Commentary Abortion

Every Reason for an Abortion Is a Good Reason

Amanda Marcotte

Both pro- and anti-choice activists often dwell on women's reasons for abortion, even though they're legally unimportant. Unfortunately, this discourse distracts from the real issue here, which is women's basic right to bodily autonomy and self-determination.

While spouting a series of lies, Bill O’Reilly whined recently on Fox News that women in Texas are providing what he considers insufficient reasons for getting an abortion. The exchange between him and Fox’s official fake feminist Kirsten Powers went like this:

Powers shot back: “The current status quo in Texas that these people are fighting for, who are fighting the bill, is to be able to abort your baby up until the third trimester.”

“Yeah!” O’Reilly jabbed. “For any reason! Women’s health! ‘Hey! Look I sprained my hand!’”

“Yeah,” Powers said. “For any reason. For any reason. Yeah.”

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To hear O’Reilly and Powers talk, one would think that in order to get a safe, legal abortion under the standards set out by Roe v Wade, one has to go in and provide a “reason” that you “deserve” this abortion, and some kind of authority figure determines if it’s good enough before you get an abortion—their only concern is that women are supposedly not giving good enough reasons. Obviously, these two pundits know better and are just being dishonest with the viewers, but that they are engaging in this rhetoric in the first place speaks to a serious problem in how abortion is discussed in this country.

Abortion is often framed as a mercy bestowed upon a woman who has committed the “crime” of having had sex. Mercy is something that someone else grants you, however, and not something you can simply decide for yourself that you deserve. That’s what people are stabbing at when they say they don’t want women to use abortion “as birth control.” The fear is that a woman might get an abortion without feeling remorseful or may, gasp, even feel like she’s entitled to it without having to apologize or grovel. Basically, people are uneasy with leaving the decision of whether or not an abortion is deserved to the woman seeking it herself. What a lot of people in the gray area between pro- and anti-choice want is for women to have to justify themselves in order to get abortions, even if it’s something as simple as making women feel ashamed of themselves for what they supposedly did wrong.

The problem with that, beyond the inherent sexism of it, is that there’s no real legal way to make women justify themselves, besides maybe making them sign a piece of paper that says, “I’m sorry I was a naughty girl who had sex. Can I please have my abortion now?” Roe v Wade sets things like time limits and Planned Parenthood v Casey says that there can be no “undue burden” to access, but the court decisions that shape abortion law don’t speak to “good” vs. “bad” reasons to have abortions, and for good reason. Abortion is medical treatment. It goes against basic medical ethics to require a patient to argue their moral worth before they are permitted access to health care they require.

The confusion between how ordinary people talk about abortion in terms of deserving-ness and how the law handles abortion, as a matter of rights, is why so much polling data on abortion is bunk. Gallup is notoriously bad on this front, showing that somehow half of Americans call themselves “pro-life” but a majority still want abortion to be legal. In other words, a lot of Americans call themselves “pro-life” but disagree with the “pro-life,” i.e. anti-choice movement about abortion access. I believe that speaks to a longing a lot of people have for women to be able to access abortion, but only if they provide a good reason for it. Of course, there’s no legal way to determine the difference between a good and a bad reason, to separate the “good girls” who just “made a mistake” from those deemed unrepentant sluts.

That is the legal reality, but the anti-choice movement knows that they gain ground when they can appeal to the mushy middle’s desire to make abortion available, but only if you somehow have proved yourself worthy of mercy for your supposed sins. Restrictions like waiting periods and mandatory ultrasound shaming rituals are sold to the public as ways to make the woman seeking abortion “earn” it by inducing shame—forcing her to feel bad about what she supposedly did, basically a time out in the corner for the naughty girls. In reality, they instead attack access, adding time and expense to the abortion. Instead of separating the good girls from the sluts, they are more likely to separate those who are privileged enough to be able to afford both the expense and the time off and those who can’t.

This is also why anti-choicers like to talk  about women “regretting” abortion. The underlying narrative, aimed at the mushy middle: Abortion is clearly too easy to get. Women are impetuously rushing into it, only to realize later that they were bad girls who didn’t pay enough for their sins. We need to make it harder to get, so that only the truly deserving, those who feel remorse, can get it. The idea is to shift focus to reasons and to get people thinking about those who have “good” ones vs. those who supposedly do not.

Unfortunately, I fear that pro-choicers may be making this problem worse by our rhetoric. Every time anti-choicers try to restrict abortion, we trot out women who’ve had abortions to put a face on the situation. It’s a good idea, but as Jessica Grose of XX Factor writes, the women in these stories almost always feel the need to justify their abortions, to explain that they are deserving—which in turn implies that others are not.

First-person abortion stories in major publications are almost always about “appropriate” abortions. Shrouded in mournful tones, regretting the baby that couldn’t be, reflecting on that upsetting choice. But this is such a narrow way of looking at an experience that a third of women in America have. Most people who get abortions aren’t teenagers or terminating unviable babies. Six in 10 women who get abortions are already mothers, and 3 in 10 women have two or more children. The abortion rate is highest among women in their 20s. And there is a range of emotions that women feel when they’re getting what is essentially a medical procedure. Some feel relief, some feel nothing, others even feel joy.

Pro-choicers definitely don’t mean it this way! Most of us believe that women are entitled to abortions if they want them, and you don’t need to have to provide your reasons for the rest of us to judge. But it’s inescapable: If you trot out your sob story to convince people you deserved your abortion, you end up implying, even if accidentally, that some women don’t deserve theirs. When both pro- and anti-choice people are forever debating what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to have an abortion, it shouldn’t be surprising that the people in the middle think that’s what this debate is about.

Because of this, I have to sign off on Grose’s suggestion: Tell your abortion stories, but don’t try to justify yourself! We need to get the message out that, as with every other medical intervention out there, pre-viability abortions don’t need to be earned. You don’t need to be a “good girl” who is full of remorse. The woman who slept with 30 guys and accidentally got pregnant because she foolishly took her chances without a condom deserves her abortion just as much as the loving mother of two who has discovered a fetal defect incompatible with life. We believe this to be true, and we can only start convincing the public that it’s true if we start talking about this belief more straightforwardly.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

Commentary Contraception

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

Susan Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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