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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Press freedoms are under attack now, more than ever.
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.