A Third-Year Law Student Discusses Her Work on Abortion Access in Texas

Sarah Erdreich

One of the biggest challenges for small abortion funds is that our resources are so limited that often we can not adequately train people to deal with some of the hard cases. If there was something that I [didn’t] know how to handle, I would often call one of my colleagues and debrief and take care of myself first, to make sure that I was available to my client and wasn't doing them more harm then good.

Author’s note: During the summer of 2009, I talked to
dozens of young pro-choice activists and doctors about what motivated
their work for reproductive justice, what concerns them most about the
current state of abortion rights, and what they think the future holds
for legal abortion in the U.S. In the three interviews included here, four
young activists – a law student, an attorney, and the creators of a
pro-choice website – discuss these issues and also share their thoughts
about why it’s so important for their peers to not take legalization
for granted.  The interviews will appear in my forthcoming book,
Generation Roe.  Sarah Erdreich 

Kyle Marie Stock: Third-year law
student, University of Texas; former board member, Lilith Fund for Reproductive

[The Lilith Fund is] a small, all-volunteer organization, we
have about ten people on the board now. We cover Austin and south to the border
and all the way west to El Paso, it’s a huge area. We have a hotline which is
twenty-four hours, people basically leave messages and then the volunteers call
them back. We actually have a relatively diverse board in terms of age, there’s
early 20s all the way up to 60s; relatively diverse in terms of faith and
different sexual orientations. We haven’t been so good with racial diversity,
that’s been difficult for us.

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We have people from all over the state call, from the big
metropolitan areas to the tiniest, little towns. A lot of people are already
parents; that’s definitely one of the things that come up often. People already
have children and they can’t necessarily provide adequately for another kid,
and they’re really trying to make sure that they’re able to raise their family
in a healthy manner.

The [story] that sticks with me, that I was like oh my gosh,
I cannot do this anymore, this is horrible, was a young woman who was in her
teens. Her mother had kicked her out of the house and she was living on her
own; the only thing she had to cook with was a microwave. She was in a
metropolitan area in Texas and she was relatively far along already, so it was
going to be a very expensive procedure. She told me that she had gone to her
boyfriend, the father of the child, and he basically told her, I don’t know who
you are, get out of my house. And to this day I don’t know what happened to
that girl. I don’t know if she got her abortion, I don’t know where she is now,
I don’t know any of that stuff. It was so heartbreaking because I wanted to
drive to the city and help her, do something for her. It was awful; I couldn’t
change any of this. I imagine that she probably had the child; it was one of
those several-thousand-dollar abortions. 

On the other hand, I spoke to one woman who was in her
mid-30s, and she was so empowered by the process. We had this really fantastic
conversation about access to abortion, she was really grateful for my help and
so happy that she had somebody to commiserate [with]. She got her abortion. I
asked her to call me back and tell me how it went and she did, and she said
thank you so much, it was really helpful to have you to talk to. It was so
exciting, I was like I’m doing something good, I’m making a difference. It’s
really it’s an emotional roller coaster, it’s the kind of work that’s very –
one minute it’s really exciting, and another minute it’s heartbreaking.

One of the biggest challenges for small abortion funds is
that our resources are so limited that often we can not adequately train people
to deal with some of the hard cases. What I did [was], if there was something
that I [didn’t] know how to handle, I would often call one of my colleagues and
talk it out with them and debrief and care of myself first, to make sure that I
was available to my client, to make sure that I wasn’t doing them more harm
then good. I think that if we could do a better job training, people would burn
out less. I definitely got to a point where I was like, I can’t do this
anymore. The best thing to do is know your limits and use other resources when
you’ve reached that point. We certainly have people who answer the hotline who
have MSWs, people who do abortion counseling at clinics, people who are
extremely well trained, and then there [are] other people that are new. But
it’s really important to have as much new blood in the organization, to be
drawing people into the community and really having people participate as much
as they can, so it’s kind of a balancing act.

