Abortion Rights: the X(treme) Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

But whose liberty?

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

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

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

In the Abortion Wars: A Judge Speaks of Women’s Rights, Women’s Needs

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in his recent ruling that Alabama’s abortion law must go to trial, raises the interesting issue of an “undue burden” on pregnant women.

Imagine that. Bringing the focus around to women.

In the frenzy to ban abortion anywhere, anytime that’s currently going on across the U.S., it is all about the fetus. Opponents of choice and sponsors of restrictive laws often frame their measures as “protective of women,” as if wider hallways, more parking spaces or the host of line items proven to be medically inappropriate were aimed at anything but preventing women from having abortions. Once fertilization happens, the zygote takes precedence.

It’s heartening, therefore, to have a judge speak about the person who is solely able to know the full circumstances: the woman.

The specific issue in Alabama – as with states including Texas where it’s being used to force clinic closures – has to do with requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges. There is extensive evidence that admitting privileges are unnecessary. An in-depth article by Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check titled “Why Admitting Privileges Laws Have No Medical Benefit” covered some of that evidence: only a tiny fraction (less than 0.3%) of women experiencing complication from abortion require hospitalization; the risk of death from childbirth is 14 times that of abortion; should something go wrong with an abortion, the ambulance EMT can make the appropriate choice of hospital.

Other laws, such as those restricting medical abortion or many citing physical details of abortion facilities, are cloaked in “protecting women” language. They do exactly the opposite.

Abortion opponents cheer passage of these laws for one reason: they create more roadblocks to abortion. Thus, opponents reason, more women will be denied access, forcing them to bring unwanted pregnancies to term. It is hard to find any good news for women here.

But Judge Thompson said, in an 86-page opinion, that the Alabama trial will focus on whether the law violates women’s constitutional rights by imposing “a substantial obstacle,” possibly placing an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion. Since abortion clinics more often than not use traveling physicians, the law could result in closure of all but two of Alabama’s five facilities. Alabama has a total land area of 52,419 square miles. It’s hard to believe there would not be an undue burden on countless women required to travel very long distances to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion.

Not all judges seem overly concerned with women. In letting the Texas admitting privileges law stand, Judge Edith H. Jones of the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals located in New Orleans said she did not believe that driving 300 miles round trip would pose a serious obstacle to Texas women seeking abortions. Judge Jones spoke of good highways and 75 mph speed limits as if the impoverished women of the Rio Grande Valley all had Cadillacs at their disposal.

And more recently, District Court Judge David C. Bury let stand an Arizona law restricting the use of the drug mifepristone to the first seven weeks, despite extensive evidence that it can be safely taken outside doctors’ offices through the ninth week of pregnancy. What this means is that countless Arizona women, unable to have the safer, preferable medical procedure, will be forced to have more expensive and complex surgical abortions… and to travel hundreds of miles, twice to comply with the regulations. But this does not concern Judge Bury. None of that, he wrote, qualifies “as irreparable harm.”

For now, Judge Thompson’s words offer some solace, whether or not his decision ultimately goes in favor of the women of Alabama.

“If the court finds that the statute was motivated by a purpose of protecting fetal life, then the statute had the unconstitutional purpose of creating a substantial obstacle,” Thompson wrote in his opinion. “Evidence establishing that the legislature passed a statute with the purpose of closing down the clinic would suffice to establish a constitutional violation.”

On choosing one’s words…

I was taken to task, rightly so, by a reader who categorized my saying “no one… has an abortion without anguish” (you can read B’s articulate comment, and my response, in the 2/22 Comments) as “hokum.” She might also have said “hogwash.” Mea culpa. “Anguish” was a poor descriptive choice. “Serious thought” maybe; “self-reflection,” “concern.” Actually, the decision does involve anguish for many women, especially those whose rights are being denied by lack of access or harsh state restrictions.

But one word can wreak havoc.

