In honor of Independence Day, Beacon Broadside asked author Carole Joffe (author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars) what she’ll be celebrating this July 4th.
Speaking as one whose professional and political life focuses on reproductive health services, there has lately been very little lately about which to feel celebratory. (An obvious exception of course– the Supreme Court’s recent decision on health reform). Since the 2010 elections, there have been unprecedented, nonstop assaults by Congress and, especially, the states on both abortion and contraceptive services. Nevertheless, what I do feel both celebratory about, and deeply moved by, is the determined pushback shown by the defenders of these services: the more than a thousand who gathered outside the Virginia State House to protest new regulations on abortion, which had nothing to do with “women’s health” and everything to do with politics; the wonderful women legislators in Michigan who, joined by a joyful crowd of supporters, performed the “Vagina Monologues” at the state capitol, after being literally silenced by Republican leadership because they had dared to speak the word “vagina” while objecting to extreme abortion regulation; and “Pillimina,” the human sized birth control pill that Planned Parenthood has deployed to follow Mitt Romney –and remind voters of his rightward turn on contraception.
I celebrate also the indomitable spirit of the abortion providing community, who go to work each day, knowing that there are politicians ever searching for new ways to shut them down, and aggressive protestors who will attempt to intimidate them and their patients. Finally on this day, I celebrate the memory of Dr. George Tiller of Kansas, an abortion provider assassinated three years ago in his church by an extremist. As one of his former staff told me, Dr. Tiller was deeply patriotic, and took the Independence Day and its meaning to heart. One July fourth, in the midst of particularly grueling protests, Tiller and his staff flew a number of American flags at his clinic, and later mailed these flags to abortion providing colleagues across the country. With the flags, he enclosed a letter that said, as the staff person recollected, “We would be honored if you accepted this flag as a symbol of our journey together on the pathway of Justice, Liberty and Freedom.”
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If we want Americans to understand and distance themselves from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs on their home turf, in their position as moral guides.
Most Americans think of childbearing as a deeply personal or even sacred decision. So do most reproductive rights advocates. That is why we don’t think anybody’s boss or any institution should have a say in it. But for almost three decades, those of us who hold this view have failed to create a resonant conversation about why, sometimes, it is morally or spiritually imperative that a woman can stop a pregnancy that is underway.
My friend Patricia offers a single reason for her passionate defense of reproductive care that includes abortion: Every baby should have its toes kissed. If life is precious and helping our children to flourish is one of the most precious obligations we take on in life, then being able to stop an ill-conceived gestation is a sacred gift. Whether or not we are religious, deciding whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a process steeped in spiritual values: responsibility, stewardship, love, honesty, compassion, freedom, balance, discernment. But how often do we hear words like these coming from pro-choice advocates?
Our inability to talk in morally resonant terms about abortion has clouded the broader conversation about mindful childbearing. The cost in recent decades has been devastating. In developing countries, millions of real women and children have died because abortion-obsessed American Christians banned family planning conversations as a part of HIV prevention efforts. Those lost lives reveal the callous immorality of the anti-choice movement.
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Back home, here in the United States, our inability to claim the moral high ground about abortion has brought us one of the most regressive culture shifts of a generation. We are, incredibly, faced with “personhood rights” for fertilized eggs, pregnancies that begin legally before we even have sex, politicians with “Rape Tourette’s,” and a stunningly antagonistic debate about contraceptive technologies that could make as many as 90 percent of unintended pregnancies along with consequent suffering and abortions simply obsolete.
The voices that are strongest on reproductive rights often falter when it comes to the cultural dialogue. At least part of this absence is because so many of the pro-choice movement’s leaders and funders are secular and civic in their orientation, awkwardly uncomfortable with the moral and spiritual dimension of the conversation, or, for that matter, even with words like moral and spiritual. From language that seems moderately wise–Who decides?–we fall back on “safe, legal and rare” (a questionable effort to please everyone) or even the legal jargon of the “right to privacy.”
The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of later abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under 25 in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?
The right to privacy may work in court. But it is a proxy for much deeper values at play. Privacy simply carves out space for individual men and women to wrestle with those values. In the court of public opinion, it is the underlying values that carry the conversation.
Far too often those who care most about the lives of women and children and the fabric of life on this planet limit themselves to legal and policy fights. Fifty years ago, reproductive rights activists took the abortion fight to the courts and won, and they have kept that focus ever since. But the legal fight has drawn energy away from the broader conversation. And the emphasis on “privacy” has meant that even the most powerful stories that best illustrate our sacred values are too often kept quiet.
