Health Reform, Violence and Blanket Warmers: The Status of Abortion on Roe V Wade Day

Carole Joffe

The 37th anniversary of Roe v Wade is one largely of disappointment for abortion rights supporters, especially given how many felt a year ago when Obama took office.

Carole Joffe is author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us (forthcoming in early 2010).

Taking stock of where the abortion issue
stands at this, the 37th anniversary of Roe v Wade, its hard not to
conclude that the present moment is one largely of disappointment and
concern for abortion rights supporters. This disappointment is
especially poignant, given the exhilaration that many felt a year ago,
when Barack Obama took office. After eight long years of George W.
Bush, a presidency whose record on abortion and other reproductive
matters was so egregious, it is truly hard to parody (remember the
proposal to provide health care for fetuses, not the pregnant women carrying those fetuses, or abstinence programs aimed at 18-29 year olds?), there were high expectations, perhaps unrealistically so, for the Obama presidency.

To be sure, some good things in the reproductive realm have happened
in this new administration, particularly with respect to international
matters. The notorious global "gag rule," which prevented U.S. funding
for family planning services in countries or agencies that used their
own funds for abortion-related activities, was quickly overturned.
The State Department, under the leadership of Hillary Clinton, made
clear that abstinence promotion would no longer be a centerpiece of
this administration’s HIV-AIDS policy. Clinton herself recently gave a powerhouse of a speech,
in commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the landmark UN Conferences
in Cairo and Beijing in the mid-1990s, reaffirming the administration’s
commitment to the empowerment of women globally, and the crucial role
that reproductive health services play in this.

Domestically, however, there is much less to cheer about. Positions
in the federal bureaucracy that may be obscure, but which are central
to delivering good reproductive health care (and undoing the damage of
the Bush years), such as the deputy assistant secretary for population
affairs, the official in charge of all federally funded contraceptive
services, remain unfilled while the administration has focused
laser-like on health reform.

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health reform, which hangs by a thread as I write these words
immediately after the Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote,
has been a debacle as far as abortion is concerned. The still-
unresolved fights over the Stupak amendment, which would require women
wishing coverage for this procedure to purchase a separate rider, and
the Nelson "compromise" (unacceptable to hard core abortion opponents,
including the Democratic Congressman Stupak himself), which would allow
abortion coverage by insurance plans, but only if women write two
separate checks for their insurance–one for abortion, and one for
everything else–have made emphatically clear the cultural marginality
of abortion from the rest of health care.

But it is the rise of violence since the inauguration of Barack
Obama that is most upsetting to the abortion rights world. On Sunday
May 31, 2009, just weeks after the new president went to Notre Dame
University to plead for "common ground" on the abortion issue, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, was brutally assassinated in the lobby of his church.

Since Tiller’s murder, a number of abortion-providing clinics across
the country have reported an upsurge in violence and harassment. Most
ominously perhaps, in Charlotte, North Carolina, "wanted posters" have appeared outside a clinic,
bearing the pictures, names and work addresses of two of the physicians
that work there. In a celebrated case in the 1990s, the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that similar (though not identically
worded) posters constituted a "threat of force" designed to intimidate
abortion providers and thus were not protected free speech. Patients
and staff at this clinic and others are subjected to protestors
swarming over their cars as they drive onto clinic grounds, and verbal
abuse– for example, "Satan will drink the blood of your babies" – delivered through microphones at deafening tones.

Meanwhile, on a listserv that I frequent, composed mainly of
abortion providers, participants are having a lively conversation
about. . . blanket warmers!

This conversation was initiated by a provider from the South who has
been battling cancer. As she recently communicated to her colleagues,
during a recent chemotherapy session she was given a warm blanket,
found that it "felt great" and now is exploring the best way to offer
this to her abortion patients.

To be sure, blanket warmers and the most cost effective way to
introduce them into the clinic are hardly the only topics being
discussed by this group. There are the usual threads of messages
pertaining to interesting and challenging cases, security concerns
(typically heightened around January 22), contemporary political
developments and so on. But as one who has watched with dismay the
unending controversies surrounding abortion, I find it deeply
reassuring–and moving–that in midst of this very volatile environment,
the health professionals on this list are staying the course, sharing
with each other ideas to improve the abortion experience for the women
who come to them, even warm blankets.

View Carol Joffe on Grit.TV with Laura Flanders

Commentary Abortion

The Indomitable Spirit of the Reproductive Health Community: A Pathway to Justice, Liberty, and Freedom

Carole Joffe

In honor of Independence Day, Beacon Broadside asked author Carole Joffe (author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars) what she'll be celebrating this July 4th.

In honor of Independence Day, Beacon Broadside asked author Carole Joffe (author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars) what she’ll be celebrating this July 4th.  