Take the hyphenated word “pro-life,” which has been appropriated by those who are ferociously anti-woman. As if the issue of abortion — always complex and private, and occasionally anguishing — involved nothing at all beyond the (potential) life of a fetus. I consider myself ferociously pro-life, it’s just that I value the life of a woman. And am pro-woman’s-life enough to honor and trust her ability to make her own decisions about her body.

Or the emotionally charged word “suicide.” Those of us who believe in the individual’s right to a compassionate and dignified death have worked hard to get that word out of the discussion. Suicide is the desperate act of a despairing person; “physician aid-in-dying” is a compassionate choice made by a terminally ill, mentally competent adult.

Word choices took much of the focus in a fascinating panel on “Defining Death” sponsored recently by the University of California San Francisco Medical School. More about that event on HuffingtonPost as soon as I can get to it. Cases under study included the tragic, ongoing story of 13-year-old Jahi McMath, and the equally tragic story of 14-week-pregnant Marlise Munoz, whose brain-dead body was briefly kept on “life” support because the hospital and the State of Texas placed the potential life of that pre-viable fetus above the expressed wishes of her husband, parents and even Munoz herself. The distinguished UCSF panel of experts on medicine, law and ethics spoke repeatedly of how much anguish — the word definitely fits here — might have been prevented if only a few, kind words could have replaced some of the jarring words that unfortunately must eventually be said.

Imagine you’re the patient, or family, or attending healthcare worker (try to leave the lawyers out of this.) When does a moments-ago-healthy person become a “corpse”? A “dead body”? Who decides if a pre-viable fetus is a “person”? How can the average person even understand “brain-dead”? If you bring the lawyers in, you encounter “property.” In more than a dozen states there are laws on the books that say that if a pregnant woman dies her body must be maintained until the fetus can be delivered… no matter what advance directives she may have that specify her wishes to the contrary. One family fought against this outrageous miscarriage of justice by claiming their dead loved one’s body — which was, in the eyes of the law, their “property.”

It’s a scary world we live in. But that word JUSTICE. If we can only hang onto that one.

 

 

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.

After Tiller: A film for pro-life & pro-choice … and for opening dialogue

George Tiller: Boston Vigil
George Tiller: Boston Vigil (Photo credit: qwrrty)

Late-term abortions have to be the hardest to defend, and the most complex to consider — a segment of the abortion debate that I personally would want to stay as far away from as possible. But in “After Tiller,” filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson present a remarkably clear-eyed and comprehensive picture of the men and women who took on the job of providing this constitutionally-guaranteed right after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009 by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder. And force the viewer to confront the issue as a piece of the broader reproductive rights issue.

The two filmmakers, who co-produced and co-directed the documentary, are not taking sides or making points; their hope is to promote dialogue — and I wish them every success. Having seen “After Tiller” online, and later on the big screen at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, I congratulate them on honest coverage of an incredibly difficult issue. They were curious, they say, about the providers themselves and their relationships with their patients. So the film spends at-home and in-the-office time with the providers, Warren Hern, a friend of Tiller’s who practices in Boulder, Colo.; LeRoy Carhart, who considered coming to Wichita after Tiller’s death and now provides abortion services in Maryland; and Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, who run a clinic in New Mexico.

For the anti-choice forces “After Tiller” offers a bombshell of a quote, when one of the women physicians looks directly into the camera and says, “This is not an abortion; this is delivery of a stillborn baby.” Third trimester abortions are surely nearing the time when “fetus” becomes “baby.”

But if you believe in a woman’s right to make her own choices and her own decisions, “After Tiller” shows just how wrenchingly difficult and complex the decision to have a third-trimester abortion must always be. Most of the cases shown depict parents facing a choice between delivering a live baby who might live a tortured few days or months or a stillborn whom they want to spare such a fate.

In a perfect world, those who oppose abortion at any time and those who believe in a woman’s right to choose could use this difficult but forthright film to talk about — maybe even to begin to comprehend – each other’s viewpoints. Unfortunately we are living in a polarized time and an imperfect world. Still, one can hope.

