Abortion foes are winning, folks

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 22:  A pro-choice advocat...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Will women in the U.S. soon be unable to have a safe, legal abortion? That scary possibility becomes more likely every day. Does anyone really understand the pre-Roe v Wade horrors which abortion foes want to see returned? Not really. That’s because huge numbers of women who could have told the horror stories died at the hands of back-alley abortionists, and those of us who did survive are dying off fast, unheard.

This space welcomes writer John Leland’s front page article in today’s New York Times to the voices crying in the wilderness — just in case someone other than Nancy Keenan might care to listen.

At least 11 states have passed laws this year regulating or restricting abortion, giving opponents of abortion what partisans on both sides of the issue say is an unusually high number of victories. In four additional states, bills have passed at least one house of the legislature.

In a flurry of activity last week, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi signed a bill barring insurers from covering abortion in the new insurance exchanges called for under the federal health care overhaul, and the Oklahoma Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Brad Henry of a bill requiring doctors who perform abortions to answer 38 questions about each procedure, including the women’s reasons for ending their pregnancies.

It was the third abortion measure this session on which the Legislature overrode a veto by Mr. Henry.

At least 13 other states have introduced or passed similar legislation this year. The new laws range from an Arizona ban on coverage of abortion in the state employees’ health plan to a ban in Nebraska on all abortions after 20 weeks, on the grounds that the fetus at that stage can feel pain.

Fetal pain is a subject of debate in the medical community, and the United States Supreme Court has recognized the government’s right to ban abortions only after a fetus becomes viable, which is more than a month later.

“Fetal pain” is just one ploy; its determination can easily go from 20 weeks backward to ban the morning-after pill. Other ploys? Forcing a pregnant woman to look at ultrasound pictures, prohibiting a physician from discussing fetal abnormalities with his/her patient, and “in Utah, after a pregnant 17-year-old paid a man $150 to beat her in an effort to induce a miscarriage, legislators passed a law that would allow a woman in such circumstances to be charged with homicide.”

Unwanted pregnancies happen. When they do, the man involved can simply walk away, as countless millions have done and will continue to do. Why, then, should so many men purporting to have such omnipotent wisdom be empowered to eliminate a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body?

It’s going to get worse. Unless people — and that includes males of the species who still have brains and some concern for the future of womankind — start paying attention, and standing up to the fundamentalists of all stripes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the religious factions who claim authority over all women, it’s going to get worse than many people in today’s society can even begin to imagine.

Opponents of Abortion Advance Cause at State Level – NYTimes.com.

Catholic nuns urge passage of health bill

There’s hope. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may be trying to sink health reform because they feel they know best about women, but a few thousand good sisters are raising their own voices. And not just your everyday sisters.

Catholic nuns are urging Congress to pass President Barack Obama’s health care plan, in an unusual public break with bishops who say it would subsidize abortion.

Some 60 leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 Catholic nuns Wednesday sent lawmakers a letter urging them to pass the Senate health care bill. It contains restrictions on abortion funding that the bishops say don’t go far enough.

The letter says that “despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions.” The letter says the legislation also will help support pregnant women and “this is the real pro-life stance.”

This space, a space which claims several priests as good friends despite our frequent and vehement disagreements, hereby sides with the sisters. And offers a sincerely respectful three cheers.

Catholic nuns urge passage of Obama’s health bill – Politics – Wire – TheState.com.

Patients fight hospitals (& not just Catholic hospitals) for proper care

“Suppose I wind up being taken to a hospital,” said the lady with the penetrating blue eyes and a lovely, long braid over her shoulder. “How can I keep them from doing all those things I don’t want — ventilators, feeding tubes…?”

The lady with the lush braid was among a small group of retirement community residents with whom I spoke yesterday about end of life choices. None of them fear death. All of them fear aggressive, unwanted treatment. A colleague and I had been invited to talk with them about documents (advance directives, POLST forms, etc) and legal measures that can help insure a compassionate end. But the distressing reality is that there are no guarantees.

This is where we are with health care: patients having to fight against doctors, hospitals, systems — and directives from Bishops — for the right to die in peace.

