Women, Abortion Rights & Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker

Noted physician/activist Willie Parker was in San Francisco recently explaining why he does what he does.

What Willie Parker does is regularly put his life on the line in behalf of poor women and their reproductive health. Why does he do it? “It’s the right thing to do.” Among other things Parker does is to fly regularly into Jackson, MS to provide abortions at the one remaining clinic where Mississippi women without power or resources can go for this constitutionally-protected health service.

His belief that it would be morally wrong not to help the women who come to him, Parker once told this writer, was rooted partially in a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the good Samaritan (who stopped to help a stranger after others had passed him by.) “What made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.”

Parker headlined an event celebrating the 43rd anniversary of Roe v Wade that was organized by Carol Joffe, PhD, of the University of California San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health – and which quickly sold out.

“Most (abortion) providers keep a low profile,” Joffe said in her introductory remarks; “but Willie has chosen to be very public. (Despite his multiple degrees and honors, everybody seems to call Dr. Parker ‘Willie.’) He is building bridges to the past and to the future.” Joffe went on to speak of Parker’s connections to progressive causes, faith communities and, most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement. “What he is doing,” she said, “helps all women to live lives of dignity.”

Parker, who treats the issue of personal danger as not worth his time to worry about, calls the anti-abortion efforts “domestic terrorism,” especially with the murder of providers. The incessant efforts to overturn Roe, and passage of more and more unnecessary state laws making abortion inaccessible for women without power or resources are, he maintains, in the same “domestic terrorism” category.

The author with the doctor

The author with the doctor

So in return Parker says he tries to “radicalize” every young woman he sees in Mississippi. Since the state mandates he spend time with her, unnecessarily and repeatedly, before allowing her to have the abortion which is her constitutional right, Parker considers it only fair to put that time to best use. “I tell her, ‘these people who are trying to close this clinic – they don’t think you’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ And I explain change will only happen if she fights for it. Then I tell her to go vote.”

All of which helps explain why Willie Parker does what he does. This writer is among the uncounted others, women and men believing in humanity and justice, who give thanks.

 

 

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 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.

Celebrating abortion providers

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

You’d think, what with the incessant campaigns to hobble, harass and vilify them, that abortion providers would be somewhere right up there with ax murderers, and at least lying low under the radar. But you would be wrong.

The National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers is at hand. It is officially celebrated on March 10 by Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, assorted other reproductive rights organizations and every woman whose life has been honored and restored following the decision to have an abortion. The day comes exactly 21 years after the murder of Dr. David Gunn at his clinic in Pensacola, Florida, a tragedy that was followed by the killings of Dr. John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett in 1994, Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 and Dr. George Tiller in 2009.

The irony of such losses is that abortion providers – who still face serious risks – save the lives of countless women every day. Is a day of appreciation enough? One day, in return for all the millions of days of life returned to millions of women? I vote for celebrating at least throughout the month of March.

My own abortion, a back-alley experience following a 1956 workplace rape, was emblematic of a time when there were no such people to honor. Luckily, I got my life back. No one will ever know how many women did not, how many were left maimed or dead because they had no safe, legal option. Since 1973, thanks to passage of Roe v Wade (but no thanks to those who are trying to send us back to the dark ages) they have had trained professionals motivated by compassion – and stories of women like me.

Early on there were individuals like Dr. Harry S. Jonas, now retired after long years of medical practice, teaching, and advocacy for family planning. Jonas speaks of a woman he met when doing an Ob/Gyn residency some years before Roe v Wade. She was dying of massive infection and multiple abscesses from a botched self-induced abortion after having endured 14 pregnancies. “I still remember that patient,” Jonas says, “I remember what she looked like. I remember the bed she was in on Ward 1418. I will never forget it.”

Today there are providers in heavily regulated states – most of whom remain anonymous for very good reasons – with similarly tragic stories. They tell of women who misuse abortion-inducing drugs because they can’t get to a clinic, or girls barely past puberty too frightened by protesters to access care that is their constitutional right. Of a 14-year-old incest victim pleading for help to reach the nearest clinic many miles distant. Of a sick, troubled mother of five having to choose between multiple required – and unnecessary – trips to the clinic and the job she desperately needs to keep. The physicians who are there for these women often face the need to treat their souls as much as their bodies.

