The New Scarlet Letter: A for Abortion
Steven D references an article by Kate Cosby and my friend and colleague, sociologist Carole Joffe: The Loneliness of the Abortion Patient
[A] clear gap -- of class, income and education -- exists between those who work in this increasingly professionalized reproductive justice movement and those women who now form the majority of abortion patients. A recent study from the Guttmacher Institute, the leading research organization on reproductive health issues, paints a dramatic picture of the divide between nonpoor and poor women: "The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women living above 300 percent of the poverty level." Not surprisingly, there is a similar gap in access to contraception, leading the Institute to speak of "Two Americas" for American women with respect to the ability to control their reproductive lives.
That cannot, and will not, happen while a woman's right to choose abortion continues to be stigmatized by the very people who claim to uphold it. "Safe, legal and rare" is a meaningless mouthful of pabulum, a hollow mantra delivered by rote that has tolerated and even enabled a relentless wave of so-called "reasonable restrictions" -- all fueled by the religious right -- that might sound fairly innocuous to the uninformed. But in the aggregate, such measures even now are shutting down access to any abortion services at all, let alone to the high quality of safe and professional abortion care that any woman deserves.
A new report from the Guttmacher Institute [pdf link] details the level of repression that years of fear and intimidation by the religious right and the politicians they control -- along with years of complacency by "pro-choice" politicians heeding the advice of consultants who oppose abortion rights and tell them that they cannot risk alienating "people of faith" -- have already inflicted upon the women of our country.
We all know that abortion rights are not the be-all and end-all of reproductive justice, but we also know that there is no reproductive justice without them.
Joffe and Cosby reflect: "Rather than expressing solidarity with others experiencing unwanted pregnancies, many abortion patients take pains to distinguish themselves as different from other women getting abortions."
How could it be otherwise for women living in states permeated by the politics of the religious right, when even the leaders of our own advocacy organizations admit to the "personal religious belief" that abortion is a sin, and feel their "knees shaking" when confronted by religious disapproval? When even dedicated advocates of a woman's right to choose abortion now fear to say the word out loud for fear of offending "nuanced" politicians and the media?
As an activist who has worked in the abortion rights movement for almost ten years, I know well the hesitation that comes when I am seated comfortably on a cross-country flight and the person next to me asks, "So what do you do?" I am proud of myself when I march for choice or counsel a woman through a difficult decision, and then wonder why I can't say the word abortion during a dinner party. I struggle to talk to the media and elected officials in ways that are on-message and yet embrace the complexity of women's lives and the nuanced positions on abortion that exist outside of sound bytes and talking points.
Dr. William F. Harrison [video link] of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has provided his patients with abortion care for many years. Considering the possible consequences of candor, no one could blame Dr. Harrison for treading softly in public -- but his friends and enemies alike know that is not his way. With the doctor's permission, I give you his own solution to that dilemma.
I have been speaking the word ABORTION on planes for a long time now when I am flying alone. I suppose I will have to stop taking my wife with me to NAF and MSFC events since she is embarrassed by my aggressive outspokenness. As I have said, I say the word loud and clear when talking to my seat mates and as a general rule, things get very quiet for rows around. So far, I have never found anyone who didn't say something like this at the end of my harangues, "Hummm. You have told me some things I never thought about," or "I agree with everything you said. Why don't more doctors say these things?" And I always have a copy of my book I give them with the request that they pass it on. Works for me! :-) wfh
Dr. Harrison has his reasons.
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.
Granted that for Dr. Harrison, for me, and for others who actually provide abortion care, saying abortion out loud might be easier than it is for many. After all, abortion is not a political abstraction for us -- a "special interest" to be feared as a political albatross and nuanced into oblivion -- but our everyday reality.
Depending on our specific training, we dedicate ourselves to activism, we defend against voluminous state regulations that expose doctors to criminal charges should we forget to complete yet another form, we worry about protecting our patients and ourselves from the kind of terrorism that Homeland Security ignores, we perform the ultrasound scans that legislatures want to force women to look at even against their will, we comfort worried moms and husbands, we smell blood -- and in between performing those procedures that politicians won't pronounce, when a woman tells us what she can't tell her own family, we hold her while she cries.
So we are not afraid to say the A-word.
But we aren't the only ones. Saying "abortion" out loud is no problem at all for James Dobson, for Tony Perkins, or for the GOP death pimps trying to make abortion unsafe, illegal, and rarely performed except by women themselves. Or for those among us who dismiss Roe as "badly written law" and would prefer to see the issue returned to the states -- code-speak for returning abortion to Motel 6.
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.
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 safe and legal abortion is already coming to pass -- a dark vision crowded with the ghosts of America's past. Yet another colleague knows that we are already headed back to the future.
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.
Yet another provider of abortion care spoke for us all when she spoke to the nation: "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. ..."
Steven D stands with my colleagues, with me, and with the women we dedicate ourselves to serving with the best care possible: maybe you ... your mother ... your wife ... your lover ... your sister ... your daughter ... your friend. Where do you stand? Do you have the moral courage to stand with us, and start saying "a woman's right to abortion" out loud? Because until we do, saving women's lives will remain just another politically inconvenient special interest.
Photo Dr. William Harrison: ABC Nightline
The New Scarlet Letter: A for Abortion | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
The New Scarlet Letter: A for Abortion | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)