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Abortion Law


Congressional-sealCongress began the 2015 session proposing more anti-abortion legislation, keeping in step with legislators at the state level doing the same. Abortion rights have been chipped away so continuously, many of us have come to expect more, no matter how ludicrous.

The proposed laws calling for intrusive, expensive, and uncomfortable (even painful)  transvaginal ultrasounds and mandated scripted information containing unscientific , inaccurate or incorrect information to abortion patients serve no purpose but to promote anti-abortion propaganda and delay access to abortion services.  Some proposals are truly bizarre. An addendum to legislation in North Carolina that passed in 2013 is currently being pushed by some politicians to “…[establish] governing and quality assurance boards and [designate] a chief executive to handle day-to-day operations…”  Exactly what will an additional layer of bureaucracy in a medical practice accomplish for women’s health?

restrictions-2011-2013_smWhen asked to describe the benefits of these laws, the answers are generally the same and women generally have reactions of disbelief to their claims:

Women need to be “properly” informed. Once they are provided the right information, they will be less likely to have an abortion. Uh, yeah, even we women know that we really just do not know what we are doing when it comes to pregnancy, abortion, or other decisions involving our reproductive lives. Yep. We women need the wisdom and personal, often religious, convictions of politicians before we can feel confidence in our decision. We should not trust ourselves or our medical care providers.

It protects women’s health. Abortion is such a dangerous procedure with two victims – the pregnant mom is scarred for life and her child is killed. Can you please just give specifics about how it actually protects women? Are you saying that childbirth is safer or, really, be honest, are you just trying to put another barrier in place to stop women from choosing to have an abortion? Or, are you thinking illegal abortion would be better somehow?

We care about women and children. Oh, I know, I know…you will eventually convince me to give birth whether I am a healthy young woman, a 46-year-old woman with four children and no desire for more, a woman with chronic health conditions, a 13-year-old unprepared for pregnancy and parenting, an 11-year-old pregnant as a result of repeated sexual molestation from a male relative, or any other woman in any other circumstance. You care so much that you will promise to support me spiritually, emotionally, and financially until my offspring become adults. Oh, wait…I forgot, most of you actually stop supporting women once we give birth, once the fetus becomes a child.

preg patientsIf we assume for a moment that those who support abortion restrictions are sincere in their claims that they believe women should be properly informed, that the laws protect women’s health, and that they care about women and children, then they should also support other reproductive healthcare-related proposals that have the same goal in mind. If the premise of restrictive abortion laws is really about informing and protecting women, then laws must be developed to ensure that all women who get pregnant and plan to give birth are aware of the risks involved. All medical practices that have pregnant women as patients must arrange for structural modifications to their facilities to ensure women and the government that they can properly respond to medical emergencies that might arise. The medical providers of pregnant women must also be required to make specific, politically dictated statements about the range of risks involved in pregnancy and childbirth although, unlike the “abortion information,” statements can be based on empirical data and medical facts.

acogResearch by Elizabeth G. Raymond, MD, MPH and David A. Grimes, MD and published in the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecology’s Obstetrics & Gynecology (February 2012), concluded, “Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.”  (Full PDF article available at no charge through embedded link.) While I am not interested in shattering the joy of women learning of a wanted positive pregnancy test, fair is fair. There are risks associated with pregnancy and childbearing for which women should receive appropriate medical information. Given the political and religious propaganda out there, the chances are that a lot of women think that pregnancy and childbirth are safe. If women cannot be respected as able to independently make decisions about abortion, how can we possibly believe them able to make decisions concerning pregnancy and childbirth?

In addition to pregnancy and childbearing putting women at a higher risk of death than abortion, there are numerous risk factors that require medical attention and monitoring, including prior to conception. Rh incompatibility, kidney disease, diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, and autoimmune diseases are among the many conditions that can dramatically complicate the health of pregnant women and their babies. Age and lifestyle are other factors that obstetricians must consider during preconception consultations and prenatal treatment practices. The latest blow to pregnant women and fetal wellbeing is research concerning the influence of the time interval between the delivery of the first baby and conception of the second.  “[A]n interval of less than 12 months causes an increased risk for severe preterm birth in women who already suffered preterm birth in their first pregnancy” was the primary finding of the research, which will be presented this week at the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine’s annual meeting.

