“Choice” versus “Reproductive Justice”

It’s been over a year since I last wrote a blog. The topic was a passionate defense of the award-winning documentary “After Tiller.” The movie profiles the four doctors who were inspired to follow Dr. George Tiller’s example after he was gunned down on a Sunday in 2011 in his church — of all places, by a religious zealot, no less. Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performed third-trimester abortions, and the movie shows, with such humanity and compassion, how the four are carrying on in the spirit of his motto “Trust women.” If you haven’t had the good fortune to see the movie (which was shown on PBS this September and is available on Netflix), I urge you to do so. And if you need motivation, read my blog at lovemeanssecondchances.com. There’s also a review at workers.org.

Please note that my blog has been on hiatus — that makes it sound so professional (wink, wink) — since last fall when I had to clear up some financial issues about selling the book on Amazon and I wanted to post yet another corrected version of the text via Lightning Source. It’s amazing to me, the compulsive copyeditor/proofreader, that I continue to find sneaky little typos. Now that both issues have been resolved, I’m back to promoting my novel via this blog.

I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Susan Robinson, one of the four doctors in “After Tiller,” at the 28th annual conference “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom” at Hampshire College in April. She’s just as down to earth, genuine, and dedicated as she appears in the movie — a real-life, totally unpretentious, genuine hero. It was exciting and delightfully gratifying to meet her.

There, I also met Dr. Melissa Madera, founder and director of The Abortion Diary Podcast, who subsequently interviewed me. Her concept for the podcast diary is that one way to end women’s shame about having an abortion — and to break the silence resulting from the current viciously anti-abortion atmosphere — is to share our stories openly, publicly, proudly. Please check out Melissa’s wonderful project at theabortiondiarypodcast.com. My story, entitled “I knew I couldn’t be a single mother,” is  #53. And if you can make even a small contribution, please do. Every effort to affirm abortion as a woman’s human right helps build the movement for reproductive justice for all women. Onward!

Last winter-spring, I wrote a series of articles for Workers World about the Hobby Lobby case, delving into its many complicated aspects — an overview of the issues, especially the fraudulent claim of “religious liberty”; why the free contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act is essential for woman’s health and well-being as well as that of her family; and what political forces were behind the law suit. You guessed it, several far-right religious groups as well as the Kochs (whom I have since daubed “the kings of the oligarchs!). More recently, I’ve been writing about the attacks on poor women’s right to access abortion in Texas for WW.  If you’re curious about those articles, and a review of “Obvious Child,” you’ll find them under my byline at workers.org.

Words matter, terminology matters

Over the summer the New York Times ran a very provocative article that claimed the concept of “pro-choice” was outdated, no longer necessary. I disagree. In a nutshell, the essence of choice is that every woman should have the means to freely choose whether or not to have children with whom she pleases. I call “Love Means Second Chances” a pro-choice novel because that immediately identifies it, setting it apart from other novels. I see “choice” as a useful shorthand for the whole constellation of factors — economic, social, gender/sexual, religious, cultural, political, environmental  — that comprise the umbrella concept of reproductive justice.

At the Hampshire conference, Loretta Ross described how the term RJ originated 20 years ago when a group of Black women got together after attending the U.N. conference on women in Cairo. They were frustrated because they felt the term “reproductive rights” didn’t go far enough. They wanted  women’s control over their own bodies to be viewed as a human right that must be guaranteed like all other human rights defined by the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence reproductive justice. But RJ is a very sophisticated, comprehensive concept and most people may not immediately understand the totality of what it encompasses: that every woman has the human right to experience the many aspects of her life freely and fully. So for now, I’m continuing to use “pro-choice” as an easy identifier when that’s appropriate.

But the concept of RJ is essential when discussing some issues. One of the most far-reaching aspects was articulated this summer in several articles posted on RH Reality Check (a wonderful resource with daily material on all aspects of RJ). Katherine Cross summarized points made in a few of them and then added her own analysis in “The Price of Our Blood: Why Ferguson Is a Reproductive Justice Issue” (Aug. 26).  She writes:

“Far from being a ‘separate issue,’ as some would like to imagine, what happened to Michael Brown is as much a profound indictment of our lack of reproductive justice as it is our lack of racial and economic justice.

“If reproductive choice is about deciding whether or not one can have a family, or how large one wants her family to be, then structural violence imposed on a community is a constraint upon that freedom. If a woman like Marissa Alexander, for instance, cannot defend her own life and her children from an abusive parent, that too is a violation of reproductive freedom.

