God Forbid
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Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 02:10:56 AM EST
In The War Between Heart and Mind, the Rev. Tom Davis, Clergy Advisory Board Chair for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, suggests that the Religious Right do some soul-searching about abortion.

If, God forbid, the "right to life" people actually get what they say they want -- the criminalization of abortion -- millions of them may be stunned at their reactions when they see or read about:

·    Women forced to testify at the trial of doctors accused of doing abortions. Refusal to testify could result in charges of contempt.

·    Hospitals required to report suspected illegal abortions.

·    A startling increase in teen births on the part of women who cannot afford to travel to a state where abortion is still allowed.

·    Police coming to the emergency room to question women who are suffering infections or other damage due to an illegal abortion.

[I]f the law is largely ignored and illegal abortions occur in great number, then what was the point of the law? Clearly it was not to stop abortions. It was to institutionalize a principle, the principle that women do not have this right. That principle is something that the mind can understand abstractly, but it also produces consequences that fill the heart with revulsion.

My own heart is filled with both revulsion and sorrow, because for some women access to legal -- safe -- abortion is already out of reach again, in fact if not in law.    

Today, 33 years after that still-elusive right was codified, let's glance back over our shoulders for a long, hard look at what so many "pro-life" Christians say they - and God - want.

Most abortion providing physicians are now either approaching age 65 or already past the conventional retirement age. Many continue to care for women seeking abortion because there is no one to replace them. And because they remember. [video links]

Dr. Mildred Hanson provided women with abortion care before Roe v. Wade.  

If you saw ... the morbidity and mortality rates from illegal abortion and the number of unwanted pregnancies, it was obvious that something needed to be done. No amount of proselytizing or theorizing about the sanctity of unborn life was going to change that reality.
Abortion is a part of medical care, and people who seek abortions are every bit as ethical, as Christian--as godlike, if you will--as those who don't have abortions. And I really believe that with all my heart. And the people who do abortions are every bit as ethical and as kind and loving and godlike as those who think abortion is wrong.
When you talk about the abortion deaths that occurred in pre-Roe v. Wade days, young people today don't believe it. Young doctors today do not believe it. ...  We just cannot let that happen again.

We saw women who were desperate to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, who would resort to whatever it took to end that unwanted pregnancy, and sometimes they actually put their life on the line. They went to illegal abortionists. They bled to death. They died of infection, or they did self-mutilation procedures in an attempt to end the pregnancy: coat hangers in the uterus, slippery elm in the uterus, potassium permanganate in their vagina--anything they could think of.

Dr. Harry Jonas remembers his experiences as a young physician in Missouri.

When I was a first-year intern at the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, the first patient I had was a woman who'd had 11 children and had self-aborted herself, because she couldn't get a legal abortion, with some instrument of some kind. And I was in charge of her case, as a young intern, with her intestine coming out of her vagina because she'd perforated the vagina with the instrument. And she had massive infection, multiple abscesses in all the vital organs in the body and she died.

I still remember that patient. I remember exactly what she looked like. I remember the bed she was in on Ward 1418 in Barnes Hospital. I remember seeing her in the emergency room when she came in, and she told us that she was desperate because she had a husband that was gone most of the time and a troublemaker. And she could not raise another child. She could not feed another child. She had not been able to find any doctor that would help her. I'll never forget that.
Many [women] ended up with illegal abortions, and many of them died. And for 25 years prior to Roe v. Wade in my state of Missouri, the most common cause of death in women of childbearing age was death due to infected, illegal, self-induced abortion.

Dr. Eugene Glick is perhaps best known as the author of the authoritative text Surgical Abortion.  But Dr. Glick has his pre-Roe memories, as well.

I remember one woman had taken a coke bottle, broken it off, fired the end of it so she made her own speculum. And she put the neck into the vagina and then got it against the cervix, and then somehow or other managed to get this rubber tubing up inside. And she got quite ill.

I remember getting introduced to something called septic abortion. It is a condition that is caused by the breakdown of bacteria in an infected site. I remember a woman losing the tips of her fingers because of the endotoxic shock causing the blood vessels to shrink down. It was just terrible.

They were denied the medical help to save their life unless they confessed. Detectives came in and were questioning. Whenever we got a hint that it might be illegal, or the causation was some sort of illegal operation, we had to report it.

