Commentary Abortion

An Open Letter to Rachel Maddow: Stop Calling Opposition to Rape and Incest Abortion Exceptions “Extreme”

Tracy Weitz

From a fundamental human rights perspective denying abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest is just as problematic as denying abortions to women who can’t afford another child, are in unstable relationships, do not want to be a parent, or want to pursue other life opportunities.

Over the last year Rachel Maddow has been one of the few news reporters to cover the efforts of anti-choice politicians to limit access to safe abortion care through draconian state laws. Her outrage is appreciated, but I find myself increasingly concerned about her focus on the Republicans politicians who oppose abortion “even” in cases of rape and incest—a position she deems “extreme.”  Her language seems to suggest that the desire to deny abortions to the vast majority of women with unwanted pregnancies is “mainstream” and only these few outliers are “extreme.” This perspective reinforces the idea that some abortions are more justified than others, that people should innately have more sympathy for women who did not voluntarily participate in the sex act that resulted in the pregnancy. Politicians do not get to a better rating simply because they believe that abortions are justified if women are victims. Mr. Romney is extreme on this issue whether or not he accepts the rape and incest exceptions.

From a fundamental human rights perspective denying abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest is just as problematic as denying abortions to women who can’t afford another child, are in unstable relationships, do not want to be a parent, or want to pursue other life opportunities. The reason a woman decides to have an abortion should be irrelevant to society’s recognition that restricting her decision is unacceptable.

In many ways people opposed to abortion in all cases have a more consistent, and I would say, honest position. For them, either a blastocyst, embryo, or fetus has a right to life, no matter how it was conceived, or a woman doesn’t have the right to terminate a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances. In contrast, the politicians who believe it is within their domain to decide which of women’s reasons for abortion are legitimate, lack a moral core and are using abortion simply as a political tool to mobilize a conservative base while trying not to appear too “extreme.” Unfortunately, it is extreme to oppose the right of any woman to make decisions about the direction of her life, no matter the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant.

Further damage is done by the focus on rape and incest exceptions on Maddow’s show and in the general public dialogue on this issue. In exalting how incredibly awful it would be for the law to make a woman bare the child of their rapist, you make it seem abnormal that some women might choose not to terminate a pregnancy following a sexual assault. However, women make many different decisions in these circumstances, all of which need to be respected. 

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Several years ago my colleagues and I conducted a study of women obtaining abortions in the Southern Midwest. One of the interviewees told us a story of a pregnancy that had resulted from a rape which she had decided to carry to term. She noted that she believed something good came from a terrible situation. Later in her life, when we met her, she found herself pregnant again and unable to care for another child. This time she decided to have an abortion. In her life, continuing the pregnancy from rape was more tolerable than continuing the one for which she lacked the resources to adequately care for that child. 

During a subsequent study of women’s emotions following abortion, another interviewee discussed her decision to terminate a pregnancy following a sexual assault. She had just left an abusive relationship but knew she loved her children even though she now hated the man with whom she had them. She wondered if this new child might love her, no matter the circumstances of its conception. Her concern was that the pregnancy would be evidence of the rape and she did not want anyone to know about the assault.  She wanted respect for her decision because it was what she needed to do to manager her life not to feel justified in having the abortion because she had been raped. She wanted control over her life, not more pity for being in a bad situation.

There are, of course, many women for whom the idea of a child born from a sexual assault is unbearable, and these women need access to abortion care. They also need social and emotional support for their sexual assault, regardless of whether there is a resulting pregnancy. But as a society we also need to respect women’s decisions to not terminate pregnancies resulting from sexual assault and not to disparage that decision in an effort to paint politicians as extremists. 

So Dr. Maddow, while I appreciate your attention to the unrelenting effort of abortion opponents to eliminate access to abortion, please stop labeling some opponents of abortion rights as “extreme” and others as “mainstream.” Pandering to polling data that suggests that more people support abortion for reasons of rape and incest is short-sighted and harmful to the efforts to ensure that all people have the resources, rights, and respect to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions.  You of all people should understand this. 

News Human Rights

Lawsuit: Religious Groups Are Denying Abortion Care to Teen Refugees

Nicole Knight Shine

The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services.

Two years ago, 17-year-old Rosa was raped as she fled north from her home country in Central America to the United States. Placed in a Catholic shelter in Florida, the teen learned she was pregnant, and told shelter officials that if she couldn’t end the pregnancy, she’d kill herself. She was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Upon her release, the facility in which she’d been originally placed rejected her because of her desire for an abortion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday. So did another. Both, reads the lawsuit, were federal contractors paid to care for unaccompanied minors like Rosa.

Rosa’s story is one in a series sketched out in a 16-page complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees—including nearly $20 million over two years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion. The grantees are paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house and care for young refugees.

The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, amounts to a fresh test of the degree to which Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups can claim exemptions from federal laws and regulations on religious grounds.

