The Democratic House leader had a back to the 1950’s moment Thursday as she gushed over the special election win for a New York House seat by Democrat Kathy Hochul.
“She is a mom, two kids, two young children,” Pelosi said, then corrected herself. “Not young children — college age. To all the people out there who wonder who’s going to take care of her children — they’re college age.”
College age. Thank goodness! Otherwise we may have to send her back to New York to finish rearing them. Politics can wait!
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could not articulate a vigorous, unapologetic, and evidence-based response on abortion to questions posed in an interview this week by Roll Call's Melinda Henneberger.
Just a week or so after Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) blamed voters for being “complacent” about abortion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi illustrated why, despite being the nominally pro-choice party, Democrats continuously fail to lead on the issue of reproductive health care.
Pelosi could not articulate a vigorous, unapologetic, and evidence-based response on abortion to questions posed in an interview this week by Roll Call‘s Melinda Henneberger. In fact, Pelosi expressed discomfort with using the word “abortion,” underscoring how deeply abortion stigma has permeated the discourse of even the female leader of the Democratic Party, one of the most powerful women in the United States.
It is more than clear that abortion will continue to be politicized through the 2016 election and beyond. But Democrats persist in stumbling when asked about it. So here are some facts that any politician claiming to be pro-choice—and otherwise charged with protecting the interests, rights, and health of the voters who put them in office—must master and assert without apology.
Access to safe abortion care is fundamentally a matter of public health. In countries where access to abortion is limited either by law or in practice, women face high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. In other words, they die and are injured, sometimes permanently, at far higher rates than in countries or regions where access to safe abortion care is guaranteed. This was indeed the case in the United States before Roe v. Wade.
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Today, according to conservative estimates, more than 300,000 women worldwide die each year from complications from pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion. That’s 830 women each and every day. These are women in their teens to their late 40s, who are most likely to be raising children and earning critical income for their families. Many times the number who die from unsafe abortion suffer long-term illness and disability instead.
In Uganda, for example, due to lack of access to contraception among other factors, more than four in ten births are unplanned, and women say they have far larger families than they want. In their struggle to have fewer children, they often resort to abortion. Abortion is, however, illegal in Uganda, and access to safe abortion is only available to the wealthy. Not surprisingly, Uganda has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal death, and estimates indicate that if rates of clandestine abortion continue, half of all women in Uganda will need treatment for complications of unsafe abortion at some point in their lives.
By contrast, as was the case for the United States, rates of maternal deaths and illnesses from unsafe abortion declined dramatically in both Nepal and in South Africa after those two countries legalized and increased access to abortion care.
The deaths of women should be reason enough to address the need for safe abortion, but families also suffer. When a mother dies, her children, especially those under 5, are more likely to suffer malnutrition, neglect, and death. As I first wrote more than 25 years ago, history has long shown that politically or religiously motivated laws will never eliminate abortion; they only make it more costly in terms of women’s health, and the health and well-being of their families. The fact of abortion as a public health issue should be the first talking point in any informed conversation led by pro-choice politicians.
Abortion is a matter of fundamental human rights. Every person on earth has the right to determine whether or not to become a parent, and when and with whom to have a child, although clearly too many people are as yet unable to exercise these rights.
The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.
Choice in childbearing, childbirth, and parenting are fundamental to women’s ability to make decisions about their participation in society, on their own terms. Women, however, cannot exercise these fundamental human rights without unfettered access to contraception and abortion. Yet too many governments, politicians, and religious leaders appear willing to abrogate access to these basic health interventions, ironically on the basis of a “pro-life” agenda—albeit one that ignores the value of women’s lives. Any politician who calls themselves pro-choice should understand the need to protect and promote the human rights of living, breathing women, and be able to articulate them.
Abortion is a fundamental economic issue. Access to both contraception and abortion play a major role in women’s economic lives. There have been innumerable academic studies carried out and policy papers written over the past several decades about the connections between access to abortion and women’s economic status throughout the world, and all of them come to the same conclusions: The ability to control reproduction is essential to women’s abilities to support themselves and their families, and is essential to long-term economic growth.
Having a child or children is a major lifetime economic investment for anyone; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that it now costs more than $245,000 to raise a child in this country, not including the costs of college tuition. A study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that child care alone outpaces the cost of rent in 500 of 618 municipalities examined. Given these and other considerations, such as low wages and the cost of health insurance, transportation, food, clothing, and other necessities, unintended pregnancy can throw a family into economic crisis. Studies show that most women seeking abortion are already struggling financially, cannot afford an additional child, or want to continue their education to create a better future for themselves and their families.
The Turnaway Study, a multi-faceted research project on abortion conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program, examined the relationship between abortion, reproductive control, and poverty, among other things. As noted in a policy brief by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project about the economics of abortion and women’s lives, the Turnaway Study found that women denied an abortion in the United States had three times greater odds of ending up below the federal poverty line two years later than did women in similar economic circumstances who were able to obtain an abortion, adjusting for any previous differences between the two groups.