I'd say, "You're going to die if you don't tell us. You're going to die and it's going to be terrible." That's a horrible thing for a doctor to have to scare the hell out of his patient in order to save her life. It's terrible, but that's what we did. That's what we had to do.
The image that I retain was that of a 31-year-old Mexican-American woman who died of endotoxic shock with her husband and four or five children around. I see the bed. I see the kids crying and I see the husband crying. It's a strange condition, this endotoxic shock. Your ability to reason and talk is fine. You just don't have any blood pressure and have a blue coloration. We know they're going to die and yet they haven't lost it. The last thing that goes is the brain. The kidney is shut down. The heart's going a little irregular and there's nothing we can do, because the bacteria and clots have gone throughout the body into all the blood vessels of all the vital organs, and yet they're talking to us. It's a sense of helplessness.

The candor of Dr. William Harrison of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has ignited a recent firestorm of condemnation among the Religious Right. But he has a long memory, too.

After embarking upon his medical career in the late 1960s, he originally opted to specialize in obstetrics because of the joy he experienced at the birth of his own children. But then came what he calls a career-transforming experience.

"I was assigned a patient who was a middle-aged black woman," he explained. "She was a very sad-looking woman. When I asked what was wrong, she said she had a tumor in her belly. I examined her and quickly determined that it was a far advanced pregnancy."

"She looked at me and she began to cry. She said, 'Oh, God doctor, I was hoping that it was cancer.' I didn't tell this story for years and years, because every time I tell it, I cry."
Then came a litany of patients who had undergone horrific, botched procedures. One woman had used such a caustic substance on herself to terminate her pregnancy that when she arrived at Harrison's clinic she had no vagina.

"If you saw the hundreds of patients who have suffered such serious trauma in trying to self-abort, you would soon realize that there has to be a more humane way of dealing with unwanted pregnancies."

But this death-dealing version of a "pro-life" philosophy is what many Christians claim to want. Even without the reversal of Roe v. Wade, their vision of an America free of the "taint" of legal abortion is already coming to pass -- a dark vision crowded with the ghosts of America's past.

In November PBS's "Frontline" presented a preview of the America that the Religious Right wants restored in an excellent documentary on the lack of reproductive freedom in Mississippi today: The Last Abortion Clinic, viewable online at the PBS website.   And in a story about that film, Whistling past the Graveyard, I have written of how access to abortion care already is being eroded in other states, including mine.

Even in the major metropolitan area of Dallas, "moral values" TRAP laws are driving women and teenage girls into deep and dangerous waters. Two or three women a week finally make their way to our clinic only after having tried everything from self-injecting multiple vials of Methergine, to ingesting up to 30 tabs of Cytotec (10 times the therapeutic dose when used as the stage-two drug in medical abortion), to taking or doing just about anything else you can think of, including punching their abdomens purple. Some of the women who try to abort themselves are from countries where abortion is illegal, and they already "know" and accept that abortion is dangerous.

But it could be worse, and in some places it is. What follows is from a friend who is an abortion provider in yet another southern state, and who saw "abortion wards" up close and personal before 1973.

Our local university medical hospital tells me they see 12-20 patients per year already who have either self-induced or had illegal abortions. Some make it, some don't. These are underage and/or poor women mostly and a few daughters of pro-life families who can't be seen entering a clinic or going against what their parents believe. So we're already living with this at that level and know it will increase when Roe falls. As a matter of fact I've already been approached to help them organize an 'abortion ward' -- like in the old days -- as they know their caseload will mushroom.
I know other 'private' docs and hospitals are experiencing the same but just like in pre-Roe days, mum's the word. Most people don't even realize hospitals had abortion wards before Roe. Just like what's happening today, it simply wasn't talked about openly.

We deal occasionally with a patient who's attempted to self-induce (through use of caustic douching or ingestion - most common being taking an entire bottle of quinidine tabs chased with castor oil). When the quinidine dosers call, we get involved with getting them to E.R. before their cardiac rhythm is interrupted -- then if the pregnancy continues, we provide abortion care at little or no charge -- as patients are usually poor.
To know now how safe and simple this care is and deal with the fallout from criminalization (knowing that those injuries and infections were totally avoidable -- except for the religious right, ignorant, backward, etc., etc., etc.), going back to holding women in my arms while they die a totally preventable death is not something I aspire to and not sure I can hold up to it.

Yet another abortion provider in the Deep South courageously appeared in the "Frontline" film and spoke for all of us.

Historically, you will find information about a woman called the Red Rubber Catheter Lady. She would travel at least 200 miles coming out of Arkansas, ... and for $200, she would insert a catheter in a woman's uterus, a pregnant woman's uterus, and leave her. And the reason that you could find the documentation for this is that these women would end up in emergency rooms bleeding and septic, with a red rubber catheter still hanging out of their uterus.
Abortion is not a fundamental right for many, many women, particularly for poor women and rural women. There's no doubt about it that it is as though abortion is illegal.
So what the state has done is basically subjected a class of women, poor women, to forced maternity on behalf of the state.