A recent Kaiser Health News article (KHN is a publication of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and unrelated to Kaiser Permanente) cited problems arising from directives to Catholic hospitals about a variety of issues. The directives, issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, changed the policy on feeding tubes, for example, from “presumption in favor of”  to an “obligation.”

“This obligation,” the bishops said, “extends to patients in chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” such as persistent vegetative state, who might live for many years if given such care. A feeding tube is not required, however, if it wouldn’t prolong life, would be “excessively burdensome for the patient,” or would “cause significant physical discomfort.”The directive raises fresh questions about the ability of patients to have their end-of-life treatment wishes honored — and whether and how a health care provider should comply with lawful requests not consistent with the provider’s religious views. Hospitals and nursing homes do not have to comply with requests that are “contrary to Catholic moral teaching,” according to longstanding policy that, as in the case of the revised directive, applies to non-Catholic patients as well.

As the women in our group yesterday understand, you can wind up with unwanted treatment in all sorts of circumstances, not just when you’re dying.

Dr. Lachlan Forrow, a Harvard University medical ethicist and palliative care specialist, expressed strong concern about the new policy, stressing its potentially broad scope. “That gets to be a very, very large number of people,” said Forrow, who heads a panel developing recommendations for the state of Massachusetts on end-of-life care.

(A)ccording to Catholic officials and outside experts, the directive may well apply to a wider range of patients, those that it describes as having “chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” though the organization representing Catholic health facilities downplays the impact. Experts say this affected group could include those with massive strokes, advanced Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

If a patient or family didn’t want a feeding tube “and the reason they don’t want it is they basically want to die, then the Catholic institution would explain to them they can’t cooperate with that and they would have to go to another institution,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the bishops’ conference, who helped draft the policy.

Weinandy said “obviously the public should know what the directives say,” and patients and relatives “can easily download the directives or get a copy.”

Oh, sure. The EMT people are loading mom into the ambulance, and you ask them to wait until you download a few pages of papal edicts.

In the days before she died two weeks ago (in a non-Catholic hospital) my sister Jane occasionally showed signs that, though sleeping, she might be experiencing pain. My niece, who was keeping round-the-clock watch over her mother, more than once asked the attending physician for additional pain medication and was told, in a “There, there now, dear” voice that “We can’t hasten!!” My niece is a tenured law school professor.

Doctors make a lot of fuss about that “First, do no harm” business in the Hippocratic oath. Is withholding pain medication because it might cause death a few hours sooner than later doing no harm? Is inflicting painful, unwanted and unwarranted interventions for some obscure religious reason doing no harm?

Catholic Directive May Thwart End-Of-Life Wishes – Kaiser Health News.

Marriage: made/un-made in California

In the marriage equality case now being heard in San Francisco, and presumably headed for the Supreme Court, it’s worth looking at the points being made and the people being heard. One person being heard this week was the pro-Proposition 8 (i.e. the defendants, who want to keep the ban on same-sex marriage) star witness David Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn, touted as scholar and expert authority for reasons I don’t fully understand, is the founder and president of the Institute for American Values. His values aren’t exactly my values, but never mind. We are each American, and a case could be made for institutionalizing us both.

If you visit the IAV website, which seems initially designed to sell books (Blankenhorn and his fellows are industrious authors) because books get front-page billing, you are then invited to “Jump directly into the think tank!” — IAV being, as noted, a scholarly operation. This is what you will learn about IAV if you float to the top of the tank:

The Institute for American Values, founded in 1987, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to study and strengthen key American values. The Institute brings together leading scholars from across the human sciences and across the political spectrum for interdisciplinary deliberation, collaborative research, and to issue joint public statements.

We ask: What are the cultural values most closely associated, especially in the American context, with human flourishing? That is, what are those ideas and practices that tend to produce competence, character, citizenship, thriving families, and a vibrant civil society?

What are the main challenges to those values? And how can those values be encouraged and strengthened?

In operational terms, our mission can be stated concisely: Through groundbreaking research and analysis focusing on fundamental American values, and in forging strong and diverse partnerships, the Institute seeks to strengthen families and civil society globally.