Legal codes and cultural sensibilities are never independent of each other. Abortion rights were secured legally because of a culture shift that was aided by anguished stories and statements by compassion-driven Christian theologians during the 1960s and 1970s. The brutal deaths of American women every year, at a peak of thousands in the 1930s, was, beyond question or doubt, a profound immorality that many Americans were desperate to stop. Protestant leaders across the theological spectrum took a moral stand in support of legal abortion. In contrast to the Vatican, they had long agreed that thoughtful decision making about whether to bring a child into the world serves compassion and well-being—the very heart of humanity’s shared moral core.
At this point it should be clear that the tide has turned. Opponents, having lost in court, instead took their fight to conservative churches, where they have been refining their appeals for 40 years. The last few years have seen a systematic erosion of legal rights driven by a culture shift that had been building long before. It has also seen a complete reversal of the once-stalwart moral support for reproductive rights among American Protestants, which in the 1950s was seen as a moral good by almost every denomination from the most liberal to the most conservative. Unless this shift is challenged and stopped, there is every reason to fear that abortion will once again become inaccessible for most women in the United States.
Can pro-choice advocates reclaim the moral and spiritual high ground? Yes. But to do so will require a challenge to the status quo on two fronts. Rather than ignoring the right’s moral claims, we must confront their arguments. We must also express our pro-choice position in clear, resonant, moral, and spiritual terms. In other words, in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Most “pro-life” positions aren’t really “pro-life”; they are no-choice. They are designed to protect traditional gender roles and patriarchal institutions and, specifically, institutional religion. The Catholic bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention—both leaders in the charge against reproductive rights—represent traditions in which male “headship” and control of female fertility have long been tools of competition for money and power. They use moral language to advance goals that have little to do with the well-being of women or children or the sacred web of life that sustains us all.
The arguments they make to attain these ends are powerful emotionally but not rationally. They appeal to antiquated and brittle conceptions of God. They appeal to the crumbling illusion of biblical and ecclesiastical perfection—and the crumbling authority of authority itself. They corrupt the civil rights tradition and turn religious freedom on its head. They play games with our protective instinct and cheapen what it means to be a person. They lie.
That adds up to a lot of vulnerability in what should be the stronghold of the priesthood: their claim to speak for what is good and right.
Republican strategist Karl Rove will go down in history for his strategy of attacking enemies on their perceived strength—for example, by attacking John Kerry on his war record. In the recent election, we saw this strategy in play on both sides. Obama proved to be less vulnerable than his opponents hoped on his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. But by the time the election was over, Romney’s strongest credential, his background in business, was seen by many as parasitic “vulture capitalism.” If we want Americans to understand and distance themselves from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs in their home turf, in their position as moral guides.
Here, for openers, are a few ways we might change the conversation:
1. Talk about the whole moral continuum. A moral continuum ranges from actions that are forbidden, to those that are allowed, to those that are obligatory. When it comes to abortion, we talk only about one-half of this continuum—Is it forbidden or is it allowed?—when, in actuality, a women faced with an ill-conceived pregnancy often experiences herself at the other end of the continuum, wrestling with a set of competing duties or obligations. What is my responsibility to my other children? To society? To my partner?To myself? (To cite a personal example, my husband and I chose an abortion under circumstances where it would have felt like a violation of our core values to do otherwise.) The current conversation doesn’t reflect the real quandaries women face, one in which moral imperatives can and do compete with other moral imperatives. Nor does it reflect the wide range of spiritual values and God concepts that enter into the decision-making process.
No-choice advocates say: Abortion is immoral. God hates abortion.
We can say:For me, bringing a child into the world under bad circumstances is immoral. It violates my moral and spiritual values. / Whose God decides?
2. Challenge the “personhood”/fetus-as-baby concept both philosophically and visually. The history of humanity’s evolving ethical consciousness has focused on the question of who counts as a person, and if the arc bends toward justice it is because it is an arc of inclusion. Non-land-owning men, slaves, women, poor workers, children—our ancestors have fought and won “personhood” rights for each of these, and abortion foes are smart to invoke this tradition. But their ploy involves a sleight of hand. The civil rights tradition is built on what a “person” can think and feel. By contrast, the anti-choice move is about DNA, and it seeks to trigger visual instincts that make us feel protective toward anything that looks remotely like a baby, even a stuffed animal. In reality, the tissue removed during most abortions is minute, a gestational sac the size of a dime or quarter, which is surprising to people who have been exposed to anti-abortion propaganda. It strikes almost no one as being the substance of “personhood.”
