This was the question that we, a small multi-generational group of professionals in the abortion providing community, were addressing: How is it that the abortion-providing community is seen as callous to women’s emotional needs when those of us in the community know that callous is the OPPOSITE of what we are. And why do younger activists accuse the older of being too hard-hearted? I would also add here: why do the older accuse the younger of not doing enough for the cause, a la Debra Dickerson.
In a separate conversation, I was discussing two recent cases where patients (one in an abortion clinic and one in a hospital maternity ward) asked for Anglo/White clinicians only. In the hospital situation, the request was “honored.” In the abortion clinic, there was no other clinician, and even if there was, should the request have been “honored?” My colleague, who is a person of color, asked: “what is the responsibility of the medical institution to ME, to respect my dignity?”
When and how do we allow, if not enable, dehumanization to occur in the abortion providing movement? Whether it’s younger activists accusing the older ones of hard-heartedness (do they not have respect for exactly what our elders have faced?); the elders accusing the young that they do not do enough (do they not understand just how different the context is today then 40 years ago?); or the medical establishment’s acquiescence to a racist “the customer is always right” mentality, the answer is always: never.
In Hebrew, the Egypt of Exodus is called Mitzrayim, which one can translate as narrow, oppressive place, that place where the world constricts around you and it seems like there are no options, no choices. As the Jewish people fled Egypt, they came to the Red Sea and thought it was all over. They were defeated because they could not see how they were to continue. And then, of course, the Red Sea parts, allowing the Jews successfully to escape the Pharaoh’s army.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Red Sea parting? Yah, right, you say. We are a rational, scientific movement that despises the supernaturalism. But then I think about people’s stories regarding the Berlin Wall falling and Apartheid’s ending in South Africa. And they all essentially say the same thing: “I never thought it would happen and certainly not then.” Mitzrayim is that place where our limited human imaginations, creativity, and compassion fail us and yet, victory can still be achieved. Mitzrayim is that place where we are so terrorized and fearful that we lash out defensively and focus on the flaws of others. Mitzrayim is the place from where hospital administrators acted when they fulfilled the racist patients’ request.
“A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of a partial victory by which new efforts are powered.” (1)
We must remember that legal and accessible abortion threatens to accomplish a state-of-existence never before experienced, where women are fully empowered to steward the procreative power of the species. The magnitude of the conflict is an indication of just how much is at stake, how much we are making the world transform. (2)
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to address a pervasive sentiment that change was not happening quickly enough. It was one thing for White folks to be against using fire-hoses on people and lunch-counter segregation; it was completely another for these same white folks to do the work required, for example, to provide quality education for all. Or to ensure that Black clinicians are treated with dignity and respect.
“The real cost lies ahead…jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters…The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds every period of progress is taking place. Failing to understand this as a normal process of development, some are falling into unjustified pessimism and despair.” (3)
It is one thing to be against women bleeding out in hospitals from botched abortions. It is another to advocate for safe access to abortion.
Theologian and ethicist Sharon Welch observes that many progressive organizations still operate with a deep-seated ethic of control that results in well-intentioned people and movements causing harm and even perpetuating evil. Were not those hospital administrators who fulfilled the racist patients’ request for all-white clinicians perpetuating harm? This ethic of control, so entrenched in Euro-American middle class culture, assumes that to be responsible means that one can ensure that the intention of one’s action will be carried out; that to act means to determine what will happen. Unfortunately, when faced with large complex problems (racism and the subjugation of women), such an ethic leads us to a certain paralysis because if we cannot solve everything, then such an ethic tells us we can solve nothing.(4) “Let’s just do what the patient wants because it’s not like doing this one thing will make or break racism…..” It is all or nothing.
We need a new understanding of power, where we understand that power is not coercive force that determines outcomes, a power over others; that our actions are only ever partial and incomplete, to be taken up and transformed. Welch calls this an ethic of risk. Even as a means to accomplishing some commonly accepted good, coercive, unjust, or dehumanizing relationship should never be allowed—how we do something is what we do.
Abortion is a potent symbol that offers us a reimagining of power for those who find ourselves among the relatively powerful and privileged. Abortion providers listen to an often less powerful, marginalized group (women). Instead of telling her what to do, assuming s/he knows best (a typical “power-over” scenario), the clinician listens and often does what the woman requests. The two then engage in a trusting relation of mutuality and respect. The woman trusts the clinician with intimate parts of her being. The clinician trusts the woman’s evaluation of her circumstances and performs a procedure that preserves the woman’s integrity of being. This is a precious relationship modeling a new power, power that is relational, mutual, and dynamic. On a symbolic level, abortion providers use their power in service to the disenfranchised person’s vision of health and well-being. And this is a profoundly radical, loving, and powerful act.
What I want the abortion-providing community to embrace is the fact that our movement can be and often is an embodiment of a wisdom which asks us to transform our most basic understandings of power. Advocating such transformation is heartrending at best, deadly at worst. However, it is a sacred task, calling forth our best selves, calling on us in midst of Mitzrayim, to do what is right, just, and loving. Moreover, what I want the broader liberal and prochoice community to see is that abortion is not some issue you sweep under the rug for political expediency—it is something we claim as our moral and spiritual center.
So when we have these conversations, about why “older feminists” are so “callous,” why younger feminists are so disengaged, and why we should or should not fulfill racist patients’ preferences, let us not act from Mitzrayim. Let us remember that “people are empowered to work for justice by their love for others and by the love they receive from others” (5). Let us act from a place of liberation and love and let us forgive when another when we miss the mark.
Hag Sameach and Gut Yomtov.
(1)Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community”, in A Testament of Hope, edited by James M. Washington. 563
(2)Dr. Beverly Wildung Harrison, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. 2
(3) King, 558
(4)Dr. Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk.