say, at the risk of seeming to betray the reproductive rights movement, that some pregnancy centers offer good services and don’t lie. CPCs unquestionably promote misinformation they must know is untrue: Birth control causes cancer? Abortion causes infertility? Or mental illness? Enough, already. But some centers say up front they do not counsel, advocate or refer abortion.

Could they be encouraged to join a campaign for honesty? Probably not. But if all the clinics offering desperately needed healthcare to women could be allowed to do so without having to fight against lies, politics and extremism it would be a nationwide blessing.

And that’s the honest truth.

The season of giving/funding/etc

Cedar Christmas Wreath

Cedar Christmas Wreath (Photo credit: wilsonevergreens)

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or just getting an annual new start — you are undoubtedly receiving daily invitations to help others get their own new start. With dollars. It’s a tradition of the season. And despite all the despair about consumerism and commercialization, answering all those year-end appeals has an upside.

Your dollars can do good.

Just in case you can’t decide where to send them, this space would like to suggest a few possibilities:

In the end-of-life arena, your dollars can double their value if you send them in the next 10 days to Compassion & Choices, a great organization with a dollar-for-dollar match currently available. Full disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer, board member etc for Compassion & Choices NCA for well over a decade; more disclosure: it has Charity Navigator‘s highest rating.

Planned Parenthood! So some of their facilities offer abortion services — which is making this excellent organization the target of every right-wing anti-women group in the U.S. They also perform invaluable services across the full spectrum of reproductive care, for women and men alike. I get weary with their solicitations, but still send money because they do good. They also have a match waiting for you to double your dollars between now and the end of the year.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, check them out. If you want to support legislative action (and not get a tax deduction) you can send much-needed dollars to the activist group. But the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation also does good, and is a 501(c)3.

On a smaller scale — and the small-scale organizations often need your money the most and do every bit as much good — here are just a couple of suggestions:

SisterSong — mobilizing women of color (and well worth the support of women of all colors) for reproductive justice.

The Women’s Information Network — Many different iterations in different parts of the country, but WIN members: young, progressive, professionals, are the women who will create change as well as the age group with the most to lose as reproductive choice disappears.

Catholics for Choice — just because Catholic officialdom opposes abortion, contraception, women’s reproductive choice and everything else (end-of-life choice included) rational, countless good Catholics do not. My favorite Catholics, a lot of them at least, are pro-choice. And this one Protestant for choice thinks Catholics for Choice is a great group.

These are just a few of the places where your dollars can help make a difference, and a happier new year for many.

The power of stories

Talk talk talk talk talk talk...

Talk talk talk talk talk talk… (Photo credit: THEfunkyman)

Storytelling is on the move. In the past few days there have been encouraging reports from the 1 in 3 Campaign, “a grassroots movement to start a new conversation about abortion.” Other news is circulating about an upcoming art installation and a planned documentary film — all focusing on the telling of personal stories.

The 1 in 3 (as in, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion) Campaign recently launched its own Facebook page. You can visit the site, you can Like the page, you can buy the book — 40 stories of 40 years of Roe v Wade — you can read other stories, or write your own. It is a project of Advocates for Youth, another story-supporting nonprofit that’s been around and helping young women since 1980.

Then there is the film: Kickstarter efforts to fund The Pro Voice Project —  “A behind the scenes documentary about five women speaking publicly about their abortion experiences in spaces free from politics and moral judgment,” are tantalizingly close to the set goal. Check it out. You may want go over there right this minute and pledge a few bucks! The film will tell the “human stories and shades of gray hidden in our black-and-white abortion debate,” and it is definitely a project whose time is here.

Another unique and powerful project is underway at 4Choice2013, wherein you can tell your story through art or with a letter in your own words. Organized by the Northern California Women’s Caucus for Art, “Choice” is a juried exhibition focusing on women’s reproductive rights. Its motivation? “Our rights to safe legal reproductive care are slipping away, but our silence around our need for reproductive care allows that right to be stolen from us.”  Part of the “Choice” exhibit will be an art installation of letters “telling of what it means to have access to safe, legal abortion.” Anyone can write a letter for inclusion in the installation — the writers will remain anonymous, but the power of the installation will be in the power of the stories they tell, There’s still time to send your own letter.

There are other story-telling projects underway at NARAL Pro-Choice America, at My Abortion, My Life — and over at Catholic Planet there are stories of women who had abortions and now regret it,

This is all we have: our stories. Each story is unique because every woman is unique. When enough of the stories are heard we might well reach the point where real, thoughtful, courteous civil dialogue happens. It’s a conversation that is long overdue.

Who’s fighting for reproductive rights?

lisaalone1AC-TI-VIST: Vigorous advocate for a cause. Or, Lisa Lindelef (among a lot of others. )

As Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion rights, turned 40 early this year, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans want the law to stand. Those who believe otherwise, though, have been working to make abortion access difficult in many states, and are reportedly preparing a case that will lead back to the Court and potential repeal of Roe v Wade.