“Religious liberties do not include the ability to impose your beliefs on a vulnerable population and deny them legal health care,” said Jennifer Chou, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a phone interview with Rewire. “The government is delegating responsibility … to these religiously affiliated organizations who are then not acting in the best interest of these young people.”

Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the HHS, which includes the ORR, told Rewire via email that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Escaping turmoil and abuse in their home countries, young refugees—predominantly from Central America—are fleeing to the United States, with 33,726 arriving in 2015, down from 57,496 the year before. About one-third are girls. As many as eight in ten girls and women who cross the border are sexually assaulted; it is unknown how many arrive in need of abortion care.

The federal ORR places unaccompanied minors with organizations that are paid to offer temporary shelter and a range of services, including reproductive health care, while the youths’ applications for asylum are pending. But documents the ACLU obtained indicate that some groups are withholding that health care on religious grounds and rejecting youths who request abortion care.

The 1997 “Flores agreement” and ORR’s contracts with grantees, which the ACLU cites in its lawsuit, require referrals to “medical care providers who offer pregnant [unaccompanied immigrant minors] the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding prenatal care and delivery; infant care, foster care, or adoption; and pregnancy termination.”

In 2016, the federal government awarded 56 grants to 30 organizations to provide care to unaccompanied minors, including 11 that the ACLU claims impose religious restrictions on reproductive health care.

In one case, ORR officials struggled to find accommodations for 14-year-old Maria, who wanted to end her pregnancy, according to the complaint. An ORR official wrote, according to a document the ACLU obtained, that the agency would have liked to transfer Maria to Florida to be near family, but “both of the shelters in Florida are faith-based and will not take the child to have this procedure,” meaning an abortion.

In another, the complaint reads, 16-year-old Zoe was placed with Youth for Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia, where she learned she was pregnant. She asked for abortion counseling, which was delayed nearly two weeks, the complaint says. Learning of her decision to end the pregnancy, Youth for Tomorrow asked to transfer Zoe elsewhere because of its abortion prohibition, even though Zoe said she was happy at the shelter.

For vulnerable youths, such transfers represent a form of “secondary trauma,” according to the ACLU’s Chou.

“These women have already endured so much,” she told Rewire. “The process of transferring these youths from shelter to shelter tears them away from their only existing support system in the U.S.”

Federal officials, according to the complaint, were aware that the religious grantees would withhold abortion referrals. In one case, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was awarded more than $8 million between 2013 and 2016, although it stated in its grant application that rape survivors wouldn’t be offered abortion care, but instead permitted to “process the trauma of the rape while also exploring the decision of whether to keep the baby or plan an adoption.”

The lawsuit also claims that a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included language requiring unaccompanied minors who were pregnant to be given information and counseling about pregnancy termination, but the ORR removed that language after the USCCB complained.

The USCCB did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. But in a letter last year to the ORR, the USCCB and five religious groups, including some ORR grantees, wrote they could not facilitate health-care services for unaccompanied minors that run contrary to their beliefs.

The lawsuit is the second the ACLU has filed recently against the federal government over religious privileges.

Last month, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act suit demanding that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients have reported being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.

In 2009, the ACLU also sued the federal government for allowing USCCB to impose religious restrictions on a taxpayer-funded reproductive health program for trafficking survivors. In 2012, a district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, and the government appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal later dismissed the case as “moot” because the government did not renew USCCB’s contract.

Analysis Violence

Hearing for Accused Planned Parenthood Shooter Overlooks His Extreme Anti-Abortion Views

Jessica Mason Pieklo

After a full day of testimony, which included an investigator's account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Robert Lewis Dear Jr.’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.

We won’t know until mid-May at the earliest whether the State of Colorado considers Robert Lewis Dear Jr. legally competent to stand trial for the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last November. Thursday was the first round of Dear’s competency hearing as to his mental state and whether he should stand trial or face commitment at a state mental hospital. But after a full day of testimony, which included an investigator’s account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Dear’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.

According to Colorado law, a defendant is competent to stand trial so long as they do not have a mental disability or developmental disability that prevents them from having the “present ability” to consult with their attorney and a “reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist the defense,” or “prevents the defendant from having a rational and factual understanding of proceedings.”

A person could have a mental illness or a disorder that produces hallucinations or exaggerated thoughts, but so long as they understand what’s happening with regard to the charges against them, and have the ability to defend themselves if they choose, the law in Colorado says that’s enough to go to trial.

So do sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoid belief the federal government is persecuting Christians rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder—the kind of mental illness that meets one prong of the competency test for Dear but alone is not enough to declare a person legally incompetent to stand trial? What about Dear’s unwillingness to cooperate with his state-appointed attorney because he wanted to assert his constitutional right to self-representation? These were just a handful of questions at issue during the hearing for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and state mental health experts.

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Prosecutors argued Dear clearly and methodically charted out his attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. Detective Jerry Schiffielbein, who was the primary investigator tasked with interviewing Dear, testified that Dear made several stops to try and locate the Planned Parenthood at issue, including one outside a CPC, where he asked a postal worker if the CPC was, in fact, the Planned Parenthood clinic he was looking for.

