A few months ago, a friend from college told me about her miscarriage, which happened between her first and second child.
“It’s so common,” she said. “I just think people should know that.”
After this friend’s disclosure, another friend told me she had had the same experience. And then another. Miscarriages are common, which was something I knew theoretically, but not in a way where I could attach the experience to a face. It made me wonder how many of my other friends had had miscarriages and just never said anything — because of the pain, the shock and the fear of sharing it with people. Suddenly, it felt like an avalanche: women telling stories of miscarriage so that people would know that it really did happened, so they would feel less alone, and so silence didn’t perpetuate stigma.
Legal abortion could become a thing of the past in a handful of states if anti-choice efforts are successful. Note that I don’t say abortion will become a thing of the past, because the need for abortion will persist, but safe and legal abortion will be outlawed as a spate of new state-level laws curtail the procedure and shut down clinics.
For several years, as we’ve documented here at the Sisterhood, the anti-choice movement in the U.S. has been trying a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” technique. This flurry of uterus-focused activity got its own nickname: “The War on Women.” In reality, these unnecessary and intrusive health rollbacks hurt more than just one gender, and the “war” part didn’t stop when the catchphrase fell out of fashion. Some measures passed, others were modified, and now the assault on rights has ratcheted up again.
The news from Israel that Ethiopian Jewish women were given birth control shots without their consent has attracted quite a storm of argument, disillusionment and shock — as has the news of the huge number of extra-legal “black market” abortions, both addressed recently at the Sisterhood.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the fine points of Israeli public health policy; I only read what crosses my path stateside. But I do think a lot — maybe too much — about notions of reproductive choice, freedom and justice. And I see evidence that not all women who want terminations in Israel are getting them legally. Meanwhile, the state’s restrictions on the procedure are putting them in danger. At the same time, women of color in Israel have been coerced or misled into taking birth control shots. To me, these stories together exemplify how arguments over reproductive issues are oversimplified by our pro-choice/pro-life political tug of war here in the United States.
The fact is, the womb, the place from which life emerges, is a source of power. It will always tempt those who want power, and governments have and will frequently attempt to control women’s bodies and fertility — to take charge of ”the means of reproduction,” to use a spin on a Marxist phrase and the title of an excellent book on the subject.
Several years ago I saw the documentary film “The Last Abortion Clinic,” about the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO) in Jackson, Mississippi. As the title indicates, JWHO is the last clinic in the state that provides abortions; it serves women from all over Mississippi, many of whom are low-income and have trouble paying for their medical care, to say nothing of arranging the transportation to make long journeys to the clinic. For someone like me, who grew up in a Midwest college town and had lived in Boston and New York, it was like watching a film set in a foreign land.
Still, the landscape depicted in the film was achingly familiar. My mother’s family has lived in Alabama since the 1860s and she grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Birmingham. My parents were married in Birmingham and my sister and I were born there; even though we moved north when I was very young, our deep roots and frequent visits combined to make me feel more comfortable in the South than anywhere else.
As JWHO fights to stay open, I’ve thought about “The Last Abortion Clinic” frequently over the past year. Governor Phil Bryant has made no secret of his desire to close the clinic, and thanks to a new law requiring the clinic’s physicians to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, he may get his way. The physicians, all of whom are licensed, have applied for privileges at seven local hospitals but have been turned down by all of them. The reason? It seems that the hospitals feel that granting them admitting privileges would be disruptive to its “function and business” in the community.
Abortion has been legal in Israel since 1977. However, that does not mean that all abortions there are done according to the law.
An article published last year, co-authored by Sisterhood contributor and new JOFA executive director Elana Maryles Sztokman, states that no one knows exactly how many illegal abortions take place in Israel. However, according to a new investigation by Shosh Mula in Israel’s Yediot Ahronoth newspaper (published in the paper’s “7 Yamim” (7 Days) weekend supplement, which is not yet available online), it is possible to determine how many there are — and it is hard not to be shocked by the number.
