“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.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello to 2015

sunrise

My friend M has died, just shy of the old year’s end and significantly decreasing the joy of the new. But her dying was full of life lessons about saying goodbye, being grateful and trying to ring in a better planet for the days ahead. And thus she leaves a gracious greeting for 2015.

M was a believer in good causes, and she put her substantial time and energies to work for them all. We became friends over our mutual love of writing but we bonded over our mutual commitment to end-of-life choice. Once you concede that you won’t live forever, a reality most prefer to ignore, it is possible to live both gently and joyfully even in tough times. Both of us spent long years encouraging anyone who would listen to confront mortality, make choices, and make personal decisions known to all. It’s called living fully, even into dying.

So M, after conceding her own days on the planet were dwindling, sat down over a cup of soup I’d brought her not long ago and we went about the business of saying goodbye. I told her why I thought she was such a wonder, and she told me all the things I’d be happy to have said for my own eulogy. OK, we had an extravagant mutual admiration society. But the life lesson is that telling others about their own gifts and good qualities (however hard it might occasionally be to uncover them) is something anyone can do, any time; the planet would be immeasurably better if more of us did it more often.

M was supportive of my activism for reproductive justice, having done more than a little of that herself in years past, but once she expressed reservations about how much time I was investing in that cause. “It’s time for young people, young women, to take that on,” she said. Well, yes. Another 2015 greeting for that demographic: reproductive rights are disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless more of us of whatever gender or age pitch in, women – particularly women without money or power – will soon be back in the pre-Roe dark ages, with no control over their own bodies. Which could make for a very unhappy new year for uncounted thousands of women.

The daughter of a rabbi, M was aggressively non-religious. We didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, though she applauded the idea of my Presbyterian church working to break cycles of poverty. But once, after some sort of “What Would Jesus Do?”-type remark I made she said, “Oh, you and Anne Lamott.” I am personally fine with being lumped in with my funny, gifted friend Lamott, but this was not meant as a compliment. It did lead to a brief, lively discussion about faith and practice. And wouldn’t 2015 be a happy new year if fewer wars were fought in the name of Allah (or Whomever) and more focus were put on the peace, justice and love for fellow creatures that is the basic message of every religion around.

Rest in peace Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, James Brady, Pete Seeger – and all those other good souls we lost in 2014. Most especially, M.

And Happy New Year to us all.

Abortion in Texas: The small fraction

Medievalpreg

Only a small fraction of Texas women will suffer.

With the closing of thirteen abortion clinics in Texas, one out of six Texas women seeking an abortion will have to travel 150 miles or more, and never mind all the other obstacles about waiting periods, increased costs, hassling protesters and having to listen to medically incorrect messages. But one out of six? That’s only a small fraction, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

“In our circuit,” wrote Judge Jennifer Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, “we do not balance the wisdom or effectiveness of a law against the burdens the law imposes. We do not doubt that women in poverty face greater difficulties.”

What a bother, those “women in poverty.”

Judge Elrod argued that the court had to find that “a large fraction” of women would be affected by the law – the medically unnecessary requirement that all abortion clinics in the state meet the same building equipment and staffing standards as hospital-style surgical centers. And those 900,000 women in rural Texas the judge acknowledged would be affected, well, they’re just a “small fraction.”

Judge Elrod may not know a lot about what it feels like, being part of the small fraction. Born in 1966, she grew up in the Houston-area city of Baytown, Texas, which bills itself as a city “where oil and water really do mix.” She graduated from Baylor and Harvard Law School. Her Wikipedia and Judgepedia pages make no mention of marital or family status, but presumably she never sought to have an abortion. If she had, she would have definitely been in the large fraction – women with money who always have access to safe and legal procedures, even in Texas.

This writer was in another large fraction: women without access to safe or legal abortion in the days before Roe v Wade. Much like today’s small fraction, faced with no viable options we took desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies. Some of us survived, countless others did not.

This is the fate to which the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit is consigning the small fraction. Danger, expense, family trauma, health risks and occasional death. Even for a small fraction, that seems hardly what America is about. And hardly in tune with the antiabortion forces’ proclaimed wish to “protect women.”