It turns out the Planned Parenthood was just down the road.

Prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions. They noted Dear is college-educated, though acknowledged his history of run-ins with law enforcement, including one incident of alleged sexual assault that Dear described to investigators as a “false rape.” Prosecutors noted that Dear had an issue with women; he referred to them, they said, as “honeypots” who were his “weakness.”

Dear’s political beliefs may be extreme, prosecutors argued—among them include the idea that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that martial law is imminent—but they should not disqualify Dear from standing trial. (Coincidentally, as noted by the medical professionals hired to evaluate Dear, radio personalities like conservatives Glenn Beck and Alex Jones say the same thing.)

But Dear’s attorneys worked on a different picture, calling forensic psychologist Jackie Grimmett to offer her opinion that Dear was delusional and not able to stand trial. Grimmett testified it was her opinion that Dear was not competent to do so, in part because he inconsistently shared information with his state-appointed attorney. At this point, Dear spoke out, saying “I’m going to represent myself. It’s my constitutional right. It’s my life on the line.”

Grimmett also testified that she believed Dear to be a “spiritual” man and was reluctant to “pathologize” Dear’s religious beliefs, but noted his religious sense of persecution was intertwined with his deep political convictions. That statement allowed Dear’s attorneys to try and focus her testimony on Dear’s distrust of the federal government, on his rage after the Waco siege of Branch Davidians and the Oregon militia standoff, and Dear’s desire to live off the grid.

Those beliefs, Dear’s attorneys argued, suggest Dear is irrational. And for the most part, Grimmett played along, stating it was her professional opinion that Dear’s paranoia of the federal government was so severe he lacked capacity to stand trial.

While a forensic psychologist, Grimmett acknowledged she was not certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, the professional organization that sets standards of care and practice for the industry.

The State of Colorado called as a witness a second forensic psychologist, Thomas Gray, who had also evaluated Dear. While Gray agreed with Grimmett that Dear holds “extreme” political and religious beliefs, Gray also testified that it was clear to him that “Dear wanted to be able to dictate the scope of his defense.” Gray signed off on Grimmitt’s initial evaluation of Dear as not legally competent, though he conceded during his testimony that Dear appeared coherent, intelligent, and engaged with his defense.

What was largely overlooked during the hearing was what that “scope of defense” would be. As has been reported, Dear initially intended to plead guilty to the more than 170 counts he faces. But during Detective Schiffielbein’s testimony on the point of whether he believed Dear was competent enough to participate in his own defense, the detective testified that in recorded jail calls, Dear mentioned disagreeing with his attorneys. Dear now wants to raise a “defense of others” argument in his case, Schiffielbein said, and believes his attorneys are pushing an insanity defense over his wishes and his constitutional rights.

Defense of others is, broadly speaking, the legal argument that a crime is justified because its commission is preventing a greater evil. Anti-choice terrorist Paul Hill argued his murder of Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard was justified because it prevented Britton from performing more abortions, an act Hill equated to murder—as does Dear. Scott Roeder, during his trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller tried to put forward a similar defense—that Roeder’s actions in assassinating Tiller were justified to prevent the “greater evil” of legal abortion.

Notably, Schiffielbein testified that Dear emotionally discussed both Gunn and Roeder as heroes, even tearing up at one point during the interview. Dear allegedly also told Schiffielbein he wanted to talk about anti-choice Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, but was too tired.

Schiffielbein did not follow up on Dear’s offer to discuss Rudolph’s case.

By the end of day one of the hearing, it was no clearer how the judge would rule on Dear’s competency than at the beginning. But based on Thursday’s testimony, Dear’s beliefs and actions—the ones the defense framed as evidence that he was not competent to stand trial—are directly in line with other anti-abortion terrorists he named as admirers. And those terrorists were deemed competent to stand trial.

Dear’s hearing may not be finished yet, but it was very clear from the established testimony that not only did Dear know exactly what he was doing when he attacked Planned Parenthood, he wants a trial for the rest of the country to know about it. Not to talk about Barack Obama as the Antichrist, like his attorneys suggested, but to justify committing heinous crimes in the name of trying to stop legal abortion.

Will Dear get the venue? We won’t know until at least May 10, when his hearing is scheduled to continue. By then, anti-choice radical and Roeder associate Angel Dillard’s FACE Act trial will have concluded. Roeder, thanks to an unassociated Supreme Court ruling, will have had the opportunity to argue for a decrease in his life without parole sentence. Let’s not forget the forthcoming Summer of Mercy anniversary protest in Wichita, Kansas.

Which makes it odd that in a case where a man was arrested for shooting up a Planned Parenthood on purpose, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the judge spent next to no time on the role anti-abortion rhetoric played in Dear’s alleged actions. If the forensic pathologists are positing that Dear’s extreme anti-government beliefs are delusional, what about his extreme anti-abortion beliefs?

That may be the ultimate question in the Robert Dear trial, but it’s not one the State of Colorado appears that interested in answering.