Open or closed? His question hung in my head, a mental metronome undulating. Open or closed? It did not serve as a mantra used to focus the mind. No, the attendant’s question precluded focus and only intensified mental molestation as it required an answer. One would think we could agree upon an answer with relative ease. For me, though, still reeling at the thought of another funeral, the question hung weightless. I knew before asked I preferred closed; yet, there was my mother and sister to consider as well as those only a few months ago dad shunned after the nuclear Thanksgiving not yet four months past but who were certain to come, understandably, to bury their boy. Open or closed? After mom decided we would have a “proper” funeral, after struggling with the patriarchal Gunns on the funeral’s location, and after, against my wishes, a cremation was vetoed, open or closed was the last pressing question. We already viewed the casket show room, kicked the tires if you will, and settled on a practical and accommodating model. We perused the menu of services and opted for the large chapel as we anticipated a crowd. Though dad was not religious, I did not object too harshly when my maternal grandmother offered up her preacher to perform the service. It was yet another peace offering of sorts to the other family who would most assuredly object to a more secular service. Open or closed, though, remained unsettled. My steadfast closed opinion was due to the ghost of funeral’s past. I still remember the first time I touched a dead body, a husk of what was. I was seven or eight years old at my great-grandmother’s funeral. I was intrigued by death as the too young often are, and my cousins and I dared each other to touch her one last time. I remember only cold. Over the intervening years, I attended other great aunt’s, uncle’s, grandparents, and eventually friends’ funerals with some regularity. Coming from a small town as I do, when a teenager dies, you know them even if you don’t, and you attend the funeral in any event as you would any other social or church function. There is no question. You go. When I was 15 a friend shot himself with a .22 caliber rifle ending his relatively young life—he was 22, coincidentally, I believe—and I vividly remember his lifeless body and how obviously different he looked. I cannot see his animated face for the memory of his death face and the obvious attempts to mask the bullet in the head. Four years later after other suicides and drunk driving tragedies, at another open casket affair after my 20 year old friend killed himself and his girlfriend in a drunken single car wreck, I watched his father wrench his carcass from the coffin attempting to shake him back from Tartarus or wherever. I was a pallbearer and even at 19 understood this father’s grief at the loss of his son though I was unnerved by this large and strange man’s sudden grief-epiphany. Closed. I am decidedly closed. My mom and sister both want to see dad, to say goodbyes, to grieve in their own way. I am sure others want the same. Who am I to selfishly deny others what may bring some peace? We reach a compromise. Visitation for family and close friends is open, but the funeral itself is closed. I attend the visitation, but my last vision of dad remains the day he left my apartment three days before his murder, and I never see him lifeless and still. Closed. The visitation and funeral itself could have been one like any other but for the facts of dad’s death, the media frenzy which followed, and the freak southern blizzard of 1993 which significantly impeded what otherwise promised a SRO funeral. In fact, many people I later met and subsequently befriended told me they fully intended to come to Tennessee for the funeral but were snowed out. Before we even confronted the impish funeral director’s open or closed query, the media landed, a harbinger of the coming real storm. Back in ’93 I still had some fairly strong illusions of privacy, and we were amazed at the speed with which the press located us in Winchester, Tennessee when dad was killed in Pensacola, Florida, and my sister, mom, and I lived separately in Birmingham, Alabama. Yet, they sherlocked us down looking for the human interest angle to a controversial and promising long term story. They started calling, obviously, the day the assassination occurred. It did not relent as we prepared for a memorial and funeral. Open or closed, indeed. Press from all over the country flocked to the Moore-Cortner funeral home. People magazine grabbed mom, Wendy, and I for photos and an interview on the funeral home steps. Print reporters mingled with the visitors looking for us and others to quote hoping for bi-lines and copy. I do not recall video cameras at the visitation though I spoke with as many of them as I did friends and family or so it seemed. The media presence and my heightened stress at seeing the patriarchal Gunns lent a surreal air to the proceedings. As if out of ether, they were in the home. I spoke but do not remember what was said and whether it was comforting, remorseful, or cold. Now it seems I felt only a sense of sadness bordering on pity for the parents who lost a son twice before his time: once while alive after the prior fall’s Thanksgiving fiasco and once more with violent finality this time. As the visitation spectacle continued, the family stress mounted, and weariness turned to exhaustion. A caravan of friends from Birmingham was staying at my grandmother’s. We retreated to her house where the proper adults congregated upstairs and the “kids” (we were 22 and younger) hit the finished basement as we had on so many reunions in the past to comfort each other with our company and contraband, “Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…” Snow covered the new spring grass and fresh oak tendrils on the day we buried my dad. The freakish blizzard almost postponed the burial, but we soldiered on through the real and metaphorical storm inside and out, open and closed. I have almost no memory of the chapel service. Hollow words and “only God knows” pedestrian rationale from a holy man I did not know held no meaning for me whatsoever. All I knew was my dad was gone; the world as I knew it ended, and beyond there seemed nothing. My mom asked me to deliver a eulogy of sorts, but I was steadfastly closed and refused this request. It may be my one regret from those two days which seemed a lifetime. Of course, the carrion crow cameras flittered about as we were graveside. I laid a last rose on the coffin which was now firmly forever closed. We said graveside goodbyes to those who were not snowbound and stranded and returned to grandmothers for more comfort of one sort or another. In a paper somewhere is a photo of my then partner and I sharing a graveside embrace. The next morning I received a call from a woman I’d never met but who seemed warm enough. She explained she owned the clinic in Columbus, Georgia. This clinic was about sixty miles northeast of my second Alabama home town, dad worked there for years, and it was the first clinic I visited with him. That shared bond gave trust to the conversation. She explained how a friend of her and she were invited to appear on the Donahue show to discuss dad’s murder. She relayed the producer’s interest in having a family member attend as well. I had mixed emotions about discussing such a private matter in public, but also felt a responsibility, a naïve one perhaps, to share dad’s story in hopes no other family would be forced to answer the riddle of open or closed as a result of anti-abortion hatred, fear, and moral superiority. On this point, I opted for open and an ending proved a beginning.
December 4, 2013
October 26, 2013
Sudden violent death creates concentric ripples which spread ever wider washing and crashing over the immediate family on to extended family, friends, and colleagues. Those ripples ebb back to the deceased’s family. Sometimes, what rolls back is sympathy and genuine compassion. In other instances, a dangerous rip tide threatens to pull the family back into gothic familial deep water where the recently aggrieved find themselves struggling to maintain their footing and keep from drowning in those passive aggressive human voices whose motives are more self-centered than benevolent, more angry than comforting.
The men from my dad’s side of the family met each Thanksgiving weekend at a hunting cabin in Pickens County, Alabama. It is in actuality an old farm house adjacent to the Tom Bigbee River surrounded by grazing land for cattle and a combination of pulp and hard wood trees unique to the south. What started as a weekend of hunting and drinking two generations prior was now an occasion for the patriarchal Gunn family to meet, enjoy supposed fellowship, watch football, talk politics, and share a few meals—the drunken part of the weekend long banished once my grandfather became the family head. He and his eldest son, my uncle, devoutly subscribed to fundamental Christianity of the hair shirt variety so drunkenness was soon off the weekend’s agenda.
My history with my dad’s side of the family was strained at best due in large part to events prior to my birth. My grandfather expected his children to remain close in proximity and obedient to his will even in adulthood. Most of my aunts and uncles never left Benton, Kentucky a rural western Kentucky town that remained segregated as late as the 1980s which was the last time I had any reason to visit where they were born and either entered into the family insurance business or started other business ventures funded with grandfather’s wealth. Though his parents pushed dad to take up medicine as a career, I always felt they wanted him to return home to practice after meeting the right woman (meaning one they approved), marry, and live their idea of an idyllic Christian American lifestyle.
While an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, my dad met my mom. It was an odd relationship bordering on taboo in that they were distantly related and even shared the same last name. As if out of some stereotypical Appalachian folk tale, their father’s knew each other, had grown up together in rural Tennessee, and dad’s grandfather and father fucked my mom’s dad in a business deal which haunted my mom’s dad and tainted his relationship with his cousin/future in law for the rest of his life. I do not know when the respective parents found out about the illicit relationship, but I know neither side approved initially. My mom had to tell her parents when she found herself pregnant in the late 60s with what was to be my older brother. Her father, looking out for his daughter’s welfare, concerned what people would say (about the relationship generally and a child out of wedlock specifically), and distrustful of the paternal half of the relationship, offered her a way out of the pregnancy. Though abortion was illegal, he knew people and offered to arrange one for his young pregnant daughter to save her the embarrassment of single motherhood in 1968 and to prevent a stigmatized union with a family he strongly mistrusted.
