There’s Hope for Reproductive Justice

Art by Megan Smith

Art by Megan Smith

Let’s hear it – one more time – for the Millennials. Especially the youngest Millennials, just now reaching or approaching voting age. A generation unto themselves.

Invited to speak at a recent “Awareness into Action” day at Drew School, a private college preparatory day school in San Francisco, this writer went with some trepidation into a classroom set up for about ten high school students. Who – when she hasn’t been a high schooler in more than a half century – knows high school students today?

My workshop was on Reproductive Justice. Other choices the students could make included workshops on Mindfulness, Parks Conservancy, Anti-Racist Dialogue, LGBTQ issues and Immigration Law (to name a few.) I figured if 5 or 6 girls showed up it would be fine. By the time we were ready to start there were 14 girls and two brave (and handsome) guys around the table and sitting on chairs and tables in the back corner, plus one teacher keeping an eye on it all.

For openers, I’d written several facts on the whiteboard:

A woman dies of cervical cancer almost once every two hours. HPV vaccine prevents most cases of cervical cancer.

17 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion that includes information on at least one of the following: the purported link between abortion and breast cancer (5 states); the ability of a fetus to feel pain (12 states); long-term mental health consequences of abortion for the woman (7 states.) None of the above are true.

Then I told my own story. The story of a 22-year-old who had never had sex – after all, nice girls did not have sex before marriage in 1956. A victim of what would today clearly be workplace rape, I did all the dangerous things that women desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy are increasingly doing today. When nothing else worked, I had a back alley abortion by an untrained man who probably had not even washed his hands.

“I think,” I said to the roomful of attentive faces, “we’re going straight back to the dark ages.”

Not if these young people have anything to say about it.

Aware that they are among the lucky ones, they are concerned about the unlucky. They seemed a little taken aback by statistics like this one:

In 2006, 49% of pregnancies were unintended. The proportion of unintended pregnancies was highest (98%) among teens younger than 15.

. . . and by other data about how widespread is the denial of access to reproductive healthcare for poor women and girls (and men and boys) in more than half of the U.S. “It’s just wrong,” said one student.

So what do you think you can do to change things, I asked.

“Vote,” came the first answer, before I even finished the question.

“We have to learn to listen to people we disagree with,” said another student, who had been rather vocal in her description of political villains. “You may have to bite your tongue,” I said. “Yeah, I know,” she replied. “Because we have to learn how to have dialogue.”

“We just have to know the laws,” said another, “and work to change them.”

“We need to support these organizations, too,” commented another student, tapping the table with some of the materials I had distributed from groups like Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood and Sea Change.

For this writer, who lived through the worst of times, the workshop brought hope for the future of reproductive justice in the U.S. Returning to the worst of times is not on the agenda for these Millennials.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Hanging out with a hero

https://i0.wp.com/images.huffingtonpost.com/2014-05-29-20140522_171056_216.jpg

I first met Willie Parker three or four years ago, researching my then work-in-progress book Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. Couldn’t believe his generous affability and apparent fearlessness in the phone calls and emails we traded, his willingness to be quoted, identified, you name it — despite the obvious dangers facing abortion providers in areas of the country where opposition is fierce and hostility strong. It matters not to Willie Parker. He is dealing with real, live women and the injustice they face when denied control of their own bodies.

Fast forward to May, 2014. In an earlier email exchange the remarkable Dr. Parker had mentioned being briefly in California around this time and hopefully having a chance to meet. I held him to that, and managed to get him over for a visit. Here’s the report of that visit that appeared just now on Huffington Post:

It’s not every day you get to hang out with your hero.

For anyone invested in reproductive justice today, Willie Parker, MD, MPH, MSc, is at the top of the hero list. My own such list is long, thanks to the many people I’ve met in recent years who are tirelessly at work keeping justice alive for women everywhere — but Willie Parker is #1.

Parker holds degrees from Harvard and the Universities of Iowa and Michigan; has served as Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington DC, Associate Medical Director of Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Chicago and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii. His list of writings, honors, accolades and nonprofit board jobs is longer than my hero list, but in Real Time he is simply Willie. A man who believes ferociously in a woman’s right to make her own decisions, whatever her race or socioeconomic status, whatever her unique circumstances and needs.

This does not make Willie Parker an “abortion on demand” physician. Once the fetus has the possibility of survival — with or without “extraordinary support measures” — he will not perform an abortion. But Parker believes in a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions and to control her own body, and knows it is women of color and women without money or resources who are most often denied these rights. That’s where the complex issue becomes a simple matter of justice.

Parker sees what he does — which is, provide abortions up to 24 weeks and six days — purely through the eyes of the woman who seeks him out. She is usually a woman of color, African-American or Latino. More often than not she is someone who already has more children than she can care for. Sometimes she is still barely more than a child herself, unmarried, abused by a casual acquaintance or a favorite uncle. She has a story.

Once the woman with a story — and an unintended pregnancy — reaches Willie Parker, she’s in a safe harbor. He listens to her story, calms her fears, holds her hand.

Such women may be safe, but the abortion provider is decidedly not. Especially when he’s a big, affable, outgoing, very dark-skinned, gray-bearded guy like Parker.

“I sort of hide in plain sight,” he laughs. Walking around in casual clothes and a friendly grin, as he customarily is, he hardly looks the part of a multi-degree, high-powered physician. It was probably little comfort to the white, business-dressed reporter leaving a building with Parker recently when the latter remarked with a smile, “If they’re coming after the doctor, they’re gonna shoot you.”

Parker, grounded in Christian tradition and secure in his faith, says he is uniquely blessed by the certainty of knowing that his core moral, ethical and social beliefs come together with his education and skills. So yes, he will go right on being a very public advocate for reproductive justice — including the current fight to preserve the one remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi — and no, he’s not worried about personal danger.

“I don’t think about how I’m going to die,” he says. “I think about how I’m going to live.”

This is what makes hanging out with Willie Parker such a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

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.

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.