“Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity, and right ‘to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation.’ Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’ Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”
Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 171-72 (2007) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citations omitted). via Notorious R.B.G.
I’ve been working on this post for almost three weeks. Given that maybe five people will read it, it’s ridiculous how long I’ve worked at this, how often I’ve rewritten, and added, and edited this post. It was supposed to be a drive-by video post, just to keep the momentum going, but it kept growing. In the meantime I’ve gone on vacation, and states keep messing with their abortion laws, and the nation’s eyes have shifted to the Zimmerman trial, Prince George, and Carlos Danger… But I still have to say this. I finally realized that I need to stop being fuzzy about abortion, need to move out of the paralysis of the Catholic feminist and figure out what exactly I stand for, and what I stand against, and why.
It’s not easy puzzling through this, fighting through the pleasant haze of moral superiority and liberal smugness to try to articulate a position. For years I’ve stayed hazily feminist on wages and birth control and lookism and patronizing bullshit, but kept dancing around abortion rights. Something changed. I have been radicalized.
The 19th amendment is less than 100 years old. The idea that women were really – honestly! – considered incapable of being trusted with the vote is staggering. Really? People walked around thinking that men were actually objectively better, more competent, superior to women? And this went on for millennia? How the hell did anybody get laid thinking like that, how did the species survive? What I’ve realized in recent weeks, though, is that there are a lot - a lot – of lawmakers in this country who actually believe that women cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs, and that they, the dysfunctional old men of state legislatures, are objectively better at it. It started, of course, with the revelation that Rick Perry thinks he understands more about Wendy Davis’s own damn life than she does. And it’s been snowballing ever since.
Let’s be clear: I find abortion appalling. It is a decision to end a life, there’s really no two ways about it. It is not defensible as a primary form of birth control, it is not the same as pulling a tooth or having your appendix out. But as a woman, and a relatively thoughtful person, I find attempts to criminalize abortion equally appalling. As soon as I start imagining scenarios, I see a million shades of gray – victims of abuse and assault, cases where the mother’s life is in danger, cases where the mother truly cannot provide for another child, cases where the child would be born with severe deformities, cases where birth control was not available, or where the available birth control failed. Even in those cases where I cannot see the difficulty in bearing the child, I realize that is only because I am not in that woman’s head, and I have no right to be in her head…. And if that’s true, then obviously I cannot make those decisions for other women. There is absolutely no one-size-fits-all, bright-line governmental solution that can possibly be fair or equitable or right. We have to trust the individual women to make the right choices for their own circumstances.
I’m sick to death of zero-sum arguments. I have no more patience for my far-left friends – who jeer that a 20-week abortion ban might just as well criminalize masturbation, because Every Sperm is Sacred, Right? – than for those on the far-right who will always side with the “innocent” fetus over the icky, complicated grown woman. So, for the record: I believe “life” begins at conception, “pregnancy” begins at implantation, but “personhood” – in the legal and moral sense – can only begin when the fetus is viable, capable of living outside the womb. As it ends up, this isn’t far from where they Supreme Court landed in Roe v. Wade.
There is a little girl in Chile, 11 years old. After being raped by her mother’s boyfriend for two years (since she was nine), she is now pregnant, in a country that simply does not allow abortions. Not for rape victims, or incest victims, or in cases where the pregnancy seriously endangers the mother’s life … and not even when, as here, one little girl’s pregnancy is all three.* That little girl will likely die – as will her rapist’s child. How is this right? How is this even open to debate? No matter how much the far right sneer that most abortions aren’t women in such dire circumstances, those circumstances do happen. And when you pass laws that result in all, or almost all, abortion providers closing, then there is no abortion available to anyone, not even that little girl – nor for the woman whose fetus dies in the womb. Nor for the adult mother of 4, who’s hemorrhaging and going to die.
Ah, you say, we’re nowhere near Chile’s ban on any and all abortions. Really? 22 states** already have some kind of ultrasound requirement before a woman can get an abortion (a clear violation of a patient’s right to refuse a procedure, and a serious ethical problem for doctors). In 12 of those states, the law explicitly mandates that there can be no abortion without the ultrasound, and five (including Wisconsin, as of a couple of weeks ago), the doctor must display and describe the image in detail (though in two of those states, the law is not in force because of court challenges). In North Dakota, a federal judge just struck down a ban on any abortion after the heartbeat is detectable by transvaginal ultrasound, as early as six weeks.*** Arkansas bans abortions at 12 weeks. South Dakota has a mandatory 72 hour waiting period – excluding weekends and holidays - and requires women to attend faith-based anti-abortion counseling (this second measure is suspended pending litigation). In Ohio, abortion providers need hospital admitting privileges and public hospitals are prevented from granting abortion providers admitting privileges. Good luck getting privileges at St. Thomas! Virginia, Texas, and several other states are forcing clinics to close by requiring them to meet the standards for ambulatory surgery centers. The depressing list goes on and on (see Salon’s excellent article The 10 Most Dangerous Places to be a Woman in America). And of course Texas is now debating its own six week abortion ban. Six weeks! Many women have no idea they are pregnant at six weeks. On the national front, Rand Paul has introduced a federal fetal personhood bill that would ban all abortions. All. No input or consideration for the mother’s personhood at all – for her health, or the circumstances under which she became pregnant. Welcome to Chile.