“The issue is not only the tragic loss of a child, or an unjustly incarcerated mother. It’s the fact that for the entire Black community in our society, there is a calculus to be made about one’s children that’s not prevalent among whites.” Later she adds: “All lives must be valued as equal. There can be no reproductive justice without racial justice.” And I would add economic, social, gender/sexual, cultural, political and environmental justice — every aspect of life that affects all women’s existence. Cross then goes on to discuss how this same lack of equality is played out in Native, Latina, and other people-of-color communities.

I urge you, if you haven’t read this article, to read it at tinyurl.com/lj4dml2.

I’ll be posting this blog more regularly from now on!

Why “After Tiller” Is a Must-See Movie

Five stars for filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson for their new documentary “After Tiller,” released commercially in late September. It makes the most compassionate, heart-wrenching, behind-the-headlines case for why women need third-trimester abortions and the four doctors in the U.S. who currently provide them.

But the film ultimately goes beyond its immediate premise to reveal why women need abortions in the first place: why access to abortion is a vital, necessary component in women’s overall health care. Because of that, this powerful, persuasive film deserves to have the widest possible showing – in movie theaters, on TV and cable, in high school and college classrooms.

The film’s title refers to Dr. George Tiller, who courageously and defiantly continued to provide abortions after 24 weeks even though his clinic was firebombed in 1986 and he was shot in both arms in 1993. He was assassinated on Sunday, May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher in his church in Wichita, Kan. The anti-abortion fanatic who pulled the trigger is now serving a life sentence.

That tragedy so motivated four doctors, who worked with or were close friends with Dr. Tiller, to pick up the torch he held with the words “Trust women.” The man is a bona fide hero – and an unfortunate martyr — in the ongoing struggle for reproductive justice.

Each of the current doctors, whom the movie eloquently profiles, is equally inspiring as you see them risking their lives on the job and seeking sanctuary and support in their personal lives. Dr. Shelley Sella was trained as a midwife, then by Dr. Tiller and now works in Albuquerque, N.M. You see her walking in her California neighborhood with her lesbian partner, who supports her but worries about her safety. The husband of Dr. Susan Robinson, who also worked with Dr. Tiller and alternates weeks in Albuquerque with Dr. Sella, shares his worries about her as they prepare a meal together.

Dr. Warren Hern, who practices in Boulder, Colo., discloses how anti-abortion violence destroyed his first marriage, but he shoulders on with the support of his mother. Happily, later in the movie, you see him in a new marriage that makes him a proud stepfather.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who practiced for years in Bellevue, Neb., until a state law banned abortions after 20 weeks, relocates to Germantown, Md. There’s a picture of him with Dr. Tiller, their arms around each other’s shoulders, as Dr. Carhart explains that because they were both trained in the military, their philosophy was “We must complete the mission.” Seated next to his spouse, Mary, Dr. Carhart says, in a soft but firm voice, that he could not continue without the daily support of his childhood sweetheart. Mary’s shy, proud smile says it all.

While these dedicated, daring doctors defy the hatred and violence of anti-abortion terrorists to care for their patients, the stories of the women grab your heart and make you weep. One couple that Dr. Sella patiently and tenderly counsels were born-again Christians discussing a wanted pregnancy (you hear only their voices). There is anguish as the woman explains that she knows “abortion is wrong” and she feels terribly guilty, but she has no choice because her son would be born without a brain.

Dr. Robinson explains why she refuses to take a patient from France who is 28 weeks pregnant – because she does not feel she could do the procedure safely. Yet when a clinic counselor shares her worries that a 16-year-old in deep denial about her pregnancy, who is from a devote Catholic family, is not a good candidate, Dr. Robinson decides to go ahead after carefully questioning the young woman to make absolutely sure she wants to proceed. Along the way, she admits, “Nobody wants to have an abortion.”

Dr. Hern counsels a patient after an abortion that she is duty bound to report the man who violently raped her, lest he do it again. After she agrees, he gives her a big, reassuring hug. In fact, there are lots of loving hugs in this movie, as doctors support patients who make hard decisions after sonograms and tests reveal life-threatening abnormalities.

All these doctors are honest-and-true, real-life, 3-D heroes, but so are their patients who agreed to let their stories be told. And so are filmmakers Shane and Wilson, who had the vision and the courage to explore the modern-day, homegrown terrorism that stalks these health-care providers and their patients every day.

I have never before experienced, since I became an activist in the women’s liberation movement in 1970, such a profoundly moving, articulate, compassionate exploration of what the right to choose abortion truly means. Having to abort a wanted pregnancy is so much harder than aborting an unexpected one, though that is not easy for many. It wasn’t for me. Yet, this movie directly confronts why the 1 percent of procedures takes place in the third trimester and what supporting women and upholding their right to life really means in that context.