Ultimately, mom and dad married and opted to have Chuckie. My mom’s parents accepted the marriage and though dad’s family feigned happiness, looking at how events developed over the years, I believe they never accepted or supported the marriage and looked on their children—and future grandchildren–as abominations. When my older brother died in a car crash as an infant, I think dad’s family secretly hoped it would end the shameful marriage that compromised their beliefs and socially embarrassed them. I also believe they felt it was the result of some divine justice for a sinful relationship. Chuckie’s death, though, kept my parents together, and as my dad finished medical school at the University of Kentucky, I was born in the fall of 1970.
After entering into what his parents considered an incestuous relationship, dad broke the unwritten family code by moving his family out of Kentucky via Nashville, TN to south Alabama upon completion of his residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital in 1977. For an old southern patriarch with deep religious convictions, this decision, I believe, solidified the rift between son and father: a rift my sister and I would suffer though we had no part in its creation but because we were the embodiments of dad’s sin and betrayal.
The Faulknerian twists of my family took years to unravel and now that most of the principals are gone, I still have only a fraction of what I can only describe as something resembling understanding; yet, I realized by early adolescence I wanted limited interaction with my paternal grandparents. After turning away from their faith at an early age and in light of their distance toward my sister and I, my summer visits stopped just before I turned 13 leaving the Thanksgiving get away my only regular contact.
By the Thanksgiving trip of 1992, I attended college in Birmingham and was dating a woman who asked that I spend the holidays with her family. Dad called me on Monday Thanksgiving week and asked that I go with him to the cabin. I refused and told him I had plans, adding that I did not want to see those people (his family) anyway. He asked again to the point of telling me I was going whether I liked it or not. Our relationship was strained, at best, since he and my mom divorced when I was 13, but we were making in roads toward piecing it back together. Due to his persistence and despite my reservations, I agreed to meet him in Aliceville with the intention of spending the long weekend with his family.
This year’s trip was mere days after Clinton defeated Bush 41 and with that victory came the hope that 12 years of harsh, trickle down conservatism was at an end. Conservatives nationwide were shell shocked and angry to the point of histrionics similar to what our current president experiences. Anti-Clinton propaganda and conspiracy theories were rampant even before he took office. The country was seriously divided then—almost foretelling how it is now, and the anti-big government conspiracy theorists’ tales only heightened a pejorative Clintonmania. In this atmosphere, my dad and I drove up to the cabin where our bathed in blood Christian Conservative moral majority relatives waited.
The first night went well enough. Sons, brothers, and cousins exchanged some slightly barbed jabs but the conversations remained civil enough, and we shared some laughs. I went to bed that first night thinking maybe I misjudged my relatives. It had been a year since I last saw them, and I thought this trip could be different.
By lunch, the next day, I could feel antipathy as clearly as I could smell the beginnings of Thanksgiving dinner—that recognizable mix of celery, carrots, and onion. I noticed my dad mixing a drink early from the back of his car, and thought how odd that a 47 year old man had to hide a mixed drink, and there was palpable disapproval in the air. It was not necessarily disapproval of the drink, or the current political developments, but a morally superiority that tinted and tainted the air as the Jack Daniels darkened the water in my dad’s glass.
I stayed outside most of the afternoon avoiding the heated political debate going on indoors. As night came on, the conversation grew louder and more heated. I walked back into the cabin where my dad was seated in a recliner obviously buzzed if not just plain drunk. His father and brother were on his left, and his cousin and brother-in-law were on his right. It looked as though he was holding court, but besieged on all sides. Everyone around dad described how Clinton would destroy the country, how more regulation would kill small business, and how a pro-baby killing president would ensure the country’s damnation.
I realized it was time to leave as voices got louder and it looked as though things might get physical. I remember my dad saying something derogatory about the Pope, at which point his brother had heard enough. Though he was no Papist, my dad’s defense of abortion outraged my uncle. As I continued to pack, he approached my father as though he intended to hit him. There existed between them an odd brotherly rivalry which bordered on sadism. Dad had polio as a child which limited and stunted his physical development and also, I think, impacted the brothers’ relationship. Instead of violence, he looked into his brother’s eyes with hatred and told him, “if you keep talking this way, there will be no one to bury you.” I was done at this point, told my dad we were leaving, and we spent the night in a hotel away from the abuses of his closed minded family.
Four months later, an anti-abortion protester named Michael Griffin assassinated my father. According to dad’s side of the family, they were unaware he performed abortions though he performed them for the better part of two decades in part or exclusively. After years considering his motives and silence, I think I finally have some degree of understanding. If his family was willing to write him off over a presidential candidate and some offhand remarks about the pope, then they clearly would have disowned and damned him to hell for murdering babies. He hid the abortion portion of his career, not out of shame or fear, but as some perverse familial life preserver. He wanted and needed that familial connection and feared he would lose it if his family knew the truth. Ironically, they disowned him over vagaries as opposed to the issue that took his life.
He never spoke to or saw his family after that November night in Aliceville. Though my mom and dad had long ago divorced and he was remarried, he opted to spend his last Christmas with us at my maternal grandmother’s house in Tennessee. Whether he was too proud to call his brother and father, or whether pride held back their hand makes little difference: he was dead to them and they to him.
My first conversation with any of my dad’s family was later in the afternoon of 10 March 1993 when my uncle called to ostensibly see how we fared. I do not remember him expressing any sympathy for the loss; rather, he wanted to tell me how we (meaning he) would arrange the funeral. He wanted to control all arrangements and return the prodigal son, in body only, to his old Kentucky home. I was initially dumbfounded that my uncle, the supposed adult in the room, was more concerned about a dead body than his niece and nephew. In his mind, he knew best, I was a child, and I should simply obey. In clear terms I told my uncle to fuck himself, that we had things under control, welcomed him, as well as the rest of the family, to the funeral we planned, and asked that he kindly leave us alone unless he had some honest assistance or sympathy to offer.
We buried dad during the worst winter storm in recent southern history. It was in mid-March less than two weeks prior to spring’s beginning, but Winter Storm ’93, as the media dubbed it, hung coldly over the funeral and attendant proceedings. Though my dad’s parents attended, they refused to sit with the family in the chapel of Cortner’s Funeral Home in Winchester, Tennessee—an antebellum home converted into a funeral parlor whose walls are as familiar to me as a childhood home given my 40 year history of funerals in that discomforting comfortable ritual death house. Moreover, they did not attend any of the mandatory post burial potlucks which may or may not be uniquely southern. Instead, they sent two of my cousins as emissaries seeking information but providing little. They ensured my sister and I need not worry, our grandfather had our interests at heart, and he would see we were protected (she was 17 and I was 22). Of course, these entreaties proved false.
The family rift which began as a small fissure before my birth evolved into an unbridgeable canyon in death. A murder which should have strengthened family ties unalterably crushed what little connection remained. I never had any meaningful exchanges with my father’s side of the family after that November night in 1992.
Almost 150 years ago, two brothers from the Gunn family donned uniforms: one was grey and the other was blue. Family lore holds at their last meeting they crossed swords, turned, and walked away never seeing each other again. Twenty years ago, in a somewhat devalued sense, history repeated rendering a family into bits due to one brother’s adherence to outdated traditionalism and religious fundamentalism while the other looked forward toward equality and inclusion. They did not realize at the time, though perhaps they should have, that the future was murder. Dad’s politically and religiously motivated murder perfectly reflects the harsh and unbreachable polar divide which is increasingly entrenched and present in our country today. Micro recapitulates macro on occasion does it not?
My children know their uncles, aunts, and cousins as phantoms, if at all—their great grandmother and father died long ago. Like me, they must live with the repercussions of choices and actions which occurred well before their births. While my eldest once expressed interest in meeting the family he’s never known, my youngest may not even know they exist. Surely, I bear responsibility for their ignorance; however, I selfishly never pursued reconciliation though there have been overtures. Unfortunately, I doubt the sincerity of such invitations and after 20 years of solitude from those who were my family, I choose exile over guilt riddled reconciliation. It is not an exile of hatred but of indifference which is admittedly worse I suppose.
