Sex & Herbs & Birth Control

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Bromo Selzer douches, pregnancy protection amulets, pennyroyal teas, birch bark tampons, slippery elm sticks — these are but a few of the myriad methods women in different parts of the world have used in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Meanwhile, the obstacles they have had to confront have included religious proscriptions, punitive law codes, persecution of midwives, and the devaluing of folk knowledge.

Sex and Herbs and Birth Control is a lively, provocative account of women’s attempts to provide themselves with as wide a range of reproductive options as possible. A more detailed description of the book and ordering information can be found here.

A review in Feminist Wire can be found here.

“fearlessly female-centric” — Publishers Weekly

 

Women of Texas: South of the Border for Reproductive Rights

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The U.S. border with Mexico

As anyone knows who follows the status of women’s reproductive rights in the U.S., access to safe, legal abortion is becoming more and more difficult.  Onerous laws are increasingly widespread, especially in Republican-dominated states.  The worst of them is the recently passed Texas SB-8, which prohibits all abortion after fetal heartbeat can be detected (approximately six weeks gestation)—a time at which most women are not even aware that they are pregnant.  Moreover, SB-8 deputizes private citizens to sue not only anyone who performs an abortion, but also anyone who “aids and abets” the procedure, be they clinic staff, counselors, nonprofit employees who arrange financing, even Uber drivers taking women to appointments.  The law has been described as a “bounty hunter system.”  Plaintiffs, who do not have to show any connection to the abortion recipient nor do they even have to live in Texas, are awarded $10,000 plus legal fees if they win their case; successful defendants get nothing.

Abortion rights protest in Washington DC

Health rights activists fear that the Supreme Court, whose three Trump appointees are extremely reactionary, will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirming women’s constitutional right to abortion. In response to appeals to block the Texas law pending judicial review, the Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 to let the law go into effect. The dissenting justices included the normally quite conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who called SB-8 “not only unusual, but unprecedented,” and said that the law should have been blocked while appeals were underway.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor labeled SB-8 “a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights.”  Justice Elena Kagan called her five colleagues’ refusal to block the Texas law “unreasoned, inconsistent and impossible to defend.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor (above) and Elena Kagan (below) of the U.S. Supreme Court

On September 9 Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the U.S. Department of Justice was filing a challenge to SB-8, which he called “clearly unconstitutional” in part because it allows individuals to infringe upon the constitutional rights of others.  Meanwhile, however, abortion services in Texas are in complete disarray.  Dr. Bhavik Kumar (a Planned Parenthood physician who is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against SB-8) has had to turn away numerous panicked women whose pregnancies are past the SB-8 cut-off, and he worries that they will have to resort to unsafe means to end their pregnancies.  Dr. Kumar stresses that it’s plain to all who know anything about women’s reproductive decision making that “banning abortion does not change the need for abortion.”  The women Dr. Kumar’s clinic usually helps will have to go elsewhere.

A Great Step Forward in Mexico

Ironically, for many Texas women, the closest accessible, safe, and reasonable abortion possibility might be across the border in Mexico.  At the same time that five U.S. Supreme Court justices are callously displaying their disregard for the safety and constitutional rights of women, on September 7 the Mexican Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that making abortion a crime is against the constitution.  Mexican Chief Justice Arturo Zaldivar noted that the decision “is a watershed in the history of the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable.”  The decision opens the way for challenges to the laws in most Mexican states that criminalize abortion, and also allows activists to petition for the release of women jailed for the procedure.  Mexican feminist organizations are hopeful that the twenty-eight states that ban abortion under most circumstances will soon be compelled to join Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz and Mexico City in allowing first trimester abortion.  Mexico will become the fifth Latin American country (joining Argentina, Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay) to decriminalize the procedure.

Chief Justice Arturo Zaldivar of the Supreme Court of Mexico

Some feminists are fully aware that the unanimous decision of Mexico’s Supreme Court stands in stark contrast to what Justice Sotomayor called the “stunning” irresponsibility of her Supreme Court colleagues in the U.S.  Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the Women’s Equality Center, said that the Mexican decision is a bright spot in the fight to protect women’s reproductive rights worldwide.  Avila-Guillen saw reason for optimism in Latin America “even as we see the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas walk women back into darkness.”  She also pointed out that the Mexican court’s decision specifically struck down the state of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law.  Coahuila borders Texas, so it could very well be that Texas women will be among those to benefit from Mexico’s ruling favoring women’s reproductive rights.  Avila-Guillen mused: “Could the safest way for Texan women to have access to a safe, legal abortion soon be to make their way to Mexico?”

(Sources consulted include pieces in The New York Times, Axios, CNN and NPR.)