If I had a fairy godmother, I would ask her to stage mandatory screenings of “After Tiller” in giant auditoriums behind locked doors for all the politicians in Congress and in the state legislatures and for all the anti-abortion folks who picket clinics and all the women who exercise their legal right to abortion. After that they would all have to talk in a respectful manner one on one about what a right means in a democracy and why it is not fair or just to impose personal or religious beliefs or class, racial, and gender biases on another human being. And no one could leave until they wholeheartedly agreed that human rights must include the comprehensive constellation of rights neatly summarized in the term “reproductive justice.”

OK, so I’m dreaming. But a girl’s gotta dream. Someday that will happen. And filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have brought that day closer with “After Tiller.” (aftertillermovie.com)

See this movie!

Everyday should be Int’l Day of Action for Women’s Health!

I’m dedicating this blog to my dear sister-in-spirit, June O’Hanlon-Eagle, who died on June 5, 2005. June suffered a massive brain hemorrhage on April 5, 1975, because she took the pill after 40, smoked and was disabled from birth with a curvature of the spine. All three factors, noted in a government health warning about the pill issued about six months after June’s hemorrhage, were reported to lead to hemorrhage or stroke. I wish June had read Barbara Seaman’s historic book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill (1969), which could have prevented her hemorrhage and subsequent disability. I’m just glad to be a member of the National Women’s Health Network, founded in 1975, which is carrying on Seaman’s effort to inform women about what is their best interests when it comes to health. (To learn more, visit nwhn.org.)

June was given the pill without a prescription by a pharmacist whom I’m sure she charmed. That was part of what I miss everyday about this loving, caring, smart, witty, talented, dynamic woman, who was the first person in my life to truly love me unconditionally and to challenge me frequently! June lived 30 years in a wheelchair with most of her brain intact and was a life-long activist for peace, justice, civil and human rights, and reproductive justice. She is one of many loved ones who continue to inspire me to be an activist in the movement for women’s rights.

Did you know that May 28 has been designated International Day of Action for Women’s Health? I didn’t, but I intend to commemorate it from now on. (Besides, it’s the birthday of my good friend and staunch reproductive justice advocate and superb writer, Eleanor J. Bader, so I better not forget it! More about her later.) The Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights established the day to demand that “all governments provide the full range of contraceptive methods and options, access to accurate contraceptive information, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for all women.” Way to go, sisters. Almost all governments around the world need to be pushed to take action to legalize full reproductive rights for all women.

The most glaring impetus for that recently was in El Salvador. If only the Supreme Court of El Salvador understood the meaning of “comprehensive reproductive health services for all women.” Then Beatriz, the 22-year-old mother of a one-year-old child, whose life-threatening illnesses had seriously complicated her pregnancy, would not have been denied an abortion to save her life. The court’s statement, “The rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those” of the fetus, is outrageously illogical when you consider that the fetus had a severe birth defect — parts of the brain and skull were missing — so it has practically no chance of survival after birth. Yet logic and women’s right to life did not compel the court to overrule the state’s total prohibition of abortion.

However, just hours after that court denied Beatriz a potentially life-saving abortion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered El Salvador officials to allow her medical team to take all necessary steps to preserve her life, personal integrity, and health. Said Lilian Sepúlveda, director of the global legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights: “The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling has finally brought some measure of justice to Beatriz and underlined what human rights advocates have been saying throughout this case: Denying women necessary medical care is a violation of their fundamental human rights.” Beatriz was given a Caesarean on June 3 after she began having contractions. The fetus lived a mere five hours. As of June 4, Beatriz was recovering in an intensive care unit. Please, if you don’t already support the Center for Reproductive Rights, which contributed to the fight to protect Beatriz’s life, please put your hard-earned dollars where your politics are and make a contribution to CRR at reproductiverights.org.

According to the BBC’s website, there are only two countries in Latin America where women have access to legal abortion to protect a woman’s health and after rape or incest – Uruguay and Guyana. Abortion is legal in Puerto Rico under the same conditions as in the U.S. and in Cuba with much broader considerations, including the woman’s mental health and economic situation. According to World Health Organization statistics, abortions in 95 percent of Latin America are said to be unsafe. (bbc.co.uk, June 4) That contributes to Guttmacher Institute’s statistic that globally 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions annually. What an indefensible waste of women’s lives!

What is behind such hard-hearted, anti-woman laws in Latin America? Hands please. You’re right – it’s the Roman Catholic Church’s bigoted, institutionalized, rampant misogyny. The church would rather protect the right of pedophile priests who molest young people than recognize the human rights of women. OK, I’ll get down from my soapbox – for now.