Speaking as one whose professional and political life focuses on reproductive health services, there has lately been very little lately about which to feel celebratory. (An obvious exception of course– the Supreme Court’s recent decision on health reform). Since the 2010 elections, there have been unprecedented, nonstop assaults by Congress and, especially, the states on both abortion and contraceptive services. Nevertheless, what I do feel both celebratory about, and deeply moved by, is the determined pushback shown by the defenders of these services: the more than a thousand who gathered outside the Virginia State House to protest new regulations on abortion, which had nothing to do with “women’s health” and everything to do with politics; the wonderful women legislators in Michigan who, joined by a joyful crowd of supporters, performed the “Vagina Monologues” at the state capitol, after being literally silenced by Republican leadership because they had dared to speak the word “vagina” while objecting to extreme abortion regulation; and “Pillimina,” the human sized birth control pill that Planned Parenthood has deployed to follow Mitt Romney –and remind voters of his rightward turn on contraception.

I celebrate also the indomitable spirit of the abortion providing community, who go to work each day, knowing that there are politicians ever searching for new ways to shut them down, and aggressive protestors who will attempt to intimidate them and their patients. Finally on this day, I celebrate the memory of Dr. George Tiller of Kansas, an abortion provider assassinated three years ago in his church by an extremist. As one of his former staff told me, Dr. Tiller was deeply patriotic, and took the Independence Day and its meaning to heart. One July fourth, in the midst of particularly grueling protests, Tiller and his staff flew a number of American flags at his clinic, and later mailed these flags to abortion providing colleagues across the country. With the flags, he enclosed a letter that said, as the staff person recollected, “We would be honored if you accepted this flag as a symbol of our journey together on the pathway of Justice, Liberty and Freedom.” 

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Commentary Abortion

In Defense of Abortion On Demand and Without Apology

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

There is nothing wrong with a woman terminating her pregnancy at any point and for whatever reason she chooses. Fetuses are not babies. Women are not incubators. Abortion is not murder.

This post is by Sunsara Taylor, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

Several years ago, I was approached by a young woman after giving a talk examining how patriarchy is at the core of the world’s dominant religions and calling out the Christian fascist movement to criminalize abortion. As she told me of her abortion, her demeanor suggested she was rather settled about it. But then suddenly she stopped talking, her face flashed with emotion, and she burst into tears.

I tell this story precisely because this young woman was a confident and articulate atheist. She had been raised pro-choice and still was. Her boyfriend was supportive. She received great medical care.  Extremely important: she made clear she had never felt guilty.

So, why was she sobbing?

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She explained, “Until today, I have never in my life heard anyone say that it is okay to have an abortion and even feel good about it. For two years I have gone around feeling like there must be something wrong with me because I never felt any remorse.”

Stop for a moment and think about that. She didn’t feel bad about her abortion. She felt bad about not feeling bad!

I responded very firmly that there is nothing wrong with her. There is nothing wrong with a woman terminating her pregnancy at any point and for whatever reason she chooses.  Fetuses are not babies. Women are not incubators. Abortion is not murder.

There is, however, something profoundly wrong with a society in which millions of young people have grown up never having heard abortion spoken of as something  positive and liberating. There is something deeply wrong not only with the movement which has viciously and relentlessly fought to criminalize, terrorize, and demonize those who seek – or provide – abortions, but also with the mainstream of a “pro-choice movement” which has repeatedly conciliated and compromised with this madness.

Lets be clear, the notion that women are full human beings capable of participating fully and equally in every realm of human endeavor together with men is historically an extremely new idea. It is also under extreme, and increasing, fire. The fight to not only defend, but to expand and to destigmatize abortion and birth control, must be seen as a central battle in the fight to make good on the full liberation of women.

What’s the big deal about abortion, anyway? Together with birth control, abortion enables women to not be enslaved by their biology. It enables women to delay, restrict, or forgo altogether the decision to make babies. It enables women to explore their sexuality free of the fear that an unintended pregnancy will foreclose their lives and their dreams. It opens up the possibility for women to enter fully and equally into every realm of public life and human endeavor together with men.

Of course, the possibility of full equality for women doesn’t exist merely because of the technological, or even the legal, existence of birth control and abortion. These reproductive rights would not have been won — and wouldn’t have had the earth-shaking repercussions they’ve had – without the tremendous struggles of women demanding their liberation.  Despite popular misconceptions, it was this righteous struggle, together with the broader revolt of the 1960s and 70s – not some sudden flash of enlightenment on the Court –that most influenced the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Further, the liberation of women requires more than reproductive rights and a radical shift in the culture. The need for an all-the-way revolution that goes beyond even the best of the revolutionary experience of the last century – including as pertains to challenging traditional gender and other chains that bind women – is a key element of Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of revolution and communism. Explicating this more fully goes beyond the scope of this article, but interested readers can learn more by reading A Declaration for Womens Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity.

