News Abortion

“Do Women Have Too Many Rights?” Abby Johnson’s Dangerous Message Delivered With Sugar

Jessica Mack

Pro-life activist Abby Johnson came to the University of Washington in Seattle last week. While I feel pro-choice protestors were disrespectful of her right to speak, Johnson's beliefs, being played out in legislation across the country, are the far more dangerous affront to human rights and freedom, especially for women.

If Abby Johnson, former Texas Planned Parenthood Director-cum-pro-life maven, came to your event, she would respect your rights. That’s what she said last Thursday night over the shouts of rowdy pro-choice protestors who were packed into an auditorium at the University of Washington to hear her speak on the topic: “Do Women Have Too Many Rights?” 

And you know what? I believe her.

The hollers and eventual scuffles didn’t subside once during her hour-long talk, and plans for a post-talk Q&A were aborted as a very pregnant Johnson exited early, flanked by campus police. Yet aside from a few snide remarks to some of the more disruptive protestors, Johnson remained respectful. She sounded intelligent and even witty.

The juxtaposition between her composure and the palpable rage and disrespect shown her by pro-choice protestors was stark. Incessant shouts only accented her point about the anger that resides in the pro-choice community – “anger that comes from hurt,” she cooed – and which contributes to a shameful hostility.

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“We are living in a society that is hurting. People will justify their own hurt by allowing the killing of the innocent,” she said.

Yet for many reasons, pro-choice anger is warranted. We are (still) in the midst of a downward spiral and backward slide on reproductive rights and access to health care in this country. Alarmingly, people like Johnson and the policymakers they’ve elected are winning on many fronts, and deftly using the banners of rights, care, and even “choice” to do it. We are fired up and we should be. I also question the tactics of Students for Life of America, the group that sponsored Johnson’s talk, in creating such a provocative title for that talk by which even Johnson herself seemed repelled. (On Twitter, she agreed with my assessment that the title was “ridiculous, inflammatory, and antiquated.”) And while I didn’t like what she had to say, Johnson did not deserve to be bullied the way she was. More importantly, it was a waste of our breath and a disservice to our movement. We should have been better, because, frankly, we are better.

Other than rowdy young feminists, the audience was a sea of white, wealthy hair. If everyone in that audience had magically disappeared into a wormhole, Seattle would have been rid of the lion’s share of its conservative pro-life citizens. But to those few and proud, Johnson offered reassurance:

“Don’t be discouraged. There are many people willing to stand up for the real rights of men and women.”

But what are real rights, and who gets to claim and exercise them? Everything but individual reproductive rights; everyone but women with unwanted pregnancies.

“I don’t think women have too many rights. I actually don’t think women have enough rights. […] I do support choice, but not when it comes to the killing of innocent humans,” said Johnson.

Then she segued into a defense of informed consent. “We have to give women an informed choice. I believe in that.” Education and access to “the full truth” is paramount, for women and for every individual. We should be educated about our beliefs, she said, and I agree.

Yet the point of informed consent is that it’s not informed consent unless it’s fully informed, and without bias, and unless real choices exist on which to act. Yet the education and information that the pro-life movement puts forth is too often religiously-based and unscientific, serving only to place the burden (of unwanted pregnancy, of rape, and other aspects of sexual and reproductive health) on women themselves.

Take, for example, the well-documented coercion women receive at crisis pregnancy centers, or the propagation of scientifically-unfounded claims of a post-abortion syndrome, of disproven links between abortion and breast cancer, of biologically inaccurate claims that emergency contraception is an abortifacient. Further, a completely corrupted version “informed consent” has increasingly become a tool of anti-women and anti-reproductive rights efforts. It’s less and less about actually ensuring women have information, and more about putting in place a stumbling block to inhibit women’s access to real information and real choice.  It’s become a code for “you can’t decide for yourself.”

Yet many of the points Johnson discussed in her talk actually weren’t that problematic to me. Again, she sounded for the most part reasonable. It was the logical hops, skips, and jumps she made from those points that created a nebulous of misrepresentation. For instance, in an effort to unify patient services across the country, all Planned Parenthood clinics will be required to provide a full range of services, including abortion, by 2013 (currently, services are not completely standardized among clinics).

From this, Johnson concluded that the decision was completely (and only) abortion-focused and money-driven. That Johnson has a perpetual bone to pick with her former employer is no secret. In fact, she is chief strategist for Live Action, the pro-life media group responsible for the barage of “exposes” on Planned Parenthood, which have continued to fall flat.

But from this, I concluded: “about time!” Planned Parenthood, as the largest and most trusted women’s health care provider, should be offering comprehensive services, including abortion, at every clinic, because so many women have literally no other option. Remember 87 percent of US counties have no abortion provider.

Johnson’s logical leaps continued unbounded, but they could not then – or ever – be deterred. Yet less than the words coming out of her mouth, it’s the story that she represents which is so pernicious to our individual reproductive rights. Johnson is one of those women who’s had an abortion, and even supported abortion access, and then did a complete 180.

She is the “once was lost, now am found,” repentant-whore-good-mother archetype, all rolled into one. And that’s the narrative that society has prescribed for women, for centuries, and the society that policymakers limiting reproductive rights are trying to legislate. Johnson deserved more respect for her right to speak than she got in her reception at the University of Washington last week, but the bigger story she fits into is a horror story that we cannot let play out.

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.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

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“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.