Commentary Abortion

How I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement

Vyckie Garrison

The spring of my sophomore year of college I was president of my university’s Students for Life chapter. The fall of my junior year of college I cut my ties with the pro-life movement. Five years later I have lost the last shred of faith I had in that movement. This is my story.

Written by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism.

The spring of my sophomore year of college I was president of my university’s Students for Life chapter. The fall of my junior year of college I cut my ties with the pro-life movement. Five years later I have lost the last shred of faith I had in that movement. This is my story.

I was raised in the sort of evangelical family where abortion is the number one political issue. I grew up believing that abortion was murder, and when I stopped identifying as pro-life I still believed that. Why, then, did I stop identifying as pro-life? Quite simply, I learned that increasing contraceptive use, not banning abortion, was the key to decreasing the number of abortions. Given that the pro-life movement focuses on banning abortion and is generally opposed advocating greater contraceptive use, I knew that I no longer fit. I also knew that my biggest allies in decreasing the number of abortions were those who supported increased birth control use – in other words, pro-choice progressives. And so I stopped calling myself pro-life.

But when I first started blogging a year and a half ago I was very insistent that the pro-life movement should be taken at its word when it came to rhetoric about saving “unborn babies” from being “murdered.” I insisted that the pro-life movement wasn’t anti-woman or anti-sex, and that those who opposed abortion genuinely believed that a zygote/embryo/fetus was a person with rights in need of protection just like any other person. I believed that the pro-life movement’s actions were counterproductive, but that they were merely misinformed. I wrote a post with practical suggestions for opponents of abortion. I believed that the pro-life movement was genuine in its goals, but simply ignorant about how its goals might best be obtained.

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I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong.

As a child, teen, and college student, I sincerely believed that personhood, life, rights, and the soul all began at fertilization. I was honestly opposed to abortion because I believed it was murder. It had nothing to do with being anti-woman or anti-sex. I thought that the pro-life movement writ large – the major pro-life organizations, leaders, and politicians – were similarly genuine. I thought that they, like myself, simply wanted to “save the lives of unborn babies.”

I have come to the conclusion that I was a dupe.

What I want to share here is how I came to this realization. And if you, reader, are one of those who opposes abortion because you believe it is murder and you want to save the lives of unborn babies, well, I hope to persuade you that the pro-life movement is not actually your ally in this, that you have been misled, and that you would be more effective in decreasing the number of abortions that occur if you were to side with pro-choice progressives. If this is you, please hear me out before shaking your head.

Changing Tactics and Breaking Ties

My journey began one blustery day in October of 2007 when I came upon an article in the New York Times. This article completely shook my perspective. It didn’t change my belief that abortion was murder or my desire to save the lives of unborn babies. Instead, it simply completely overhauled my tactical focus and made me realize that the current efforts of the pro-life movement are extremely backwards.

Banning Abortion does not Decrease Abortion Rates

The first thing I learned from that New York Times article shocked me: it turns out that banning abortion does not actually affect the abortion rate.

A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.

Moreover, the researchers found that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely. Globally, abortion accounts for 13 percent of women’s deaths during pregnancy and childbirth, and there are 31 abortions for every 100 live births, the study said.

The results of the study, a collaboration between scientists from the World Health Organization in Geneva and the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a reproductive rights group, are being published Friday in the journal Lancet.

“We now have a global picture of induced abortion in the world, covering both countries where it is legal and countries where laws are very restrictive,” Dr. Paul Van Look, director of the W.H.O. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, said in a telephone interview. “What we see is that the law does not influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion. If there’s an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal.”

But the legal status of abortion did greatly affect the dangers involved, the researchers said. “Generally, where abortion is legal it will be provided in a safe manner,” Dr. Van Look said. “And the opposite is also true: where it is illegal, it is likely to be unsafe, performed under unsafe conditions by poorly trained providers.”

I was flabbergasted upon reading this. I followed the link to the summary of the study, printed the entire thing out for reading over lunch, and then headed off to class. As I perused the study over a taco bowl in the student union later that day I wondered why I had never been told any of this. I was shocked to find that the countries with the lowest abortion rates are the ones where abortion is most legal and available, and the countries with the highest abortion rates are generally the ones where the practice is illegal. It’s true.

Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.