Obesity is one of the most common risk factors for women in developed countries. According to research published in Science Daily (July 2010), “The heavier the woman, the higher the risk of induced preterm birth before 37 weeks, with very obese women at 70% greater risk than normal weight women.  Overweight or obese women also had a higher risk of early preterm birth (before 32 or 33 weeks). Again, the heavier the woman, the higher the risk of early preterm birth, with very obese women at 82% greater risk than normal weight women.”

CDC pregnancy-related-death-2010_600pxAll proposed Pregnancy and Childbearing Risk Awareness legislation should reach far to include all possible complications – just as restrictive abortion legislation underscores improbable complications such as a perforated uterus or death. For example, maternal mortality is on the rise in the United States, with roughly 18 out of 100,000 women dying from pregnancy-related complications in 2013; between 1998 and 2005, the figure was much lower, with roughly eight deaths per 100,000 pregnant women. In 2011, the Center for Disease Control reported 17.8 deaths per
100,000 pregnant women, noting also significant racial disparities with a rate of 12.5 per 100,000 white women and 42.8 per 100.000 black women. The death rate from abortion is one for every one million abortions performed at eight weeks or less, one for every 29,000 abortions performed at 16 to 20 weeks gestation, and one for every 11,000 abortions performed at 21 weeks or later. Obviously, far more women die due to pregnancy-related complications than abortion complications, even at the later stages of gestation. It is only appropriate to ensure that women have the correct information so that they can decide if they really want to be pregnant and if motherhood is actually worth such possible health concerns.

Those of us who believe that reproductive justice is critical to achieving social and economic equality for women know that women can and do think for themselves in every sphere of life and most especially their reproductive lives. We also make many household and relationship decisions, not to mention educational and career decisions. We do not need politicians, pastors, or “sidewalk counselors” to help us make informed, personal decisions nor do we need them to create laws to try to impose their views on us. If they feel they must be a part of our reproductive lives, they should go about it fairly and provide complete and accurate information on abortion and pregnancy.

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Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 12.57.32 PMIt makes sense that a healthy media system, one with widespread informed public participation, would be essential to a flourishing democracy. Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism states that the “central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society” and identified nine core principles. Among the nine principles is the obligation of loyalty to the public and the obligation to truth, both principles which seem suspect in most of mainstream journalism. Problems with loyalty to the public and variations of truths are part of our current media system and that’s not healthy. As media scholar Robert McChesney claims, our current media system is set up to maximize profit for a relative handful of large companies and not to maximize public participation. Moreover, rather than act as watchdogs, the current media system operates more like lap dogs who act primarily as megaphones of government, military and corporations. The implications of the erosion of mainstream news reporting for women’s reproductive health means that stories are told but are not interpreted, investigated or contextualized.

For example, the Republican Party platform embraces anti-abortion language with no mention of exceptions for rape or incest. Stories about their platform on abortion have been dutifully reported in the NY Times and Washington Post. Meaningful journalism would go further by illustrating how a substantial number of Republicans, working from this ideological party platform, have become overtly aggressive in their efforts to restrict access to abortion. Calling these restrictions a seismic shift, the Guttmacher Institute claims that states have become increasingly hostile to abortion rights, especially during 2011. This seismic shift in the loss of abortion rights has been and continues to be addressed and contextualized in alternate media sources such as RH Reality Check, Moyers & Company and Democracy Now while mainstream media reports stories about individual state legislation without mapping out the larger picture. What this means for the public, particularly women of reproductive age, is that they are without accurate, comprehensive and reliable information about legislative actions in their state and, thus, are unable to fully participate as first class citizens. This may seem a bit of an overstatement but consider further evidence from polls that point to general approval for legalized abortion, from GOP survey findings that complain about attacks on abortion and from the rise of the Christian right–all issues that are essentially silenced in mainstream news.