It’s interesting to me because Texas is so large, and there
aren’t a lot of abortion providers. Certainly they’re out there, but often
they’re in the metropolitan areas, so if you’re in a rural area you may have to
travel four, five hours. Especially if you’re in West Texas; there, you may
have go to New Mexico. It’s frustrating, and also because Texas is religiously
and ideologically conservative, the conversation itself is even hostile. I
mean, when you’re sitting in the Austin bubble, sure, people are more
conversant about it. But I remember speaking to someone on the hotline where
she was like, you are literally the first person I’ve told that I’m pregnant
and I’m getting an abortion. She would be horribly ostracized and probably
coerced, in terms of the way people present the argument, into not getting the
abortion at all. And like I said, a lot of these people are already mothers so
it’s not like they don’t want to have children, but they want to raise their
children in an effective manner so it’s really crazy. With the sex ed stuff, it
starts from the beginning: you don’t talk about any of that stuff, you’re not
supposed to talk about sex let alone abortion, that would just be the end of
the world.

When I talk about this issue with people, [they] have this
expectation that abortion is used as a contraceptive method, that people
repeatedly get pregnant and have abortions. It’s frustrating because that’s not
completely unheard of, but at the same time that’s not the typical story. There
are so many more factors and particulars of each story that if you are being
sympathetic or even open to hearing someone’s story, you realize that this is
never an easy decision. There’s always a host of factors that go into thinking
about it. One of the good things that I found, though, is that the Lilith Fund
makes sure that the clinics that we are working with are going to do a more
holistic look at the situation. They’re going to give people counseling,
they’re going to make sure they’re secure with the decision, they’re going to
treat the person respectfully. I think that is really lost in the discussion,
that even people who are funding abortion are really aware of people’s feelings
on the issue and we want to make sure that there’s support throughout the whole
process. People don’t get to that level of discussion often, though, because so
often it’s like oh, you’re pro-choice, well, you’re horrible.

I absolutely think most people are not aware of what the
realities are in terms of barriers to access. They aren’t worried about Roe, they’re not worried about Carhart, they’re not worried about any
of these Supreme Court cases that have chipped away at this right. They don’t
see it as an immediate threat. When South Dakota had that outright ban [under
consideration] most people were like eh, whatever, no big deal. And I’m like
no, you don’t understand, they did this on purpose so that someone would sue
them and then they would take it to the Supreme Court. This isn’t going to just
affect the people in South Dakota – 
and even if it did, that’s horrible and we should really pay attention
to that because as it is they only have one abortion provider in that state.
It’s just frustrating because I think a lot of people don’t think about this
issue until if affects them, until that day when they have that pregnancy
scare, or their cousin gets pregnant and they’re like, what do I do.

 I certainly
think people who grew up post-Roe
take it for granted. So many people don’t know of the history, the stories
about women who died, the stories that about women who are dying now in other
countries because they can’t get an abortion. The conversation about abortion
in this country is so black and white, it’s yes or no. [That’s] something I
think that we as activists are failing to do, is putting real faces and real stories
with this issue. I’m not saying that that’s easy, because you start a
conversation and the word “abortion” pops up and all hell breaks loose.
[People] also take access to birth control and access to emergency
contraceptive for granted in a lot of cases. This is not a stand-alone issue,
it’s all interconnected. The reality is that rich women are always going to be
able to get an abortion; whether it’s legal or not, people with means will be
able to access it. It’s the marginalized communities that are going to be most
affected by any of the restrictions on abortion.

Another interesting thing that I’ve been reading about, and
a way to turn the conversation around, is when people say that they want
abortion to be illegal. Asking people what they expect the punishment should be
  saying ok, so you want this to
be illegal, so should we put the doctors in jail? Should we put the woman in
jail? Should there be fines? What are the consequences to the people who attempt
or perform abortion if it’s illegal? I think that is an interesting twist on
the question, what are the implications of this instead of just thinking about
this very abstract idea. This is not solved by criminalizing abortion, it just
sets off a whole new set of issues. But like I said, people stop at the first
question, they don’t dig deeper into the problem.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.


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