Commentary Abortion

Sex-Selective Abortion: Saving Girls Takes a Lot More than a Hidden Camera

Jeannie Ludlow

Abortions chosen because of the sex of the fetus are a symptom -- not a cause -- of a sexist society. A reproductive justice analysis of that sexism gives insight into why hidden camera "stings" have nothing to do with saving girls.

When I got to work that day, the abortion clinic director took me aside. “We have a couple coming in for a sex-selection abortion,” she said. “The fetus is a girl, and their culture prefers boys. I want to know if you will be able to work with them without judging or being negative. Be honest. If you can’t be their advocate, I will. I need to know by four o’clock.” I thought about it. I knew I was supposed to support every woman’s right to choose. I had been trained to be non-judgmental, to remember that there is almost always a deeper story than the one the patient shared with us. I knew that the pro-choice thing to do would be to say yes, that I would work with them. Still, I said no. I said I could not participate in an act that was a direct expression of cultural misogyny (hatred of females).

I was right to see the couple’s abortion in terms of cultural misogyny, but I was wrong to say no, to interpret their decision as misogynist.

Judging from recent news items, we can assume the anti-abortion rights people would say I did the right thing. Several state legislatures, as well as Congress, have debated bills that would outlaw abortion for reasons of sex or race, bills that have been sponsored and supported by anti-abortion rights politicians and activists. An anti-abortion rights organization has made headlines with its “sting operations,” in which an actor enters clinics wearing a hidden camera, pretending to be a potential patient who wants to abort her pregnancy because she is carrying a girl.

I imagine that some prochoice people would say I did the wrong thing. After all, I abandoned my commitment to women’s freedom of choice.

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At our post-clinic meeting that night, I learned that all of the advocates had refused to work with the couple. We had a good discussion about our feelings, our disappointment at a world in which such a decision would be made, and our dismay that it would be made at our clinic. “We don’t do coerced abortions,” one of the advocates said. “We turn away patients who can not find resolution around their decisions. How is this any different?”

“This was not a case of being unresolved,” said our clinic director. She explained that this woman knew she wanted her abortion. She wanted it in order to save herself and her husband from being ostracized by his family when they returned home. She wanted it because, in her culture, girls were not valued, and she didn’t want her baby to be a not-valued member of society.

If we look at this situation through the lens of reproductive justice, we can see that I was indeed wrong to say no but not because I failed to be prochoice. I was wrong because I failed to see that this couple was doing the best they could do, given an untenable situation.

An often-quoted definition of reproductive justice says that it is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” SisterSong Reproductive Justice organization explains that reproductive justice “represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.” (See http://sistersong.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=141&Itemid=81.)

If we focus on reproductive justice, we can see that gender preference among pregnant women/couples is a symptom, not a cause, of a wide-spread, cross-cultural system of thought that defines us and values us according to our gender. Each person is put in a “gender box” (and only two boxes are available), and everything about us—our talents and abilities, our principles, our behaviors—are judged according to which box we get stuck in.

In cultures where there is very strong son-preference, being stuck in the “female” gender box means being devalued, seen as an expense, a liability to one’s family and community. And one of the only ways to become more valuable as a woman is to produce a son. When we look at this system through the lens of reproductive justice, we can see the layers of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints that would lead a young couple to choose a sex-selection abortion. This is where I failed the couple in our clinic; I failed to see them as constrained by a sexist society that had them, their families, and their community—in short, their entire support system—trapped.

In cultures where there is more relative equality between the genders, we see each gender as a potential asset, but always as an asset defined and limited by gender. This is what leads many U.S. couples to strive for “gender balance” in their family structures. Do you have three daughters? Surely you will try one more time for that son! All boys in your family? Don’t you wish for a sweet little girl to spoil? In the U.S., particularly, pressure is put on men to produce sons; no man is supposed to want to be “the only guy in the house,” and who could he play catch with, if he has no sons? When we look at this system through the lens of reproductive justice, we must acknowledge that here, too, are layers of constraints—different constraints, to be sure, but constraints nonetheless—t hat might lead a young couple to choose abortion for reasons of family balance.

If we dislike these systems, our responsibility is to change the systems. If Lila Rose (who releases the sting videos) and anti-abortion rights politicians are really concerned about gender imbalance resulting from girls’ being “targeted” by abortion, they need to step up now and work to end sexism, globally. They need to work against any system that puts human beings in gender boxes and work toward a world based on the principle of full gender equality. Lila Rose is working hard to limit women’s (and only women’s) abilities to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. She is doing nothing to end sexism in the U.S. or in the world. In fact, she is doing just the opposite.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

 

Tell us your story. Have religious restrictions affected your ability to access health care? Email stories@rewire.news

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