Among those who choose to be open in their activism is my personal hero, Willie J. Parker. I have never met Dr. Parker, an African-American Ob/Gyn, other than on phone calls while researching Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. He speaks with passion and conviction. Currently Associate Medical Director of Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Chicago, Parker grew up Southern Baptist, in a community which taught that abortion is wrong. His own views changed on hearing a sermon about the Good Samaritan preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. “(King) said that what made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen to him if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop to help. That led me to …place a higher value on compassion. I couldn’t stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.” In addition to his day job, Parker offers help in other parts of the country where help is critically needed. He shrugs off questions about personal risk.

Almost any one of today’s providers could make more money, and have a far easier life, in another job. Instead, they choose to do what they do, so women can choose to control their bodies and their lives. That’s worth celebrating.

So light a candle. Write your congressperson. Send a few bucks to the nearest clinic and the organizations that fight for women’s reproductive rights. One national day is just a fraction of the appreciation abortion providers deserve.

Reading the data on declining abortion rates

This essay first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com

Recently released figures from the Guttmacher Institute show a drop from 1.2 million abortions in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2011, and that’s something to cheer about.

The question is, who’s cheering, and why.

Anti-abortion forces are not even cheering very loudly. Instead, as reported in National Right to Life’s News Today, they are proclaiming that the new report “downplayed the role that public debate over the rights of unborn children have played in this trend.” Well, that role is, in itself, debatable. I would suggest that those on all sides of the issue might do well to put aside the fringes — “Abortion on demand and without apology!” as well as “The unborn must have rights!” — and focus instead on the good news: Fewer women are having abortions. Unintended pregnancy rates have dropped. Abortion has decreased to its lowest level since 1973 when Roe v Wade was decided.

As a woman who had a back-alley abortion in 1956, I hear that as good news on many counts. No one, I repeat, no one, has an abortion without anguish. The decision is always complex, difficult, unique and intensely personal. One woman may have been raped, another impregnated under equally horrendous circumstances. One woman might already have more children than she can adequately care for and know that continuing her pregnancy will threaten her own health and her children’s future. Another woman could have learned her pregnancy has severe fetal anomalies, leaving her heartbroken at the prospect of bringing a child into the world who will only suffer and quickly die. If she’s poor, her choices rapidly disappear. Like the young woman denied access and unable to end a tragic pregnancy in 2009 who told me tearfully, “we couldn’t raise the money.”

A decrease in stories like these is great good news.

But it will not happen by continuing to deny access to safe procedures or creating more and more layers of restrictions. It will not happen by rolling back access to the very things that can limit the unintended pregnancy rate in the first place, like sex education and birth control. Insisting that every woman in the U.S. must be compelled to carry every pregnancy to term will not prevent unintended pregnancies, and unintended pregnancies will always drive up abortion rates.

When I began work on my recently published book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, I spoke first with women like me who had had no access to safe and legal abortion. Our stories are of frightening trips in strange cars, blindfolded and defenseless, to kitchen-table abortions performed by untrained criminals. But soon I began hearing equally distressing stories from young women today, like the distraught woman above who “couldn’t raise the money.” Or the pregnant 14-year-old who was rescued by Loretta Ross of SisterSong in Atlanta after the abused child — “she was still sucking her thumb,” Ross said — had been unable to terminate her pregnancy because of time limits in her home state.

Lower abortion rates will come from more widespread use of more effective contraception. And from educating women, and men, about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

How can effective, non-judgmental, accurate education happen? Not through the organizations that run “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” and spread misinformation, while telling women that abortion is “murder.” If education is to be effective, it can only happen in an arena of full truth, and be built on scientific fact.

Physicians for Reproductive Health is a good place to start. This professional organization keeps its focus on women’s health. Remember when trained doctors and healthy women were the heart of the debate rather than unscientific data and political rants? The National Abortion Federation, which has a strong educational arm, is another. And finally there is — gasp — Planned Parenthood. Targeted as the Essence of Evil by anti-abortion forces because some Planned Parenthood health centers offer safe and legal abortion, in reality Planned Parenthood is the logical place to begin advocating for… planned parenthood: safe, informed ways to avoid unintended pregnancies and promote healthy women and children. The organization is already providing extraordinary services. According to PPFA’s website, “every year, more than 700 Planned Parenthood health centers provide birth control to more than two million patients from all walks of life.”

The latest Guttmacher report could be a catalyst for change. But only if those on both sides of the highly polarized and overly emotional abortion issue will use it for the good of women. And I, an eternal optimist, am not holding my breath.