Enter the activists. They include the staff and countless volunteers for Planned Parenthood, the forces of groups like Trust Women Silver Ribbon campaign, the people of National Abortion Federation, National Organization of Women and…

NARAL Pro-Choice America. NARAL Pro-Choice is the one that’s drawn the interest and energies of Lisa Lindelef, one of the panelists on the Commonwealth Club of California’s October 17th program, Women at Risk: What’s Ahead for Reproductive Rights. She’ll be adding the perspective of a long-time activist to that of other panelists; if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, come join the discussion. Lisa currently serves on the board of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, whose mission is “to support and protect, as a fundamental right and value, a woman’s freedom to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices through education, training, organizing, legal action, and public policy.”

About her personal motivations, and decision to work with NARAL, Lisa has this to say:

“I’ve been involved with the pro-choice and reproductive rights movement since before Roe, ever since I saw young women I knew “disappear” and never reappear.  As choice gradually, and now increasingly, has become threatened by restrictions designed to weaken the Roe decision without actually undoing it, I decided it was time to put serious time and resources into the fight.  The pro-choice coalition has many admirable and steadfast members but NARAL Pro-Choice America has been, and remains, the political leader of the pro-choice movement.  With its combined state and federal organization structure, it is uniquely positioned to lead the fight to protect a woman’s right to choose.

Since 1973, safe and legal abortion has been offered by physicians across the U.S., including members of Physicians for Reproductive Health, and through clinics maintained by Planned Parenthood and other groups such as the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta, GA and Washington. Those who oppose abortion rights have been whittling them away, state by state, through restrictive laws and regulations, putting women with unintended pregnancies often at considerable risk; having been one of those women in the days before 1973, I know the risks.

Which is why I applaud the activists for choice like Lisa Lindelef.

Can we talk? Can we afford not to?

Family Planning changes lives

Family Planning changes lives (Photo credit: The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood)

A thoughtful reader named Lydia left a comment in response to my blog (just below) giving thanks for Mark Ruffalo and his support for reproductive rights. If you’re not into reading comments, here is Lydia’s in full:

So, are you saying that killing your unborn child was a better option than allowing the child to live-maybe to be welcomed into another family’s life, and your secrecy was better than taking action to hold the rapist accountable for what he did? I have had an unwanted pregnancy, too, and as horrified and hopeless as I felt, I allowed my child to live and I have no regrets. Abortion is never the right choice, but I know it sometimes feels like the only choice. That is why women need to pick up the phone and call a crisis pregnancy counselor. Abortion is like suicide. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

If we’re going to talk, we have to listen. In trying to listen to Lydia I hear a couple of points of similarity and/or agreement. She and I each struggled with how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy (hers I suspect much later than mine in 1956.) We both appreciate strong & welcoming families. We both believe women need access to a pregnancy center which might offer help. Maybe we can build on these points. And try to work through some disagreements.

We need to set aside the business of holding the rapist accountable, at least in my case. In 1956, workplace rape was without recourse. I would have been laughed out of town — after destroying the fabric of several families, probably not including his. Today, women often fail to prosecute acquaintances who don’t hear No. Should they be required to prosecute, to relive painful experiences in the name of public justice? I’m not sure. Perhaps they deserve the right to make that decision for themselves, with legal advice if they choose and with the support of loved ones. Should they be required to carry the fetus that results from a painful experience for nine months in hopes that it might — might — be welcomed into another family? I don’t think so. I think they should have the right to choose otherwise, with the support of physicians and loved ones. I think no two such experiences are identical, so blanket dictates seem unwise.

Neither Lydia nor I have regrets about the course of action we chose. We differ on definitions. Lydia equates fetus with child, presumably because she believes life begins at conception. I respect the religions that teach this doctrine. I strongly support their right to protect the life of any fetus they happen to have, wanted or not. I just do not share the same belief about life’s beginnings. My own deeply held Christian beliefs see the beginning of life somewhat later on. But I think neither my religion nor Lydia’s has the right to tell other women — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or nonbelievers — what they may or may not do with their bodies.

Lydia sees abortion as never the right choice. I see it as complex and personal, but sometimes the right choice. Mother Nature often sees it as the right choice when miscarriage happens. No one but the woman herself can know about her fetus, her body, her circumstances, her life, so I think it’s improper for me to presume to tell her what she must do. Often, counseling can help.

Which brings us to the crisis pregnancy center. Despite the fact that women have reported hearing untruths and accusations at crisis pregnancy centers, I believe many of them offer compassionate counseling and useful information. My greatly beloved daughter-in-law works at a pregnancy crisis center, and I know my daughter-in-law to be honest, kind-hearted and truthful. I support the right of pregnancy crisis centers to thrive and prosper although I do not support their promotion of unscientific theories. If we can talk, can we consider the possibility that pregnancy crisis centers might coexist with regular reproductive health centers? The latter, after all, offer many, many services unavailable elsewhere: information and testing about STDs; contraception and family planning services; pregnancy testing and counseling — even, in some of them, abortion. In that latter case, abortion is nearly always a tiny percentage of total services. Where they are being driven out of business, all of those services disappear and the results are tragic for countless men, women, boys and girls.

I can absolutely guarantee that when abortion is unavailable women suffer and die. I don’t think those on either side want women to suffer and die. Those on both sides want healthy women, few-as-possible abortions, healthy families.

What do you think, Lydia, is there any hope for conversation?