STOKING FIRE: The Abortion Narrative You Don’t Hear

Eleanor J. Bader

The stigma surrounding abortion -- manufactured by a relentless anti-choice movement--has silenced women who've terminated unwanted pregnancies. As a result, the loudest voices belong to those who claim abortion has ruined their lives.

It’s a balmy October morning and five anti-abortion activists are gathered near the entrance of A Bronx Woman’s Medical Pavilion—AKA Dr. Emily’s clinic. Two female protesters are praying silently, rosaries in hand. Another is face-to-face with Maria, a would-be patient in her late teens. The others, both men, are for the most part quiet, chiming in only occasionally to underscore what their colleague is saying.

“The day you get your Bachelor’s degree, your Masters, your Ph.D., whatever you go on to do, whatever great things you achieve, one thing will never change,” the speaker begins. “The beautiful person who is now growing inside you will be missing from the celebrations if you have an abortion. Sure, you’ll see your baby in the next life, but can you stand to wait, imagining how you’ll explain why you took his or her life when you’re finally together?”

I later learn that the lecturer, named April, is a 33-year-old former dancer. Now the mother of three, her blue eyes fill as she relays her message: “I know the devastating effects of abortion because I, myself, had one. I was 26. My career was on the rise. I already had one child and saw having a second as something that would slow me down. Afterwards, I was destroyed, depressed, and sad. When I achieved things it didn’t matter. No matter what I did, my life was stopped; the pain of that abortion has never gone away.”

April’s presentation is compelling and it is obvious that she has gained a toehold in Maria’s psyche. When April stops for a moment to catch her breath, Junior, a protester in his mid-30’s takes over and ushers the young woman toward a white van. A bumper sticker—Pregnant? Call 1-800-848-LOVE—is the only thing identifying it as an anti-choice vehicle. Inside, I’m told, Junior will do an ultrasound to show Maria her baby. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Maria will return to the clinic on another day and have the abortion. Perhaps she won’t.

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What we do know is that if Maria goes online and searches for “reactions to abortion” she’ll likely find dozens, maybe even hundreds, of testimonies mirroring April’s. In them women of every race tell a similar tale: Since having an abortion they’ve been bereft and miserable.  Some–Operation Outcry, Silent No More, Rachel’s Vineyard, American Victims of Abortion, and the Elliott Institute, among them—go even further, alleging that women who have abortions are more prone to suicide, cancer, and substance abuse than peers who don’t.

Feminists for Life [FFL] take a different tack and showcase women who’ve grappled with unplanned pregnancies and then “chosen life.” One, rape survivor Joyce Ann McCauley-Benner, is particularly gripping: She tells viewers that when she found out she was pregnant she had no way of ascertaining whether the baby had been fathered by her rapist or by her boyfriend. “Did I think about abortion? Sure,” she confides. “But I realized that I knew who the mother was, that there was as much of me inside this baby as there was of the rapist—or my boyfriend…I tapped into a strength I didn’t know I had and had my son.”

It’s hard not to be affected by such narratives. Indeed, it’s obvious that personal accounts—even those meant to scare viewers–have incredible power, touching us in ways that polemics or scientific presentations do not.

So-called Second Wave feminists knew this, which is why an organization called Redstockings sponsored a speak-out on abortion in 1969. The event featured woman after woman telling the assembled crowd what they had gone through to access the illegal procedure. The message amounted to a clarion call, a demand that government value women’s health and sanction safe, legal abortion. In short order, public opinion swung in favor of repealing restrictive abortion laws and state legislators, and later the Supreme Court, listened.

The strategy of women speaking from the heart was—and remains—a brilliant one because stories matter. They moved the public 41 years ago and they move the public now.  At the same time, the stigma surrounding abortion—manufactured by a relentless anti-choice movement–has silenced the lion’s share of women who terminate unwanted pregnancies. As a result, the loudest voices belong, not to women who are relieved to have access to legal abortion, but to those who claim that the surgery has ruined their lives.  

But there are some glimmers of breakthrough. Sites like imnotsorry.net give women a place to share positive abortion stories. Over the past seven years, more than 900 women have contributed to the site and users can rifle through their comments.  Similarly, Backline, Exhale, Faith Aloud, and Project Voices offer women a variety of pre-and-post surgery forums to discuss abortion in nuanced ways, whether their concerns are theological, pragmatic, or emotional.  

“We know that finding a middle ground for women to tell their stories without political overtones is helpful to their emotional health,” says Peg Johnston, Executive Director of an upstate New York clinic and an active member of the Abortion Care Network. “Several clinics keep a journal in their waiting rooms for patients and significant others to write in about their process and feelings. They’re often quite provocative and very tender. It gives people a chance to express themselves and also see what others have written.”

While everyone agrees that this is insufficient, it’s an important start. The pity is that people like April, Joyce, Maria, Junior, and most of the American body politic will likely never read their words or hear their voices. 

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.