- The abortion that could cost a mom her family (salon.com)
September 16, 2013
Dear M and S,
I do not ask for understanding, but comprehension. You both have questions. Some I’ve answered, insinuated, or obscured for the normal parental reasons. I owe you, though, the story as I remember it so you may understand through comprehension how dangerous it is, even in the 21st Century, to contradict and undermine conventional thinking. I hope our family’s historical facts illustrate our ongoing obligation to confront fundamental Pentecostal thinking so we move forward, not backwards. I am now a mere four years younger than your grandfather when one blinded by fundamentalism and the hate it naturally engenders created a symbol of the man who you never knew.
I last saw my father on Sunday, 7 March 1993. We did not see each other often, but we talked with relative frequency and were repairing a fairly entrenched rift in our relationship that began 10 years prior when he left our family for another woman after moving us—your grandmother, aunt, and I—to a shit small hovel of an antiquated old southern town in Alabama split between the poles of old blue blood southern aristocratic antebellum money and dirt floor poverty. Dad came and stayed the weekend with me in Birmingham as he did infrequently. Three days before his visit, I’d had my wisdom teeth removed. He called, as he was want to do, late in the afternoon on Thursday or Friday and announced he was coming into town and would be staying with me. It was a conversation like any other and I don’t recall any real detail other than he was coming.
I know he stayed over at least Saturday and Sunday 6 and 7 March 1993. I have no memories whatsoever of Saturday night; yet, I do vividly remember Sunday dinner, can still see the round wooden table and mismatched chairs I took from home when I moved away in 1989, and know we grilled cow protein of some form or another—it was probably a New York Strip as I’d not developed an appreciation for the rib eye yet. Due to the recent dental surgery, the steak, though cooked appropriately, was difficult to chew which made it more difficult to swallow. We enjoyed our meal, some more than others, while Billie Holliday gently but huskily sang in the background. Our conversation drifted from school, to my sister—she was 17 and in the final days of her senior year, to politics—President Clinton had just been inaugurated, to my progress in school, and to his work.
Dad explained the protesters were becoming ever more aggressive and confrontational. The few protesters I personally encountered a few years prior when I traveled the circuit with dad were the typical abortion porn sign holders and silent layers of hands. In my teen years, I found his weekly schedule nothing but normal though it took him from our small town hell to Columbus, Georgia then to Montgomery, Alabama, then to Mobile, Alabama, and finally to Pensacola, Florida only to resume anew the next week. Other kids’ parents traveled so what was so different about his schedule? I did not figure out until much later that he made this circuit because no one else would. I certainly never took it a logical step further and deeper to ask why no other local doctor in Columbus, Montgomery, Mobile, and/or Pensacola serviced these clinics. It was my normal and I was 14 when I first started driving him on some of his trips; yet, as we discussed the present situation, I noticed he seemed preoccupied. We finished our meal, drained a few more beers, and awoke March 8 and said our goodbyes.
I was aware clinics were bombed in the past and even asked him once if he ever worried about one of the clinics he serviced getting attacked. He reassuringly told me it did not concern him, and he went on with his day. Over the weekend of his last visit, though, I thought about the heightened protests, and the ever increasing threats of violence; additionally I remembered my mom calling me one afternoon about a year before this final visit to tell me strangers were in town passing out wanted posters of dad which included his weekly schedule. When that incident occurred, he again brushed off our concern and said he was not preoccupied with the actions of some crazies.
That Monday morning, prior to seeing him off for the last time, I confronted him about the posters, the renewed threats, and told him I was scared for his safety. Dad finally told me he had been carrying a gun for a few years, that he suspected he was being followed frequently, and that a strange protester approached him that previous Friday (would have been 5 March) while he was in the car leaving the clinic in Pensacola heading my way. He said this man had an eerie look about him and spoke to dad through his car window while staring deeply at him with glazed long staring maniacal eyes. I remember asking when the stalking started, and he indicated it had been going on at least as long as the wanted poster’s origination about a year or so earlier. I asked if he considered quitting the circuit and going back to less controversial OB/GYN care. He told me if he stopped, it would be difficult to find a replacement and he was committed to his patients. He left headed south, and for the first time I admitted to myself that he had a dangerous job and as anyone whose parent has a dangerous job, I wrapped myself in the warmth and security of “not mine”, “not this time”, and drank the Lethean water temporarily cooling my angst and trepidation.
I spoke with your grandfather again on 9 March 1993. We did not discuss anything specific. I was preparing for exams; he was in another of the endless line of hotel rooms and sounded lonely. Sadly, our terminal conversation was brief and unremarkable. He indicated he was well and heading to Pensacola, and I told him to be safe. In retrospect he seemed to hang on the line as though he did not want the conversation to end; yet, neither of us could find a way to carry it forward.
I drove to class the next morning on what was, otherwise, an exceedingly peaceful and beautiful spring day in Birmingham. I’ve always preferred living in Birmingham than other cities as it is big enough to provide some degree of needed anonymity; yet, small enough to retain remnants of its prior smallness which is both sides of the pole simultaneously. As I was studying for a Semantics class, dad was driving to work. As I got into my car to head home, he was very likely getting out of his for the last time.
You guys have never seen a real answering machine as far as I know since everyone has digital voicemail these days. In ’93 you were lucky to have the kind with a microcassette (I’ll explain that later) that was the size of a stereo component. I don’t recall who checked the messages on the afternoon of 10 March—my at the time girlfriend or me—but I remember thinking it odd to get a message from my grandmother in the middle of the week in the middle of the day. It was an altogether cryptic but clear message. She simply said “call me when you get home.” Both of you are still too young to know there are certain messages you don’t want to return. I don’t mean the messages from people you’ve left behind or don’t want to talk with at that particular moment, but the messages from family purposely ambiguous so you are intrigued enough, but not too scared, to return the call as soon as you hear the message. Of course I sensed something was wrong, and, logically, I feared it involved dad.
Dad called me one night in January surprisingly upbeat and happy sounding. It was the night of the 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision (Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion as you may or may not know when you read this; I’ll get to abortion proper later), and he actually to and was genuinely excited to share his day with me. First, he said someone from Rolling Stone magazine contacted him recently looking to do a profile on his experience as one of the few Southern abortion providers; secondly, he told me how he had finally had enough of the protesters and their bullshit. He then described how he sang “Happy Birthday to You” at the protesters outside one of the clinics in Montgomery and in the penultimate verse added, “happy birthday dear Roe v. Waaaade.” He subsequently aimed a small boom box at those gathered outside the clinic and played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” singing loudly along.
For some reason, I thought of this event as well as the suspicious protestor dad described over the weekend as I returned my grandmother’s call. When she answered, I immediately knew what I suspected was true; yet, we had to play out the charade. I asked her why she called. She asked if I had seen the news. I told her I had been at school studying. She said good. I asked why. She then told me what I intuitively knew. “Your dad was shot,” she said and I could hear her sadness as she said it. I asked if he was ok thinking people survive gun shots routinely. She told me he wasn’t and that he died e route to the local hospital. She said she was sorry, that she loved me, and asked that I call my mom.
One day both of you will confront my mortality. Let’s hope it is much longer than four years from now when I’ll be 47 which is how old your grandfather was when he died. I know that seems old, but it is really very young, and when you hit forty, you’ll both realize how young it is. My desire is you are prepared for it and it doesn’t pounce on you from behind a corner while you’re busy reading some goddamned semantics notes.
I drove to my mother’s house where some friends and my sister had gathered. We hugged, cried, and watched cable news run the story of dad’s death and label him “the first abortion doctor to be murdered” ad infinitum. You have to contextualize the nature of the event and times to truly understand. On one really used the internet, e-mail was barely in anyone’s vocabulary, and few people had cell phones. CNN was the only 24 hour news source (it’s hard to conceive of life without Fox, but it was pleasantly non-existent at the time). Abortion clinic violence was still considered fresh news and had not yet matured and then expired. In laymen’s terms, your grandfather’s assassination was a big fucking deal, and was the news for days, months, and years as more doctors and nurses in the abortion field died violently. Cable news still had some decency about the images they showed, or they were simply too late to get images of your grandfather’s body. The image I recall from that spring day is a shot of his bloodstained glasses disfigured and broken in the grass where his body most assuredly fell.
