Should Abortion Be ‘Rare’?

This first appeared on Huffington Post

Beware the Rare-word.

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.

 

Laboratories of the States: The good… and then, the very bad and ugly

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Will a few states rule the United States? Or fundamentally change it? And if so, who are the winners and losers? Depending on your point of view, this “laboratory-of-the-states” business is good news today… or not.

The metaphor dates to the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 case, New State Ice Company v. Liebmann and is often used today to assert the success of one social program or another. The best most recent — and decidedly successful — laboratory-of-the-state demonstration is Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. This writer’s extraordinary attorney friend Kathryn Tucker published a paper in the 2008 Michigan Law Review, when she was Director of Legal Affairs for Compassion & Choices, titled “In the Laboratory of the States.” Tucker wrote, “Because Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has proven both useful and harmless, this Article concludes that it is time for other states to follow Oregon’s lead and enact their own legislation to allow their citizens an alternative to what otherwise could be a prolonged and painful death from terminal illness.”

Tucker deserves much of the credit for expanding the Oregon law into the movement that now seems a clear national trend, along with Compassion & Choices (full disclosure: this writer has long been a C&C supporter, volunteer and local board member). Washington and Vermont have passed similar bills and Montana wisely concluded that it’s none of the state’s business what a doctor and patient decide to do, making physician aid in dying now legal in those states. A handful of other states have pending bills and still others are mounting strong movements. So Oregon’s laboratory of success is likely to be the nation’s overall policy in the foreseeable future, and we’re all better off for that. (Opposition has come from religious and political forces that hold onto a belief that God requires some sort of existential suffering be visited upon Her dying creatures.)

The laboratory-of-the-states pathway is both effective and well trodden, said San Jose State Professor/author Larry Gerston at a recent Commonwealth Club political panel event. The panel was looking at other current trends, but Gerston specifically cited the Oregon Death with Dignity model as an example of how it all works.

Now — what if Texas becomes a laboratory for the denial of reproductive rights?

In Texas, just for a rough overview, recent laws have passed requiring parental notification and now parental consent; requiring abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers with hospital-grade operating rooms; requiring women who seek abortions to submit to ultrasounds and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. The list of harsh, medically unnecessary restrictions and requirements is long, and a clear violation of both ‘best medical practice’ and women’s rights.

It is worth noting who are the winners and losers in these state laboratories. In Oregon, the winners are we the people everywhere. Few of us would turn down the right to a humane and compassionate death, which is made a possible choice by death-with-dignity laws. Losers? No one. No one is compelled to choose a hastened death, anywhere, any time.

In Texas, however, the scorecard is seriously skewed. The winners are archconservatives that have learned that this is a good way to get votes. Winners also include those, men and women alike, whose religion teaches that life begins at conception and thus all abortion is wrong. This writer can appreciate those who hold such views, but it is not possible to uphold the rights of a fetus without denying the right of the woman in whose body it resides. Many of us come down on the side of already-alive women and on the doctrine of church/state separation.

And the losers in Texas: women. All women. Primarily they are women without money or resources, who are frequently disadvantaged and disproportionately women of color. These women are already turning to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies; increasingly they are turning up in emergency rooms with failed attempts to self-abort. To a lesser degree, but still worth considering, the losers include those — men, women, boys, girls — who need the other services provided by rapidly closing clinics: birth control, sex education, STD testing, breast cancer screening and many other critically important needs that will now go unmet.

It’s hard to contemplate the win-lose picture of this Texas laboratory. But if it indeed becomes a laboratory-of-the-states argument in upcoming Supreme Court cases, and elsewhere, the losers will be all of us. You and me. We the people.

Devious ways to cancel rights

A Supreme Court decision in 1973 affirmed the right of women in the U.S. to make their own choices about reproduction, including the choice of having an abortion.

But oh well, never mind.

Those who oppose this constitutional right have chosen to negate it by going around the law: forcing clinics to close, layering restrictions, inserting unnecessary road-blocks, passing medically inappropriate or erroneous state laws, denying access to women who might want to exercise their right. So the right remains, but the justice is gone. If a woman has money and resources she may still choose to have an abortion. But if she’s poor, or without power, in well over half of the country she effectively is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy no matter what. Or to try something that can leave her sick, maimed or dead.

“I think it is more difficult to get an abortion in the country today,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, in one of the better understatements of the year so far. To the members of this organization, this is very good news.

To poor, suffering, desperate women unable to exercise their own right — life and liberty included — the news is increasingly bad.

But it’s another group that’s getting me down. The New York Times reported in a recent story that Americans United for Life sees this flood of new laws as “life-affirming legislation designed to protect women from the harms inherent in abortion.”

THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PROTECTING WOMEN. This has strictly to do with elevating the right of zygotes and fetuses above and beyond the right of women. HARM IS NOT INHERENT IN ABORTION. (It’s very hard not to scream.) Harm is inherent in the denial of women’s right to control their own bodies. Can these good folks not learn ANYTHING from history? Millions of women were maimed, sickened, left sterile — or dead when abortion was illegal. It will happen again. It’s already happening in much of the country.

Meanwhile, about that constitutional right to choose? Oh, well, never mind…

I (might) heart New Mexico

Flag-map of New Mexico
Flag-map of New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Mexico is, so far, batting 500: the good citizens of Albuquerque voted down (on November 19) a ballot measure that would have denied women the right to an abortion after 20 weeks. Now a case is underway in a New Mexico district court to establish whether a dying citizen has the right to hasten his or her death with the aid of a physician.