Blankenhorn testified that extending marriage rights to those unable to conceive and bear children — this would have ruled out my final union, since we were 58 and 62 at the time — would change it from “a child-based public institution to an adult-centered private institution” and lead to all manner of horrors, polygamy, that sort of thing. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Bob Egelko reported, in what is ongoing, thorough coverage of the trial,

Blankenhorn, the trial’s last scheduled witness, said he believes “leading scholars” share his view that same-sex marriage would weaken heterosexuals’ respect for the institution and accelerate a half-century-old trend of increased cohabitation and rising divorce rates.

But under cross-examination by a lawyer for two same-sex couples, Blankenhorn was unable to cite any supporting statements or evidence for that conclusion from the scholars he relied on for his testimony, though he said he was sure some of them would agree with him.

Blankenhorn did get tangled up a bit in his testimony, leaving one to wonder how thoroughly the Prop 8 folks read his research. Or how solid is the thinking in the IAV tank.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer David Boies also pointed to a passage in Blankenhorn’s 2007 book, “The Future of Marriage,” that appeared to contradict his entire position.

“We would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were on the day before,” Blankenhorn wrote.

He said Tuesday he still holds that view, and also believes that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would probably be good for the couples and their children.

Go figure. Some of us watching this unfold are old enough to remember when my native state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, decided it would be all right for Mr. and Mrs. Loving to live there as husband and wife, even though they were of different racial backgrounds. Until that day, in 1967, the arguments had been that allowing people of different ethnicities to wed was bad for everyone. It may seem ridiculous now, but it was the law of the land in more than one state then.

The Bible is going to come in here somewhere before this is all over, since same-sex marriage opponents believe it is wrong because their Bible tells them so. Biblical invocation could be speculation on this writer’s part, but the Mormon Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pretty well got Prop 8 passed, so I think it unlikely they will stay out of any Supreme Court battle. Their Bible isn’t my Bible. Uh, oh; yes it is. Interestingly though, my Jesus taught love and compassion while their Jesus teaches that some of His children are less equal than others.

At the beginning of this trial (in which two same-sex couples are the plaintiffs) Chief U.S District Judge Vaughn Walker posed this question: How does a ban on same-sex weddings protect marriage, the stated goal of Proposition 8? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Whatever the verdict, it is expected that it will be appealed to the Supreme Court. So this may be about marriages made — or un-made — in California right now, but it will be a question of equal rights for all Americans tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Prop. 8 witness warns of societal upheaval.

Should Catholic Bishops Determine U.S.Health Policy?

Why do these two sentences, in a report by New York Times health writers Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn which appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, send chills down my spine?

Nelson (Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops , said Thursday that they could not accept Casey’s (Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa) initial proposal, in part because they saw money from the government and premiums as fungible.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the bishops’ anti-abortion committee said, ‘We continue to oppose, and urge others to oppose, the Senate bill unless and until this fundamental failure is remedied.’

A more recent report on NYTimes.com says Nelson will now support the bill, since it includes tighter restrictions on abortion coverage. I assume if it’s okay with Senator Nelson it’s okay with USCCB.

In the mid-1970s I had a friend I will call Sara, a 19-year-old single mom working hard to raise an infant daughter, who found herself pregnant with a probably defective potential baby. She saw no way to care for her existing child without a job — the pregnancy would cost her her job — let alone care for an unplanned and unwanted new child with special needs. Her church gave her no choice. She managed to have an abortion in fairly sterile circumstances, but because she was part of a small Catholic congregation she remained terrified for years afterward that she would be found out and condemned to hell. I remember thinking how sad it was that she could not seek comfort and support from her close-knit faith community.

I am fine with Sara’s beliefs and honor her for that struggle. I am not fine with having the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops determine health policy for all of us. And I wonder how many Saras will be denied proper care because the USCCB believes that some embryonic cells are more important than the right of a woman to control her own body. It remains to be seen if the bill passes, and what sliver of abortion coverage survives, but the tragedies of back-alley abortions, which I know from personal experiences and which the bishops cannot even begin to fathom, are quite likely to return.

What happened to that quaint notion of separation of church and state?