Within hours of the killing, my mother’s phone started an interminable ringing which would not abate for months. On the other end of the line was a New York Times reporter looking for comment. I considered whether or not we wanted to talk, I had mixed feelings of surprise and anger at being asked for comment on the day I found out my dad was dead, and I had no idea what to do given our family’s life capsized, up righted, capsized, and sank in the span of a few hours that afternoon. We had large issues confronting us: burial, finances, familial relations, loss, and grief, and it was overwhelming to add media and politics into the mix. Initially, I wanted to simply hang up on the woman from the Times; yet, I remembered how joyful dad was when he thought someone was finally going to tell his story and write about the insane conditions under which he worked all at the hands of fundamentalists. I also remembered his calm happiness when he relayed the events of 22 January 2010 and how he joyously sang in defense of his profession and services. I made a decision, asked for the reporter’s name and number, and said I’d call her back later as we had other pressing needs to address.
I always wondered if the protester dad described to me the weekend before he died was Michael Griffin, the man who assassinated your grandfather. If so, he looked into the eyes of his assassin five days before he struck, and it was the last time he looked into his eyes as Griffin attacked from behind too cowardly to face the person he hated, stalked, and still feels deserved to die. I am still convinced others were involved in dad’s assassination. There was an organized protest in front of the clinic the day
Griffin struck, and the organizer of the protest had witnessed to Griffin in the weeks leading up to the assassination. This self styled minster had an effigy of your grandfather in his garage, and I do not doubt he influenced or seduced Griffin to take his violent action. I will tell you more about these events as I continue the story.
To this day I cannot forget the image of his glasses. I also continue to celebrate his fine voice which was inspiring to me personally and has proven inspirational to others. I am now the dad where I once was the son, and it is my obligation and duty to pass this history on to you so, perhaps, in some minor way, it helps you understand the essence and roots of hatred as well as how one fine voice can make all the difference if you simply sing out.
PS. The title was taken from Treblinka by Jean Francois Steiner
August 27, 2013
A few days ago we were driving along the pine and oak dappled streets passing the brick and wooden houses we pass everyday on the way home. We saw ranchers, split levels, and A-frames as well as the odd gentrified monstrosity that was formerly a 50s, 60s, or 70s styled family home but is now some garish example of conspicuous consumption out of place among the two and three bedroom homes in our neighborhood. Those houses. Damn, they reek of pride and anticipation that soon, very soon, they shall overcome their common surroundings occupied by elderly holdouts and first time buyers as if they are a giant extended middle finger to those adjacent and across from their projected omnipotence.
We rounded Teller Lane turning left as we passed the soccer and basketball goals in the yard of the family on the corner.
She was beside me in the passenger’s seat and had not said much since I liberated her from those dastardly day care teachers—she hates daycare because they only give plain chips for snack, and though I appreciate her sentiment since I’m no vanilla chip fan, I’m glad her primary school stressor is chips because the pending divorce keeps her sufficiently distracted, confused, and just plain sad. Typically, she is abuzz with grade school drama or wiped out from hard play—she is a self professed tom boy after all; however, today she was a bit pensive and hesitant. I could tell something was clearly on her mind, and it appeared she was working out how to unwind the thread of thought as if in some Theban labyrinth. I prompted and prodded her about her day without getting overly interrogational. She is adept at avoidance.
She could sense our proximity to home meaning dinner anxiety, homework, and distraction combined with parental tension. Quickly, and in a sense angrily, she unburdened herself, “Why don’t I have gandpas?”, she asked. Her shoulders slumped forward slightly but her eyes engaged mine—as if my eyes regarded themselves—in fixed, intense precision awaiting parental profundity.
I was not surprised by the question. She has asked it before and asks some form of it regularly. Perhaps, after learning to live in two separate houses as opposed to the one she’s known for seven years, she hoped to immerse herself in the past longing for heritage’s familial fealty; or, she could have merely been curious. Who truly knows the motivations of others much less those of the ones we love, and I love her to the moon and back which obviously means I’m an utter failure at discerning her unstated motivations.
I navigated these waters when the man-boy—your grandson is 16, 6’5’’, is a brunette Pa, and I’d describe him as an old soul if I believed in one—was growing up, and I attempted to answer his inquiries with honesty as opposed to supposed soothing southern platitudes ending in “better place”, “God’s ways are…”, and/or “you’ll reconcile one day”. Yet, he knew his mom’s dad, had a close relationship with him for seven years, and, therefore, knew life with a cantankerous yet playful grandfather. Michael’s death was the first man-boy experienced and it shook him terribly just as the recent death of our traditional family shakes my daughter who’s now the Inquisitor.
Prior to having my own children, I seriously studied and in some way practiced how I would answer the inevitable questions. Unlike the deaths of other forbearers, details of yours are as loaded as the gun that killed you. I knew I had to tell the grandchildren the truth at some point, and, if nothing less, thought a written record would best address the problem of evil I had to narrate. In the event I croaked prematurely, I wanted them to hear the stories from me—or in my words, but never mustered the courage to write the answers until now.
I, therefore, am left looking at your granddaughter on an otherwise typical sunny and humid southern Friday in August. I look into her eyes which are mine, her brother’s, and yours. I try to summon the wisdom to explain a religiously motivated and condoned murder while searching for a method to breakdown how your job, controversial to some but legal and protected nationwide, was the primary cause of your death while realizing an understanding of that fact is the only way to make any sense of the senseless.
She should not know the term abortion though she’s heard it. Likewise, it is incomprehensible how she, through no fault of her own, must grapple with the issue at such a young age if I tell her the whole truth. She does not yet have any sexual understanding, but her tender years are hardening and hastening toward experience quickly especially as she struggles to understand a murdered grandfather, let alone one whose murder has the implications of yours. Relatively soon—too soon in my eyes assuredly–abortion will be an all too real and relevant issue for her as a burgeoning young woman. It remains to be seen whether or not she has the freedom other women have enjoyed for 40 years. She lives in dangerously fundamental times in an even more dangerously fundamental state. If I know anything about your granddaughter, it is that she has your strong will and hunger for justice. Though I cannot predict with certainty where she lands politically as she develops her own identity, I have little doubt her convictions will remain consistent with yours and mine.
Her brother, eight years her senior, knows you were assassinated and understands it was an act of terror. I had to share the causes and conditions of your assassination with him, and he carried that burden as I did before him and continue to do twenty years later. I do not remember at what age I told him the whole truth. I asked him if he recalls, and he doesn’t. Simply stated, he’s always lived with abortion just as I did. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he also realizes the motives of your assassin and has grown up under that shadow. I am happy to report his dedication to our family’s cause.
On that Friday two weeks ago, I mitigated the facts and told Sam again you were killed without getting into the whys and wherefores; instead, I simply said someone killed you and that he is still in prison. She asked why. Why is what I dread for her at such an early age. She’s beginning to learn the mythos of our civilization. While I will facilitate her struggle to differentiate facts from fiction in what she is taught, on this particular Friday, I decided she was not yet ready to learn the whole truth of your assassination or that it was an assassination. It is sufficient and tragic enough to know of and contemplate murder which she has done since she can remember. No granddaughter, regardless of her grandfather’s profession, should have to ask, “but why was he killed.” No father, in the land of the free, should be forced to provide that answer even if the whole answer must wait for the time being.
July 23, 2013
Speaking bluntly, I believe our nation is deeply conflicted about a woman’s body, especially her reproductive organs. While this conflict can be traced to a Platonic duality of mind and body whereby a man and his mind is valued as superior to a woman and her body, the ensuing cultural impact has situated man as subject/actor and woman as object/acted upon. In the United States, this duality is particularly curious because our nation embraces the value of autonomy as reflected in broad social and political changes of the voting rights for women, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism and constitutional right to abortion for women. But, a cursory review of media research illustrates this duality in media’s ambivalence toward women who are too thin or too thick, casting them, respectively, as either deviant or normal or in media’s proliferation of make-over television programs for (mostly) women who fail to conform to socially constructed notions of beauty. Brenda Cowlishaw* warns that we can easily fail to notice its controlling, limiting, structuring presence because of the ubiquity of the subject-object binary in modern western thought. Amused and amazed by entertainment, we often ignore the hegemonic forces that view white, heterosexual males as authority figures and render others as less. Her warning is relevant for the argument I want to make in this post. Despite years of progress toward full citizenship, women’s bodies are increasingly under the panopticon of male regulation and control regarding their reproductive organs, which, consequently, diminishes a woman’s subjectivity and full citizenship. Managing women’s reproductive organs is enacted through gender management called paternalism. As Gurevich**** explains, gender management, in the form of paternalistic body regulation and control, is a way to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection. And there’s historical precedence for regulating and controlling women’s bodies, much as we controlled the bodies of slaves, from popular culture’s expectations to the Supreme Court’s rulings to various presidencies and state legislators discourse. I’ll begin with an overview of the expressions of ambivalence toward women’s bodies and continue with a brief overview of the function of legal proceedings then move to Supreme Court’s paternalistic discourse in the Roe v Wade decision and then finish with current discourse about how paternalism impacts women’s bodies in the abortion war.
