March 1, 2013

WHY “CHOICE” IS NOT ENOUGH! An Overview of Abortion in the US, Historically and Today

[Fire on the Mountain is pleased to post this new article by Mirk. Like the last one of hers we ran, on the 2012 elections, this was originally written for Rødt!, the magazine of the Norwegian political party called Red. 

The forces of sweetness and light have had cause for celebration lately as the homophobic right wing has taken a terrible beating on the legal front and in the opinion polls alike. But with International Women's Day only a week away, we had best not forget the damage they continue to do to women's reproductive freedom. This article lays out just how grim things really are.]

by Judith "Mirk" Mirkinson

When I was 21, I had my first abortion.  It was 1972 and New York was one of the few states that had made it legal.  I went to a lovely clinic and was surrounded by women from all over the East and Midwest of the country.  

By the next year, the Supreme Court had passed the landmark decision Roe v Wade which made abortion legal everywhere. The decision was made on the basis of the right to privacy and due process--covered by the Fourteenth and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution. “Roe” (as it came to be known) was the culmination of centuries of struggle over who would control women’s reproduction in the US.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had grown up with a mother who had talked about abortion and I had marched and fought for abortion myself.  It wasn’t a tragedy, it wasn’t great, it wasn’t the best form of birth control, but there it was. Abortion was essential to my ability to control my own body and decisions--and thus essential to women achieving their full equality.

Control has and will always be the issue when it comes to women’s reproduction. From the beginning of time, women have been constrained through their biology. It is only now that international law (most explicitly through the CEDAW--the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women) is addressing the necessity for guaranteeing reproductive health. But even in countries where women can have access to contraception and health care, regulation of abortion is one way to contain women.

The Case Of The US

The US is a case in point. Control of women in the US has always been intertwined with the issues of race and class. Thus, one can’t talk about the history of abortion and reproductive “rights” without also discussing the intersection of those rights with the history of slavery and racism.

As early as 1632, there were laws governing the reproductive rights of Black women. (UH – THERE WAS SLAVERY!) Enslaved women were considered breeders--a resource to increase the slave population and they had no maternal rights. African women were property and thus their children were also considered property. As a result a child could be taken away at any time. A slave owner could even determine where a woman’s future children would go. For instance one could "leave" a particular woman to one descendant in one’s will, but leave her future children to another! The threat and reality
of rape was omnipresent. The rape of Black women by white men was one way of terrorizing and controlling the African population just as it was with Indigenous women.

At that time both white women and women of color were encouraged to have children, but for very different reasons. Later this would change. If you were of the more privileged classes (read white and include middle class women), you were looked upon as "natural" mothers. Nurturing and motherhood were not only in your biology but were your destiny and raison d’etre. Anything that got in the way of this was to be put aside or outlawed. In the nineteenth century this included involvement in public life.

As the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was told after she complained of what we now know as post partum depression:  
Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live. 
One can only imagine the impact of these strictures on the consciousness of women. These more privileged women were considered the "backbone" of American life and thus were encouraged through pro-natalist policies to have more children.

For poor women and women of color, it has always been a different story. The stereotypes applied to these women are hypersexual, promiscuous, irresponsible and incompetent. This was one of the reasons that people used to justify the whole idea of birth control in the early 20th century. It was also the justification for mass sterilization of Native American and Puerto Rican women in the second half of the last century or the continuing cutting of welfare and healthcare to poor women. Even in this age of bitter struggle over abortion, poor women are encouraged to have permanent contraception though the implantation of such medicines as Norplant.

But let’s get back to 1973.

The Right Wing Went All Out

The minute Roe was decided, the right wing started organizing against legalization and they have been fighting and eroding women’s access to abortion ever since. They used several tactics simultaneously. First they went the legislative route--a tactic they have utilized to the present day - both federally and in the states: In 1976, the Congress passed what is known as the Hyde Amendment.  This forbids federal spending on abortion.  In other words, women had the right to have an abortion but the government didn’t have an obligation to pay for it.  As always this ruling affected poor women and women of color disproportionally, a trend, which would continue in subsequent rulings for the next 40 years.

They also used the courts--again both on the federal and state level: The Webster decision was only the first of many that would weaken women’s ability to have control over their own bodies. Waiting periods, parental permission, ultrasounds both abdominal and vaginal are just a few of the impositions imposed.

Accompanying this strategy was a simultaneous push to make abortions truly inaccessible. Organizations like Operation Rescue surrounded clinics and made it impossible for clients to get in. You had to walk through a gauntlet of people calling you a murderer and showing you pictures of dead babies. Although the courts eventually imposed restrictions on these anti-abortion forces they haven’t given up. For instance, patients in one clinic in Illinois will find their faces up on an anti-abortion website the day after they have an abortion.