Go see the movie if you have a chance.

Life begins… when? Come talk about it

Life begins… when? Come talk about it

 

Life begins… at conception? at birth? somewhere in between?

It’s not a question anyone can answer with absolute certainty, or a question likely ever to be agreed upon by everyone currently alive. But it’s a question many philosophers, theologians and — not always happily — politicians have been debating recently. And it’s a question sure to come up at the Commonwealth Club program Women at Risk: What’s Ahead For Reproductive Rights October 17th in San Francisco.

English: *Description: Scotty McLennan Author ...
31 December 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University (and model for Doonesbury‘s Dude of God) will be one of four panelists tackling this and other thorny — but pertinent — issues during the hour-long event. Here’s a bit of what McLennan has to say, excerpted from Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade:

“I’ll never forget the sight of each of my children emerging into the world blue and lifeless, being struck on the back by the doctor, taking their first breath, and becoming ruddy-colored as they began crying their way into life.” Those images, and a biblical reference to the “breath of life,” reinforce McLennan’s belief that “the Supreme Court got it right” in ruling that decisions about abortion should be left to the woman and her physician until the fetus might indeed be able to survive outside the womb.

McLennan also believes, as do I, that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

It’s a critical issue a long way from being solved, either by Roe v Wade, or by those of us who are pro-choice, or by those who would ban abortion entirely in the belief that banning it would somehow make unwanted pregnancies never happen.

How about you? If you’re going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17th, join us at the Commonwealth Club. It’s going to be informative, engaging, useful — and a lively time.

Underground abortionists? Today? Believe it.

The back alley abortionist of pre-Roe days came in all types: men, women, trained, untrained, compassionate or just in it for the money. They existed, all of them, because women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies sought them out. In almost every case the woman and the abortionist had little or no contact either before or after the event, but in many cases — including my own — there was a strange sense of gratitude to someone who managed to give you your life back. In countless other cases the woman died herself, because these were dangerous procedures in perilous times.

And they’re back.

Not in the same form, probably not in anywhere near the same number as was the case before Roe v Wade. But the Underground Abortionist is here. Loss of access to safe and legal abortion, thanks to layers of state restrictions, is causing women with unplanned pregnancies to seek out ways to end those pregnancies. They are, by and large, women without money or resources, very often women with more children already than they can care for. Some of them are just frightened children with nowhere to turn — abused by a family member or victimized in any of a million ways.

Enter the underground abortionist. Today’s illegal abortion provider is most often a drug dealer who knows where to get misoprostol and mifepristone, the drugs needed to end a pregnancy. The potential dangers are different from the assortment of dangerous methods used by illegal abortionists before 1973, but they surely exist: if the drugs are not pure, if they are taken in the wrong dosages, any number of conditions can make today’s illegal abortion as dangerous as those in days of old.

But happily for some women who are denied safe abortions today, there are compassionate other women trying hard to help. One wrote about her work on Jezebel and subsequently participated in a fascinating interview with Robin Marty of RH Reality Check. I hope you’ll read the entire piece.

This underground abortionist is motivated by what she hears, through emails, from women with unplanned pregnancies: “Desperate, scared, broke women write to her, wanting to terminate a pregnancy without turning to sharp instruments, unknown drugs, or old wives’ tales,” Marty explains. So she does her best to instruct them on proper use, and sends the drugs.

Is this any way to settle the critical, complex issue of unwanted pregnancy? At this point, for poor women in much of the U.S., it’s all there is.

The underground abortionist says, in this eye-opening interview, much with which I heartily agree. Particularly in these closing lines, when Marty poses hypothetical questions the interviewee might be asked:

“I think “pro-life” and pro-choice activists don’t talk enough to each other. I think we can actually sometimes find unusual common ground. I think that while a lot of the people at the top of the pro-life movement are cynical and misogynistic, a lot of the pro-life rank-and-file are people who are honestly well-intentioned and have been told a lot of lies.”

In other words – Can We Talk?