Commentary Abortion

How Abortion Storytelling Was Born

Cynthia Greenlee

The women sharing their abortion stories in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole briefs owe much to the women lawyers who filed a 1970 landmark case challenging New York’s abortion ban.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

In 1970, Emily Jane Goodman was a young attorney who got pulled into a landmark case challenging New York’s abortion ban.

The case, Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, had an unusual legal team for the time (all women, many of them with only a few years of lawyering under their belts) and a radical premise: that the most important testimony came from women who experienced illegal abortions, lack of contraceptive access, and painful experiences with adoption or forced motherhood. Those attorneys, including Goodman, and those women telling their truths became the foremothers of the contemporary abortion story-sharing trend.

Now, more than 45 years later, Goodman is once again participating in a legal instance of abortion storytelling. Earlier this month, she was one of more than 100 women lawyers who filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief for an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court abortion case. The brief’s summary begins: “To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

That brief is one of a number in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole using women’s words to build the argument that access to abortion is a matter of public health, and essential to women’s futures and gender equality.

The women sharing their abortion stories in these briefs owe much to those women lawyers who filed the New York case, including constitutional scholar Nancy Stearns and the late Carol Lefcourt. That case influenced the state’s passage of the nation’s most liberal abortion law before Roe v. Wade. What made the case so extraordinary was how it brought about change: The attorneys interviewed scores of women, some of whose stories became public record.

Lawyer Diane Schulder also was part of the legal team and later recounted the events in a book co-written with Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Abortion Rap. Kennedy had a diverse clientele that included Black Panthers and Billie Holiday; played a critical role in the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women; and showed through her legal advocacy how feminism and Black freedom struggles could cross-pollinate one another.

Schulder recalled in an interview with Rewire that there was increasing momentum to challenge New York state’s law. Indeed, a group of radical feminists including Shulamith Firestone of the Redstockings, had recently held an abortion speak-out. A hearing about reforming the law was disrupted by feminists, who insisted that they were just as qualified—if not more qualified—to talk about women’s reproductive lives than the one woman scheduled to speak, a nun.

“Flo and I both went to Columbia, and I clerked for a federal judge,” said Schulder. “He maintained you’ve got to get the facts right. Facts, facts, facts. We thought that women needed to tell their stories, get the facts on the ground, and the law would go from that. It did pave the way for abortion reform” in New York and elsewhere, though the case was declared moot after the state’s assembly changed the law.

To prepare for their case, the lawyers began interviewing women who would be witnesses in the case. Most of them came to Flo Kennedy’s 48th Street apartment, which doubled as her office. Ideally, the legal team was looking for “10 or 12 of the several dozen willing witnesses, anxious to testify to the oppressiveness of the New York State abortion laws and how they were personally affected by them,” according to Abortion Rap.

There was the woman journalist who drank copious amounts of gin, ingested nutmeg, and soaked in countless mustard baths—all because of rumors that these efforts would cause an abortion. The woman who was shipped away to a Chicago home for unwed mothers, where she did the back-breaking work of scouring floors and windows right up until delivery. Or the white woman who noticed that an adoption service encouraged white girls to relinquish their children but Black girls to keep their babies because “there was no market for Black babies.”

And there was the anthropology student who went to her college library and found ideas for home abortion methods in folk medicine books that were usually locked up in a cage like rare volumes. That same woman broke out in a rash from the concoction she mixed and swallowed—a serendipitous eruption, because she was able to pass it off as a case of German measles, which could cause fetal abnormalities and therefore allowed her to get an abortion.

Finding the women to testify wasn’t hard; after all, abortion was a common, if illegal, feature of women’s lives at the time.

But the road that Abramowicz paved wasn’t easy. When the women came to the federal courthouse in Manhattan to testify in early January 1970, the male lawyers for the state raised objection after objection. Flo Kennedy, whose speaking and litigating style Gloria Steinem once called “verbal karate,” was dedicated to making sure that the proceedings wouldn’t be impersonal recitations from doctors.

Kennedy continually pushed the limits of courtroom behavior to make points about social and cultural stigma surrounding women’s roles, sexuality, and abortion. Early in the case, Kennedy requested a panel of three women judges to hear the case—when she knew perfectly well that there weren’t three female judges to be found in New York’s male-dominated legal circuit. When she was in front of the judges, she continually peppered the court with questions about how religious attitudes taught women to be ashamed of their bodies and fed anti-choice opposition.

When the all-male team of lawyers for New York said that depositions about abortions that took place in Louisiana or Alabama weren’t relevant to the New York law, Kennedy and the testifying women rebutted those assertions, saying that the lack of reproductive health care in New York made women travel to seek services elsewhere.

After opposing attorney Joel Lewittes argued that the experiences of unwed mothers were not relevant, Kennedy let loose.

As quoted in Abortion Rap, Kennedy said: “If you [succeed in the motion to strike such testimony], of course, we will not prevail. That does not for a moment stop us from building our case and stating our position and finding out how completely irrelevant these courts think women’s experiences, ordeals, feelings are. And we will be very much better informed about the nature of our proceedings and our courts, once this matter has been ruled on, and we shall not be surprised to learn that you are right and that there is no regard for women’s ordeals and feelings.”

Women were the experts of their own lives, Kennedy asserted time and time again—a point that’s the core of today’s abortion story-sharing trend. Without Flo Kennedy and her colleagues fiercely arguing that women’s lives mattered, there would likely be no briefs from women lawyers who courageously talk about the abortions that have made possible their careers, health, and aspirations.

Even so, using the actual words of clients is not standard in legal storytelling. Lawyers are still interpreters who must cleave to the narrow demands of legal evidence and construct a narrative that’s understandable through the law.

Abbey Marr, a lawyer who co-wrote the Advocates for Youth brief for the Whole Woman’s Health case (which also used women’s stories taken from more than 900 testimonials it’s collected over three years) said in a phone interview: “There always will be a tension between the speaking to the court and being true to the story and having the client take agency. The answer in law school was always client-centered lawyering—talk to your clients, explain everything to them. I wish that was as easy as it sounds. How do you do that when you want to win a case?”

But it’s clear that stories do sometimes matter—even if those stories must be accompanied by legal and other advocacy strategies. They’ve mattered in abortion-related cases since Abramowicz, including those before the nation’s highest court. Women’s abortion experiences figured prominently in a NARAL brief filed in 1985’s Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In the 2007 case Gonzales v. Carhart, the stories of women who claimed harm as a result of abortion influenced Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion.

“While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon [of abortion regret],” reads the majority opinion, “it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.” Then, it cited an anti-choice amicus brief recounting women’s stories of negative post-abortion feelings or consequences.

Today, advocates say that women must be able to talk about their abortions because such stories are deeply powerful. They may, as in legal cases, form compelling arguments for policy change. They may serve to normalize abortion, which is, after all, an essential and legal health-care service.

For Emily Goodman, the women lawyers’ brief is both an opportunity to come full circle and a marker of how much work is left for abortion advocates. Now a retired New York Supreme Court judge, she signed the brief as a woman lawyer who had an abortion.

“This and other briefs show the Supreme Court what everybody else already knows: that women of every class, occupation, background, education, can be full participants in society only if they have control of their bodies and reproductive role,” Goodman told Rewire. “It is imperative that I and others show them who we are, how productive we are, and let them know that we are powerful and unwilling to go backward. I am joining with other women reiterating that we will not be controlled by women-haters, personal religions that have no place in courts, cruel politicians, or judges.”

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.