Abortion rights in peril

IN APRIL, the Oklahoma legislature voted to overturn Governor Brad Henry’s veto of two new anti-choice laws. One requires a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a description of the fetus before aborting. According to the New York Times, the law mandates that “a doctor or technician set up the monitor so the woman can see it and describe the heart, limbs and organs of the fetus. No exceptions are made for rape and incest victims.”

The second law prevents women who give birth to a disabled child from suing a doctor who knowingly withheld information about birth defects. In essence, the law gives a green light to anti-choice physicians to lie to patients—a clear violation of medical ethics. If doctors can lie about birth defects what else will they be allowed to lie about to women if they deem the truth too “inconvenient” to their personal beliefs?

Oklahoma lawmakers are also planning to pass two more bills, one that restricts insurance coverage for abortion procedures, and another, according to the Times, that would require women “to fill out a lengthy questionnaire about their reasons for seeking an abortion; statistics based on the answers would then be posted online. The other restricts insurance coverage for the procedures.”

The questionnaire would make women easily identifiable, particularly if they live in small communities, and open them up to possible harassment, if not violence, from disapproving partners, family members, or random anti-choice strangers. In an era where Kansas abortion provider George Tiller was gunned down in his church by an anti-choice activist, this threat should not be taken lightly.

“The goal of this legislation is just to make a statement for the sanctity of human life,” said State Senator Todd Lamb, the majority floor leader, who is sponsoring the bill requiring women to fill out a questionnaire. “Maybe someday these babies will grow up to be police officers and arrest bad people, or will find a cure for cancer.”

What about the women who consider their lives ruined by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term? Do they matter? How about the children who suffer the fate of being born unwanted? Like any number of sanctimonious right-wingers, Lamb refuses to spare a second thought for the women whose lives are affected by his laws.

His concern for “babies,” moreover, evaporates as soon as they’re actually born. Lamb is on record opposing universal health care, and according to James Nimmo in the Oklahoma Observer, he “voted against the ‘All Kids Act’ in 2007, a bill giving health insurance to 42,000 poor Oklahoma kids with money from a tobacco tax passed in 2004,” and he “refused to allow three bills to be heard about contraceptives assigned to his Health and Human Resources Committee in 2007.”

One of those three bills, the “Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergency,” would have required facilities that provide medical care to rape victims to offer emergency contraception. Lamb’s concern about the “sanctity of human life” doesn’t extend to actual living, breathing women—just the fetuses they carry.

Last April, the “Abortion Pain Prevention Act” was signed into law by Nebraska governor Dave Heineman. It bans abortions for women more than twenty weeks pregnant, under the pretext that fetuses can feel pain after that point—a claim not established by medical fact.

Law professor and National Abortion Federation board member Caitlin Borgmann described in the Los Angeles Times the expert “evidence” that members of the Nebraska legislature heard on this question:

Two witnesses testified on the topic of fetal pain. One was an expert in pain management and anesthesiology, who admitted he had no personal experience treating or studying fetuses.

The second was a pain expert who had administered fetal anesthesia in a neonatal intensive care unit, but only starting at 23 weeks. He also asserted that, “life begins at conception” according to his “religious viewpoint” and his “maker.” (This same doctor, venturing far beyond his apparent medical expertise, spontaneously volunteered that electroshock therapy to induce a grand mal seizure should be the preferred treatment over abortion for a suicidal woman 20 or more weeks pregnant.)

Another Nebraska bill given final approval by lawmakers at the same time requires women who seek abortions to be screened for possible mental and physical problems before they can have the procedure. According to the Associated Press, the screenings:

would assess whether women have risk factors that could lead to mental or physical problems after an abortion. Doctors would have to tell patients whether they had any of the risk factors, but could perform abortions even if they existed. If a screening was not done, a woman could file a civil suit...

The doctors would likely have to screen for far-ranging risk factors that could change over time. Any risk factors cited in peer-reviewed journals indexed by two major medical and scientific listing services during the year before a planned abortion would have to be checked.

Again, there’s no scientific consensus that abortion causes “mental or physical problems.” But that hasn’t stopped anti-choice groups from claiming proof of pseudo-scientific fabrications like “post-abortion syndrome” or the thoroughly discredited “link” between abortion and breast cancer. The law is expected to go into effect this summer.

Chipping away at abortion rights
These laws, despite what their backers claim, have nothing to do with “protecting babies and women,” and everything to do with intimidating doctors from providing abortion services and undermining women’s right to control their own bodies. Such measures—coming on top of decades of parental consent laws, mandatory waiting periods, and restrictions on abortion funding—are a conscious strategy of the anti-abortion movement to chip away at a woman’s right to abortion until it disappears completely.

In contrast to the right wing’s claims, for many women, being able to choose abortion isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something to be celebrated. As DaShaya, a member of the Chicago Abortion Fund, which provides abortion funding to low-income women, explained on the group’s Web site:

What a great feeling it is to have choice over your body. I have children and I’ve had abortions, but I can’t imagine not having an option. I have made many choices in life, and some were not good. However, they were made based on my personal situation at that time. I rarely regret anything I do, and having the privilege to control me is an exceptional feeling.

That’s precisely the attitude that anti-choice politicians like Todd Lamb find so offensive and so threatening. Witness the disdain that right-wingers have for women who refuse to be ashamed of their decision to abort.
“Feminists rejoice at the idea of abortion for convenience: They are also anti-woman,” ran the headline of a recent article by conservative blogger Lori Ziganto. Ziganto was objecting to the actions of a woman who, appalled at anti-choice ads in the New York City subway for the Web site AbortionChangesYou.com posted sheets on top of the ads so that they read “Abortion changes you: Now I can go to college and fulfill my dreams.”

Ziganto has a funny notion of “convenience.” Being able to finish school instead of being forced to drop out hardly seems like a flip decision. Neither does having an abortion because of an inability to financially care for a child—or because a woman isn’t ready for the responsibility of a child—two of the main reasons consistently cited by women aborting a pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

As anyone who has tried to obtain an abortion knows, there’s nothing “convenient” about the experience, particularly for poor and working-class women. Trying to scrape together hundreds of dollars for a medical procedure often not covered by insurance, finding an abortion provider in your state (or perhaps having to cross state lines to find one), navigating waiting periods and parental consent/notification—all of this represents a huge burden on women that new laws like those in Oklahoma and Nebraska will only magnify.
More importantly, it should be none of Ziganto’s business—or Todd Lamb’s or Sarah Palin’s or anyone else—what any woman chooses to do with her own body, since they are not the ones who have to live with the impact of that choice. That’s the dirty secret of anti-choice groups; behind their supposed concern for “babies” lies a fundamental lack of concern for the realities facing women saddled with unwanted pregnancies.

Whether or not a woman chooses to have an abortion should be her decision alone—not the state’s and not that of the anti-choicers who claim they’re trying to “save” us from some made-up “harm” or from ourselves. Without the fundamental right to control our own bodies—and decide when, how and under what circumstances to choose to have a child—women will be relegated to second-class status.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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