Anti-Abortion Activists Push New, More Radical Egg-As-Person Measures

Wendy Norris

A resurgent movement to place "personhood" measures on state ballots across the nation to ban abortion and comprehensive reproductive care could have far sweeping implications.

Wendy Norris is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado. Her work can also be read at the public policy blog, Unbossed.com.  She will be covering the "egg-as-person" movement for Rewire in the coming months.  

Other posts on on this issue today include a piece by Lynn Paltrow, and this cartoon.  A list of past articles on this issue can be found at the end of this post.

DENVER – A resurgent movement to place
"personhood" measures on state ballots across the nation to ban
abortion and comprehensive reproductive care could have far more sweeping
implications than the trial balloon Colorado voters soundly defeated last year.

Far from being dissuaded by the 3-to-1 loss from their 2008
campaign to confer zygotes with legal rights, abortion opponents are regrouping
with a broader initiative that purports to address life span issues, from
conception to death.

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The proposed 2010 constitutional ballot language – "the
term ‘person’ shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the
biological development of that human being" – was submitted Thursday for initial
review by the Colorado Legislative Council.

The new tack avoids previous efforts to redefine person as
"any human being from the moment of
fertilization" – phrasing that rankled even its supporters as too
polarizing.

Shaded beneath the state capitol’s famed golden dome and
cradling his 10-day-old son, Gualberto Garcia Jones, 31, said announcing the
new campaign:

"And the important thing to
keep in mind, if you honestly and unbiasedly read the language – this is about
the full spectrum of human development. It includes the very early stages.

But it’s also about children who
are born with disabilities and are stripped of their personhood. It’s about
handicapped people who are stripped of their personhood. It’s about the elderly
that are dying and who lose their personhood when they go into some form of a
vegetative state."

When asked how such a wide-ranging law could be implemented,
Jones, a lawyer and former legislative analyst for the anti-abortion group,
American Life League, said:

"We’ll leave it to the courts
to interpret the language of the proposed amendment … We have faith that our
legislators will be able to implement this in a consistent manner with respect
for all human beings regardless of how they come about in their creation."

Last year’s ballot opponents claimed that adding a
religiously-inspired definition to the Colorado constitution would affect
more than 20,000 references to the term "person" in local and state
statutes
.

 

A new,
all-encompassing "personhood" strategy

This new hard-line rhetorical stance is a radically
different approach than the 2008 campaign, headed by Peyton, Colo., resident
Kristi Burton, a telegenic online law school student, who furiously back-peddled
from controversial early campaign statements that Amendment 48 sought to
outright ban abortion and contraception
.

Now, all bets are off. The new campaign leadership assured
supporters that Burton will advise the team but her "muddled"
communication goals won’t be repeated.

Jones, a conservative Catholic, said he welcomed a debate
about a contraception ban as an effect of the personhood cause:

"What this amendment does is
protect all human beings," he said. "Something that is erroneously
referred to as contraception causes the early human to die because they cannot
develop in the uterus. And, then yeah, this would prohibit it. We’re more than
happy to talk about that."

The conflation of contraception with abortifacients is a
well-used tactic by those who oppose abortion under all circumstances.

Combining the orthodoxy of hard-line opposition to
comprehensive reproductive care with controversial end-of-life issues is a new
strategy in the "personhood" movement that could be designed to
appeal to the fast-growing voting bloc of religious Hispanics, whom Jones, a
native of Spain, expressed particular interest in reaching out to.

The new strategic approach also appears to stem from a
chance encounter amidst the spectacle of one family’s personal tragedy turned
national political sideshow.

Jones met long-time Colorado Right to Life activist Leslie
Hanks in March 2005 while protesting at the Florida hospice where Terri
Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman at the center of a fierce right-to-die court
battle, re-ignited the social conservative movement.