Banning abortion does not actually affect abortion rates. I was could not have been more shocked. I learned that all banning abortion does is make abortion illegal – and unsafe. I found that almost 50,000 women worldwide die each year from unsafe abortions, and that many more experience serious injury or infertility. These deaths happen almost entirely in countries where abortion is illegal – and thus clandestine. In fact, when abortion was made legal in South Africa, the number of abortion related deaths fell by over 90%.

Overturning Roe, I realized, would not make women stop having abortions. Instead, it would simply punish women who have abortions by requiring them to risk their health to do so. This is all well and good if the goal is to punish women for seeking abortions, but if the goal is to keep unborn babies from being murdered, this is extremely ineffective.

The Real Solution: Birth Control

But if banning abortion does not decrease abortion rates, what does? Why do some countries have low abortion rates while others have much higher rates? The answer, I found, was simple.

Both the lowest and highest subregional abortion rates are in Europe, where abortion is generally legal under broad grounds. In Western Europe, the rate is 12 per 1,000 women, while in Eastern Europe it is 43. The discrepancy in rates between the two regions reflects relatively low contraceptive use in Eastern Europe, as well as a high degree of reliance on methods with relatively high user failure rates, such as the condom, withdrawal and the rhythm method.

As I sat there in the student union reading over my lunch, I found that making birth control widespread and easily accessible is actually the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate. Even as I processed this fact, I knew that the pro-life movement as a whole generally opposes things like comprehensive sex education and making birth control available to teenagers. I knew this because I had lived it, had heard it in pro-life banquet after pro-life banquet, had read it in the literature. The pro-life movement is anti-birth-control. And opposing birth control is pretty much the most ineffective way to decrease abortion rates imaginable. In fact, opposing birth control actually drives the abortion rates up.

As I mulled this over, I realized how very obvious it was. The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn’t make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy, even if it means trying to induce their own abortions (say, with a coat hanger or by drinking chemicals) or seeking out illegal abortions. I realized that the real way to reduce abortion rates, then, was to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to do that is with birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies by allowing women to control when and if they become pregnant.

I realized that the only world in which opposing birth control made any sense was one in which the goal was to control women’s sex lives. After all, birth control allows women to have sex without having to face the “consequences” of sex. But I had never opposed abortion in an effort to make women face the “consequences” of having sex. I had always opposed abortion out of a desire to save the lives of unborn babies. As a child, I had been moved to tears by the image of millions of babies murdered by abortion each year. If making it easier for women to have sex I personally believed was sinful was the price I had to pay to save the lives of unborn babies, it was a price I was more than willing to pay.

As my next class approached, I put the printout back in my backpack and walked out into the October sun. My mind was in turmoil, but there was one thing I knew for sure. I could no longer call myself pro-life, because I could no longer support the policies advocated by the pro-life movement and the major pro-life organizations. I no longer wanted to see Roe overturned or abortion banned. Instead, I wanted to work towards a world in which everyone has access to affordable birth control and unplanned pregnancies are reduced to a bare minimum. That day I became pro-choice.

What about the Zygote?

In the five years since that day in October, I have rethought many things. I no longer believe that abortion is murder because I no longer hold that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is a “person.” I also came to realize that the focus on personhood ignores the fact that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is growing inside of another person’s body. For me, the key dividing line is birth. But even as my position shifted, I was still willing to give the pro-life movement the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because I believed that the pro-life movement’s opposition to birth control stemmed not from a desire to control women’s sex lives but rather from the belief that the pill was an “abortifacient.” This meant that the pro-life movement could oppose abortion as murder and yet also oppose birth control without actually being inconsistent. But in the last few months I have read several things that have shaken this belief.

Does the Pill Kill?

Let me preface this with a quick biology lesson. Every month, a woman’s body releases an egg into the Fallopian tubes. If there is sperm there waiting, the egg becomes fertilized, and this fertilized egg has its own unique DNA. This is when I was taught life – including personhood and the bestowing of a soul – began. This fertilized egg, or zygote, then travels from the Fallopian tubes to the uterus, where it implants in the uterine wall. That is when pregnancy begins.