And they can do it because they can get away with it. These are voiceless and faceless women. They don't have representation in the legislature or really in Congress. No one's speaking on their behalf. And in that example, to some extent, it is like the pre-Roe days. ...
[W]ell, I know what poor women would do if Roe was overturned. They would go back to aborting themselves, or they would go back to the Red Rubber Catheter Lady who inserts a catheter in a pregnant uterus and leaves the woman. And it's so senseless, because this is basic human health care.
I think that most women and men are asleep. I don't think they realize what's going on. And in that respect, I think that the assault on abortion rights is very clever; it's very smart. And we are losing. ...

Yes, we are losing.  Only Saturday I took a call from a young woman who has been pregnant for 16 weeks, now one week too many for a woman who wants to have an abortion in a Texas clinic.  I explained the law, and offered her the only help I could: referrals to three ambulatory surgical centers in a state the size of France. She asked, "How much will it cost, about $700?"  I told her that the cost in any of the ASCs to which I could refer her would be about twice that much.  And then she very softly said, "Thank you, but if it's that much, don't even give me the numbers. I'm going to get rid of this no matter what I have to do, but at least when I do it myself it's gonna be free."  She didn't sound upset or angry, only quietly and absolutely determined.

Then she said goodbye.  And then, with my face in my hands, I cried.

God help her. And God forbid.  

Caole Joffe has written an excellent overview of this issue, Reproductive Regression, published yesterday at TomPaine.com.  These are her final paragraphs.

So, given the current realities of American society--where teens take matters in their own hands to end a pregnancy, where anti-abortion lawmakers cut funds for contraception, where "pharmacists for life" lecture married women while refusing to refill their birth control prescriptions--am I suggesting that American women really are in the same boat as they were before Roe? The answer, of course, is no--or more correctly, not yet.

The number of illegal abortions in the United States--and attendant injuries and deaths--currently is nowhere near where it was in the 1950s and 1960s.  Most unwanted teengage pregnancies obviously do not have as their outcome a life sentence in prison. Most public officials do not have to undergo humiliating questioning about past abortions in order to get a desired promotion. Rather, these incidents are cautionary tales. They are harbingers of what the American reproductive landscape could quite quickly become--unless Americans demand a return to common sense and repudiate the madness that a powerful minority seeks to impose on us.


by moiv on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 02:27:53 AM EST

This is a welcome column by Carole Joffe, especially after the infuriating column in the NY Times yesterday by William Saletan.  Saletan considers himself pro-choice, but sees his role as a pro-choice man to tell all of the leaders of the pro-choice movement why they created the political problem for Roe v. Wade, and how they should be more willing to compromise and throw out a few reproductive rights. Instead of taking his arguments to the religious right, where they belong, he constantly wags the finger of one hand and points the finger of the other hand at pro-choice women, as if Backlash is something that no one ever heard of.

But yesterday he went further. He said the pro-choice movement doesn't support contraception, which would lower abortion rates.  Who does he think is supporting contraception?  Has he heard the Pope speak fondly of contraception lately?  Has he watched fundamentalists urge that emergency contraception be made available immediately for over-the-counter sales?

The pro-choice path to those results (of lowering the abortion rate-cc) is simple. Help every woman when she doesn't want an abortion: before she's pregnant. That means abstinence for those who can practice it, and contraception for everybody else. Nearly half of the unintended pregnancies in this country result in abortions, and at least half of our unintended pregnancies are attributable to women who didn't use contraception. The pregnancy rate among these women astronomically exceeds the pregnancy rate among women who use contraception. The No. 1 threat to the unborn isn't the unchurched. It's the unprotected.

Apparently, he doesn't know that men can use contraception, if they are so concerned about unintended pregnancies that might result in abortion.  And they won't even have to worry about a pro-life pharmacist turning down a prescription.  They can just go to a vending machine in the men's room at a rest stop.

It is impossible that he is unaware that, from Griswold v. Connecticut to now, it is the reproductive freedom movement that has been fighting for contraceptive access, insurance coverage and availability. Cheap shot.

He also wants women who have abortions to be required to go to counseling on "contraceptive diligence."

Some pro-choice activists would go further, by pushing for more contraceptive diligence in the abortion counseling process, especially on the part of those women who come back for a second abortion.

How about a law instead that requires men to get counseling on contraceptive diligence if they cause an unintended pregnancy?  Saletan is way off base.

by cyncooper on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 04:26:57 AM EST

...he also seems to miss the fact that there not only is a war on abortion access but that this is paired with a war on contraception access as well.