Ambivalence over Women’s Reproductive Organs
People often freely assert their opinions and policies about a woman’s bodies, particularly her breasts, her uterus, her ovaries and fallopian tubes, and her labia and vagina. Recall the local kerfuffles that have occurred in various municipalities over public breastfeeding or the intrusive school policies against young schoolgirls displaying excessive cleavage or the lingerie manufacturers’ padded bras designed to eliminate the stigmatized nipple. These kerfuffles are more easily recognized as absurd politics when framed against popular culture’s enthusiastic support of film and television representations of female cleavage and full frontal nudity or the tolerance of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
A woman’s labia and vagina are another part of anatomy for which there seems to be much conflict. While it’s hard to forget the public outrage and titillation when actress Sharon Stone revealed a crotch shot in Basic Instincts, it’s easy to recall the derogatory terms (like pussy, sugar jar, cunt, bearded clam, beaver, camel toe) people use describe this female territory. The current cosmetic surgery offering, labial reconstruction, illustrates the assumed flaw with a woman’s anatomy. According to most plastic surgery web sites, the procedure is meant to rejuvenate the structure and appearance of a woman’s genitalia. But the message is clear: Your labia and vagina are disgusting. Despite this disgust, it seems important to point out that most of us have made the trip through a woman’s vagina on the first day of our life. Pardon my pointing out the ick factor of your birth.
As for ovaries and fallopian tubes, little media coverage, popular expressions or snarky remarks are made about them. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a joke about a fallopian tube? When did you share a snarky remark about some woman’s ovaries? But, let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that these body parts are unimportant. Two examples should suffice to illustrate their importance to my argument. First, if a young woman, say 24 years old, requests a tubal ligation because she has no interest in becoming pregnant, she will encounter resistance and, often, disappointment because physicians are disinclined to oblige believing that they know better than the woman knows herself. “She might change her mind about becoming a mother,” the thinking goes. Second, ovaries and fallopian tubes are key players in producing viable eggs and in transporting a fertilized egg to the uterus for implantation. This second action is all too often overlooked in the war of the womb, the site of normal implantation. So, let’s give accolades to the ovaries and fallopian tube then pause to ponder the common denominator in this national angst over these body parts.
The common denominator, I argue, is gender management through paternalism. In examining how legal strategies use gender narratives about defendants who are mothers, Liena Gurevich**** calls gender management a form of paternalistic body regulation and control to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection. We can look to the function and discourse of legal proceedings to unpack the power of paternalistic regulation and control.
Legal Institutions as Bastions of Male Power and Control
Consider that legal institutions and their proceedings are forms of governance and normalization to maintain the social and political order and advancement of the interests of professional groups. Simply put, they are bastions of male power and control So, to name two examples, legal decisions have drawn, in the past, on the standards of moral purity with the enforcement of the Comstock Laws against birth control for married couples until Griswold v. Connecticut invalidated the law. The decision that legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade, is another example of male power. Often viewed as a legal decision to give women a choice about reproductive options, Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Blackmun, framed the decision as inherently and primarily a medical decision with basic responsibilities resting on the physician. As Katie Gibson** has noted, the decision has two central constructs that justified his decision: “a controlling ‘doctor knows best’ philosophy and the characterization of the ‘woman-as-patient’ in the apotheosis of medicine. Decades later, we see again the courts deference to male authority and the subjugation of women’s agency. In fact, in a more recent article, Katie Gibson*** claims that Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart conveys that majority decision was profoundly wrong and also exposed the law as an instrument of patriarchy led by the Roberts’ rightward leaning court.
Today, the discourse circulating in all levels of legislative activities denies agency to women (particularly if pregnant), confers rights to a rapist over the rights of a woman, compares the fetus to the slave who needs to be rescued while symbolically annihilating the woman, conflates consent to sex to consent to pregnancy and scorns the sexuality of women as shameful and deserving of retribution. In 2013, despite years of progress toward full citizenship, women’s bodies are increasingly under the panopticon of male regulation and control regarding their reproductive organs, which, consequently, diminishes a woman’s subjectivity. Comparing the man or woman who was in the involuntary servitude of the slave owner to women forced into involuntary servitude to the fetus, Kuswa, Achter & Lauzon**** conclude that the state has no justification to exert biopower. The paternalistic rhetoric, that slavery was good for the slaves, that slave owners were benevolent in exposing their superior culture, finds resonance in the management of women’s reproductive organs through the regulation and control to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection.
For Her Own Protection
Benevolently limiting women’s reproductive freedom through social regulation for her own protection is evident in targeted regulation of abortion providers that require ambulatory surgical standards such as wide hallways, hospital admitting privileges, drinking fountains and state-mandated (mis)information called counseling. The smokescreen, that these regulations are mandated to protect women, is bogus. These regulations do nothing to facilitate access to abortion, do nothing to ensure a doctor’s quality healthcare, do nothing to improve the lives of women, and do nothing to protect the universality of human rights for women. More to the point, laws against abortion are a form of sex discrimination, a heinous attempt to essentialize woman-as-womb and a de facto denial of women’s full citizenship.
* Cowlishaw, B. (2001). Subjects are from Mars, objects are from Venus: Construction of the self in self-help. Journal of Popular Culture, 35(1), 169-184.
**Gibson, K. (2008). The rhetoric of Roe v. Wade: When the (male) doctor knows best. Southern Communication Journal, 73 (4), 312-331.
***Gibson, K. (2012). In defense of women’s rights: A rhetorical analysis of judicial dissent. Women’s Studies in Communication, 35, 123-137.
****Gurevich, L. (2008). Patriarchy? Paternalism? Motherhood discourses in trials of crimes against children. Sociological Perspectives, 51(3), 515-539.
*****Kuswa, K., Achter, P., & Lauzon, E. (2008). The slave, the fetus, the body: articulating biopower and the pregnant woman. Contemporary Argumentation & Debate, 29, 166-185.
- Why the Relentless Assault on Abortion in the United States? (readersupportednews.org)
- A$hole of the day: ‘Pro-lifer’ Erick Erickson advocates the wire coat hanger method of abortion (freakoutnation.com)
- Judge issues temporary injunction against North Dakota law that would ban abortions after six weeks (dailykos.com)
- ND’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban ‘invalid and unconstitutional,’ says federal judge (tv.msnbc.com)
July 15, 2013
If you have been following my recent posts, you know I am supporting the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride set to kick off on 23 July 2013 in New York City and San Francisco. I discussed this summer’s action with a number of people I respect, and there is a divide in the abortion rights community on whether or not it is wise to embark on this action. I did not reach the decision to support and join with the Riders without giving the decision due diligence; nor, did I neglect to consider the multiple outcomes of the action.
When facing a dichotomous debate among two sides of the community, two camps who should be working together toward common goals, I ask myself now as I did in the past, What Would Dad Do? Would he shrink back into the shadows, rely solely on private action and influence, or would he advocate, and actually engage in, direct action and response to those who tormented, stalked, and eventually killed him? Obviously, we know the answer: he did not back down! As I wrote a couple of posts ago, I also cannot and will not back down.
Upon the 20th year after my dad’s murder by a Christian terrorist, as we face continued threat of violence, and as state after state passes draconian anti abortion legislation, I reflect not only on what my dad would do but also consider the words of Yeats:
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
Knowing I will be appalled by remaining silent, I resolved the vacillation by opting to support what I believe is the right course of action. To that end, I co-authored a piece on the merits and need of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride with one of its primary organizers Sunsara Taylor. I want to share with you our recent missive so perhaps more of us will come together on the need for direct, vocal, and mass support our clinics, our doctors, and our rights
Abortion Rights Are At a Crossroads:
This is NOT a Time to Lay Low – It is Time for Massive Uncompromising Struggle!