Polls Favoring Abortion

In poll after poll (such as Pew, Gallup, CNN, WSJ), the majority in the United States has consistently shown general approval for access to

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.04.16 PM abortion, yet the Republicans legislators act according to their own party wishes, disregarding the voices of those they represent. Discrete stories about support for abortion in most circumstances appear in mainstream news sources. What is missing, I argue, are stories that illustrate the complexities of abortion rather than painting it as a black and white issue.

Young People frown on GOP’s Abortion Attacks

Another bit of evidence comes from the College Republican National Committee survey of young people. Among the findings is the call for Republicans to become more tolerant and open on women’s reproductive health particularly around the definition of rape, funding for Planned Parenthood, abortion access and even contraception. The GOP’s response concerning reproductive issues was to claim victimhood by responding that they had been “painted — both by Democrats and by unhelpful voices in our own ranks — in holding the most extreme anti-abortion positions.” Forget the fact, that no one forced Republicans to attack contraception or redefine rape or cut funding to Planned Parenthood.  Essentially, they opined that they needed to avoid allowing the abortion debate to be “conflated” (as if this was something done to Republicans instead of something they openly and oftentimes eagerly do to themselves) with debates over contraception, rape and Planned Parenthood but not change its stance on the issue of abortion itself. Again, mainstream media picked up the story about the findings in the survey but took it no further. It was other sources, such as Salon, Politico, RH Reality and Huffington Post, that connected the dots for those who follow alternate news sources.

The Rise of the Christian Right within the GOP

In yet another news oversight is the rise of Christian right as a powerful voice within the Republican Party and the Party’s further shift to the right in legislating morality and legitimating its ideological myths about America. Under the influence of conservative Christians, Republicans have sought to defend a traditional concept of family through debates that opposed abortion, feminism, stem cell research and gay rights. Religion is at the heart of these debates which blurs the boundaries between separation of church and state. And, according to evangelical radio broadcasters, this boundary blurring seems to be exactly what is desired as they march toward the front line of the culture wars fighting against their perceptions of judicial tyranny that legalized abortion and outlawed school prayer.

In 1995, amidst the tumultuous events of far-right militia actions against the perceived corrupt and tyrannical federal government and the Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 12.59.12 PManti-abortion activists’ destruction and murders against clinics and doctors, Laura Flanders, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), astutely asked, “When will media see the connection?” Citing expert testimony that far-right militias and anti abortion activists were one and the same, as well as citing the 1994 Supreme Court’s agreement with pro-choice groups that anti-abortionists could legitimately be investigated for conspiracy, she argued that “the national media’s gentle handling of the anti-abortion story has amounted to a quasi-conspiracy itself” by turning a blind eye to the connections. In 2013, I would repeat Guttmacher that there has been a seismic shift away from abortion rights. The obvious lack of investigations about the actions of the far-right legislators (militia) documented attacks against a woman’s right to access abortion and other reproductive health care is more than turning a blind eye. The lack of better reporting is indicative of what Pew cites as the continued erosion of news reporting due to financial cutbacks, increased use of advertising dollars spent on digital technology, and a shift toward digital news consumption. The good news for reproductive rights is that majority of Americans have increased their news consumption after hearing about an event or issue from friends and family. Social networking is now a part of this process including sources such as Abortion.ws, RH Reality, Moyers & Company and others to provide in-depth news about reproductive health care issues.

So it seems that while mainstream news sources such as the NY Times and the Washington Post continue to report on discrete reproductive health issues, it will be up to us to connect the dots for ourselves, to act as cartographers to map the abortion landscape, and to share our work with our readers, particularly in the coming elections where we should seize opportunities to speak publicly about supporting the rights of women through political donations, petition signatures and plenty of Facebook and blog postings.

 

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.

Lesson One

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.

Lesson Two

GOP StupidA 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.

Lesson Three

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.

A Proposal

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 RoeEndWomenDyingthe 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).

Religion_PoliticsMy 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.

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