Back in the good ole U.S.A.
The lack of logic and respect for the women’s rights does not matter to many politicians closer to home. Take Rep. Trent Franks (R.-Ariz.), for example. (Please take him! Sorry, couldn’t resist that old joke!) On May 23, he held hearings on HR 1797, the “Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act,” which prohibits abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation because the fetus is said to be able to feel pain then. But an undisputed medical fact seems to have escaped Rep. Franks – whose professional experience as an oil executive, I hasten to point out, gives him no street creds when it comes to health care. Rep. Franks is totally unaware of the medical fact that many abnormalities in a developing fetus cannot be determined until after that point. But this is not the first time that zealot Franks has tried to keep women from exercising their constitutional rights. A quick background check shows he initiated a constitutional amendment in 1992 to ban all abortions in Arizona, which, fortunately, was defeated by 65 percent of voters. Let’s all hold hands and fervently hope HR 1797 goes the same route.

This summer “Operation Save America,” the equally misnamed spin-off of so-called “Operation Rescue,” has picked certain cities for its annual anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-woman campaign, according to an article Eleanor J. Bader wrote for RH Reality Check (May 1). Calling their actions “gospel raids” in Jackson, Miss., Washington, D.C. – where they’ll unveil an “Emancipation Proclamation for the Pre-born Child”— and North and South Dakota, OSA will also pay a week-long visit to my hometown, Rochester, N.Y. That’s down the road apiece from the National Women’s History Museum in Seneca Falls, which is where the first women’s rights meeting was held in 1848. And it’s where anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass and women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony lived and worked. (However, please do not mistake this brave, far-sighted pioneer with the recently established SBA List, a viciously anti-abortion organization that tries to co-opt and, in the process, sully Anthony’s name.) OSA has a small grouping in Rochester, which routinely stages picket lines at two local Planned Parenthood health centers and also conducts annual “Life Chains” and protests orchestrated by 40 Days for Life.

However, the pressing political reason for targeting Rochester is that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is sponsoring the Women’s Equality Agenda, a ten-point program that includes the Reproductive Health Act, which will codify the protections in Roe v. Wade and permanently grant women the statutory right to choose abortion. Furthermore, it will allow abortions after 24 weeks if the woman’s health – and not just her life, as currently stipulated in NYS law – is endangered by carrying the pregnancy to term. Bader reports that pro-choice forces in the area and from around the country are planning on doing clinic defense to protect women’s access to needed health care from OSA attacks. Down with anti-abortion bigots and bullies now — whether in Congress or in the streets!

Good news: I’m happy to report that I met the most phenomenal group of youth (as well as a few elders like me), mostly women but a goodly number of men, dedicated to reproductive justice at the 27th annual conference sponsored by Civil Liberties and Public Policy, “Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom,” at Hampshire College in Massachusetts April 12-14. I was there to promote Love Means Second Chances, but in the process I soaked up all the energy and excitement of the 1,200+ attendees who participated in a speak-out, two plenaries, and about 85 workshops organized into five sessions over the three days. Topics ranged from “Racial justice 101” and “Queering reproductive justice” to “At your cervix: A self-exam workshop,” “Organizing working women in a period of austerity,” “Challenging abortion stigma on campus” and “Understanding new radicalized attacks on reproductive justice and how to fight back.”
What was phenomenal was the diversity not just of race and ethnicity, but of gender expression, with a good number of transmen and transwomen. If applause was any indication of the overriding political views of the young people, they were overwhelmingly progressive, anti-racist, -sexist, -capitalist and proudly pro-LGBTQ. Such a heartwarming, united community was created that I’m happy to report the newest generation of pro-choice activists is ready to continue the fight. (If you want to learn more about the CLPP conference, go to clpp.hampshire.edu.)

However, there was one area of heartbreak, which demands concern and attention. During the speak-out a number of young women spoke about how they felt demonized, isolated, ashamed, traumatized, alienated from friends and family when they elected to have an abortion. My interpretation of that was that the right wing’s extreme anti-choice legislative attacks and profoundly misogynist rhetoric, which are trumpeted 24/7 by media outlets like Fox, have seeped down into the consciousness of some young women, even those who support abortion, and are having a profoundly demoralizing effect. This must be countered vigorously and publicly. My novel is dedicated to promoting a positive attitude toward abortion (and sex!) and to showing why women’s right to choose is a fundamental, basic right of all women. That means I’ve got to do more to promote Love Means Second Chances and find more ways to reach young people with its message. If you’d like to share your ideas and join me in this effort, please be touch at lmsc.4ever@yahoo.com.