Some in the small fraction will face primarily family distress and exorbitant costs (usually upwards of $1,000 or $1,500) like “Maria,” whose story is recounted by RH Reality Check Senior Political Reporter Andrea Grimes. Some will face very real danger traveling to Mexico for drugs that can cause permanent injury or death if improperly created or improperly used. Some will maim or kill themselves in efforts to self-abort.

There will be hundreds of women like Elvia Yamell Hamdan, whose story was reported in a recent New York Times article by Laura Tillman and Erick Eckholm. Ms. Hamdan, 44, showed up at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, TX with her husband after a three-hour drive from their home, only to find that clinic professionals could suddenly no longer provide abortions. Ms. Hamdan already has four children and three grandchildren, and seeks to end an unplanned pregnancy. The U.S. Constitution says she has a right to make that choice – but Texas law says her best remaining option is an appointment three weeks later in San Antonio, 240 miles north.

Denise Burke, Vice President of Legal Affairs for Americans United for Life, is quoted in the New York Times story as saying the Fifth Circuit decision endorses anti-abortion forces’ argument that “abortion harms women, and states may regulate in the interest of women’s health.”

“Maria” and Ms. Hamdan seem likely to secure, eventually and at significant risks to their own health and wellbeing, the safe and legal abortion guaranteed to American women. How many others will now, instead, wind up sick, maimed or dead because of this latest ruling will never be known.

Because those others are just part of “the small fraction.”

NYTimes Letter to the Editor

Printed in The New York Times, September 22, 2014:

(This letter was in response to an opinion piece by Merritt Tierce, which appeared in The Times on September 13)

To the Editor:

The abortion stories of Merritt Tierce and Wendy Davis have one thing in common: Both women had access to safe, legal procedures. I did not.

A victim of workplace rape in the days before Roe v. Wade, I was among the millions of women who sought out back-alley abortionists. Happily, I survived; unhappily, countless others did not.

Each of our stories, just like every woman’s story today, was complex, personal and private. We had only desperation in common.

The lesson is that you can ban or restrict abortion all you want — as is happening all over the United States — but short of chaining a woman to the bedpost for nine months, you cannot force her to continue an unwanted pregnancy. If she has the money and resources, she will find a safe procedure somewhere. If she is poor and powerless, she will do desperate and dangerous things.

In the headlong rush to restrict access and eventually ban abortion once again, guess who suffers?

FRAN MORELAND JOHNS
San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2014

The writer is the author of “Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before — and After — Roe v. Wade.”

(It’s interesting to note that the only anti-choice letter published in this group is from a white male Catholic who sees only the fetus and not the woman. I respect his religion, but not his inability to see the woman’s part, or her need to make decisions about her body.)

Abortion, Four centuries later…

Suffragette-that-knew-jiujitsu

Was the abortion debate really going on four hundred+ years ago? Indeed. And who knew?

As it turns out, Donald Foster knew. Foster, Jean Webster Chair Professor of English at Vassar College, knows a lot about an astonishing range of things – Jon Benet Ramsey’s possible murderer, the “Anonymous” author of Primary Colors (Joe Klein), Unabomber Ted Kacynzki, Shakespeare – and women’s medicine in the sixteenth century. The first three of those instances of Foster’s endeavors – he provided expert help on all three cases – explain his sometime ID as a “forensic linguist;” the fourth relates to his day job. His day job also covers almost all things literary.

This writer’s esteem for the distinguished professor is of course unrelated to the email he sent which began, and I quote, “Let’s hear three cheers and see three billion readers for Perilous Times.” Well, maybe just a teeny bit. But an opportunity to reinforce the argument for women’s reproductive rights with the scholarly writings of a Vassar professor is not to be ignored.

This essay, henceforth, is shamelessly lifted from an attachment to the above email, excerpted from Volume 2 (pp.355-360) of Foster’s four-volume Women’s Works, a study of the issue covering the years from 900 to 1650.

Abortion, which was decidedly a part of women’s works, was also part of the debate all those centuries ago, beginning (if not earlier) with the “herb-wives – women who supplied the herbs and spices used for health care.” Women not only nursed those who were ill, we learn from Foster’s extensively documented studies, “they supplied much of the medicine, or physic.” They passed along their knowledge and skills from generation to generation, and were appreciated more by some than by others. Foster quotes Robert Green’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier in which a poor man mocks a wealthy lord: “I make my wife my doctor, and my garden, my apot’ecary shop – whereas Master Velvet-Breeches cannot have a fart awry, but he must have his purgations, pills and clysters, or evacuate by electuaries…” (It gets worse, but you’ll have to read the book.)