Menopausal Militia Mobilize for Choice

Bart Stupak is probably a nice, regular guy. It’s just that he belongs to a sub-species which cannot fully understand the need for a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. As it turns out, a growing number of the other sub-species don’t fully understand it either. This is because that right has existed since before they were born. One person who does understand is Representative Louise Slaughter, for whom the right to choose is not just an abstract. The battle now being fought by Slaughter and others is detailed in a New York Times article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg:

In the early 1950s, a coal miner’s daughter from rural Kentucky named Louise McIntosh encountered the shadowy world of illegal abortion. A friend was pregnant, with no prospects for marriage, and Ms. McIntosh was keeper of a secret that, if spilled, could have led to family disgrace. The turmoil ended quietly in a doctor’s office, and the friend went on to marry and have four children.

Today, Louise McIntosh is Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York. At 80, she is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus — a member of what Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, calls “the menopausal militia.”

The militia was working overtime in Washington last week, plotting strategy for the coming debate over President Obama’s proposed health care overhaul. With the Senate set to take up its measure on Monday, a fight over federal funding for abortion is threatening to thwart the bill — a development that has both galvanized the abortion rights movement and forced its leaders to turn inward, raising questions about how to carry their agenda forward in a complex, 21st-century world.

Not all stories such as that of Louise McIntosh’s friend had happy endings. More of them ended in doctors offices only after botched abortions left women permanently scarred and frequently barren, although last-minute treatment led to survival. Still more of them ended in terrible pain, isolation and death. But because those stories slowly faded into abstractions, even the women who will write new ones when legal abortion is denied them have a hard time understanding how critical this fight for health and sanity is.

It has been nearly 37 years since Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a right to abortion, and in that time, an entire generation — including Mr. Obama, who was 11 when Roe was decided — has grown up without memories like those Ms. Slaughter says are “seared into my mind.” The result is a generational divide — not because younger women are any less supportive of abortion rights than their elders, but because their frame of reference is different.

“Here is a generation that has never known a time when abortion has been illegal,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who studies attitudes toward abortion. “For many of them, the daily experience is: It’s legal and if you really need one you can probably figure out how to get one. So when we send out e-mail alerts saying, ‘Oh my God, write to your senator,’ it’s hard for young people to have that same sense of urgency.”

Polls over the last two decades have shown that a clear majority of Americans support the right to abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those over 30 and under 30, but the vocabulary of the debate has shifted with the political culture. Ms. Keenan, who is 57, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was illegal, tend to view it in stark political terms — as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But younger people tend to view abortion as a personal issue, and their interests are different.

The 30- to 40-somethings — “middle-school moms and dads,” Ms. Keenan calls them — are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights. Naral is running focus groups with these “millennials” to better learn how they think.

“The language and values, if you are older, is around the right to control your own body, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation as empowerment,” said Ms. Greenberg, the pollster. “That is a baby-boom generation way of thinking. If you look at people under 30, that is not their touchstone, it is not wrapped up around feminism and women’s rights.”

Abortion opponents are reveling in the shift and hope to capitalize. “Not only is this the post-Roe generation, I’d also call it the post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who notes that baby’s first video now occurs in the womb, often accompanied by music. “They can take the video and do the music and send it to the grandmother. We don’t even talk anymore about the hypothesis that having an abortion is like having an appendectomy. All of this informs the political pressures on Capitol Hill.”

Well, I am the grandmother. Those videos are not the baby. They are images of an embryo in the body of a sentient human being whose life does not belong to Bart Stupak.

The women who will suffer and die if the right to choose a legal abortion is denied, though, are not women who get pretty little sonogram videos made for their grandmothers and their scrapbooks. They are the very young, the desperate, the poor. They deserve respect. They have rights.

The pressures relating to abortion had seemed, for a time, to go dormant. Mr. Obama, who campaigned on a vow to transcend “the culture wars,” even managed to win confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, without the usual Washington abortion uproar. Most of his political energy around abortion has been spent trying to forge consensus on ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.

The quiet was shattered this month, when the House — with surprising support from 64 Democrats — amended its health care bill to include language by Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, barring the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. Lawmakers like Ms. Slaughter, who advocate for abortion rights, found themselves in the uncomfortable position of voting for the larger health bill even though the Stupak language was in it.