Now, the birth control pill works primarily by preventing ovulation in the first place, and also by impeding sperm so that it can’t get to the Fallopian tubes to fertilize the egg. But leading organizations in the pro-life movement argue that there is some chance that women on the pill will have “breakthrough ovulation,” and if this occurs and sperm somehow make their way into the Fallopian tubes, you could technically end up with a fertilized egg. Pro-life organizations further suggest that because the pill also thins the uterine lining, this fertilized egg would be flushed out of a woman’s body through her vagina rather than implanting in her uterus.

Here is how a Life Issues Institute article describes this:

The estrogen level is so low that it doesn’t suppress ovulation all of the time …, and sometimes there is what we call a breakthrough ovulation – ovulation which breaks through the effect of the drug and is simply a plain old ovulation. It just happens. Fertilization, then, can occur. But if fertilization occurs, implantation within the nutrient lining of the womb is prevented by another action of the same pill. That action is a hardening of the lining of the womb. What occurs, then, is an induced micro-abortion at one week of life.

How frequent is breakthrough ovulation in a woman taking a low-estrogen contraceptive pill? Well, let’s take a high estimate – 20%. Probably lower than that. How frequently does pregnancy occur when an egg or an ovum is waiting? Probably not much more than two or three times out of the twenty.

So if we use a high figure, a 20% breakthrough ovulation, that would mean a two or three percent fertilization rate. But, as a matter of fact, pregnancy occurs only about 1% or less of the time, so, in the other 1 or 2%, fertilization does occur, implantation cannot occur, and the little embryonic baby dies.

The bottom line, then, for the commonly used contraceptive pill is this: in 97 or 98% of the time, the effect is one of preventing pregnancy. But, in perhaps two or more percent of the time, the effect is abortifacient. There is no way in the normal clinical practice of knowing which is happening, or when.

When I learned that birth control, not banning abortion, was the best way to decrease abortion, I knew about this argument. However, I concluded that the small number of times this might happen was outweighed by the number of abortions the widespread use of birth control would prevent. Yet even though that was my conclusion, I could at least understand why those in the pro-life movement almost universally opposed the pill and other forms of hormonal birth control. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that, even though I thought they were misguided in their tactics, they really did simply want to “save the lives of unborn babies.” And give them the benefit of the doubt I did.

I later learned that  an increasing pile of evidence suggests that the pill does not actually result in fertilized eggs being flushed out of a woman’s body. I began to feel that the pro-life movement had no qualms with twisting the scientific evidence if need be, which was confusing because there didn’t seem to be a motive for insisting on the belief that the pill causes abortions if scientific evidence indicated the contrary. I also found that the pro-life movement is not afraid of twisting the evidence when it comes to things like the supposed harmful side effects of abortion, such as depression and breast cancer. Cooking up “scientific facts” in an effort to scare women out of having abortions rather than working to encourage birth control use in an effort to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies seemed extremely backwards, and I became increasingly troubled by the way the pro-life movement treated science and their constant willingness to play fast and lose with the facts.

The Biggest Killer: A Woman’s Own Body

Because I knew that the pro-life movement believed that the pill causes abortions, though, I could on some level understand why they opposed it, and I continued to give them the benefit of the doubt on that score. That is, until I read this blog post by Sarah.

The anti-birth control crowd leaves out one very important fact: a woman’s bodynaturally rejects at least 18% of fertilized eggs. This means that if you have unprotected sex that leads to the fertilization of an egg (30% chance of successful fertilization), the resulting zygote has an 18% chance of being rejected by the uterus. The human bodynaturally performs “abortions” almost 20% of the time. So does taking birth control actually increase the chances of zygote abortion, or does birth control actually reducethe chances of this occurring? Let’s do the math.

Without Birth Control:

  • Out of 100 fertile women without birth control, 100 of them will ovulate in any given month.
  • Out of those 100 released eggs, 33 will become fertilized.
  • Out of those 33, 18% will be rejected by the uterus.
  • In a group of 100 women not on birth control: 6 zygotes will “die”

With Birth Control:

  • Out of 100 fertile women on birth control, around 6 of them will ovulate in any given month.
  • Out of those 6 released eggs, only 2 will become fertilized.
  • Out of those 2, 100% will be rejected by the uterus.
  • In a group of 100 women on birth control: 2 zygotes will “die”