Jones and Hanks struck up a friendship. Later, he moved to
Denver after leaving ALL to work on a 2006 South Dakota abortion ban campaign
and then a low-profile campaign job to help Burton pass Amendment 48. While Hanks
had a prominent public role, opponents of the 2008 effort do not recall seeing
Jones on the stump until now.

 

Absolutist
anti-abortion groups join forces

The 2010 campaign will be backed by Personhood USA, a new
national nonprofit organization formed from the ashes of Burton’s Colorado for
Equal Rights, whose supporters were linked to militant anti-abortion groups,
like the Army of God
.

The Denver-based Personhood USA is headed by former Wichita resident and ex-Operation Rescue "truth
truck" driver Keith Mason, and Michigan
anti-abortion activist Cal Zastrow. Veterans of the failed Colorado campaign,
the two men most recently were involved in the unsuccessful 2008 South Dakota
citizen-initiated abortion ban and failed legislative actions in Montana and
North Dakota earlier this spring.

Now they have plans to deploy platoons of
"personhood" activists in 17 states to effectively ban abortion,
oral/device contraception, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell
research should they prevail to win civil rights for fertilized eggs. And if
Jones’ press briefing comments are any indication, they may take on disability
advocacy groups and the burgeoning end-of-life care movement, as well.

In addition to Colorado, a 2010 "personhood"
initiative in Montana was launched July 1
under the same auspices of broader
language
though the speech-making to introduce the campaign did not use the
same anti-contraception and life span rhetorical flourishes employed by Jones.

 

Schisms continue over
religious support for "personhood" and litmus tests

Mason noted that the local campaign counts among its
supporters Jones’ former employer, the American Life League, and Hanks’ group Colorado
Right to Life, whose long-standing feud with Focus on the Family founder James
Dobson
for not being anti-abortion enough is the stuff of local legend.
Jones will head the Colorado affiliate of Personhood USA.

Mason dismissed any lingering flack between Focus and American
Right to Life Action, another backer of "personhood" strategies, whose members
were arrested
and jailed after failing to pay a trespassing fine following
the group’s Sept. 4 sit-in protest at the evangelical Christian ministry and
publishing empire’s Colorado Springs headquarters. He anticipates Focus will
again be on board with the new campaign. "They’re bigger than that,"
he said "They’ll do the right thing."

But not everyone in the faith community is enthusiastic
about the proposal and some will continue to oppose it.

The Colorado Catholic Conference refused to endorse the
2008 measure
over concerns about "the timing and content." A
spokeswoman for the state’s three Catholic bishops, well-known for their
conservative social stances and willingness to insert themselves into political
controversy, told the Denver Post that Amendment 48 backers "seriously
misrepresented" the church
, contradicting campaign claims that the
bishops officially supported the cause.

Jeremy Shaver, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance
of Colorado which participated in the "No on 48" campaign
unequivocally stated his group’s opposition to the renewed
"personhood" effort:

"My
understanding of what they’re trying to do is insert a particular religious
definition of life in the state constitution," said Shaver. "Many
people of faith don’t believe state law should be based on religious doctrine
or religious belief. We need to base our state law on what’s in the interest of
the common good.

"We
believe it’s a violation of religious freedom for all Coloradans and it’s a
danger to do so."

Shaver said he is especially troubled by the new life span
argument:

"End of life decisions are
also among the most personal decisions that we will make. Those decisions need
to be made personally by individuals and their families and cannot and should
not be made for us by politicians who seek to impose a religious agenda."

Unflagged, the "personhood" proponents soldier on
while its advocates continue to grapple with the practicalities of the cause.

In a telling 2008 Q&A exchange, on the conservative
religious television network EWTN Kids Web page, the American Life League’s
Judie Brown admits the legal murkiness of "personhood"
to a
reader questioning whether to impose capital felony sentences on abortion
providers and women patients or merely misdemeanor penalties:

Once
personhood is restored to all human beings prior to birth, we will have to wade
through the minefield of criminal penalties and how they should be applied …
Gualberto Garcia Jones points out, "Criminal law is almost always about
knowledge."

