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.

Introducing a new abortion provider

I’ve gotten to know the author of the following essay in recent months, and was delighted to have seen him honored with a 2014 Unsung Hero Award from the National Abortion Federation.  With re-publication of his blog (from sherights.com) it’s my pleasure to introduce Boomers & Beyond readers to a future physician — who represents the future hope of women’s rights and women’s health.

 

WHY I’M BECOMING AN ABORTION PROVIDER — by Sarp Aksel

Growing up, I was quickly labeled an ana kuzusu – Turkish for “mamma’s boy.”

This came from a love for my parents’ holiday parties. Each year, the gatherings brought promises of leftover turkey, börek, and Rus salatasi – a delightfully creamy potato salad I was only allowed to indulge during the peri-holiday period. They were also occasions for storytelling. While my dad would entertain the men with the latest happenings in Turkish futbol – a constant stream of scandalous player trades, colorful diatribes of overly glorified coaches against crooked referees, and frequently contested league rankings – I often found myself cozying up to my mother and her friends. Their tales had power and emotion, and they meant so much more to me.

Even at that young age, I recognized that it was a privilege to be allowed into their space. Those evenings weren’t to be taken for granted and I was grateful to be included. Still, I wasn’t always sure if I was welcome.

As a feminist man and future obstetrician-gynecologist, I recognize that I am not, and nor will I ever be, in a position to fully understand the myriad factors that women must consider when tackling certain challenges. This does not mean I cannot be present and supportive. It would be arrogant at best and offensively misogynistic at worst to be anything other than an observer, a supporter and a witness to the uniquely difficult decisions that women face. This means that I believe whole-heartedly in the principle of autonomy as it pertains to healthcare and women’s dominion over their bodies and healthcare decisions. It requires having a profound respect for female autonomy, particularly of bodily integrity.

The slogan “Trust Women” is well known in the reproductive rights movement. While I am an ardent supporter of Dr. George Tiller’s dictum, I have recently found myself questioning its relevance. As a pioneer and hero to #FeministMen, Dr. Tiller was steadfast in his commitment to woman-centered care. His clinic in Wichita for decades served as a beacon of hope for women who had no other options – and continues to do so to this day. And yet, I can’t help but wonder – why do we still need to be told to trust women? Why are we still suspicious of a women’s ability to govern her own healthcare decisions?

Unfortunately, across our country we see politicians legislating abortion care from mandating ultrasounds to waiting periods and counseling requirements that often contain scientifically inaccurate information. They find themselves compelled to make decisions on behalf of women about matters that they deem women incapable of resolving on their own.

But really I’d prefer to keep legislators out of the conversation entirely. For me, identifying as a feminist provider means actively rejecting the notion that anyone other than the woman is the expert of her life-defining circumstances.

This means asking a woman how she feels about an unexpected positive pregnancy test without making assumptions about what that test result means to her.

It means being there for her as an objective source of medical information regardless of what birth control method she chooses, if she chooses one at all.

And it means advocating for women on a public policy level to ensure that women have unfettered access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including abortion and contraception.

My interest in women’s health sprang from years of working as a teenager at a specialty-maternity hospital in upstate New York – with women, for women. On my first day, an energetic young woman was orienting me to the facilities, my responsibilities, and my colleagues. A couple hours into the day, my supervisor noticed me trailing uncomfortably behind her through the hospital’s hallways. After several attempts to get at the cause of my odd behavior, she finally stopped to ask me what was wrong. With much hesitation I answered:

“I need to use a restroom, but this is a women’s hospital.”

She gave me a reassuring grin, placed her hand on my shoulder, and pointed me down the hall.

“Of course we have a men’s restroom.”

And just as there was room for men in a women’s hospital, there is room for men in the feminist movement. After all, feminism is synonymous with humanism.

Aksel_headshotAbout the author: Sarp Aksel is a member of the M.D. Class of 2015 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and is currently applying for residency training in obstetrics and gynecology. As an advocate for comprehensive medical education, he has developed tools to help students raise awareness and fill curricular gaps in sexual and reproductive health training, including abortion and contraception. He is also the immediate past president of Medical Students for Choice, where he served as chair of the international nonprofit’s board of directors,

Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.

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.

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.

Women lose in Texas

texas our texas

texas our texas (Photo credit: jmtimages)

Does it surprise anyone that Texas legislators have succeeded in making abortion virtually impossible for Texas women? Probably not. It saddens me. I know how it feels to be unintentionally pregnant — in my case it followed a workplace rape — and desperate. You tend not to be thinking about that collection of cells that might possibly, eventually, develop into something viable; you are thinking about the rest of your life.

If  you are without money or resources (many women of means in Texas will manage to go elsewhere for a safe, legal abortion) you are likely to do desperate things.

Before 1973, those desperate things included attempting to self-abort with  knitting needles and coathangers, or by ingesting or douching with potentially deadly  solutions. Women traded stories, myths and reputed recipes for becoming un-pregnant again. In some cases these led to a successfully ended pregnancy; no one knows how often they ended in sterility or injury or death. When you see your life unraveling, you will take a lot of risks to keep it together.

Certainly this punitive legislation may reduce the number of abortions in Texas. The bill in toto could be a cause for jubilation or rage, depending on where one stands. But one can only feel sad for the increase in the number of unwanted children whom the great state of Texas cares little about, or the desperate women who now will take dangerous risks.

Sad (abortion) stories; happy endings

“Beatriz,” as the 22-year-old pregnant woman in El Salvador was known, has now been delivered of a fetus that could not have lived. Beatriz is fine. She could have lost her life had the pregnancy continued. In another story out of El Salvador, the physician attending another Salvadoran woman named Melanie speaks of having performed an abortion to end Melanie’s 8+-week ectopic pregnancy, and Melanie says she was never worried about losing her life.

But the reality is that politics and religion control the issue of abortion in El Salvador; the woman and her physician are shuttled pretty far aside. (Melanie’s physician describes herself as “deeply religious.” She apparently has some coincidental belief that allows her to perform abortions when necessary.) Down near the end of these stories are statistics about the number of women and physicians who have been convicted of the crime of abortion. There are not a lot of them; but if you were one of them it can’t be good news.

The U.S. is happily not El Salvador. But there are certainly plenty of politicians, and not a few religiously motivated others, who seek to criminalize abortion. It is, in their view, morally wrong under any circumstance.

My question is:  Who knew best what should be done in the above cases? The El Salvadoran government? The Catholic church? Or perhaps Beatriz, Melanie and their physicians? Who knows better than the woman and her physician in the U.S.?

Sometimes, only personal stories tell truth.

(Unpaid plug: there are a lot of personal stories in my new book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. You’re invited to consider them and I welcome your thoughts.)