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

I have to be honest, this blog post totally shocked me. I wondered about the numbers Sarah used, so I went looking for verification. As I did this I opted to use the pro-life movement’s own numbers on the rate of fertilized eggs that fail to implant for women on the pill. Remember, once again, that scientific studies have found again and again that the pill does not result in fertilized eggs failing to implant. However, I felt that if I used the pro-life movement’s own numbers I could not be accused of simply using studies with a liberal bias. And so I explored the numbers. What I found was that Sarah’s numbers were off. What I found was that for every 100 fertile women on birth control each month, only 0.15 fertilized eggs will be flushed out. In contrast, for every 100 fertile women not on birth control in a given month, 16 fertilized eggs will be flushed out. In other words, Sarah’s numbers were far too conservative. She was more right than she knew. It is the people not using birth control that are “murdering” the most “children,” not women on the pill.

After reading Sarah’s article and doing the math using the pro-life movement’s own numbers, I concluded that the idea that the pill is an abortifacient is used as a smokescreen. It has to be. If the pro-life movement believes that even a very small chance of a zygote being flushed out is enough reason to oppose the use of the pill, then there should be an extreme amount of concern about the much, much higher number of fertilized eggs flushed out of the bodies of women not using the pill. Anyone who really thinks about it cannot help but come to the conclusion that if your goal is to save “unborn babies,” and if you truly believe that a zygote – a fertilized egg – has the same value and worth as you or I – the only responsible thing to do is to put every sexually active woman on the pill. Sure, according to the pro-life movement’s figures a few fertilized eggs would still fail to implant and thus “die,” once again according to their own figures, an enormous number of these “deaths” would be prevented.

And yet, the pro-life movement still up the pill as a great evil. Pro-life doctors often refuse to prescribe the pill, and pro-life pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for it. This makes utterly no sense unless the point is not “saving unborn babies” but rather making sure that women who dare to have sex have to face the “consequences,” i.e. pregnancy and children. As I thought through all of the implications of Sarah’s article, the benefit of the doubt that I had been giving the pro-life movement began to falter. How could they justify opposing the pill when putting sexually active women on the pill would actually save the lives of unborn babies?

Why No 5k to Save teh Zygotes?

A few months after reading Sarah’s article I came upon one by Fred Clark. In it, he argues that if those who oppose abortion really believe that every fertilized egg is a person we ought to see 5K fundraisers to save these zygotes. This is very much like what I said above, except that the focus here is whether the 50% of all zygotes – 50% of all fertilized eggs – that die before pregnancy even begins could be saved. Fred suggests that if the pro-life movement really is about saving unborn babies, and if those in the pro-life movement really do believe that life begins at fertilization, then pro-lifers really ought to be extremely concerned about finding a way to save all of these lives. But they’re not.

Name a disease and there’s a charitable research foundation committed to finding a cure, and for just about every such foundation there’s a corresponding 5k race or walkathon, lemonade stand, bake sale, golf tournament, banquet, concert, gala or festival to raise funds.

But for the biggest killer of them all, there’s nothing.

No 5k or 10k. No walkathon. No foundation promoting research. No research.

The deadly scourge that claims half of all human lives ever conceived is completely ignored.

Here’s Jonathan Dudley discussing this killer in his book Broken Words:

Due to hormone imbalances, genetic anomalies, and a number of unknown factors, between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus and are passed with the monthly menstrual flow. If we agree with pro-life advocates that every embryo is as morally valuable as an adult human, this means that more than half of humans immediately die. This fact provides pro-life advocates with an opportunity to follow through on their convictions. Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … Even if medicine could save only 10 percent of these embryos — and we don’t know because no one has cared enough to ask — it would be saving more lives than curing HIV, diabetes, and malaria combined.One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death.

For anyone who genuinely believes the pro-life argument that “every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child,” the sort of research Dudley describes ought to be an inescapable obligation.

And yet there are no charitable events to support the foundations funding such research. No such foundations exist to be supported. No such research exists to be funded.

Reading Fred’s article compounded what I had felt reading Sarah’s article. The pro-life movement is not about “saving unborn babies.” It can’t be. As someone who as a child and teen really did believe that life – personhood – began at fertilization, and who really was in it to “save unborn babies,” this is baffling. If I had known all this, I would have been all for this sort of research. I would have been all for sexually active women using the pill to cut down on “deaths.” But I didn’t know any of this. The adults of the anti-abortion movement, though, and certainly the leaders, they surely must know these things. This isn’t rocket science, after all. They must know these things, and yet they are doing nothing.