On the surface, the two issues might seem to have little in common — other than both being in New Mexico and involving the two primary causes with which I’ve been concerned for the past several decades. But they are at the heart of similar social justice concerns: individual autonomy, the individual woman’s right to control her own body, the individual of whatever gender, race or religion to choose a humane and compassionate death. They are opposed by the exact same groups: those who say they want “less government” — yet would involve the government in these most personal and private matters, and those who say they want religious freedom — yet would have their own religion dictate to everyone else.

Sanity prevailed in Albuquerque last month. Late term abortions are the most difficult and painful of decisions, and account for only a tiny fraction (one or two percent) of all abortions. But the people who put the issue on the ballot saw this as one more chance to chip away at the already diminishing right to a safe and legal abortion in the U.S.

One can only hope that sanity will prevail again. The end-of-life case now being argued was brought by a 49-year-old woman named Aja Riggs who has advanced uterine cancer, and two physicians who want to be able to prescribe medications – without fear of prosecution – to terminally ill patients wanting to end life on their own terms. Riggs’ cancer is currently in remission, but she has gone through aggressive treatment and extensive periods of terrible pain and suffering and says, “I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end.”

Would any of us? Would you?

Most of us would feel that decision – what to do as we face life’s end – is one we’d prefer to make with our loved ones and our physicians and without governmental interference. Just as many of us – well reflected in the Albuquerque vote – would prefer having women make their own decisions with loved ones and physicians and without governmental interference.

Maybe reason will win again – a win for New Mexico and the rest of us.

Rape doesn’t cause pregnancy? Excuse me?

Trent Franks
Trent Franks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, according to Rep. Trent Franks, the incidence of pregnancy resulting from rape is negligible, so probably we don’t need to consider allowing abortion when rape or incest is involved.  Franks is not big on considering women at all, or the issues women face.

Franks would have us consider only the fetus. His Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, currently being discussed by himself and a lot of mostly men in Washington, would ban abortion after 22 weeks.

Franks was himself unborn when I became pregnant after an incidence of workplace rape. Such occurrences are probably less common today, progress having been made in workplace protection since 1958. But I would be willing to bet they still happen. I wonder if Franks cares. I wonder if he has heard about sexual abuses in the military? Or unreported date rape? They happen; unintended pregnancies happen.  I wonder if Franks is able to get his mind around the fact that there is a woman before there is a zygote?

I appreciate Franks’ concern with the unborn; I just want him to consider the already-born. They are real, live women facing difficult, complex issues that no one — NO ONE — could possibly understand but they themselves.

Abortion is a difficult and complex issue. I personally wish it would never be necessary. But for Franks and his fellow ideologues to inch it back toward criminalization, as they would like, is a violation of the basic rights of the women whose existence they prefer to ignore.

Mothers, daughters & Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem (Photo credit: Queen of Planning)

The big guns, gender-neutrally speaking, were all out at the recent DCCC Women’s Power Lunch in San Francisco: former (and this crowd hopes future) Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, an assortment of other House members including Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, honoree Nan Tucker McEvoy and most of everyone who is anyone progressive in Northern California. But MC Gloria Steinem, 78 and proud of it (and looking pretty darned good to this 79-year-old) was still the star.

Steinem spoke with characteristic vigor about women’s rights currently very much in jeopardy, suggesting that many of the country’s economic issues could be solved simply by raising women’s pay to the level of men’s, and that fixing other inequities wouldn’t be a bad idea either. She also homed in on the Republican pledge to overturn both Obamacare and Roe v Wade. If a constitutional amendment were passed declaring the fertilized egg a “person” with full rights, Steinem said, women would not only lose their own rights but face serious endangerment. Such as: a pregnant woman thought to be inclined toward trying to abort could be physically restrained through the remainder of her pregnancy.

In a few poignant moments Steinem spoke to the largely female audience of the special relationships among women — mothers and daughters, sisters, grandchildren. “We are living the lives our mothers coul

d not,” she said, and working to protect the lives of our daughters and granddaughters.

I feel certain that my gentle, righteous mother would not have supported for a moment my being forced to continue an unplanned pregnancy and bring an unwanted child into the world. I hope, partly through my support for women’s rights, my granddaughters will have the right to make their own safe choices.

Abortion foes win — who loses?

Mississippi is poised to become the only state with no abortion clinic, if the latest effort to curb reproductive rights in that state succeeds. That latest effort would be the newly passed law requiring physicians associated with abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, which is set to go into effect July 1. This regulation will join the laws requiring waiting periods,  multiple visits, parental consent and a long list of other measures designed to limit a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

None of these laws have anything to do with protecting women. They have to do with politics, power and the infliction of one person’s belief (Life begins at conception? A fetus’ rights trump those of the woman in whose body it resides?) upon another. The informed consent provision, whereby a woman must know and understand her decision to have an abortion, is law across the U.S. It is rational and right.

But those — predominately white males — who presume to know better than women with unwanted pregnancies, are slowly wiping out reproductive rights: restriction by restriction, state by state, law by law. A lot of them presume not only to know best, but to speak for God. Prof. Matt Friedeman for instance, who spends his days (at least one per week of them) harassing women entering the Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion facility for reasons only those women understand, tells them, “the Lord wants you to love that baby.” Friedeman knows this? In all the conversations with God I have had, and I am a believer in personal prayer, She has never suggested to me that Matt Friedeman is Her spokesman.

All else aside, in the battle for women’s wombs, here is who loses: the poor woman, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the overburdened. If you’ve got money and resources in Mississippi, or anywhere else, and you’re faced with an unintended pregnancy, you go somewhere else and have a safe abortion. If you don’t, you risk potential tragedy trying to self-abort, or you simply bring one more unwanted child into the world.

What an infinitely better world it would be if those who presume to know women’s bodies better than women themselves would focus their considerable time and energies instead on improving the lives of the already-born.