Smaller family size and educational attainment are among two of the most critical factors in the economic success of families and communities. Women and their partners know what it means to bring a child into the world and what it takes to raise children, and only they are equipped to make decisions about whether they have the financial and emotional means to make that commitment. Access to abortion is therefore fundamentally about personal and family economics. Abortion is about what women want for their future, and the future of any children now and later.
Access to abortion also has wider social and economic implications. According to the World Health Organization’s “Safe abortion care: the public health and human rights rationale:”
Safe abortion is cost saving. The cost to health systems of treating the complications of unsafe abortion is overwhelming, especially in poor countries. The overall average cost per case that governments incur is estimated (in 2006 US dollars) at US$ 114 for Africa and US$ 130 for Latin America. The economic costs of unsafe abortion to a country’s health system, however, go beyond the direct costs of providing post-abortion services. A recent study estimated an annual cost of US$ 23 million for treating minor complications from unsafe abortion at the primary health-care level; US$ 6 billion for treating post-abortion infertility; and US$ 200 million each year for the out-of-pocket expenses of individuals and households in sub-Saharan Africa for the treatment of post-abortion complications. In addition, US$ 930 million is the estimated annual expenditure by individuals and their societies for lost income from death or long-term disability due to chronic health consequences of unsafe abortion.
Unintended pregnancies also have other cost implications. Researchers at the Brookings Institute found that the United States spends $12 billion each year to cover medical care for women who experience unintended pregnancies and on infants who were conceived unintentionally.
In short, it is a fact that providing people with the means needed to make choices in childbearing is economically beneficial at all levels of society. In a country otherwise obsessed with individual economic choices, this should be a clear argument.
Abortion is an individual health issue. Yes, abortion is an individual health issue, related to but separate from its broader role in public health. Anyone who has had—or knows someone who has had—a difficult pregnancy, a miscarriage, an emergency c-section, a stillbirth, or any number of other complications is aware, pregnancy and childbirth can be wonderful and can be life-threatening, and the reality of either is a roll of the dice.
There are any number of contraindications for pregnancy that would result in the need for an abortion and any number of complications that can arise during a pregnancy, threatening the life or health of the pregnant person, the fetus, or both. The potential for very serious complications rises later in pregnancy, or after 20 weeks, the magic number alighted on by anti-choice zealots as somehow being a rational point after which abortion should be banned.
The United States is sliding backward on many fronts, including on access to contraception and abortion, two public health interventions for which the cost-benefit analyses are clear.
Politicians who claim to be pro-choice and raise money from citizens who support public health, human rights, and choice in childbearing must be able to articulate, embrace, and defend their positions. For too long, Democrats have come across as inept and apologetic when talking about abortion, even though the facts are clear and indisputable.
Regardless of whether the freshmen's objections are legitimate, in my own estimation, co-opting this particular controversy at Duke into a discussion of trigger warnings is to compare apples to oranges.
Each year at Duke University, incoming freshmen are required to read a book together as a class, which will then be discussed in a required literature and culture course that all freshmen take. In past years, the students have read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and A State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
In April, Duke announced that Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic novel, Fun Home, had been chosen for the upcoming year. In the book, Bechdel—the only female author on the shortlist of potential picks—is a lesbian who writes autobiographically about her father’s suicide shortly after she came out at the age of 19. Fun Home contains two drawn sex scenes between women.
Last week, Duke’s student newspaper, the Chronicle, reported that several freshmen were refusing to read Fun Home because they are conservative Christians who object to its content. Although the incident has been and will continue to be conflated with a broader discussion about giving students “trigger warnings” about potentially upsetting material, that is not the case in this instance—and it’s important to make the distinction clear in both media and institutional responses.
In statements taken by the Chronicle from a closed Facebook group for the Class of 2019, freshmen commented that when it came to Fun Home, they felt they would “have to compromise [their] personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.”
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One student commented to the Chronicle that he probably would have read the book if it was a traditional novel but that the nature of a graphic novel turned the experience, well, graphic—pornographic to be specific. Another said she refused to even look at the pages that contained nudity. In an op-ed to the Washington Post, one freshman, Brian Grasso, agreed, writing, “I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it.”
He argues that the problem is not the LGBTQ content, but the “pornographic” nature of the images within the graphic novel—meaning the two depicted sex scenes. His argument seems to be solely restricted to images, arguing, “Professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral.”
Objections to content in curricula on school campuses is nothing new, though the debate has increasingly moved from behind closed doors at faculty meetings to longform essays in mainstream publications. Jonathan Chait caused a stir in January when he argued in New York Magazine that the “new” rise in so-called political correctness on college campuses hampered the academic explorations necessary to a leftist point of view. More recently, a psychologist and an academic jointly argued for the Atlantic that the “coddling” signaled by the advent of trigger warnings for material in college classrooms was mentally unhealthy and prevented exposure to ideas and events that are important for a person’s recovery from post-traumatic stress or anxiety.