The Ultimate Hypocrisy

Reading Sarah and Fred’s articles and then thinking them through and doing some research made me realize that those in the pro-life movement, or at least the leaders of the pro-life movement, are incredibly inconsistent. You simply can’t be against the pill for fear that it will result in flushed out zygotes and yet not concerned at all about the vastly greater number of zygotes flushed out naturally every day. At least, not if you really truly believe a zygote has the same worth as an infant, toddler, or adult, and not if you’re truly motivated solely by a desire to save the lives of these “unborn babies.” Fresh off of these thoughts, I came upon two news articles on the subject in the last week that have completely shattered the last bit of faith I had in the pro-life movement.

Barack Obama, Pro-Life Hero?

Those who oppose abortion are all set to vote for Romney because he has done things like voice approval for the personhood amendment, which would ban abortion, but what they don’t seem to realize is that, as I found out for the first time last week, Obama has already done more to reduce the number of abortions than any other president ever has or ever will.

On October 3, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine published a study with profound implications for policy making in the United States. According to Dr. Jeffery Peipert, the study’s lead author, abortion rates can be expected to decline significantly—perhaps up to 75 percent—when contraceptives are made available to women free of charge. Declaring himself “very surprised” at the results, Peipert requested expedient publication of the study, noting its relevance to the upcoming election.

As most observers surely know, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) requires insurance coverage for birth control, a provision staunchly opposed by most of the same religious conservatives who oppose legalized abortion. If Peipert is correct, however, the ACA may prove the single most effective piece of “pro-life” legislation in the past forty years.

In the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, we have a previously unimaginable opportunity for satisfying compromise on abortion. In accordance with liberal demands, the procedure will remain safe and legal, and reproductive choices will be extended to those who have been unable to afford them in the past. In exchange, conservatives will see abortion rates plummet, achieving a result comparable to that of illegality but without the fierce controversy or government imposition in the lives of individuals.

I am not so naïve as to believe that this conclusion is likely to be reached soon, or without further contest. Nor do I anticipate that Tom Minnery or Bryan Fischer will embrace President Obama as a pro-life hero. But it seems to me that, if conservatives really believe in the evil of abortion, they are morally obligated to embrace a policy that stands to limit it so impressively.

Obamacare stands to cut abortion rates by 75%. And yet, the pro-life movement has been leveraged in opposition to Obamacare, and most especially in opposition to the birth control mandate. They don’t believe women should be guaranteed access to free contraception even though this access is the number one proven best way to decrease the number of abortions. That access would, to use the rhetoric of the pro-life movement, prevent the murders of 900,000 unborn babies every year.

When I was pro-life, I truly believed it was about saving unborn babies. If I had seen a study like the one above – that making birth control available free of charge would cut the number of abortions by 75% – I would have immediately supported the requirement that all insurance companies offer birth control without copay. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of lives. I cried about this as a child, cried about all the deaths. I felt guilty that I was one who had survived the abortion “holocaust.” Saving hundreds of thousands of these lives a year? I would have jumped at the idea!

And yet, the pro-life movement is fighting tooth and nail to repeal the very act they should be praising to the rooftops. In fact, some of them don’t even just think birth control shouldn’t be covered without copay, they don’t think birth control should be covered at all. When I read this study and thought about the pro-life response to Obamacare, I was baffled. Dumbstruck. But it gets worse.

Making it Harder to Afford Children

One thing I realized back in 2007 is that, given that six in ten women who have abortions already have at least one child and that three quarters of women who have abortions report that they cannot afford another child, if we want to bring abortion rates down we need to make sure that women can always afford to carry their pregnancies to term. Maternity and birth is expensive, adding your child to your health care plan is expensive, daycare is expensive, and on and on it goes. Raising children costs money, and women who have abortions know that.