Getting to the specifics, Foster tells us “It will come as a surprise to some modern readers that there was enormous demand, throughout the medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods, for abortifacient herbs, with many effective recipes and a plentiful supply.” As reported in John Gerard’s Herbal (1597), a handful of herbs seemed to have taken care of the conception needs of barren women, whereas there were “more than sixty herbs used to induce menstruation after one or two missed periods. Not all of the treatments that he names were reliably effective, and some were dangerous, bringing a risk of hemorrhage and death if taken in too strong a dosage.”

Does this sound familiar? If not, we respectfully refer you to the stories in Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, of women in 20th — and 21st – century America who, denied access to safe procedures, wind up dying in back alleys or emergency rooms. The abortifacients have, sometimes, fancier names in the case of contemporary drugs, but taken without proper advice or supervision can leave women with unwanted pregnancies today just as dead as their sisters in Tudor England.

In the same Volume 2 of Women’s Works, Foster offers an historical perspective of the root of the abortion debate, which seems unchanged over the centuries: do rights of the fetus prevail over those of the woman, and whose theology says what? “For the first seventeen centuries of Christianity,” he writes, “no authority of record, either Catholic or Protestant, taught or suggested that the fetus during the first two or three months after insemination was a human being. Ensoulment or quickening was an act of God: in His own good time – typically, in the third or fourth month – God infused the dormant seed with a human soul, created ex nihilo.” About the ensoulment business, Foster adds, “it was deemed an essential point of Christian ontology that the individual life was created by an act of the Almighty in Heaven and not by a horizontal act of the parents.”

God, in other words, probably wouldn’t back the 20-week ban. This writer is disinclined to get into theological argument (despite wishing today’s politics could be dictated by medical science rather than conservative religion.) But you are again referred to the “What’s God Got To Do With It?” chapter of Perilous Times. Or to pages 357 – 360 Vol. 2 of Women’s Works, for a fascinating overview of how assorted popes and Anglicans (“About the sixth month the immortal soul is infused,” wrote Rev. Christopher Carlile in the 16th century) changed the rules and differed in opinions. Which also sounds familiar.

In 1856, Foster tells us, “Dr. Horatio Storer organized a national drive by the American Medical Association to end legal abortion altogether.” His efforts resulted in actions by the various states and territories to strengthen laws against abortion, and by 1880 there were restrictive laws and practices virtually everywhere mandating that a woman, once impregnated, had no safe or legal means to alter the course of what was going on with her body.

Leaping ahead to 2014, has any progress been made in the name of women’s reproductive justice?

The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

AS I WAS SAYING……..

listening

“Can we talk?” – that phrase so famously and often asked by the late great Joan Rivers – actually had an implied second clause: “Will you listen?”

And thereby hangs the problem. Talk is cheap; listening is rare.

Want confirmation? Spend a few minutes at a bar, restaurant, night club or any other social gathering venue. The noise level is almost guaranteed to be too high for meaningful conversation. One partygoer (okay, a 34-year-old, several generations younger than this writer/partygoer) said, “it just doesn’t feel like fun until the music and vibes are loud.” Restaurants say the noise level is needed for “buzz,” even while admitting to repeated complaints about diners’ inability to carry on conversations. It’s more just talk and talking back.

Politicians, who tend to like to talk, go on a lot of “listening tours,” the word first becoming commonplace with Hillary Clinton’s notorious preparation for her New York senatorial bid. The theory seems to be that if potential voters feel heard they’ll vote for you. But the reality is that the politician is generally listening more carefully for what potential there is for his or her upcoming campaign/proposed legislation/planned left or right direction than for the pleas of the constituency. Not that some pleas aren’t heard – More jobs! Healthcare! Housing! – but is any serious listening going on, on the part of either politician or voter? Not often. Generalized messages get through – shouts on camera do count – but these tours are for selective listening.