U.S. Bishops vs the Vatican

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President Biden and Pope Francis

Anyone who has read my Sex and Herbs and Birth Control or browsed in previous blog posts knows that I am not always negative about the Catholic Church.  I have fond memories of the openmindedness of my secondary school teachers (Sisters of Notre Dame) fifty years ago.  In addition, I have acknowledged numerous saints, theologians, and even a Pope for their compassionate understanding of the reasons why women might need to terminate a pregnancy.  The 16th-century Jesuit cleric Thomas Sanchez was able to conceive of several situations in which ending a pregnancy in its early stages (approximately first trimester) might be necessary, and he condoned abortion in the later stages of pregnancy if there was no other way to save the life of the woman.  Elizabeth of Hungary, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Bridget of Ireland, and many other nuns, clerics, and saints who popularized and added to the folk pharmacopoeia of post-coital fertility regulation do not seem to have seen any contradiction with their religious beliefs.  Peter of Spain, who became Pope John XXI in 1276, wrote a book which featured a long list of early-stage abortifacients, including rue, pennyroyal, and other mints. 

Indeed, it is well known among historians (though often disputed by dogmatic Church theologians) that only in 1869 did the Catholic Church take an official stand against abortion at all stages of pregnancy (but even then without actively opposing so-called “therapeutic abortions”).  It was only in 1930 that Pope Pius XI categorically forbade all therapeutic abortions even in cases in which the woman would die if the pregnancy continued. 

The latest example of anti-abortion hysteria by the Catholic hierarchy (but in this case not the Vatican) is the 73% vote of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in favor of drafting guidelines that would deny the sacrament of the Eucharist (commonly known as communion) to prominent Catholics, such as President Biden, who publicly support abortion rights. This stance puts the USCCB at odds with Pope Francis and many Catholic prelates worldwide, who are increasingly uneasy about using denial of communion as a political weapon in the so-called “culture wars.”  The Vatican fears that USCCB’s politicization of the rite of communion is more likely to cause a further decline in the number of observant U.S. Catholics than it is to dissuade President Biden and others from supporting women’s reproductive rights.  After all, opinion polls in the U.S. consistently show that the majority of those who identify as Catholic disagree with the Church’s stance on abortion.  Even those who identify as extremely observant believe that abortion should be allowed under at least some circumstances (such as rape or to save the life/health of the woman).  The extreme position of the USCCB is dangerously divisive among U.S. Catholics.   

There is a marked difference between the extremism of the majority of U.S. bishops and the more moderate stance of the Vatican and many leading prelates worldwide.  Outside of the U.S., most prelates would consider it unthinkable to deny communion to Catholic politicians for their advocacy of legal abortion.  In a famous example, Pope John Paul II publicly offered the Eucharist to Francesco Ratelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported abortion rights.   

This past January, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB (whom Pope Francis has repeatedly refused to promote to cardinal), publicly castigated incoming President Biden for his advocacy of “policies that would advance moral evils.”  By contrast, on the same day the Vatican sent Biden a congratulatory telegram encouraging him to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.” 

 In a sense, the vituperative posturing of Bishop Gomez and the 73% of U.S. bishops who support him are sound and fury signifying nothing.  Ultimately, the decision on whether to offer communion to pro-abortion rights politicians remains with individual bishops.  And Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C. and the nation’s first African-American cardinal, has vocally opposed the denial of communion to Biden and other politicians. 

(Sources consulted include New York Times articles by Elizabeth Diaz and Jason Horowitz, and a Vox piece by Cameron Peters.)

Anti-Abortionists Took Part in Attack on the U.S. Capitol

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This is an excerpt from New York Times editorial board member Lauren Kelly’s thoughtful “Opinion Today” on 15 Jan 2021:

“Reflecting on some of the movements and people who presaged much of what’s happening in America right now could help us prevent this nightmare from repeating itself.

“For starters, there were the many, many people of color who early on sounded the alarm about President Trump’s racism and its terrible implications. And there were the disinformation experts who warned that electing a serial liar president could be a major problem for our democracy.

“There was also the reproductive justice movement, which I’ve come to know well over the past decade while covering the erosion of abortion rights in America. It was no surprise that a number of prominent anti-abortion activists turned up in the throng at the Capitol last week.

“That’s not just because these folks see Trump as the most anti-abortion leader this nation has ever had. It’s also because a subset of the movement is practiced in taking radical, and occasionally violent, action against their perceived enemies — and those enemies’ places of business. Abortion clinics are routinely vandalized and looted. Patients are harassed and demeaned. Several doctors and numerous other bystanders have even been murdered.

“The people engaging in these terrible acts have almost always been fed a steady diet of lies. They’ve become convinced that they’re stopping an atrocity, rather than committing one.”

According to vice.com, John Brockhoeft, a convicted abortion-clinic bomber, “live-streamed himself at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.”