It didn’t stop there. Right wing fanatics started targeting abortion providers--from bombing the clinics to murdering abortion providers. From 1977 to the present day, there have been hundreds of bomb threats, bombings and arsons. There have been thousands of incidents of trespassing, acts of vandalism and attacks with acid and stink bombs. Ten providers have been murdered since 1984, the most recent being Dr. George Tiller who was killed in 2009. Abortion providers are frequently under extreme threat--there are wanted posters put up in small towns--with their faces and the word MURDERER written underneath. Often, providers have to go to work in bulletproof vests. Naturally this has had an impact with fewer and fewer people being willing to even train to become abortion providers--let alone give them.

It’s now impossible to get an abortion in 87% of counties in the US--especially in places outside major metropolitan centers. More than 20% of those seeking abortion have to travel more than fifty miles from their homes to get one. This is true even in states like California – one of the few where you can still get an abortion paid for with state funds. Again this puts more pressure on poor women. Ironically, fake abortion clinics that are really anti abortion propaganda centers now outnumber real abortion clinics two to one!

The religious right--at its core a racist movement whose leaders were long-time opponents of the civil rights movement--cynically attempted to enlist black people in their movement. In 2010, 65 billboards went up in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Georgia proclaiming: Black Children Are An Endangered Species--Don't Support Abortion! At the same time they stigmatized poor women and cut welfare and childcare to the bare bone.

All this has been accompanied by a sophisticated propaganda campaign orchestrated by the religious right. Over and over, women have been told that fetuses have rights (even though the cerebral cortex --which defines conscious thought--doesn’t develop until the 24th – 27th week of pregnancy).  An embryo has been redefined as a "person"--a person who has to be protected above all else.  This campaign has had a deep effect on public opinion, including the way that women feel about the issue.

Here's Where The Liberals Come In

And this is where the liberals and the left come in. As is too often the case, many saw the particular interests and demands of women of color as marginal, not the main point. In the 70’s this meant that the mainstream abortion movement talked almost exclusively about birth control and abortion but ignored the fact that women of color were being sterilized in record numbers. Later, “pro-abortion” gave way to "pro-choice." succumbing to the demonization of abortion. 

The leadership of organizations such as NOW and NARAL claimed they had to compromise –otherwise they wouldn’t get enough support to keep abortion legal. But by narrowing their work, they ignored total reproductive health. And by the time they began to correct this, it was too late. Though still considered a right, abortion had been redefined as a tragic choice. It became expected for women to mourn the loss of their babies and to feel terribly guilt-ridden about ending their pregnancies; this, even though more than half of the pregnancies in the US are unplanned.

In 2011 and 2012, more laws restricting women’s health were enacted than at any another time since Roe v. Wade. Thirty-five states mandate pre-abortion counseling, and thirteen of these states force providers to list alleged risks of abortion – such as increased rates of breast cancer and suicide –for which there is no evidence. Twenty-six states require waiting periods between 24 and 76 hours. As 2013 begins, the courts in Kansas have just forced the dismissal of a taw suit against a statute forbidding private insurance companies from covering abortion in their standard policies. The court maintained that residents having to buy supplemental insurance to cover abortion did not in any way restrict access.

The decisions of the Supreme Court over the last decades reflect these contradictions. Over and over again, as the Supreme Court has upheld laws to restrict federal money for abortion, they have justified their decisions by saying that if a woman is too poor to get an abortion, it is an economic not government problem and therefore not the burden of the government itself.

In backing a law where federally-funded physicians are forbidden to give abortion counseling, the court stated:
Its decision to fund childbirth but not abortion, places no governmental obstacle in the path of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy. Congress’ refusal to fund abortion counseling leaves a pregnant woman with the same choices as if the government had chosen not fund family-planning services at all.
Four states now require women to have fetal or transvaginal ultrasounds so that they can "understand who they are killing." This is true even in cases of rape--and even though a fetus at this early stage is about the size of a pea. The legislature in New Mexico is considering a new law that would not only outlaw abortion in cases of rape, but would make anyone who has an abortion or provides an abortion subject to criminal prosecution. When talking about rape, the governor of Pennsylvania told women: "Just close your eyes!"

The Republican Attack

Every Republican president and presidential candidate from Reagan to Romney has supported the notion that fetuses are people and must be protected as such. Reagan even supported a constitutional amendment to protect the “rights of the unborn.”

During the recent campaign, Republican candidates made a mockery of women’s rights. Two candidates declared that abortion is never justified--even after rape or incest. The Republican Party platform called for the ending of legal abortion even in the case of rape, incest or to save a woman's life (which was the basis of abortion even before Roe v Wade.) They also called for restrictions on access to contraception.

Todd Aiken, running for Senate in Missouri, and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, used the term “legitimate rape,” claiming that if a woman was "really" raped she could somehow prevent herself from getting pregnant--(thus ignoring both the English language and biology.) Congressional candidates Richard Mourdock of Indiana said that pregnancies resulting from rape are "God intended." while Stephen King from Iowa said he never heard of a woman getting pregnant from either rape or incest. Except for Paul Ryan who retained his House seat, the others were defeated, a sign that, despite all the misogynist propaganda, women will not tolerate this attack on our rights.

