For day twenty-one of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “When Pregnancy Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Pregnant” by Tioloma Jayasinghe. This essay was something of a revelation when I first read it, because like most (white, middle class) people I tended to have a knee-jerk reaction when I heard about “crack babies” and pregnant women drinking or doing drugs. How dare the mother? How sad for the child. Jayasinghe does a good job of pointing out the problems with this reaction, which include ignorance of the roots of the problem in racism and poverty, studies that show hard drugs actually aren’t proven to harm babies, and the lack of available treatment options for mothers who do want help with a drug problem. This is an issue that is in fact just as important to the pro-choice movement as the right to a legal and affordable abortion, but much less talked-about.
April, as you probably know, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Instead of doing a post about sexual assault, I’ve decided to do a little project. One of my favorite books is the phenomenal anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape edited by Jacyln Friedman and Jessica Valenti. I read this book when it came out in 2008 and it had a profound impact on how I understand rape and sexual assault and also how I came into my late-blooming (but enthusiastic) feminism. So for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, two years later, I’m going to be blogging day-by-day about the essays in the book. There are 26 days left in April and 27 essays in the book, so I’ll do one a day except for one doubling-up. I’ll use cut tags so it won’t clog your RSS feed reader up too much, but I’ll try to identify the topic of each post clearly in the title so you know whether you’re interested. I won’t be blogging about the entire essay most days, but I’ll share my thoughts or vibe off of a topic brought up in the essay. So, without further ado, it’s time for Day One, reading “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back” by Jill Filipovic.
I touched on this topic in my Blog for Choice post this year, but I wanted to go into it a bit more, because I think issue-framing is something crucial that we sometimes ignore in our debates. I’ve noticed that pro-choice people often use the argument, to try to look less “scary,” that no one wants abortions, or that both sides want fewer abortions. Whether it’s true or not, this is a problem.
The problem is that this argument makes the debate about should women have abortions? I don’t think we want to go there. Once we go there, then the point of contention becomes “how do we reduce abortions?” And we know we disagree on this. One side thinks the answer is abstinence-only education, crisis pregnancy centers, and making abortion illegal. The other side thinks the answer is sex education, combating rape culture, and fighting systemic issues that take away womens’ effective right to choose. Certainly, that’s a debate we need to be having, but not while the legal right to have an abortion is under attack.
What we should be asking is not should women have abortions, but should abortions be safe and legal? Abortions will happen. Even if we “want fewer abortions,” we’re never going to get it down to zero. We need to focus on the medical trauma that women go through when they go to unsafe providers. We need to focus on how provisions like the Hyde Amendment and any number of state laws make it impossible for poor women, many of whom are indigenous women and women of color, to get a safe and legal abortion. We need to focus on the costs to the system when women try to abort without proper medical attention, and then come in for emergency care. We need to put that stark picture in pro lifers’ faces and say “is this what you want?” Then, we need to address the issues that underlie abortion. We can do this simultaneously, advocating for sex education, for enterprise programs in poor neighborhoods that give women more options, for an end to racist policies, for anti-rape messages in schools, for all these things that will in the long run decrease the number of abortions. But we can’t make our argument about whether women should have abortions, or we stand a high chance of losing.
It’s Blog for Choice Day!
In honor of the day, I’d like to put something out there that might be helpful to you fabulous pro-choicers in discussing the issue with your pro-life friends. This may be obvious to you already, but it was a point that I never really thought of when I was talking with my pro-life college roommates about abortion, and I think it’s really powerful. So try asking this question:
Are you opposed to legal abortion because you believe that fewer abortions will result?
This is a powerful question because I think a lot of people who are opposed to abortion for religious reasons simply want women to stop having abortions. If we can make it clear that outlawing abortion, or making it financially impossible to have a safe abortion, or putting up obstacles to safe and legal abortions, does not actually decrease abortions, we may be able to encourage pro-lifers to take their fight away from the courtrooms.
We do have some points of commonality. I think that many pro-choice and pro-life people would prefer that there were fewer abortions. How can we achieve this goal? Not through outlawing abortion. Outlawing abortion means that women will use dangerous herbs, sharp objects, etc. to self-abort, or will go to “practitioners” that may not be providing abortions in safe or sterile environments. Women won’t stop aborting because it’s illegal, but they will increase the risk to their own health and lives. Take the US before Roe, or the many countries where abortion is not legal and accessible, as examples. We can achieve the goal of fewer abortions, though, through other means. Think sex education (including education about the meaning of consent for both men and women), full health insurance coverage (including Medicaid coverage) of contraceptive counseling and options, and fighting against poverty, especially for women. When women have options and education in a general sense, they will be able to engage in responsible family planning and avoid unwanted pregnancies. True, there are some folks who are opposed to family planning in general, but I think there may be a lot of pro-lifers who would ultimately agree that these are good goals. Work on them.
I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values. We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice. Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has. While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.
This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual. Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support. The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer. The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law. It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.
I don’t have a huge amount to say about the Law Students for Reproductive Justice Midwest Regional Conference in Cincinnati, mainly because I was pretty darned exhausted through most of it. The rest of the students were peppy, ready to go girls, while our contingent straggled in three hours late after driving through the night and the morning from Iowa in a snowstorm. It was pretty humorous. That said, I enjoyed several of the panelists. Though he said some things about abortion that I don’t personally agree with (for example that abortion is taking a life, just a justified life-taking, and that abortion should be a choice made in a relationship, not just by the woman), I thought the speaker representing the pro-choice religious movement was generally pretty awesome. He was clearly very well-read, interested in feminism and sexuality and how all these things go together with abortion, and still learning. I’m considering writing him to see if he’s interested in any sort of dialogue, because I think his whole “relationship is best” position comes from a positive baseline and he may be misunderstanding some things. Then again, Rita pointed out that he made this whole slightly off-color comment about how normally a man and a woman had to be involved for their to be an abortion because I’m an obvious lesbian and she thinks that he thinks I don’t “get” it. I also enjoyed the (obvious lesbian) from Planned Parenthood of Ohio who talked about grassroots organizing, and not just because she’s very attractive, and the woman from the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project who gave us an update on some pending cases against HHS.