Dominionist "pro-life" groups have targeted the IUD and practically all hormonal birth control methods, claiming they are abortifacients, and have made sure that in proposed "Roe-challenge" bills already pending in several state legislatures (such as Michigan and Indiana) that not just RU-486 but Plan B, the IUD, Norplant, the "Patch" contraceptive, Depo-Provera, and even the Pill are likely to be banned (as these laws explicitly ban anything that could prevent implantation).

Many groups, like American Life League, have even started targeting non-hormonal methods of birth control, claiming that condoms give a false sense of security and pushing for funding to be cut to HIV prevention groups that hand out condoms in other countries; dominionist groups have also explicitly worked to prohibit state college campus groups from distributing birth control (including condoms), on the grounds it "increases promiscuity", and in some cases have also pushed for age limits on how old one can be to buy condoms (requiring parental consent for minors to buy condoms, for instance).

In many cases, this can be literally life-threatening; hormonal birth control methods, among others, are used explicitly in treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome and Depo-Provera is occasionally used off-label in endometriosis treatment as a substitute for estrogen agonists (as you don't have a period for six months on Depo-Provera).  

In fact, the "war" on anything related to sexuality even goes beyond abortion and birth control--many dominionist groups are fighting approval of a vaccine that could practically eliminate cervical and penile cancer because the virus that causes them is spread by sexual contact, and some dominionist groups are even calling for expanding "conscience clauses" to HIV drugs or to requiring labels on HIV medications admonishing users about the "dangerous gay lifestyle".  There are already documented cases of people being denied antiherpetic medications like Zovirax under "conscience clauses" (again, potentially life-endangering; antiherpetics are also used preemptively in cases of adult exposures to chickenpox, in cases of exposures of kids with depressed immune systems to chickenpox (like kids going through chemo) who cannot receive the live chickenpox jab, or workers in research labs who work with macacque monkeys who may have been exposed to herpes-B virus (which causes fatal brain infections in humans)).

I've posted two posts on the matter:
"Every Zygote is Sacred", or "Can I have my BC, already?"
"Moral Refusal" extends to healthcare in general

(Yes, this is something that affects me personally.  Both myself and my sister were actually denied necessary medical treatment for years due to our dominionist parents refusing to allow us to go on the pill.  In both cases, our doctors specifically recommended it for medical reasons, not as contraception.)

by dogemperor on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 11:07:29 AM EST

This administration has demonstrated their propensity for leaving enormous ugly loose ends lying around and when their feverish lurch at Iraq has gone the way it has, how can we expect them to be any more concerned for the aftermath of what they do to Roe?

by TomChicago on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 08:05:54 AM EST

Will Griswald v. Conn. follow ?

"It was 1971. I had four children", she told me, "and we had just moved to a new house. It was a miracle, that house. We shouldn't have been able to afford it, but we were very lucky. We were so lucky...  So, there we were -  my husband was working but not earning much. We were scraping by, but barely - after paying the bills and the mortgage we didn't even have enough to eat. We got food stamps, government surplus food.

I felt overwhelmed simply with taking care of four children, but we badly needed money and a friend told me of a special teacher's aide program - I applied. The program allowed participants to get teaching certificates without going through the normal, expensive procedure. I was one of the last applicants accepted, and the program closed the next year. But I squeaked in. It was a miracle. I look back now and just can't believe how lucky I was.

Meanwhile, I got a referral to a gyncologist to be fitted for a new diaphragm. After my last child the old one no longer fit. But when I went to the gynocologist, he refused to fit me with a new one. He told me it was against his religious principles - there I was, a married woman with four children ! He didn't care.

Soon after that I became pregnant. I knew I couldn't have the baby - I felt that I had to protect the children I had, I felt and still do that I could not have had that child and been able to take care of the ones I already had. It was not an easy decision, believe me. But I felt I was fighting for the wellbeing and survival of my children and my family.

It seems so bizarre to me - how far things have come for women's rights since then, and now we might lose it all again. I just don't want to think about it too much."

This story is true and occured in Massachusetts.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 01:14:25 PM EST

Women in the Catholic health care system -- which is vast -- can't get any kind of support for their contraceptive needs. Actually, sterilization by women is the most highly used form of contraception.

And to further the war on women, the Catholic church also disapproves of vitro fertilization for women who WANT to have children.  Two steps forward, ten steps back!

by cyncooper on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 04:20:47 PM EST

The male pill.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 04:53:05 PM EST
Could oppose that, I suppose.

But they'd open themselves up to enormous ridicule per Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" :

[ song from the movie  ]

"Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great
when a sperm gets wasted, God gets quite irate !"

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 04:57:18 PM EST

... had some important insights, too ... see  

by cyncooper on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 08:41:47 PM EST
Used to be a feminist button: Every sperm does not deserve a name.

by cyncooper on Tue Jan 24, 2006 at 08:43:50 PM EST

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