For all the legislators’ mock piety, none of this – NONE – has anything to do with reducing the number of abortions or fostering a “culture of life.” There is no effort to do those things that actually work – like providing access to effective, long-term birth control (IUDs and implants), which has (quelle surprise!) been proven to dramatically reduce abortion rates even among women who’d previously had abortions. There’s been no push to ensure that all schools provide students with basic, fact-based sex ed that includes information about birth control.**** And if this were about a “culture of life,” those lawmakers would be guaranteeing health care and child care, shoring up Head Start, and expanding food stamps – instead of doing the exact opposite, every time. There are so, so many things government can do to cut the number of abortions, but that’s not what legislators are doing. Birth control and sex ed empower women and poor families to take control of their own lives, and that is the opposite of what today’s GOP wants.
Texas Governor Rick Perry saw thousands of women standing up to affirm the importance of reproductive rights, but rather than thinking, for a moment, that these women might know something about their own bodies, their own rights, Perry derided them, sneering, “The louder they scream, the more we know that we are getting something done.” His goal is ending women’s autonomy; the more distressed we are, the more clear it is to him that he’s on the right track. Why else ban abortions at six weeks – women won’t know they’re pregnant, and so won’t have any say in the matter. North Carolina tacked clinic-closing measures onto legislation about motorcycle safety, in the hope that no one would notice, and they wouldn’t have the inconvenience of women standing up for themselves in protest. If you still have any doubt that this is about controlling women, consider this: North Dakota specifically bans abortions if the fetus has a genetic abnormality. You read that right. North Dakota is explicitly saying that if your child will be born without a brain, or with a condition that will lead her to die after a week or two of pain and suffering struggling to eat or breathe, you have to have that baby and watch her suffocate or starve. Because sparing your child, and yourself, and your family, that horrific pain is just not a good enough reason for an abortion, in the eyes of the men of the North Dakota legislature.
To Rick Perry, and Scott Walker, and all the Republican Governors and legislators out there hellbent on shutting down almost all facilities that provide abortions, just remember this: you may slice and dice your state to dilute the votes of blacks and Hispanics and liberal voters of every ilk… but you can’t gerrymander away the women’s vote. We are in the warp and woof of this country, and however we feel about abortion, we will not stand for being silenced, bullied, stripped of our autonomy, and ridiculed for daring to stand up for our rights. So do your worst for the next 18 months, because if you lost me on abortion, you’re going to lose us all.
* The fact that said little girl appeared on Chilean TV and said she wants to keep the baby makes no difference to how wrong it is that she HAS to. And for the record? An 11 year old is, in fact, incapable of making these decisions for herself without a great deal of guidance – because, unlike the vast majority of pregnant women, she actually is legally incompetent. And don’t even get me started about this poor child, whose own mother claims she wasn’t raped, because she had “consensual” sex with an adult man. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera may think her comments show “depth and maturity,” but judge for yourself: “‘It will be like having a doll in my arms,’ the girl whose face was obscured during the interview, told local Canal 13.” God help this child to survive the pregnancy first….
** Guttmacher’s data, as of July 1, 2013, lists 21 states, but since then Wisconsin has become the 22nd. And honestly, at the rate the GOP is moving to try to strip reproductive rights, it’s hard to keep up.
*** While the court rightly held that was clearly an “undue burden” on women’s reproductive freedom, North Dakota’s sole provider may still be forced to close by a new law requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges. Hospitals only grant those privileges if a doctor agrees to refer a set number of patients a year – say, 10. But North Dakota’s sole clinic, like many many others facing similar laws in other states, almost never has to refer a patient to the hospital, and so its doctors can’t meet the state standard.
**** When one Texas Democrat suggested that sex ed might be effective in lowering unplanned pregnancies, Republican Steve Toth disagreed, claiming to know teens who got so “so hot and bothered” at “a Planned Parenthood deal” that they promptly had unprotected sex. Because diagrams of fallopian tubes are sooo sexxxay…. I can’t even. Honestly, there are still people who think if we don’t ever mention sex, no one would have sex? How do they… Gah. How do these people dress themselves, much less get elected to positions of power?