I did want to share a hillarious link that Rita passed on: a guide to feminism for anarchist men.
I was very excited about hearing Inga Muscio, author of Cunt and Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil, speak last night. I’ve never read her books, but I’ve been wanting to forever. It’s clear that she’s a much better writer than a speaker, though an awesome writer. When she read from her written stuff, she was fantastic – funny, empowering, blunt. She really takes on the issues of racism and violence as well as the tragedy of our public consciousness. Unfortunately, in the Q&A session she said something that kind of pissed me off. She had trouble generally understanding people’s questions, but then someone asked her a question about a statement she’d made at Cornell College a few years ago, saying that abortion should be outlawed. Her response to the girl was very condescending, saying essentially that “sometimes when we hear things, we misunderstand them, but I’ll clarify your misunderstanding.” The thing is, my friend Alena was with the questioner that night and heard Inga say that as well. Then the clarification was that Inga thinks that the “vacuum machine” is a torture method and that women should avoid it. What she was trying to say, I think, is that women should use birth control or EC or what have you, but she made it sound like all abortions are performed with one method, and I also don’t like the woman-blaming subtext in saying that women who have an abortion should’ve just taken the damn pill. That’s probably not how she intended to come across, though, and it’s clear that it’s easier for her to think about things when she isn’t on the spot, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt though it rubbed me the wrong way. I’d definitely recommend reading her stuff, and seeing her if she’s doing a reading in your area. Next one is at Oxford, if any Brits are reading.
As you all know, I was in South Dakota a couple of weeks ago, helping the folks at the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families get the word out about Initiated Measure 11 and encourage South Dakotans to vote no. It was an interesting experience, as it always is when you try to look at or sell a political issue from a different angle. One thing that strikes me about the Midwest is how unpredictable it can be, politically (probably why it’s swing state territory). Midwesterners don’t necessarily fall into obvious “liberal” or “conservative” camps. For example, I know plenty of LGBT, pro-choice folks who also own a gun and love hunting and fishing. The “no government intrusion” angle really plays up here – and while my instinct is to have a knee jerk negative reaction to that angle, it actually is a positive thing when it comes to social issues, privacy rights, etc.
In South Dakota, women’s rights don’t play very well, and so as we walked around the town of Yankton canvassing, and did some phone banking the next day, we really emphasized the poor construction of the law and the unnecessary intrusion into family decisions. When Rita and I looked at our talking points and suggestions from the campaign office, we initially laughed a lot (in the car) about language referring to a decision between the woman, her family, her doctor, and God. But then, when we approached the first house, complete with a Virgin Mary statue in the front garden, we realized the benefits of the tactic and to my surprise Rita launched straight into talking about how this is a decision a woman should consult her family on and pray about. Well, when in Rome…
Though my own experience wasn’t so good numbers-wise (I got several undecideds and left literature at a lot of empty houses, but didn’t get a single person voting no), others reported some supporters. Reading the language of the measure itself, I think it’s fairly easy to see why it’s a bad idea. South Dakota already has the most restrictive laws on abortion in the country, and whether or not you think that’s a good thing, I can’t see why this measure would make things better for either side. From a pro-life perspective, there may be a small group of people who believe that abortion is absolutely not allowed in any circumstances, but for those who aren’t quite so rigid, there are clear reasons to vote no. For example:
- There is no fetal anomaly exception, and no exception for a fetus that cannot survive outside the womb. If a woman is carrying a baby that will not survive, she still has to carry it to term. One ad for the campaign features a South Dakota woman who actually faced this circumstance, and in an even more extreme case – she was carrying twins, and both would die if she did not have an abortion. She was able to have an abortion and the second baby is a healthy child. Under this law, she would not have had that option. This case may sound extreme, but where it occurs it is extremely difficult for the woman involved. She may be opposed to abortion, she may be very religious, she may not want an abortion – but if she makes the tough choice to go through with it to save a child, she would not be able to carry out that choice under the proposed law.
- The law includes reporting requirements that could harm a woman who was the victim of rape or incest and made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. Doctors are required to keep the records of the abortion and circumstances in the woman’s permanent medical records. The Department of Health can request these records, and only the name must be redacted. In a small town, this isn’t much of a protection.
- The law is poorly worded and vague. Rather than allowing doctors to make decisions, courts will have the power to do so in interpreting this law. The law also contains no health exception, so the doctor must be medically certain that the woman’s life is in danger to perform an abortion if there is no rape or incest. There are a number of medical conditions that make carrying a baby to term inadvisable, but do not amount to life endangerment.
If you are registered to vote in South Dakota, please vote no on 11. If you know anyone else who lives in South Dakota, please pass this post on.
Or something like that. I’ll be in Sioux Falls with the ACLU, canvassing and doing other exciting stuff. It’s the first pro-choice thing I’ve done since working with the Emma Goldman Clinic on Medicaid reform. If you’re interested in financial access to abortion, you might check out this post on “Contraceptive Choice and Class.” And then there’s this quick hit from Feministe, which mentions an 8th circuit decision on abortion in SD, as well as addressing the argument that abortion is necessarily harmful. See you on the flip side!