The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

I realized, then, that if the goal is to cut the abortion rate, the pro-life movement should be working to make sure that women can afford to have and care for children. After all, a full three quarters of women who have abortions say they could not afford a child. If we found a way to offer more aid to parents, if we mandated things like paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, and universal health insurance for pregnant women and for children, some women who would otherwise abort would almost certainly decide to carry their pregnancies to term. But the odd thing is, those who identify as “pro-life” are most adamant in opposing these kind of reforms. I knew this back in 2007, because I grew up in one of those families. I grew up believing that welfare should be abolished, that Head Start needed to be eliminated, that medicaid just enabled people to be lazy. I grew up in a family that wanted to abolish some of the very programs with the potential to decrease the number of abortions. When I shifted my position on this issue, I was in many ways simply becoming consistent.

With the advent of the Tea Party movement and new calls for a small government and for cutting things like welfare and food stamps, those who claim to believe abortion is murder, who claim to want to bring abortion rates down, have only done further damage to what credibility they had left in my eyes. And lately, it’s gotten worse. You see, in some cases conservatives are actively working to make it harder for poor women to afford to carry unintended pregnancies to term.

Pennsylvania House bill seeks to limit the amount of TANF assistance that low-income women receive based on the amount of children they give birth to while covered under the program.

Despite the fact that low-income women who give birth to children would logically need increased assistance to care for their larger family, Pennsylvania lawmakers — State Reps. RoseMarie Swanger (R), Tom Caltagirone (D), Mark Gillen (R), Keith Gillespie (R), Adam Harris (R), and Mike Tobash (R) — don’t want their state’s welfare program to provide additional benefits for that newborn. If a woman gives birth to a child who was conceived from rape, she may seek an exception to this rule so that her welfare benefits aren’t slashed, but only if she can provide proof that she reported her sexual assault and her abuser’s identity to the police

In other words, this bill would make it so that if a poor woman gets pregnant, she has to decide whether to have an abortion or whether to carry to term, have the baby, and see her welfare benefits slashed, taking food out of the mouths of the children she is already struggling to feed. I want to say I’m surprised, but I’m really not, because I’m remembering rumblings underneath the polished surface of the things I was taught. This idea that women shouldn’t “spread their legs” if they’re not ready to raise the results of their promiscuity, that the government shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for some slut’s inability to say no. As a teen and a young adult, I never thought about how inconsistent these ideas were with the “saving unborn babies” pro-life rhetoric I so strongly believed in. But they are. If it’s all about “saving unborn babies,” it shouldn’t matter how those unborn babies are conceived, or whether their mothers are rich or poor, married or not.

If those who oppose abortion really believes that abortion is murder, they should be supporting programs that would make it easier for poor women to afford to carry pregnancies to term. Instead, they’re doing the opposite. Overwhelmingly, those who oppose abortion also want to cut welfare and medicaid. Without these programs, the number of women who choose abortion because they cannot afford to carry a given pregnancy to term will rise. Further, they are working against things like paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, and universal health insurance for children, programs which would likely decrease the number of women who choose abortion because they cannot afford to carry a pregnancy to term. And in this specific case, conservatives want to penalize a poor woman who chooses to carry a pregnancy to term by making it harder for her to make ends meet.

This makes utterly no sense if the goal is to save babies.

Conclusion

After reading that last article just a couple days ago, I realized something. I am done making excuses for the pro-life movement. I am done trying to explain that the movement is not anti-woman. I am done trying to insist that the movement really is simply trying to “save unborn babies.” I’m done because it’s not true. The pro-life movement supports the exact policies that will keep abortion rates high. It is those who believe in choice who support policies that will bring the abortion rates down.

I was a dupe. I’m ready to admit it now.

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about punishing women for having sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women. It’s about making sure they have consequences for having unapproved sex.

But I am very sure that there are other dupes out there. If you’re sitting there reading this thinking “but I really am in it to save unborn babies,” I am sure you’re not alone. After all, I was one of you. If you are one who has been a part of the pro-life movement because you really do believe in “saving unborn babies,” it’s time to cut your ties with the movement. You may be an honest and kind-hearted person, but you’ve been had. You’ve been taken in. It’s time to let go. It’s time to support Obamacare’s birth control mandate, it’s time to call off opposition to birth control, and it’s time to get behind progressive programs that help provide for poor women and their children. It’s time to make your actions consistent with your motives.

We’d love to have you join us.

Former Quiverfull believer, Libby Anne is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network at No Longer Quivering – she blogs at Love, Joy, Feminism.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.