By Sunsara Taylor and David Gunn, Jr.
July 12, 2013
Across the country, people are waking up to the state of emergency facing the right to abortion. As legislators in Texas push hard to close down 37 of 42 abortion clinics statewide, new laws in North Carolina would close four of their five remaining clinics. Meanwhile, Ohio’s recently passed budget could close as many as three abortion clinics. North Dakota, on August 1st, may become the first state to effectively ban abortion. Already Mississippi’s last abortion clinic is merely an appellate ruling away from closure. We could go on.
If we do not reverse this trajectory now, we will condemn future generations of women and girls to forced motherhood, to lives of open enslavement, terror, and life-crushing shame. Women will be forced to have children they do not want, trapping them in abusive relationships, driving them into poverty, forcing them out of school, and extinguishing their dreams. Women will go to desperate and dangerous measures to terminate unwanted pregnancies, once again flooding emergency rooms and turning up dead women in cheap motels with blood caked between their legs.
We face two divergent roads: Either we seize control of the debate and reset the terms and whole trajectory of this fight; or we continue down the road of “established conventional wisdom,” only to awaken before long to an unrecognizable and untenable situation for women. What each of us does matters,and matters tremendously.
It is in this context that we initiated an Abortion Rights Freedom Ride. Our echo of the Civil Rights Freedom Rides is intentional and fitting. Women who cannot decide for themselves if and when they have children are not free. On the contrary, they are mere child-bearing chattel whose purpose is to serve and not actively chose their destinies.
Volunteers on this Freedom Ride will caravan from both coasts to North Dakota, traverse through the middle of the country into Wichita, and head due south to Jackson, Mississippi. Our aim is threefold: one, we must move beyond localized fights andlauncha national counter-offensive; two, we must radically reset the political, moral, and ideological terms of this fight so that millions understand that this fight is about women’s liberation or women’s enslavement; lastly, and of paramount importance, we must call forth the mass independent political resistance that is necessary to defeat this war on women.
As the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride evolved from conception to genesis, many have responded by with enthusiastic and unequivocal support. Regular people from across the country as well as those who have been on the front lines of the abortion rights struggle are joining with us in demanding abortion rights without compromise and thanking us for daring to travel to where women’s rights face harshest threat.
However, some who share our passion for the cause have raised concerns and even opposition to this action. They fear the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride will be too confrontational, too vociferous for abortion, and may turn off avenues of support.
Some have argued that it is wrong for people to come into local areas from the outside. Others argue that mass political protest will endanger the chances of winning important court cases and that it is better to rely on official channels of politics.
Because the future of women is at stake, we feel it is critical to address these concerns head on. In fact, it is exactly the faulty logic at the root of these concerns that has contributed to all of us finding ourselves in such a dire situation.
First, while local ground conditions are different and unique in some ways, the fact that every clinic and every state is facing heightened assault is not unique nor is it local. We all face a national assault on abortion rights which requires a national counter-offensive. Not only is it utterly immoral for us to abandon the women living in the states most under direct duress, it is delusional to think that what happens in states like Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Kansas will not come soon to a theater near you. Our futures are bound together and we all share the responsibility to take this on and turn the tide where the attacks are the most severe.
Second, while it is true that a great many people – including many who support abortion rights – are defensive about abortion, they should not be ashamed and this defensiveness and shame is precisely something we must eradicate.
Among the reasons many are defensive about abortion are decades of propaganda by those who oppose women’s equality but posture as defenders of “babies”; meanwhile, supporters of abortion rights have too often been conciliatory, muted, and compromising. This must stop. This fight has never been about babies. It has always been about controlling women. This is why there is not a single major anti-abortion organization that supports birth control.
If we want to turn the tide, we have to tell the truth: there is absolutely nothing wrong with abortion. Fetuses are NOT babies. Abortion is NOT murder. Women are NOT incubators.
A great many people are hungry for this message. They are furious and searching for a meaningful vehicle to make their outrage felt. It is only by asserting the positive morality of abortion rights that we can call forth and mobilize the tens of thousands who already share our resolve. Only through direct action and a polemical shift can all of us stand together and change how millions of others are thinking. Shouldn’t this emergency situation awaken us to the need to change public opinion, not accommodate it?
History has proven that directly confronting oppressive social norms can be disruptive and scary; yet, it is a necessary and uplifting part of making any significant positive change. Many argued that it was wiser for LGBT people to stay closeted until society was more accepting; others counseled against the Civil Rights Freedom Rides out of fear that it would only rile up the opposition, but it was only when people took that risk and got “in your face” that broader public opinion and actions began to change.
We must create a situation where being anti-abortion is seen to be as socially unacceptable as it is to advocate lynchings, anti-LGBT violence, or rape (although, if you listen to some on the Right, rape advocacy is not necessarily off their table).When we reach that summit, we will be on our way to turning the tide.
Third, while court cases are important – even essential – it is only through truly massive independent political struggle that we stand a chance at defeating the truly unyielding and powerful foe we face. Every setback the anti-abortion movement experiences only makes them more determined and every victory only makes them more aggressive. They will not be appeased if we lie low. No court case or election or new law will stop them. Not only has the existing power structure proven unwilling or unable to do so, people who believe they are on a “mission from God” are not bound by human laws and do not yield to public opinion.
But they can be defeated. Forced motherhood is deeply opposed to the interests of humanity. If we get out there and tell the truth, if we resist, if we clarify the stakes of this battle, and if we mobilize wave upon wave of the masses to get off the sidelines and into the streets with us, we can win. There is a tremendous reservoir of people who can and must be called forth to join in this struggle. We have seen this vividly in Texas. Let us not underestimate the potential that exists in every state across this country.
We stand at a crossroads. For the future of women everywhere, let us refuse the worn pathways that have allowed us to lose so much ground. We must not lay low, hope these attacks will blow over, and allow women in some parts of the country to be forced into mandatory motherhood while hoping to preserve the rights of a shrinking few. We cannot continue to foster the attitude that abortion is the 21st Century’s Scarlet Letter while allowing abortion providers to be further stigmatized and demonized. We cannot recoil from the massive fight that urgently needs fighting at this moment in this time.
Now is the time for courage, for truth telling, for stepping out and launching an uncompromising counter-offensive. We have right on our side. We call on everyone who cares about the future of women to join with us in strengthening the national impact and influence of this Abortion Rights Freedom Ride. Join with us at our kick-off rallies in New York City and San Francisco in July 23. Caravan to meet us in North Dakota, Wichita, Kansas, and Jackson, Mississippi. Send a donation or a message of support. Reach out to individuals and religious communities that can provide safe passage to the courageous individuals who are giving up their summers and putting everything they have into winning a different and far better future for women. Most importantly, let us together take the rough road to victory. It may be less traveled, but only through struggle can we reap the benefits of love’s labor won.
To learn more about and get involved with the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride, go to: http://www.stoppatriarchy.org/
Sunsara Taylor writes for Revolution Newspaper (revcom.us) and is an initiator of the movement to End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women (StopPatriarchy.org)
David Gunn, Jr. is the son of David Gunn, Sr., the first abortion doctor to be assassinated by an anti-abortion gunman, and blogs for Abortion.ws
May 23, 2013
It’s hard to deny that we are becoming a visually mediated society. The power of visuals to (mis)inform, persuade and threaten is evident particularly when iconic photographs are considered for their power to expose the truths of local and global catastrophes, wars and social unrest. Nick Ut’s Accidental Napalm, and Kevin Carter’s Struggling Girl are images that produce certain truths but they also produce a moral conundrum. Showing these images are representations of reality but they also alienate the public. In fact, the circulation of Accidental Napalm has been considered a pivotal turning point against the horrors of Vietnam War while Struggling Girl forced the world to see the plight of the starving. More recently, Richard Drew’s September 11, 2001 Falling Man was subjected to criticism for being too offensive to publish and for revealing the immorality of the photographer and the news sources entrusted to uphold societal values. Falling Man is troubling because, while it reveals a truth about the World Trade Center attacks, it also exploits the human dignity and privacy of a man and moves us to question the propriety of such a display. The representation of images have ethical implications in that they are a kind of truth that can be shown but can never tell the whole story. It is with this notion of (mis)representations that I want to address three lessons about the power of visuals and recommend using visuals in a more provocative, yet enlightening campaign—as a proposal for the 21st century.