There is a vast amount of feminist objection to this kind of handwringing. Trigger warnings initially developed as a tool on online feminist message boards for the purpose of creating safe spaces for trauma survivors. The extension of these warnings out into the classroom comes from increasing awareness of the traumas of rape and violence in the lives of American children. Trigger warnings, feminists argue, are a basic level of human decency in the classroom, allowing students to process and engage with material without experiencing uncontrolled exposure to potential triggers of traumatic flashbacks or panic attacks.
This incident at Duke is being roped into this ongoing discussions of trigger warnings and a supposedly overly sensitive culture, in which an individual student’s feelings are more important that the educational value of the material. The difference here, however, is not that the students are trauma survivors who are requesting time and space in which to process their feelings, but right-wing purity culture Christians who insist that not looking at nude images is something they should be free from as part of their religion. Traumatic flashbacks impede classroom discussion by preventing students from participating fully. Objections to nudity in texts for religious reasons, by contrast, could actually inspire deeper discussions of that material if the student still chose to engage in dialogue about it. One is a physiological response; the other is a choice in the practice of religious belief. How the political left responds to this discussion is vital to the consistency and understanding of public narrative about trigger warning and PTSD in the classroom.
It can be very hard to navigate this kind of discussion as freshmen in college, with many of these students likely stepping out of their Christian bubble for the first time. I can see their objections, as I stood in their position once, privately objecting to swear words and inappropriate material in our freshmen composition courses, which were at a Christian liberal arts university. But Grasso’s objections indicate that he doesn’t necessarily see his objection to visually graphic materials changing at any time—which seems particularly naive.
Angus Johnston is a professor at City University New York who frequently comments on the trigger warning debate at his blog, Student Activism. He told me that he doesn’t necessarily object to the student’s decision in this case—sexually explicit images, he feels, should not be displayed in the classroom. However, context does matter: Johnston comments that he takes his students to museums to view art that has nudity in it and such excursions fit within the context of his classroom.
But in his editorial, Grasso commented that his beliefs extend to pop culture and Renaissance art, creating a potential conflict between professor and student. To that, Johnston says, “If a student objects to reading or viewing a work that a professor considers intrinsic to a class the student has signed up to participate in, the two of them have a dilemma that needs to be resolved, and resolving it in an academically rigorous way may require compromise on the student’s part.” But, Johnston says, he doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening at Duke: As Fun Home is a mandatory book assignment for all freshmen, rather than an optional one, Grasso’s objection may actually hold some weight—at least, it does for Johnston.
Regardless of whether Grasso and the other freshmen’s objections are legitimate, in my own estimation, co-opting this particular controversy at Duke into a discussion of trigger warnings is to compare apples to oranges. Trigger warnings and content notes allow students to engage with the texts safely and in a healthy manner, allowing for controlled exposure to those elements of discussion that may trigger an uncontrollable panic reaction in a person who has suffered trauma. In a case of trauma, engagement with the text still happens. A student still reads and engages with the ideas—but does so with caution and a hope for safety rather than being blindsided by texts.
On the other hand, a student objecting to material on religious grounds, as these Duke students have, does not engage with the text as a text and is not requesting special methods of engagement. They are simply refusing to engage at all. If anything, this Duke University incident exemplifies that it is not the leftist desire for content notes and care for trauma survivors that is quashing academic discussion and freedom, but the objections of conservative Christian students who refuse to engage with ideas that may challenge their preconceived notions about sexuality and the human experience.
To be sure, there is a very real fear amongst college teachers, especially vulnerable graduate students who do not have much real power, that a student’s complaint about their work may lead to the demise of their academic career before it even starts. We see this kind of fear in the backlash against trigger warnings, such as in a piece by an anonymous professor for Vox, who wrote that he is afraid of his liberal students.
But often, those complaints come not from those in recovery from trauma but rather from the privileged few who object to reading stories on moral or religious grounds. While working on my first master’s degree at Baylor University, I was charged with teaching two semesters of freshman composition. Our supervisor vetted every single resource we brought into the classroom to ensure that our conservative Christian student base would not be offended or object to the material presented, even if that material would challenge student perspectives. That meant my Jon Stewart clips in the unit on logical fallacies had to be carefully vetted and censored. We had to know exactly where the line was between pushing the envelope and outright breaking it open. To this end, we were instructed during orientation that teachers’ assistants who violated these rules about “clean and safe” classroom materials might find themselves without an assistantship in coming years.
In the discussion of academic freedom and college classrooms, it’s important to recognize that every classroom is different, and that every college has a different mix of students and student needs and ideas. The urge to treat students as a consumerist monolith is strong, but it does not account for the varying ways in which students will approach a text and contribute to the academic discussion. A student who refuses to engage with the discussion inside the classroom altogether is far more dangerous to the continuation of the robust academic environment than the student who requests a little more time and warning to prepare herself before engaging with a text.