But even the specter of women’s liberation — and the important advances that were made — were too much for those who rule this country. The backlash really coalesced and gained initiative under Reagan. The reassertion of the “traditional family” became an indispensable part of not only reasserting patriarchy but also stitching back together the reactionary fabric of society that had been significantly frayed. Christian fascists — people fighting for the laws and culture to conform to a literal interpretation of the Bible, including its insistence that women bear children and obey their husbands (1 Timothy 2:11-15) – were given powerful backing by ruling class forces and unleashed to hound and harass women who sought abortions. They bombed clinics. They killed doctors. They pushed the shame and ignorance of abstinence-only education into the schools and went to war on the scientific fact of evolution.

Through this period, the most mainstream elements of the women’s movement came to be identified broadly as the only outlet for those concerned about the oppressed status of women, even as this bourgeois feminism more and more subordinated itself to the ruling class, and the Democratic Party in particular.

To quote from the above-mentioned Declaration, “This absorption of the ‘official women’s movement’ into the Democratic Party, and its utter subordination to the confines of electoral politics, has done incalculable damage. For over two decades now this ‘feminist movement’ has encouraged and influenced progressive people to accommodate to a dynamic where yesterday’s outrage becomes today’s ‘compromise position’ and tomorrow’s limit of what can be imagined. The defensiveness and cravenness of this ‘movement’ in the face of the Christian fascists in particular — its refusal to really battle them on the morality of abortion, to take one concentrated example — has contributed to the disorientation of two generations of young women, and men as well.”

What has this looked like? It looked like Hillary Clinton implying there was something wrong with abortion by insisting it be “safe, legal, and rare” and then these becoming the watchwords of a “pro-choice movement” that even removed “abortion” from its name. It looked like spokespeople for NARAL and Planned Parenthood repeatedly insisting they are the ones, not the Christian Right, who prevent the most abortions, even as women scramble nationwide to access the dwindling abortion services. It looked like a strategy focusing almost entirely on the most extreme cases — endangerment to a woman or fetus’s life, rape or incest — rather than standing up for the right of all women to abortion.

It looked like the 2006 congressional elections where the Democrats insisted that to beat the Bush-led Republicans they had to run hardline anti-abortion candidates like Bob Casey. And while many registered complaints, not a single major national pro-choice “leader” called for mass mobilizations of protest in the streets. It looked like broad “feminist” celebration of President Obama even as he, too, insisted on reducing abortions and finding “common ground” with fascists and religious fanatics. Now he has now presided over the greatest onslaught of abortion restrictions introduced at the state level since Roe v. Wade.

All this is why a new generation has, almost without exception, never heard anyone speak positively about abortion. This has led to thousands of women feeling guilty or ashamed of a procedure which is necessary for women to live full and independent lives. This has led to a situation where activists fight piecemeal at the edges of each new major assault while losing ground overall.

If we do not seize the moral high by boldly proclaiming the positive morality of abortion, if we don’t begin now to change hearts and minds among this new generation in particular, if we do not refuse to be confined by what is deemed “electable,” then not only will we fail in fighting back the restrictions, we will compound this legal defeat with an ideological and political defeat as well.

Millions and millions of women feel absolutely no remorse about their abortions; it is time for all of us to speak out boldly in support of this attitude. It’s also time we stop bending over backward to validate the feelings of guilt or shame that some women feel over their abortions. Millions of women feel guilty and ashamed after being raped, but while we acknowledge their emotions, we also struggle for them — and everyone else — to recognize they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s time we do the same around the stigma that surrounds abortion.

It’s absolutely a great thing for women to have — and to exercise freely — their right to abortion. The doctors who provide these services should be celebrated! There is nothing “moral” about forcing women to bear children against their will, but there is something tremendously moral about enabling women to determine the course of their own lives. This is good for women and it is good for humanity as a whole.

It is time to declare boldly: Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!

Sunsara Taylor is a writer for RevolutionNewspaper, a host of WBAI’s EqualTimeforFreethought, and sits on the Advisory Board of WorldCantWait. For nearly two decades she has been on the front lines of the battle against Christian fascism – from abortion clinics under siege in North Dakota to Terri Schiavo’s hospice in Florida,  from Rick Warren’s bigoted anti-gay sermons to militarized Christian youth stadium rallies.  She has written on the rise of theocracy, wars and repression in the U.S., led in building resistance to these crimes, and contributed to the movement for revolution to put an end to all this. She takes as her foundation the new synthesis on revolution and communism developed by Bob Avakian.