Conversely, the Democratic Party, which has been complicit in this march to the right, staying cautious and silent for so long, passed a platform during the 2012 election campaign that strongly affirmed the right to abortion, contraception and women's health. But it remains to be seen how hard they will now fight on these issues. Despite their support for abortion rights, Democratic women leaders from Hillary Clinton to Nancy Pelosi have not done nearly enough to actually guarantee that it remains legal. And although Obama won the election, his administration has just caved in again to the religious right, by stating that religious institutions do not have to provide free contraception as provided under the new health care law. Due to gerrymandering, Republicans still have control of many state legislatures and continue to pass anti-abortion and anti -women legislation. So, if the Democrats do not put up a major battle, anti-abortion legislation at the state level will continue to erode away women’s reproductive rights.

Even without these new attacks the current situation is grim. As stated earlier, the reality is that for most women - if you don’t have health insurance and often if you do --getting an abortion can be a very difficult undertaking. And the future does not look good. In Mississippi, for instance, there is one abortion clinic in the entire state!

Lack of access to abortion has, of course, a deep impact on every aspect of women’s health. The more access women have to "family planning" including contraception and of course sex education - the fewer abortions there actually are. The better access to health care, the lower the number of unplanned pregnancies; the lower the number, the fewer complications--especially among young and poor women. The countries with the lowest abortion rate are in Western Europe where abortion is legal and where access to contraception is readily available; the highest abortion rates are Latin America and Africa where abortion is illegal and where access to family planning is often not available.

The Bottom Line

Still, despite all this one third of all women in the US, will have an abortion in their lifetime, a figure that cuts across all races and classes. The majority of these will already have children. This figure has remained steady over decades and was even true when abortion was illegal.

The US spends almost 100 billion dollars a year in maternal and infant health care--twice as much as any other country in the "developed" world. Yet, according to UN data maternal mortality in the US has worsened falling from 41st to 50th in the world. The mortality rate of 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births is 3 times as high as goals set by the US government itself for 2010. Of course women living in low income areas are twice as likely to die giving birth as richer women.

But maternal and child health is not just about health. Childcare is very expensive: for many, it’s more than one thousand dollars a month for one child. Unlike Norway, access to childcare has decreased not increased. Thirty years ago, only the very rich had private childcare. Today, women cobble together help, often from family members are retired. Many mothers have nannies--it’s actually can be more cost effective: especially when one is paying low wages with no sick leave or health care.

We’ve created a two or maybe three tier system - one set of women is going to work, the other set has basically been forced to emigrate and is taking care of the first set’s kids. Many of these women--from Latin America to Africa to Asia--have children of their own, left behind perhaps in the care of a father, or other relatives. So their children are not taken care of, while they help raise a whole other nation's offspring. And domestic workers do not have health care, they do not get social security, they have no job security and they don't even qualify for minimum wage.

This follows a long history in the United States of Black women taking care of white women's children, while their own children are left adrift. How ironic that historically (and even really today), it's only white and European and often non-poor women who have been regarded as "natural mothers" while women of color are looked at as hyper sexualized and incapable of raising children.

What does this all add up to? Feminists and other activists have been on the defensive for decades. Perhaps one of the clearest indications of this was the retreat from pro-abortion to pro-choice. To talk about pro-choice is to assume an equality among women that does not exist and is not going to exist for some time. The word "choice" is used all the time and is used to talk about the most mundane decisions--what shampoo one will buy to what career one will have. The decision to have a child is clearly in a different category. Real choice is dependent on so many factors, many of which are out of a woman’s personal control. What is her economic status? How old is she? Has she had access to sex education? Is she subject to violence? Does she have health care? Will her child have health care? Is she single? Does she have support? Does she have a job, housing or education?

Just talking about abortion is not enough nor is reproductive rights. Instead we have to talk about reproductive justice. We have to talk about our rights as women as part of a human rights agenda, a reproductive policy that encompasses not just contraception, birth and maternal and child health, but also makes the term choice a reality not just a phrase.

Some of this is beginning to be reflected in international law. The CEDAW--the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women--clearly states in Articles 12 and 16 that all women and girls should have equal access to health care including pregnancy and family planning. Article 16 guarantees women’s equal ability to make decisions concerning childbearing. Although 164 countries have ratified the CEDAW, the US has not, claiming it had no need to do so. Putting the CEDAW into practice will take many more years if not decades, but codifying is one first step.

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, the fight is still on. Women who fought for the right to abortion are not going to stand by quietly while it is made illegal for their daughters and granddaughters. And a new generation of young women have made it clear with their voices, their activism, and their votes (both in the US and internationally) that they consider abortion essential and worth fighting for. Control over reproduction is basic to women’s equality and liberation, and women are determined to fight until that right is theirs and universal.

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