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Group Wants National Abortion Data Reporting Law

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice activists claim that despite the evidence, the number of complications from abortion is higher than is being reported. States that track abortion care data have shown the procedure to be exceedingly safe.

A leading anti-choice organization is calling for a national database of abortion statistics and increased reporting requirements for states—proposals seen as part of a strategy to justify laws restricting access to abortion care.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-choice law known as HB 2. The ruling relied heavily on research that showed abortion care was a safe and well regulated procedure. Anti-choice activists have long disputed those claims.

Clarke Forsythe, acting president of Americans United for Life (AUL), told Politico that there is not enough data on abortion. “The abortion advocates like to talk in vague terms about abortion but we need specifics,” Forsythe said. “We don’t have a national abortion data collection and reporting law.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has collected “abortion surveillance” data since 1969. The CDC published the most recent report on abortion statistics in 2012.

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Abortion surveillance reports are created by compiling data from health agencies, provided voluntarily to the CDC, in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and New York City. The data includes deaths from abortion related complications, but does not include the number of complications that don’t result in deaths.

Reporting requirements for abortion statistics vary from state to state, with 46 states requiring that abortion providers submit regular reports, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Most states report the number of abortion procedures performed as well as the type of procedure, the gestation of the pregnancy, and demographic data of the patient.

There are 27 states that require providers to report the number of complications from abortion procedures.

The self-described “legal architect” of the anti-choice movement, AUL has been heavily involved in lobbying for state and federal laws that restrict access to abortion. The organization creates copycat legislation and distributes anti-choice proposals to state lawmakers, who then push the measures through legislatures.

Forsythe took a victory lap Monday for the organization’s role in promoting bills from the AUL’s “playbook of pro-life legislation” that were introduced this year in state legislatures. “AUL continued to assist states considering health and safety standards to protect women in abortion clinics,” Forsythe said in a statement.

Dozens of bills to increase reporting requirements have been introduced in state legislatures over the past several years. These proposals include several types of reporting requirements for abortion providers, and many of the provisions are similar to those found in AUL model legislation.

Arizona legislators in 2010 passed SB 1304, which required abortion providers to submit annual reports to the state and required the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to publish an annual report.

The Republican-backed legislation is similar to copycat legislation drafted that same year by AUL.

Since the law’s passage there have been very few complications resulting from abortion procedures reported in the state: from 2011-2014, less than 1 percent of abortions procedures in the state resulted in complications.

Arizona reported that 137 patients experienced complications out of 12,747 abortion procedures in 2014; 102 patients experienced complications out of 13,254 abortion procedures in 2013; 76 patients had complications out of 13,129 abortion procedures in 2012; 60 patients experienced complications out of 14,401 abortion procedures in 2011.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco who studied the impact of HB 2 for the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), told Politico that abortion has been shown to be exceptionally safe medical procedure.

“There’s already a lot of data that have been published documenting how safe abortion is in the U.S.,” Grossman said.“The abortion complication rate is exceedingly low.”

Anti-choice activists claim that despite the evidence, the number of complications from abortion is higher than is being reported. Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, told Politico that “better data” is needed.

Texas has required reporting of the number of complications from abortion procedures since 2013, and the data has shown that abortion complications are exceedingly rare. There were 447 complications out of 63,849 procedures in 2013 and 777 complications out of 54,902 procedures in 2014.

Pojman said that the Texas data “defies common sense” and that the complications are “are much smaller than what one would expect.”

The Texas abortion statistics reveal that it is safer to have an abortion than to carry a pregnancy to term in the state. Between 2008 and 2013, the most recent years for which data is available, there were 691 maternal deaths in Texas, compared to one death due to abortion complications between 2008 and 2014.

“There’s no sign that there’s a hidden safety problem happening in Texas,” Grossman said.

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