Serious listening is not selective, and involves a degree of compassion. Even the Buddha knew that. In a recent article published in The Buddhadharma, Zenkei Blanche Hartman responds to a question from someone whose friend is considering an abortion. Among other comments, she says, “Have you listened carefully to your friend…” and “What is the most compassionate response in this situation?”

Imagine, if carefulness and compassion could happen in the listening process.

One of the most treasured conversations I had when just beginning work on Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade was with a beloved adult niece who is a lifelong conservative Christian. I suggested that she might have to pretend she didn’t know me when my book came out, but asked if she would listen to my own story that had motivated it. She did listen, quietly and thoughtfully, not once interrupting or showing negative reaction through her body language. When I finished, she had this to say:

“Well, you know, Frannie, I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. But I do feel that someone in your situation should have had better options.” We left it at that. I did not in any way change her mind about abortion – she still believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder – but she acknowledged that my story is unique, just as all of us in the reproductive rights movement believe that every woman’s story is unique. And most importantly, I felt heard.

Of the many deeply divided and overly politicized issues roiling the U.S. today, probably none is more desperately in need of civil dialog – reasoned talk and compassionate listening – than that of reproductive justice. Abortion foes term the issue “rights of the unborn.” Clearly you can’t give rights to an unborn fetus without creating injustice for the woman involved; the first, obvious obstacle to listening is in the fact that we can’t even hear each other’s subject line.

This writer recently talked about the listening business with Heather Buchheim, a Senior Manager with Exhale Pro-Voice. Buchheim is a very good listener. This may have something to do with the fact that Exhale is all about listening. Not lecturing or advising, not judging or admonishing – listening. They are also about talking, with their Storysharing and their National Pro-Voice Tour, but it is talking with attention to the listener. They hope for a culture change through much the same nonviolent ways the Buddha suggested, a change many progressive activists today still dream of: “sharing our stories and listening respectfully (because) feeling heard is crucial to our emotional wellbeing.”

Perhaps, if the decibel level were turned down a little, wellbeing might increase.

 

 

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.

Boot Camps for Talking about Abortion

Decision making 101

“Rape,” the instructors say, “is a four-letter word. Purge it from your lexicon.” And as to anything else abortion-related, “Keep it brief.”

Such is the strategy reportedly being taught Republican candidates in “Boot Camps” on how to talk about abortion. This news came in a recent New York Times article by Jeremy Peters.

But in case the reports are not clear, or should anti-abortion strategists need help, this space herewith offers an outline for surefire future political Boot Camps:

Avoidance is #1. Just don’t talk.

If you actually start talking, and talk about women, it becomes problematic to take away their rights. Say as little as possible. Candidates who do try to say more than two sentences tend to trip up on “legitimate rape” blunders or “abortion causes cancer” misstatements. Therefore, it’s best to talk only about fetuses, call them “babies,” speak only in tiny sound bites, and then shut up.

These are the recommended sound bites:

We mustn’t kill babies. Abortion hurts women.

These are the messages that get votes. Unfortunately, they are untrue, and thus difficult to defend. But if you say no more than seven or eight words, say them over and over and avoid actual dialog, enough people will believe the words to get you or your candidate elected.

But please, definitely, avoid:

Discussion of the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘baby.’ Some voters do not believe a fetus becomes a baby until it is born. There are also too many very smart scientists who do not believe that tiny fetuses feel pleasure or pain.

You must also avoid the stories.

Stories told by 12- and 13-year-olds who were raped by a favorite uncle or family friend and might then have to endure the further brutality of continuing the pregnancy he caused – these stories make people think that abortion decisions might not be so simple. Or that banning abortion might not make it go away.

Stick to the script. Those stories cannot be told in eight words.

Stories in general just cause trouble. Avoid stories of pregnant women without jobs and with more children than they can care for already, or stories of pregnant women too poor to travel 300 miles to a clinic, or women with physical or emotional problems whose lives are being wrecked by unintended pregnancies…or stories of mothers and fathers facing the wrenching prospect of bringing a baby into the world who will suffer terribly and quickly die. Voters with a compassion gene might question your intention to force all these women to give birth.

And above all, avoid talking about women.

Women, when told what they may or may not do with their bodies, can become unruly. Enough unruly women can derail your election plans.