According to Mula’s article, there are approximately 19,000 illegal abortions (of various kinds and in various settings) per year performed in Israel — the same number as legal abortions. The statistics were taken from a recent survey commissioned by New Family, the leading family rights organization in Israel that focuses on everything from gay rights and surrogacy law to fertility law and civil marriage.
With half of all abortions taking place below Israel’s official radar, a huge black market has developed. “A thousand shekels in [West Bank Palestinian town] Qalqilya, 5,000 shekels in a fancy clinic in Tel Aviv, or 500 shekels with a knitting needle in Jaffa: Welcome to Israel’s wild and reckless abortion black market,” the article begins. We’re talking about an underground economy of NIS 80 million ($22 million) per year.
Richard Marker is an advisor to philanthropists, founder of New York University’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, and co-principal of the firm Wise Philanthropy. He is also an ordained rabbi. In 1968 and 1969, when Marker was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he worked part-time as a chaplain at Rutgers University, and then at Hofstra University.
One day he counseled three Rutgers students who were distraught because their friend had died after having a back alley abortion. At a time when abortion was illegal in America, it led him to become a member of the Clergy Consultation Service, whose members referred young women in search of abortions to places where they could have the procedure done safely. Part of the idea behind the Clergy Consultation Service was that clergy were less likely than others to be prosecuted for providing abortion referrals, since they were believed to have legal protection of privileged conversation similar to that afforded lawyers.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1973 United States Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal, The Sisterhood spoke with Marker about what was life was like at that time for young women facing unintended pregnancy, and about his experience as an activist trying to help them. When he began, he was 23 years old. (It is worth noting, as Linda Greenhouse has in a New York Times blog, that last year alone 19 state legislatures enacted a total of 43 new restrictions on access to abortion. Six states accounted for more than half the new restrictions, with the ever-reliable Arizona leading the pack with seven.) This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
I am not particularly good at letting things go, especially in situations where I know I could have done better. Remember when you asked me in an IM conversation if I thought a woman should be able to have an abortion when she is 38 weeks pregnant? I’ve been thinking about what I could — and should — have said in response for a while now, because what I did say didn’t even come close to expressing what I really feel.
I knew that you wanted me to say no, that under no circumstance should a woman in her third trimester be able to have an abortion — that anyone who thought such a thing is unredeemably evil. And my instinct was to say no, because I felt unprepared to deal with the consequences of telling the truth. I managed to say that I think a decision like that should be between a woman and her doctor. But that was not the answer you wanted.
What I would have said is that a woman should be trusted with all decisions related to her body, and so yes, an abortion needs to be an option at every point of pregnancy. Either you trust women or you don’t. It’s that simple.
Are pregnant women people? Not if those who believe in the concept of legal fetal “personhood” have their way. Forty years since Roe v. Wade, the steady rollback of reproductive rights that has taken place in Statehouses across America doesn’t merely affect women who want to prevent or end pregnancies. It creates an alarming legal standard that hurts pregnant women carrying to term, too.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women conducted a comprehensive — and alarming — study in which they investigated the incarceration, detention and forced medical intervention of hundreds of pregnant women based on a wide-range of cases since Roe was enacted.
Their report contains tough-to-read stories, including an instance where a woman was forced to have a C-section against her will (she later died), another case where a woman was kept in jail to deny her an abortion, and a case where a woman who refused prenatal testing was locked in a hospital to force it on her — and the testing was never done. Reproductive justice advocates have long warned that proposed “fetal personhood measures” meant miscarriages could be investigated as crimes, and indeed in some cases, they already have been.
“Carole, do you know what a lamed vovnik is?” a Philadelphia obstetrician/gynecologist suddenly asked me during an interview I was conducting with him in the late 1980s. It certainly wasn’t a typical question a sociologist gets when interviewing a doctor about his medical practice. But Dr. Morris Fischer (a pseudonym) seemed both surprised and pleased that I actually did know to what he was referring.