They say: Abortion is murder. Abortion kills little babies.
We can say: A person can think and feel. My cat can feel hungry or hurt or curious or content; an embryo cannot. / Thanks to better and better pregnancy tests, over 60 percent of abortions now occur before 9 weeks’ gestation. Want to see what they actually look like?
3. Admit that the qualities of “personhood” begin to emerge during gestation. Pregnancy is no longer the black box it was at the time of Roe v. Wade. Ultrasound and photography have made fetal development visible, and research is beginning to offer a glimpse into the developing nervous system, with the potential to answer an important question: What, if anything, is a fetus capable of experiencing at different stages of development? Although this isn’t the only question in the ethics of abortion, it is undeniably relevant. How we treat other living beings has long been guided by our knowledge of what they can experience and want. By implication, ethics change over the course of pregnancy. A fertilized egg may not be a person except by religious definitions, but by broad human agreement a healthy newborn is, and in between is a continuum of becoming. Most Americans understand this argument morally and emotionally. The Roe trimester framework also codified it legally. Ethical credibility requires that we acknowledge and address the ethical complexities at stake.
They say: A fetus is a baby. A baby is a living soul from the moment of conception.
We can say: In nature, most fertilized eggs never become babies. A fetus isbecoming a baby, grows into a baby, is a potential person, or is becoming a person.
4. Pin blame for high abortion rates where it belongs—on those who oppose contraception—and call out the immorality of their position because it causes expense and suffering. Unintended pregnancy is the main cause of abortion. Right now half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. For unmarried women under 30, that’s almost 70 percent. A third of those pregnancies end in abortion. The reality is that abortion is an expensive, invasive medical procedure. For the price of one abortion, we can provide a woman with the best contraceptive protection available, something that will be over 99 percent effective for up to 12 years. If every woman had information and access to state-of-the-art long-acting contraceptives, half of abortions could go away before Barack Obama gets out of office.
They say: Liberals are to blame for abortion. Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill.
We can say: Obstructing contraceptive knowledge and access causes abortion and unwanted babies. That’s what’s immoral. We have the technology to prevent almost all of the suffering and expense caused by unintended pregnancy, but many women don’t have access to that information or technology because of the twisted moral priorities of religious and cultural conservatives. Barack Obama and Planned Parenthood have done more to prevent abortions in America than all of the choice opponents combined. The no-choice position is anti-life. It kills women. It puts faith over life.
5. Acknowledge and address the powerful mixed feelings surrounding abortion. The most common emotional reaction to abortion is relief. That said, women react physically and emotionally in a variety of ways to terminating a pregnancy. Sometimes, even those who are clear that they have made the best decision feel a surprising intensity of loss. Women should be given the support they need to process whatever their experience may be. We also need to understand that some abortion opponents actively induce guilt and trauma in women who have had abortions.
They say:Abortion is psychologically scarring. Women end up haunted by guilt and permanently traumatized after having an abortion.
We can say:No one should do something that violates her own values. Violating your values is wounding; that is why each woman should be supported in following her own moral, spiritual, and life values when making decisions about pregnancy.
6. Own religious freedom. Religious freedom is for individuals, not institutions. If the women and men who work for religious institutions all perceived the will of God in the same way, their employers wouldn’t be trying to control them by controlling their benefits package. Religious institutions have always tried to override the spiritual freedom of individuals, and they use the arm of the law as a lever whenever they can, and that is what they are doing now.
They say: Employers shouldn’t be forced to provide contraceptive or abortion coverage.
We can say: The freedom to choose how your employees spend their hard-earned benefits and the freedom to choose whether to have a child are two very different things. No institution—and nobody’s boss–should have a say in one of the most personal and sacred decisions we can make: whether to have child. That is why all women, regardless of who they work for, should have access to the full range of contraceptives and reproductive care.