The first lesson addresses this tension between propriety and morality for photographers and for activists who choose to capture and use spectacular images of human beings. For example, for antiabortionists, any propriety about displaying mutilated human fetal images is easily set aside out of concern for a larger moral purpose. In fact, in the antiabortion movement, there are those who use grotesque fetal images that, while inducing both empathy and disgust, raise ethical questions about the public display of these dead bodies. Antiabortion activists promote and distribute these visual materials based on a premise that once Americans see images of abortion, they will reject abortion. And while legal debates over the right to display such images erupt on state-run university campuses, outside the walls of progressive churches and, of course, outside the perimeters of abortion clinics, the majority views these prurient displays as morally repugnant and potentially harmful to young children.
A second lesson is drawn from campaign materials of the antiabortion activists’ use of mutilated fetuses and from the 2012 presidential election. Both campaigns ignore an essential element—women. While Republicans fell on their collective swords with their anti abortion and rape rhetoric, the so-called prolife crowd (majority Republican) continued with their fetal fetish worship. In hindsight, the lesson is clear. Don’t ignore women and their rights.
The third lesson addresses the failure of media to address some of the most fundamental and important issues that half the world’s population—women—face. Corporate media, held hostage by capitalistic greed, flourishes on a diet of sensationalism and entertainment. For example, recent news reports focused on Angelina Jolie’s mastectomies but ignored the science about environmental toxins (caused by unbridled, irresponsible industries) that are known causes of cancer. The news of her surgical decision also ignored the enormous costs of media’s relentless messages to young girls and women that their breasts are accessories for voyeuristic entertainment and men’s physical and sexual pleasure. Jolie’s story also ignores a very powerful human right—to be empowered to make a tough choice about her own body.
In another media ruckus over the accessibility of Plan B emergency contraception—political brouhaha about other-the-counter access, age limits and state-issued identification as proof of age—the stories failed to point out the cozy relationship that politics and pharmaceuticals play, failed to address the importance of emergency contraception to those who need it most, and failed to address the personal, social and economic consequences when emergency contraception isn’t available. As with Angelina Jolie’s story about making the choice to prevent cancer, the story about unfettered access to Plan B means women have the choice to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. But corporate media seldom acknowledges a woman’s agency unless she’s a celebrity.
In the spirit of Jonathan Swift, I propose a 21st century campaign that speaks directly to real women’s lives—the on-the-ground reality of women as they attempt to hold up half the sky. To begin, I suggest that legislators draft laws that require obstetricians, crisis pregnancy centers and abortion clinics recite narratives with accompanying displays of women killed by unsafe and illegal abortions, with displays of bodies that succumbed to pregnancy-related deaths, and with bodies who, devastated by post partum depression, committed suicide. While it may sound too far-fetched, consider that there are currently laws that dictate what doctors in abortion clinics tell their clients. In particular, there are numerous states that require that physicians provide specific information about fetal development, pregnancy options, abortion complications, and about voluntary, non-coercive decision making about abortion. Euphemistically called A Woman’s Right to Know, the law is the ironic work of conservative legislators—the very same conservative who cry “I don’t want big government coming in and telling me what to do with my healthcare” but actually want big government to tell doctors what they can do to women. So, the precedence is in place for legislators to continue practicing reproductive medicine without any education or without a professional license. Despite the long-standing tradition of fully accredited abortion clinics providing comprehensive counseling about pregnancy options, state legislators use their bully pulpit to impose their morality on others with these laws. What these right-to-know tactics ignore are the realities of illegal abortions and complications of pregnancy. So, it’s appropriate to suggest that legislators enact laws to more fully inform women with a new campaign.
A proposal such a mine would comb the world for images of the approximately 219 women who die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion. With that many images of dead women, there would be plenty of material to use in pamphlets and in educational materials. Such a visual bounty would provide a deliciously, deadly assortment to post on blogs and to add to the Op Ed sections of local newspapers. As with the antiabortion activists who wear their fetal focused messages around their neck, counter protesters could sport an image of a woman in a blood-soaked bed with the words “Keep Abortion Safe” written in large letters. The thought of such a poster borders on pornographic, unethical and downright obscene. And while such a poster aligns with antiabortion impropriety, at least it’s honest in demonstrating the truth about women who want and need but cannot access safe and legal abortions. Perhaps we could further underscore the situation by showing all the children left motherless because safe abortion is not available.
At the very least, the displays should show the very real complications of illegal abortions with up-close-and-personal representations of pelvic abscess, septicemia, lacerated cervix, perforated bowel, exsanguination, and gangrene. And should anyone charge that these images are obscene, recall that obscenity laws cover material that deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest, i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts. A dead woman’s gangrenous bowel or an exsanguinated body certainly cannot be considered titillating. In an effort to ensure a woman’s right to know, as so many conservatives are determined to legislate, a campaign such as this would more fully inform women of all the potential harms.
Let’s face it. The antiabortion activists use fetal images, as they claim, to expose the injustice of abortion. In reality, their images are a misogynistic attempt to shame women and to alter the realities of safe abortion for religious and political dogma. On the other hand, a display of women’s mutilated and dead bodies would expose the discriminatory, immoral violations of their human rights including the dishonorable reality, specific to the United States, that
- this nation is 19out of 134 countries in terms of gender equality
- this nation is 50th in world for maternal health
- 68,000 women nearly die in childbirth annually
- 1.7 million women suffer a complication that has an adverse effect on their health
- the annual maternal morbidity is currently between 500-600 deaths
Equally important to my proposed campaign would be evidence of the endless attack on women’s reproductive rights through targeted regulations against abortion providers, through defunding of family planning services, through state-directed funneling of monies to (mostly religiously-affiliated) crisis pregnancy centers, through imprisonment and subsequent poor treatment of pregnant women (often resulting in miscarriage, preterm delivery and poor birth outcomes including neonatal death), through the rise of sexual assaults in the military and through the silent war being waged against poor women through cuts in Medicaid for abortions, cuts in state support (food stamps and welfare ) after one year and cuts in Head Start programs. Finally, a Google map of the United States using hyperlinks could locate the draconian politicians’ current laws as well as proposed legislation to further obstruct or outlaw access to abortion and contraception. Further details of such a map should include their political party affiliation, their religious affiliations and their financial supporters (such as PACs).
My modest proposal would visually depict the inexcusable health and human rights violations that occur due to the corrosive effects from religion, corporate greed, politics, military and government obstructionism for women of reproductive age, particularly for the poor in urban and rural areas, for minority women, and for those with limited or no access to health care. My campaign would be a much-needed corrective for media’s drive for entertainment and sensationalism, programming that’s foisted on the public as relevant and objective. Moreover, my proposal would illustrate the true nature of the conservative, right wing as misogynistic, anti-science, anti-medicine and anti-woman.
It’s a modest proposal that I’d like to think Jonathan Swift would admire.
May 5, 2013
I met David Gunn, Jr. about ten days after his father was assassinated by an anti-abortion terrorist.
Doctor David Gunn performed abortions at several clinics throughout the Southeast. He was what they called a “circuit rider,” driving every day through Georgia, Florida and Alabama to provide abortion services to women in need. On March 10, 1993 his destination was the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services clinic. After parking his worn out car, he climbed out and headed for the back entrance to the clinic to avoid the protestors out front. But standing right there was Michael Griffin, a relatively new anti-abortion protestor, and as Gunn passed him Griffin took out a pistol and fired into Doctor Gunn’s back, killing him instantly.
The murder made instant national news because it was the first time that a doctor who performed abortions had been murdered because he was “killing babies.”
Of course, the news services put out a wide net to find anyone who was close to the players involved in this terrible tragedy. And without hesitation, one of those people came forward: David Gunn, Jr. His message was very simple: there was an anti-abortion conspiracy to kill abortion doctors and the Clinton Administration needed to do more to prevent this from happening again.
David was an instant “media star.” His waist-length hair immediately caught your eye. When he spoke to the camera, his soulful eyes enraptured the audience. He was soft spoken, not a rabble-rouser and his pronounced stutter made him even more compelling when he spoke. Over the next few weeks, he was a constant presence on all of the news shows.