Proponents of the Stupak language say they are simply following existing federal law, which already bars taxpayer financing for abortions. Democratic leaders want a less restrictive provision that would require insurance companies to segregate federal money from private premiums, which could be used to purchase plans that cover abortion.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and chief deputy whip of the House, blames what she calls the complacency of her own generation for the political climate that allowed Mr. Stupak to prevail. At 43, the mother of three children, she has taken up the abortion rights cause in Congress, as she did as a state legislator.

But if she had to round up her own friends “to go down to the courthouse steps and rally for choice,” she said, she is not certain she could. When older women have warned that reproductive rights are being eroded, she said, “basically my generation and younger have looked at them as crying wolf.”

Unfortunately, reproductive rights have already been eroded, and it’s about to get worse.

The question now is whether the Stop Stupak coalition can succeed. Ms. Wasserman Schultz sees the debate as a chance to rouse women of all generations, and Ms. Slaughter warns that if Mr. Obama signs a bill including the amendment, it will be challenged in court. She says she has worried for years about what would happen “when my generation was gone.”

At the moment, her concern has diminished. “Right now, I’ve never seen women so angry,” Ms. Slaughter said. “And the people that were angriest with me were my three daughters.”

Being a member of Ms. Slaughter’s generation myself, my concern is still pretty high. My concern is for those women who don’t have the education, access and opportunities of our own daughters and granddaughters, those women who will suffer and die if their rights are taken away. If we have to cave to the likes of Bart Stupak — and the ultra-conservatives, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — in order to get a health bill, then so be it. But once we get a bill, the Menopausal Militia will continue to fight for those women threatened with suffering and death. Because we remember the stories, and they are terrible stories.

In Support of Abortion, It’s Personal vs. Political – NYTimes.com.

Right time for gay rights?

President Obama, having repeated his promise to end “don’t ask, don”t tell” on Saturday, got an additional nudge from the National Equality March on Sunday. Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters from across the country poured through the streets of the nation’s capital to demand equal rights for LGBT citizens. They have their work cut out for them. With a few small, scattered gains having been made, there are battlegrounds shaping up everywhere from Maine to California over the issues highlighted by the events of this past weekend.

My friend Joe, who celebrated 35 years with his partner last summer, asked why I haven’t written about gay rights. Boomers and Beyonders, he says, have a unique perspective. “We have won a few battles that won’t have to be fought again, but there’s a long road ahead and the netroots now taking the lead need to have strong support from the veterans.”

So here goes.

While reiterating his promise to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Obama  gave no timetable for doing so. It’s time. Given everything else on his plate, those of us who support gay rights may be willing to cut the president a little slack, but this small step toward clearing some of the large injustices gays and lesbians have lived with since approximately forever is one Obama should be taking soon. 2010 sounds about right.

Other gay rights battlegrounds are active in Maine, where a ballot measure would repeal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, in Washington where a referendum must pass if full domestic partnership benefits are retained, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, according to Change.org, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “is planning a major statement on marriage in November, preparing to issue new language about how the church views same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the new language is more of the same… hateful, tired and representative of a theology that views people who are LGBT as less than.”

Compared to the record of togetherness set by Joe and Robert, my marital history is pretty lousy. (Up until this, my final marriage, that is, and its extraordinarily happy 17 years.) So it is hard to see my marital state being threatened by theirs being legitimized. Joe and I were also part of an AIDS support group during the 1990s, and witnessed tragic injustices suffered by dying young men whose hospital doors were barred to those who loved them best. A lot more needs changing than just “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) was quoted by Elizabeth Williamson and Neil King in Monday’s Wall Street Journal as saying it was “now possible ‘to get a buy-in from the military’ to end a policy opposed by gays and many liberals since it was passed by Congress in 1993.” The monumental pile of global problems to be solved may keep Obama from seizing this good opportunity; gay rights supporters could keep that door open until he does act.

Global issues aside, one home front fact remains: LGBT Americans have been unjustly treated in innumerable ways, for innumerable years.

Getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” seems a very good way to start putting things right.