7. Talk about children and parenting, not just women. Responsible and loving parents do what they can to give their kids a good life. We take our kids to doctors, get them the best schooling we can afford, love them up, and pour years of our lives into helping them acquire the skills that will let them be happy, kind, generous, hard-working adults. But parenting starts before we even try to get pregnant. We consider our own education and finances and whether we have the kind of partnership or social support that would help a child to thrive. We may quit smoking or drinking to be as healthy as possible during pregnancy.More often than not, the decision to stop a given pregnancy is a part of this much bigger process of mindful, responsible parenting.
They say: Abortion is selfish. Women just want to have sex without consequences.
We can say: A loving mother makes hard decisions to bring her kids the best life possible. A responsible woman takes care of herself. A caring father wants the best life possible for his children. Wise parents know their limits.
8. Embrace abortion as a sacred gift or blessing. For years we have talked as if abortion were a lesser evil, rather than a remarkable gift. In reality, no medical procedure is pleasant and yet the option to have the treatments and surgeries we need is an unmitigated good. The term “safe, legal and rare” confuses things because it implies that what should be rare is the treatment rather than the problem, unintended pregnancy. An abortion should be exactly as safe, legal and rare as a surgery to remove swollen tonsils or an infected appendix. If we think about abortion like we think about other medical services, then the attitude is one not of shame or ambivalence but of gratitude.
They say: Abortion is bad. An abortion is regrettable.
We can say: An ill-conceived pregnancy is bad. An unintended pregnancy is regrettable. An abortion when needed is a blessing. It is a gift, a grace, a mercy, a cause for gratitude, a new lease on life. Being able to choose when and whether to bring a child into the world enables us and our children to flourish.
9. Honor doctors who provide abortion services as we honor other healers. The human body fends off most infections and cancers, but not all. It spontaneously heals most broken bones and closes many wounds but not all. Similarly, it spontaneously aborts most problem pregnancies, but not all. Nature tends to abort pregnancies where there are problems with cell division or fetal development, where there is little chance for a fetus to become a healthy, thriving person. Through medical or surgical abortion, as through every other medical procedure, doctors and healers extend the work of nature—of God, if you will—to promote health and well-being. By ending pregnancies that don’t have a good chance to turn into thriving children and adults, they are—literally or metaphorically–doing God’s work.
They say: Abortionists are murderers.
We can say: God (or Nature) aborts most fertilized eggs. Abortion doctors are compassionate healers who devote their lives to helping women and men ensure that they have strong, well-planned, wanted families. Their work is as sacred as any in the field of medicine.
10. Honor women who decide to terminate pregnancies just as we honor motherhood. Sometimes the decision to end a problem pregnancy is clear and simple. Other times not. Either way, a woman often has to fight off a sense of shame and blame that she has internalized from religious and social conservatives—too often, including other women. She may feel bad even when her own values are clear and the decision has been thoughtful. How often do we affirm and honor the wisdom of women who make difficult childbearing choices (abortion, adoption, waiting) so as to best manage their lives and their parenting?
Most women choose an abortion so that they can later choose a well-timed pregnancy; or so they can take good care of the kids they have, ensuring those kids have the best possible chance in life. Sometimes a woman ends a pregnancy because she is choosing to put her life energy elsewhere. Even then, she is accepting that to embrace life fully she must choose among the kinds of good available to her and take responsibility for avoiding harm. She may or may not put it in these terms, but those are moral and spiritual questions, the kind that religion has long sought to guide. That is why many religious traditions support a woman or couple in weighing their own deepest values when it comes to reproductive decisions.
As individual stories show, the decision to end a pregnancy may be based in humility, responsibility, nurturing, prudence, forethought, vision, aspiration, stewardship, love, courage … or some combination of these qualities. Mere tolerance fails to affirm the many strengths that go into reproductive decisions, including the decision to end a pregnancy. These are virtues worthy of honor.
They say: An abortion is shameful. An abortion should be kept secret. An abortion needs to be forgiven by God.
We can say: Choosing abortion can be wise and brave. It can be loving and generous. It can be responsible and self-sacrificing.
The abortion wars rage relentlessly on, in the United States and elsewhere.
Consider the various abortion-related items in the headlines these first days of March. After months of wrangling and immense concessions from abortion rights supporters, abortion still has the capacity to derail Congressional passage of a health reform bill, as some House antiabortion legislators remain dissatisfied with the actually quite onerous funding restrictions of the procedure in the Senate measure. A woman in Nicaragua, the mother of a ten year old girl, is denied an abortion even though she is a suffering from cancer, and is not allowed to start chemotherapy as long as she is pregnant.
