reproductive justice

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for the Old Mole Variety Hour, June 8, 2009

The funeral this weekend of Dr. George Tiller attracted hundreds of mourners, honoring the memory of one of the very small number of doctors providing late term abortions in the US, a man whose clinic motto was "Trust women."

Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups have continued to justify his murder; Randall Terry of Operation Rescue called Tiller a "mass murderer," and the group calling itself the Army of God has publicly declared his accused killer a "hero." Clearly, these people are not interested in finding the "common ground" that President Obama spoke of last month at Notre Dame.

Jill Filipovic at Feministe suggests that the administration's “common ground” position of abortion reduction through contraception, poverty alleviation, and increased gender equality is "the pro-choice position, in a nutshell." But this past week the President appointed Alexia Kelley to head the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services. Kelley favors not reducing unintended pregnancies through sex education and available contraceptives, but instead, further reducing access to abortion.

Even if Obama's personnel choices didn't reveal "common ground" as a "deadly illusion," abortion reduction is, as Sunsara Taylor argues, the wrong goal. (It reminds me of when the Clinton administration made the goal of welfare reform getting people off welfare instead of getting people out of poverty). Taylor writes that “To talk today of reducing the number of abortions is to talk about strengthening the chains on women. The goal should NOT be to reduce the number of abortions. The goal should be to break down the barriers that still exist in every sphere of society to women’s full and equal participation as emancipated human beings. In this society, right now, that means there will be—and therefore should be—more abortions.

“This is because there are many, many women who want abortions who are unable to get them due to the tremendous legal, social, and economic obstacles that have been put in their way. These obstacles include parental notification laws, mandatory waiting periods, . . . fake clinics that disorient and delay women, the fact that [87%] of counties have no abortion providers at all, and countless other . . . restrictions.”

These obstacles also mean that there are more later term abortions, though still only about one percent occur after 21 weeks. Tiller's late-term patients included ten- and eleven-year-olds who had not known they were pregnant, as well as women diagnosed with cancer, and in need of potentially lifesaving treatment. In addition, "many of the women seeking third trimester procedures do so because of serious fetal anomalies . . . that compromise critical organ functions and often cause the death of the fetus or of the newborn. These . . . also often involve potentially dangerous complications for the woman."

Many of these dramatic stories exemplify situations that most Americans would agree count as "good reasons" for abortion.

But activists like Adrienne Asch and Michelle Fine caution against "exploiting the disabled fetus as the good or compelling reason to keep abortion safe, legal, and funded." Instead, they argue, abortion must be defended "on the basis of women's rights alone—not to rid our society of some of its 'defective' members." Nonetheless, they affirm, "while a fetus resides within her, a woman has the right to decide about her body and her life and to terminate a pregnancy for this or any other reason."

Moreover, Taylor rightly critiques Obama's statement that even if “we won’t agree on abortion, . . . we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make." She notes that a "great many women are not conflicted at all about their abortions. Many feel relief and even joy at having their lives and their futures more fully back in their control."

As the Solidarity pamphlet " From Abortion Rights to Reproductive Justice" observes, "Conservatives promote the idea that sex for pleasure without procreation is wrong. Their . . . anxieties about women’s sexual independence. . . . reflect the reality that still, in spite of important changes . . ., caring for other people in our society rests on women’s shoulders. . . . fears about what women would do if we really could choose whether or not to shoulder the burden (and pleasure) of care are expressed directly in the national consensus that abortion is okay in cases of rape and incest: if a woman is “forced,” she has a right to abortion. The consensus disappears if she chooses to be heterosexually active. . . . Unconsciously tying women’s (hetero)sexual pleasure to coerced childbearing, this narrative reassures us that women will always be available to care."

Consequently, political opposition to women's reproductive and sexual freedom is, in the words of the " Beyond Marriage" statement, "a small part of a much broader conservative agenda of coercive, patriarchal marriage promotion that plays out in any number of civic arenas in a variety of ways – all of which disproportionately impact poor, immigrant, and people-of-color communities. The purpose is not only to enforce narrow, heterosexist definitions of marriage and coerce conformity, but also to slash to the bone governmental funding for a wide array of family programs, including [nutrition,] childcare, healthcare, and reproductive services,. . . and [to] transfer responsibility for financial survival to families themselves."

Reproductive justice thus involves far more than the narrowly defined right not to have a child, fundamental as that is.

"Real control over our reproductive lives requires . . . access to health care for ourselves and our children, sex-positive sex education, freedom from sterilization abuse and other coercive actions by medical and social service providers to limit childbearing by poor women of color.

"Reproductive [justice] also includes everything [parents] need to raise children in dignity and health: quality affordable child care and well-paid parenting leave, a living wage, neighborhoods free from violence (including state violence) and from environmental health hazards, adequate housing, good schools, and respect for our motherhood, [whether we are single or partnered with women or men]."

It requires the right to retain custody of one's children regardless of the genders of one's sexual or life partners.

It requires the right not to be imprisoned solely for being HIV-positive while pregnant, as in the case of Quinta Layin Tuleh, an immigrant from Cameroon.

Tuleh's case, like the FBI's failure to arrest Scott Roeder for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act a week before he apparently shot Tiller, supports Sunsara Taylor's observation that "The lesson to draw is NOT that there should be more reliance on law enforcement. It is that there needs instead to be a powerful mobilization of pro-choice people from below, relying on ourselves to reverse the whole culture and dynamic in this country."

I'd like to close with a poem by Judith Arcana, the title poem from her collection, What if your mother:

Sometimes when you talk to them, in argument
they say, What if your mother had an abortion?
And then I say she did, because it's true, only
that one wasn't me, it was somebody else; nobody
but my mother ever knew that baby. But they
mean me, the people who say it, mean
what if she aborted me, like that's hard
to answer. They're so stupid, because what if
she miscarried or gave me away? What if
I drowned at the beach when I was three?
What if she loved someone else, not my dad?
Then I wouldn't be here either. What if, what if.
What's the point of asking this phony question?
All you could ever answer is, Then everything
would be different, wouldn't it? One thing sure,
I wouldn't be standing here talking to some jerk
who asked me that dumb question. I wouldn't
be mad at my mother for doing it--would I?
I think you just have to tell these people,
Get real. That's not what it's all about.

 

print source:

Adrienne Asch and Michelle Fine, "Shared Dreams: A Left Perspective on Disability Rights and Reproductive Rights." From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement. Ed. Marlene Gerber Fried. Boston: South End Press. 1990: 233-240.

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