I met David the day before we were scheduled to appear on “The Donohue Show.” We had a nice dinner the night before and he struggled to talk about his Dad. It was clear that by that time he was already exhausted from all of the media appearances, but he was willing to push on “for the cause.” The next day we sat on the stage together, accompanied by Mr. Paul Hill, an anti-abortion activist who actually told David and the national audience that his father’s murder was “justified” because Michael Griffin was “protecting the babies from being murdered.”
Over the next few years, David Gunn, Jr. became a national spokesman for the pro-choice movement. Indeed, pro choice organizations practically fought over him as they encouraged him to “endorse” their group. He basically put his life on hold and he travelled the country warning the nation that there were more murders to follow. And he was right.
David’s story is a story of relentless courage and persistence. And I’ve always thought that his experiences needed to be shared with the public. And that is why I am absolutely thrilled to announce that David Gunn, Jr. has agreed to become a “guest blogger” once a month on this page. He recently told me that he always wanted to write about him and his father but, like so many other young people he got preoccupied with raising a family, getting a job, etc. But now David will start writing that story in the form of a monthly blog.
We are honored to have David join us!
- Debunking More Right-Wing Bulls**t: Liberal Shooters (addictinginfo.org)
- Iowa anti-abortion radical: ‘If someone would shoot the new abortionists’ (dailykos.com)
- Anti-abortion activist Bernard Nathanson dies aged 84 (mikebenz27.wordpress.com)
- What It Is Like To Get An Abortion In Brazil, One Of The Most Restrictive Countries In The World (businessinsider.com)
January 10, 2013
Some of my detractors know that I teach in a private, liberal arts college. From comments collected over the years, it’s apparent that they worry about the negative influence I might have over young lives. In their uninformed perspective, they seem to imagine that I push a pro-abortion agenda (whatever that might mean) in every course I teach. In reality, I don’t worry about such an influence because my teaching aligns with our school’s mission statement. In particular, my goal in teaching is to help students become independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, who value vigorous and open-minded debate in a civil context and who challenge intellectual orthodoxy. Somehow, abortion simply does not figure into this goal.
So, in a course that examines mass media, students choose a controversial topic to analyze how it is framed in the media. This aim of this semester-long project is to provide them with the fundamentals of thinking like a scholar—to equip them with the resources and habits of mind to reflect critically about the impact of our media-saturated culture on issues that are often hotly debated in the media. The topics range from gun control to foreign policy, from funding the Head Start program to gay marriage, from immigration to the fiscal cliff and so on. The assignment is not to form opinions about a topic or to be persuasive in their end-of-semester presentation. It is to examine closely how media present the debates. For example, much of the gun control debates in contemporary media frame the issue as a second amendment issue versus and gun violence issue. As always with controversial topics, the media frequently does a poor job at providing much beyond the superficial sound bytes. The abortion controversy is no different. The media use humpty dumpty terms like prolife versus prochoice when in fact the controversy is much deeper.
This controversial issue project affords students the opportunity to look beyond the superficial by developing skills to research and evaluate resources and to see who and what is powering the ubiquitous media. The project also helps expand the awareness of how controversial issues are framed in the media and how these issues impact their thinking, their sense of identity as a citizen and their participation as a citizen in the global community.
In my classroom, students who believe abortion is murder, as some do, hear students who believe that abortion is a woman’s right. Both views are protected. My job is not to persuade them to choose sides. Education is not about competition or proselytizing, or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about teaching them to think critically, to evaluate the validity of arguments, to recognize loaded language, and to identity the power inherent in any mediated text.
But if my sole concern was to push an abortion agenda, a fantasy of some of my detractors, I’d probably begin with video clips of protesters and reviews of prolife web sites. I’d invite them to consider the definitions of compassion, respect and civility. I would encourage them to think critically about ethics, religion and violence. I would address the rights of women vs the rights of men. With this imaginary abortion agenda, my courses would definitely change. In organizational communication, my abortion agenda would require students to study the mercenary aspects of organizations like Priests for Life, Operation Rescue or Life Dynamics. We’d compare the celebrity machinery of Hollywood to the celebrity machinery of the anti abortion industry, including the actors and the fans. In Documentary Film-Social Justice, I would definitely focus on reproductive rights from a global perspective including family planning, abortion doulas, the women who die from illegal abortions and the impact of religious fundamentalism around the globe. I could go on and on. But I won’t. Abortion is a topic that is critically important for women. But I won’t let it interfere in my teaching. I’ll guide students to think for themselves and leave the proselytizing to the Taliban Club members wherever they live and work–whether it’s in the U.S. or Afghanistan.
- Irish PM dismisses Pope’s criticism of change in abortion laws (thehindu.com)
- Poll: Most of Ireland Favors Wider Abortion Access (abcnews.go.com)
October 14, 2012
And Some people that support Abortion Rights are Still Considering Voting for this Anti Abortion Turkey?Posted by Pat Richards under Abortion, Abortion Candidates, Abortion Centers, Abortion Doctor, Abortion Heroes, Abortion Information, Abortion Pill, Abortion Rights, Abortion RU486, Methotrexate, RU486 | Tags: Abortion, Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, Romney |
Okay, now I am totally confused about Mitt Romney’s ever-moving position on the abortion issue. You don’t think he is trying to cater to as many people as possible, do you?
In the past, I’ve written about how when Romney was Governor of Massachusetts he was pro-choice straight down the line. And not only was he pro-choice in terms of legislation, he actually met regularly with staff people from the Massachusetts branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League to strategize. They were buddies.
Then, when Mitt decided to run for President, his position on this very basic issue started to “evolve.”
Now, I can see how over a period of years someone might change their views on certain economic models or on the pros and cons of rehabilitating prisoners. There are a lot of fuzzy areas in those issues so one could become more educated over time. But abortion? Gimme a break! What is more fundamental than whether or not to allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy? I mean, there’s something living inside the woman’s body and, if she gets an abortion, that once-living thing is no longer living, pure and simple. How does an adult “evolve” on that basic issue? Did Romney suddenly learn how pregnancies work?
Of course, the answer is he had to be pro-life to get the Republican nomination. That’s because the nominating process in that party is totally dominated by right wing nut balls and you gotta pander to them if you hope to have any chance of securing the nomination. And Romney did pander. Oh, no, I’m sorry. He “evolved.”
So now that he has the nomination, he’s had to shift gears again to cater to the independent voters. And to do that you have to move to the political middle. So, the other day Mitt Romney actually declared that ““There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my legislative agenda.”
What the hell?
Is Romney telling us that when the new Congress comes to town and pro-life Congressman James McNabb from Podunk, Illinois introduces legislation banning third trimester abortions or requiring women to get the consent of their husbands, he will have absolutely nothing to say about those bills? If the Republican House of Representatives decides to pursue one of those “personhood” measures on a national level, is Mitt Romney actually going to resist the incredible amount of pressure from the pro-life lobbyists and not take a position on that issue?
Poppycock. He just continues to pander to anyone who will listen.
I will give him some credit, however, in that he is actually being candid when it comes to Planned Parenthood. He has said unequivocally that he will “cut off funding for Planned Parenthood” and that is certainly an extreme position that might not go over well with independent voters. The irony, of course, is that Planned Parenthood clinics probably prevent thousands of abortions each year but then Romney probably still has not “evolved” on the issue of birth control. Give him 20 more years to catch up.
Hopefully, the American public, and especially those who for some unfathomable reason are still undecided, will not buy into this “it’s not on my agenda” bull crap. Indeed, if Obama is not in another coma during the next debate, this is an issue that he should jump all over.
- Romney again promises to defund Planned Parenthood (washingtonpost.com)
- Mitt Romney Changes His Abortion Position, Again (alan.com)
- Romney flip-flopped twice on abortion yesterday (americablog.com)
- Mitt Romney’s Constantly Evolving Stance On Abortion Rights (thinkprogress.org)
- Romney suddenly remembers he’s got a legislative agenda on abortion after all (dailykos.com)
- Mitt Romney’s abortion comment draws criticism (al.com)
- Romney Says Abortion Isn’t on His Agenda, Campaign Disagrees (nymag.com)
- Mitt Romney Tries to Etch-A-Sketch His Stance on Abortion (slog.thestranger.com)
- Romney flat-out lying to his own base about abortion (dailykos.com)