According to Jewish legend, the lamed vovniks represent the 36 righteous individuals on whose behalf God preserves the world — even if the behavior of the rest of humanity has been gravely amiss. (Thirty-six is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters “lamed” and “vov.”) As the French writer Andre Schwarz-Bart wrote in his Holocaust novel “The Last of the Just”, “If just one of them were lacking … humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our grief.”
What does all this have to do with Fischer?
If you think the 2012 election and the epic veto-by-voter of all the misogynist politicians confused about rape means that abortion rights are once again ascendant, this first week of 2013 is likely to be a sobering. A major survey and a big cover story released this week declare anti-abortion efforts successful when it comes to the reality of how easy it is for a typical American woman to obtain an abortion.
As a writer who frequently does roundups of what’s happening for reproductive rights in the states, this is merely the broadcasting of a cruel reality: bit by bit, law by law, abortion rights are fading away.
Early in the week, the Guttmacher Institute released an important study of all the state-level legislation that was passed on reproductive rights during the past year. And although it didn’t reach the levels of 2011, the year many pundits dubbed the “War on Women,” reproductive rights continued their rollback, particularly in states like Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and even Wisconsin:
After an entire first Presidential debate that ignored women’s issues, and a second debate that ignored them until the very last minute, election-watchers concerned about the future of our uteri were getting quite antsy. No mention up to that point of LGBT issues, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, childcare, or even education.
And then, at long last, the question came up: How does your shared Catholic religion inform your feeling on abortion?
The phenomenal, trailblazing job of moderating that Martha Raddatz had done up until that point came to a shuddering halt. The religious framing of the question bugged a lot of viewers who expressed their frustration last night and today.
Robin Marty wrote:
Sandra Fluke — she of the Limbaugh slut-shaming and the Jewish boyfriend — gave a strong speech about contraception and women’s health at the DNC last night. Bumped up to primetime, the young activist got the crowd excited and did an admirable job hitting the Republican candidates hard over their party’s series of legislative attempts against reproductive rights and health care that are now known as “The War on Women.” She enumerated the worst aspects of that war quite clearly:
It would be an America in which you have a new vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms. An America in which states humiliate women by forcing us to endure invasive ultrasounds we don’t want and our doctors say we don’t need. An America in which access to birth control is controlled by people who will never use it; in which politicians redefine rape so survivors are victimized all over again; in which someone decides which domestic violence victims deserve help, and which don’t.
Fluke’s rapid rise to prominence is an interesting story. She was an agitator for birth control coverage at Georgetown chosen to testify at a House hearing on birth control coverage — from which she was eventually excluded. Then she got called a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh, and because so many people recognized that such a sexually-degrading word is commonly used to silence women everywhere, they identified with her plight. She also became an exemplar of how the mere thought of a sexually active young woman gets elements of the ultra right wing absolutely apoplectic. In fact, those elements have remained apoplectic. As Think Progress’s Tara Culp-Ressler documented, the nasty and sexist tweets about Fluke peaked during her speech, as though the lessons from Limbaugh’s caddish behavior — which almost got him fired and vaulted Fluke into heroine status — were the opposite of what they really were. Culp-Ressler notes, “Aside from misrepresenting Fluke’s point that women should not have to pay more than men do for essential preventative health services…these smears degrade Fluke as a woman.”
My Dearest Daughter:
At some point over the last 18 years, I, like many other moms out there, started to worry about the sort of world I brought you into. This is your first week of college, and it’s also your first time away from home for an extended period of time. Your world is opening up in exciting and challenging new ways, but still, sometimes I feel as if I’ve launched you into outer space — into a disorienting, alien landscape that I don’t quite recognize. Case in point: Rep. Todd Akin’s statement about “legitimate rape.” By now you know the ridiculous essence of the story — that Akin said that when a so-called “legitimate rape” occurs, a woman’s body somehow knows to shut itself down to prevent pregnancy.
