“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
“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.
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.
Many of us — fiercely pro-women, fiercely pro-choice — bought into the “keep abortion safe, legal and rare” mantra of several decades back. It was, in fact, a useful mantra — until it was sunk by the potential anti-women interpretation of the word “rare.” The endless focus on the ‘rare’ word at times approaches the “it-depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-the-word-‘is’-is” hubbub.
In defense of both sides:
Make abortion rare! By supporting universal contraceptive coverage. By supporting Planned Parenthood. By expanding education. By reducing unplanned pregnancies in all ways that empower women and reduce violence against women.
But get rid of the ‘rare’ word. It is, apparently, sending the wrong message. Jessica Valenti covered the issue well in a recent piece in The Guardian, citing two leaders in the area of women’s reproductive justice. One is Dr Tracy Weitz, co-founder and former Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. In a paper published in 2010, Weitz wrote that “rare suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur. It separates ‘good’ abortions from ‘bad’ abortions.”
None of this — ‘good’ abortions, ‘bad’ abortions, whether or when there should be abortions — is anybody’s business but the woman involved. Only she and her physician can know the circumstances, and the circumstances of no two women are the same. So if the ‘rare’ word is clouding the issue, let’s dump the rare word.
Valenti also quotes Steph Herold, Deputy Director of the Sea Change program, who says abortion needing to be rare “implies that abortion is somehow different than other parts of healthcare. We don’t say that any other medical procedure should be rare.” Sea Change is working to remove the stigma attached to abortion and other reproductive issues, a laudable, and monumental task. More than a few of the women who share their stories in Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade speak of suffering almost as much from the stigma attached to this most personal of women’s issues as from any physical harm, real or feared. While breast implants, sex-change details and erectile implantation (among other personal decisions) are fair game for cocktail party conversations, when is the last time you heard anyone volunteer information about her abortion? One in three women have an abortion; we Do Not Talk About It.
But here is the fact: There are bad abortions. They happened before 1973; they are happening today.
A mother of two physically challenged toddlers, pregnant with a third in 2014, unable to get to the nearest clinic — which is hundreds of miles away and impossible to access (despite the famous comment made by Texas Judge Edith Jones that it’s easy to go 75 mph on those flat roads) — punctures an interior organ trying to self-abort the old-fashioned way. She lives, but this is a bad abortion.
A desperate teenager in the rural midwest manages to get what she hopes is the right abortifacient through an internet site. Wrong drug, wrong instructions, wrong outcome. She gets to an ER before she bleeds to death. She lives, but this is a bad abortion.
This writer, pregnant from a workplace rape, overcome with shame and sheer terror, managed to find a kitchen-table abortionist in 1956. It was a bad abortion. We thought those stories were ended in 1973 when abortion was made legal and safe. But they are being repeated daily in this country, the land of the free; every one of them speaks of a bad abortion.
Women are suffering and dying again today from bad abortions, or because they are being denied access to safe, legal care. Whatever it takes, whatever words we use, the lives of those women are worth fighting for.