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And antiabortion fanatics in state legislatures continue to pass laws that are truly hard to parody. The latest of these is a Utah measure which would permitted life imprisonment for a woman “whose intentional or reckless behavior” caused the death of her fetus—if implemented, this bill which would have the effect of making suspect every miscarriage occurring in that state.
Indeed, one of the few genuine abortion parodies around– the Onion’s hilarious account of a law requiring women seeking abortions to first name the baby and paint the nursery— is actually not that far removed from a real-life incident I recount in my book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. In this case, a pregnant woman with the life threatening condition of DVT (deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the leg), was scheduled for an in-hospital abortion. While hospitalized for a flare-up of her condition several days before her abortion, she was forced by an anti-abortion doctor to tour the newborn nursery!
But perhaps the most highly visible and sensational of the current clashes over abortion are the events now transpiring in Atlanta, where billboards posted all over the city are proclaiming that “black children are an endangered species.” These billboards are part of a special “minority outreach” effort by the Georgia Right to Life organization, capitalizing on the fact that the abortion rates of African-American women are higher than those of Latina women and four times higher than those of white women. While arguably the slickest, the current Georgia campaign is only the latest in a longstanding effort by the anti-abortion movement and allies within certain sectors of the African-American community (primarily based within churches) to argue that abortion providers in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular, have “targeted” black women and are engaged in efforts at “black genocide”). A particular talking point of this campaign is the location of Planned Parenthood clinics in low-income, minority communities.
These conspiracy theories have been countered in several ways. Most fundamentally, it has been repeatedly pointed out, the reason that black women have higher abortion rates is that they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancy than other groups. The reason, for this, in turn, as Dr. Melissa Gilliam, herself an African-American gynecologist, has argued, lies in the larger health care disparities facing this community: not only lesser access to contraception, especially the more effective methods, such as pills, which are more expensive, but also the lower availability of quality primary care, effective sex education and so on.
Loretta Ross, the executive director of the Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta, has forcefully responded to the charges of racism that are frequently made by antiabortion forces against Margaret Sanger, the foremother of Planned Parenthood. As she recently told the New York Times, “The reason we have so many Planned Parenthoods in the black community is because leaders in the black community in the ’20s and ’30s went to Margaret Sanger and asked for them.” “Controlling our fertility was part of our uplift out of poverty strategy, and it still works.”
Thinking about Ross’ comment, it occurs to me that if Planned Parenthood did not locate its facilities in low-income neighborhoods (which by definition will include a disproportionate number of women of color), but only catered to women in the suburbs, then one might (rightfully, in my view) allege racism!
A point never acknowledged by those who seek to demonize Planned Parenthood is that only 3% of the organization’s services involve abortions. The remainder includes basic reproductive health services such as contraception, cancer screenings, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, sex education, and in some affiliates, prenatal care. For many poor women in this country, Planned Parenthood has become, de facto, their only source of health care. When grandstanding legislators attempt to score points with their antiabortion constituents by cutting Planned Parenthood’s state contracts, poor women in their sixties, as I report in my book, lose the opportunity for pap smears and breast exams.
Ideally, the Atlanta billboard fracas should be a teachable moment. The high rate of unintended pregnancies facing African American women in Georgia and elsewhere would, in a just world, offer irrefutable evidence of the need for the passage of a health care bill that assures primary care, including the most effective forms of contraception, to those currently without such care. Moreover, the unintended pregnancy rate should, ideally, open up a conversation about sexual violence, including birth control sabotage, that explains some portion of unintended pregnancies, as Ross also pointed out to the Times.
It is safe to say, however, that Georgia Right to Life, the sponsor of the billboard campaign, has no interest in addressing these larger issues. The website of the organization states: “The fundamental purpose of GRTL is to engage in actions that will restore respect and effective legal protection for all human beings from the moment of fertilization to natural death.” (Quoted here.) What this means, in plain English, is that this organization, like numerous other antiabortion groups, has redefined the most effective forms of contraception– IUDs, the pill—as “abortafacients.” To be sure, even more readily accessible contraception, would not, in itself, address the many intertwined factors of poverty and racism that contribute to such poor health outcomes for women in the African American community. But the necessity to counter the billboard campaign– which has captivated the media– brilliantly distracts advocates from fighting these larger battles.
The only lesson to be drawn from this whole mess appears to be that the abortion wars show no signs of abating.