My precious daughter, you plan to major in biology and you will surely learn that this man has propagated a disgusting, bald lie in order to force women to carry a traumatic or unwanted pregnancy to term. In fact, last year Akin co-sponsored a bill with Paul Ryan, the presumed Republican vice-presidential nominee, that permitted Medicaid to pay for an abortion only in the case of a “forcible rape.” If an adult relative raped a young girl or a co-ed was date-raped by another student, these men believe that those rapes should not be eligible for abortions under Medicaid.
How did we get here? What sort of country am I leaving to you?
If you had an abortion, who would you tell? Your family? Your friends? The entire world? Steph Herold has worked in direct service abortion care and reproductive health advocacy for seven years. She founded the blog Abortion Gang as a space for young people in the reproductive justice movement, and runs a tumblr that doubles as an online home for abortion stories. She also founded the website I Am Dr. Tiller to celebrate the legacy of Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas physician who directed one of the few U.S. clinics that performed late-term abortions. He was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009. Chanel Dubofsky spoke with Herold about abortion stigma, activism and the Jewish history of the pro-choice movement.
DUBOFSKY: A lot of your work has been about exposing and deconstructing abortion stigma. Can you say a bit about what abortion stigma is and how it manifests?
HEROLD: To borrow from a recent study:”stigma from abortion is the discrediting of individuals as a result of their association with abortion.” It follows that many, many people are impacted by abortion stigma: people who have abortions, clinicians who perform abortions, abortion clinic staff, abortion rights activists and organizations, as well as people who support women who have abortions (such as their partners, friends, and families). Abortion stigma manifests in many ways. For example, it can impact health care provision, such as women deciding not to disclose to their clinicians that they’ve had abortions for fear of being judged or receiving inferior care. On a less individual level, the stigma surrounding abortion leads even pro-choice organizations to distance themselves from abortion, such as Planned Parenthood’s infamous claim that “only 3%” of its services are related to abortion.
Naomi Zeveloff has a story in this week’s Forward about a full-size replica of the Western Wall in the works in Wichita, Kansas targeted towards women who have had abortions.
An anti-abortion group, the Word of Life Church, is proposing to build this multimillion dollar “National Pro-Life Memorial and International Life Center” in the same city where abortion provider Dr. George Tiller lived and was gunned down by an anti-choice terrorist.
Included as a central aspect of the memorial, should it be built, will be a garden of crosses to represent what leaders call the “Holocaust” and “genocide” of the unborn, in addition to the replica of the wall. Pro-choice website RH Reality Check sees the memorial’s plans as part of a dangerous “my pro-life is bigger than your pro-life culture” which fosters extremism.
This plan is problematic, even offensive in so, so, so many ways. First of all, if any memorial gets built in Wichita it should be for Dr. Tiller who was a friend to women and a deeply compassionate provider.
Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown has become a new heroine of the pro-choice movement, and she achieved this status both by invoking her Judaism and by using the word “vagina” on the State House Floor, during a heated debate of an omnibus anti-abortion bill.
“Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested my vagina, but no means no,” were her words, now echoing around the blogosphere. Brown was then prohibited from speaking further during the debate, although the exact reason for her ban has yet to be revealed. Later, Brown told the Daily Beast’s Allison Yarrow: “If you’re regulating vaginas, I don’t know how we’re supposed to not talk about them.”
As Leah Berkenwald at Jewesses With Attitude notes, the beginning of Brown’s speech was about her Judaism, and how her religion mandated therapeutic abortions if the health of the mother was in danger.
“Morning After Pill Works As Birth Control, Not Abortion.” That most likely should have been the headline for an important New York Times piece discussing the paper’s own thorough review of the existing science on emergency contraception. Instead, the Times went with a mix of less straightforward headlines, one of which was the awfully fuzzy “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May be Unfounded.”
In spite of its indirect the headlines, the story clearly demonstrated what feminists have long maintained: EC works by preventing fertilization, not blocking implantation. The Times states that the morning after pill operates like birth control and doesn’t interfere with fertilized eggs. This goes against what many opponents of EC, including Republican presidential candidates, have casually claimed, conflating this pill that prevents pregnancy with a procedure that ends it.