Hidden History Before Roe v. Wade

By Guest Blogger Barbara Mende

It was hard to be a working mother in the sixties. Day care consisted mostly of mothers watching a few children in their homes. The practice of importing live-in au pairs from Europe was just taking hold, usually with contracts that locked families in for two years.

But it was even harder to be unmarried and pregnant. Abortion, of course, was illegal. If you knew your way around and could afford it, you could go to a pricey doctor in New York or pay even pricer airfare to Puerto Rico. Not easy for a young single woman whose parents didn’t know or wouldn’t cooperate. Then there were the illegal practitioners whose patients often died.

Contraception was technically illegal too in many states, including Massachusetts where I lived. Doctors wrote prescriptions for diaphragms and The Pill, but some drugstores wouldn’t stock them and didn’t even sell condoms. And how many young single women could find a doctor who would keep their confidence?

Enter the Crittenton Hastings House. The outgrowth of a merger between the nationwide Florence Crittenton shelters and the Boston Female Moral Reform Society (such blame-the- woman self-righteousness!), the “Crit” hid pregnant women away until their babies were born. They lived at the house, received medical care and counseling, and didn’t have to reveal their last names to their housemates. The Crit helped to arrange adoptions if the women wanted that. Afterward they’d return home with prescriptions for The Pill (“to regulate their metabolism”) and whatever cover story they’d concocted.

They couldn’t stay at home, of course. Being single and pregnant, in the face of the prevailing myth that all respectable single “girls” were virgins, was a disgrace. Raising a baby without a husband was almost unheard of.

The Crit farmed out “Crit girls” as cut-rate au pairs. Suburban families paid them a tiny sum plus room and board to babysit and do light housework. They had to return to the House when they were seven months along, so they never stayed for more than three months. That was a selling point for us; we had friends who had had to buy off incompatible au pairs, and figured we could stand anyone for three months. The big selling point, of course, was the price. I was working because we needed the money. I wasn’t quite liberated then.

The Crit tried to pick homes that they thought would give the girls a glimpse of the ideal American family. That meant no working mothers and no traveling fathers. They also wanted to avoid households with babies and pregnant mothers. But either the Crit especially liked our family or there weren’t enough homes that met the criteria, because we broke all those rules and still got nine girls.

We had to bring them to clinic every Tuesday, give them another day and a half off each week, provide a private bedroom for them, and make sure they ate at the table with us. We weren’t allowed to ask their last names (ours always told us) or state an opinion on whether they should keep their babies.

One girl didn’t work out. She was only eighteen and hated being away from home. She eventually married her boyfriend. The others had been in college or working. They weren’t much younger than we were; people started their families young then. They all claimed to have, or have had, serious relationships with the fathers. They generally loved our kids, and the kids reciprocated. Some of them stayed in touch. Six of them gave their babies up for adoption.

One of the two who didn’t was Cathy (not her real name), a poor girl who had become involved with a rich boy. She saw him as a way out of her miserable life. Her father wasn’t in the picture. Her two brothers had both done jail time. Her sister had “had to get married.” The rich boy’s family made it clear that this wasn’t an option for her.

Cathy planned to keep the baby and let her mother help her raise it. I think the mother, after all her failures, wanted another chance to get it right. Unfortunately, several months after the baby was born, Cathy appeared on our doorstep alone. She’d married the first guy who’d come along to get away from her mother, and he was already abusing her. She eventually went back to him, unfortunately, and we lost track of her.

The other girl who kept her baby had a happy story, the flip side of that one. Jenny (not her real name either), our last Crit girl, had been attending a Seven Sisters college. Her family owned a successful retail chain, and her boyfriend Chuck was a business school student from a family that wasn’t as well off as hers. Jenny and Chuck had wanted to get married, but Jenny’s parents thought that Chuck’s motive was getting into the family business.

The solution Chuck and Jenny devised was the pregnancy. They were sure that Jenny’s parents would eventually give in. They did, but it took them months, during which Jenny went through the Crit girl scenario because of course she couldn’t be seen in her home town in “her condition.” During her last week with us, she was happily addressing wedding announcements and baby announcements.

Roe v. Wade spelled the end of the Crit girls. The Crit became an abortion clinic, and later turned to other endeavors to better women’s lives. The Crit girls were useful for me, and fun to know, but I’m glad they’re not around anymore.

Barbara Mende is a Cambridge, Mass., journalist, editor, and my expert copyeditor for Love Means Second Chances. She coordinates volunteer activities in the Grievance and Contract Division of the National Writers Union, where she is also a national officer. Her grandsons are the third generation of her family raised successfully by working mothers.