Some reproductive rights advocates saw the piece as unequivocal support for their side, including Anika Rahman from the Ms. Foundation, who, said in a statement, that “the right wing can no longer mask their anti-women conspiracy behind inflammatory rhetoric and unscientific claims.”
But is this wishful thinking? My experience observing the extreme end of the anti-choice spectrum, the driving force behind the “War on Women,” suggests to me that scientific facts matter very little to such a worldview.
Has Jon Stewart become a flaming feminist? After a week of watching his killer segments skewering the GOP’s “War on Women,” I’m wondering if his seeming conversion is indicative of a larger turning point, if the Republicans, after a full year of assaults on reproductive rights, have finally crossed the line that gets people on the sidelines to speak up.
When I was just starting to write feminist blog posts, I wrote one complaining about the lack of genuine, women-focused discussion of reproductive rights in “dude” political culture, particularly on “The Daily Show.” While Stewart’s and similar shows tackled war and torture, gay rights and religion, I felt there was a squeamishness which curtailed discussion of abortion and women’s sexuality — and too much fawning respect for male authority figures who oppose women’s rights. Stewart’s weak interview with Mike Huckabee, in which he failed to effectively refute Huckabee’s points on abortion, exemplified this.
Then 2010 Irin Carmon, in an epic moment of reporting, blew the lid off the guy-centric culture at the beloved late night comedy news show. Her piece in Jezebel contained interviews with former employees who revealed that the onscreen “bro” culture was reflective of the shows inner workers: “behind the scenes, numerous former female staffers tell us that working there was often a frustrating and alienating experience.”
When I was visiting Toronto recently, an editorial with the purposely provocative title, “’It’s a girl!’ — could be a death sentence” by the editor-in-chief of Canada’s leading medical journal sparked a huge controversy. There were headlines in all the newspapers about Dr. Rajendra Kale’s call in the Canadian Medical Association Journal for waiting until 30 weeks gestation to inform all Canadian parents of their unborn child’s gender.
Kale’s concern, focused mainly on the South Asian community, was to prevent abortion of females, “discrimination against women in its most extreme form.”
The doctor’s main assertion was that thousands of female fetuses were being aborted by Canadian women of South Asian descent every year. Although this does not at all compare to the millions of female fetuses aborted in China and India, he still views this as a major problem and “evil practice.” Arguing that the sex of the fetus is not relevant medical information owed to the mother, he wrote it would be advisable to shift the practice of revealing whether the baby is a boy or girl (usually done at 18-20 weeks gestation) until after it is too late to have an unquestioned abortion.
I am not a proponent of finding out the sex of a child before its birth. Throughout my pregnancies with each of our three sons, neither my husband nor I knew that we were having boys. To us, the sex of the baby simply did not matter. Although we named our second son Hillel, we paid no heed to that great sage’s determination that to fulfill the mitzvah of pru u’rvu (be fruitful and multiply) one must have a son and a daughter. Nor were we thinking about following Shammai’s teaching that one must have at least two sons.
It’s been quite a week (yet again) for the politicization of women’s health. As Debra Nussbaum Cohen and a Forward editorial noted, the Susan G. Komen foundation pulled its money form Planned Parenthood.
The money, of course, is not the issue. Planned Parenthood has already raised a chunk of what it lost from Komen from outraged supporters, and Komen’s reputation will tumble with many of its own former supporters after this. What was lost here, instead, was a sense of trust. This was a betrayal of the the idea that women’s breast cancer screenings need not be politicized.
But that ship had already had sailed with Komen, a case study in the danger of letting nonprofits get too entangled with corporate interests. “Big Pink” as many call the world of breast cancer awareness behemoths like Komen, has entrenched interests and they sadly don’t always line up with women’s. As Mara Einstein writes at the Ms. Magazine blog:
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