Huge Victory for Argentinian Women

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In the final days of 2020, Argentinian lawmakers resisted pressure by Catholic and evangelical Protestant abortion opponents, ignored a last-minute intervention by Pope Francis, and approved a bill legalizing abortion for any reason up to fourteen weeks of pregnancy.  After that time, abortion will be prohibited except in cases of rape or danger to the woman’s health.  The abortion bill, versions of which had been rejected by previous legislatures for several years, was, according to The New York Times, passed by a “wider-than-expected” margin of 38 to 29.  Some senators attributed their change of heart to the efforts of feminist activists to paint an accurate picture of the experiences of Argentinian women.  Reproductive rights organizations stressed that hundreds of thousands of clandestine abortions are performed in the country every year.  In 2016, approximately 40,000 women were hospitalized with abortion complications.  

Reproductive rights activists have been pushing for abortion legalization for decades, but since 2015 the campaign has been fortified by the feminist organization Ni Una Menos, which has combined campaigns for abortion law reform with increasing protests against rape, domestic violence, and sexual discrimination in all areas of Argentinian life.  The green scarves and handkerchiefs favored by Ni Una Menos have been adopted as a symbol by feminists in many countries of Latin America.

Argentina is the largest country in the region to enact an abortion-on-demand policy in the first trimester of pregnancy; Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana are the only other countries with similarly progressive laws.  There are, however, other places that in practice afford women reproductive rights even if the law codes do not give the same blanket permissions as Argentina’s or Cuba’s.  In Colombia, for example, a measure passed in 2006 was hailed by physicians and reproductive rights organizations as a great victory, because it allows abortion in the first trimester under broadly defined mental and physical indications. It should also be noted that even before the Colombian legislature liberalized abortion restrictions, hundreds of thousands of women received safe abortions administered by qualified personnel. The authorities for the most part looked the other way.

Another example concerns Mexico.  Feminist activists are engaged in ongoing struggles to legalize abortion at the national level.  But meanwhile Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca have abortion on demand to twelve weeks.  Mexico City offers safe and affordable abortion access (covered by state medical insurance) to well over twenty million people.

As I have stressed on numerous occasions, legality of abortion by no means guarantees that the procedure will be readily available, safe, and affordable for the vast majority of women.  The depressing situation in most areas of the U.S. certainly bears witness to that fact.  Nor does illegality always mean that abortions are necessarily performed under unsafe conditions, as we see from the example of Colombia in the decades before liberalization in 2006.  What is abundantly clear is that women of all countries, economic circumstances, races, religions and ethnicities will sometimes find themselves in unfortunate situations and see abortion as their only reasonable alternative.

Hypocrisy and the Geneva “Consensus” Declaration

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(Sources: Chandelis Duster, “US joins countries with poor human rights records to denounce `right’ to abortion,” CNN online, 10/23/2020; Monika Pronczuk, “Why a New Abortion Ban in Poland is Tearing the Country Apart,” The New York Times online, 10/27/2020; Marc Santora, Monika Pronczuk, Anatol Magdziarz, “Polish Women Lead Strike Over Abortion Ruling Amid Threats of Crackdown,” The New York Times online, 10/29/2020.)  

It sometimes seems as if the world has slipped into an alternate universe, where facts are no longer recognized as facts, and politicians can blithely and sanctimoniously mouth blatant lies while they cavalierly subvert the democratic processes which purportedly underlie their country’s way of life.  A recent case in point is last week’s Geneva Consensus Declaration (GCD).  This declaration, signed by fewer than thirty-five of the 200 states of the world (thus revealing the word “consensus” in the title to be a falsehood), claims to affirm the “strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society.”  How do they expect to accomplish this?  They repudiate international reproductive health guidelines, rejecting abortion as a necessary aspect of women’s human rights, and instead insisting on the “essential priority” of what they call “protecting the right to life.” 

Signatories of the GCD include some of the world’s most repressive governments, such as Poland (which has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe), Cameroon (accused of massive human rights violations), Uganda (aggressively attempting to criminalize homosexuality), Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Hungary, and Iraq.  The U.S. is a proud signatory of the declaration.  The Trump administration has consistently opposed mention of reproductive health and rights in UN documents and refuses funding to international organizations that offer abortion.  U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has called the declaration “an historic document stating clearly where we as nations stand on women’s health” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has praised the GCD and boasted that under Trump’s leadership the U.S. has “defended the dignity of human life everywhere and always.”

These statements demonstrate the extent to which Trump’s sycophants have fallen into the alternate universe of lies and obfuscation.  Far from defending the dignity of human life, the Trump administration’s incompetence and politicization of the COVID pandemic has resulted in well over 220,000 excess deaths of Americans, and the end is nowhere in sight.  Moreover, the push by Republicans to confirm the ultraconservative Catholic jurist Amy Coney Barrett means that the right wing now has a clear majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade as well as the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), thereby endangering millions of unemployed and impoverished Americans, many of whom have pre-existing conditions that will make them unable to afford private health insurance. 

U.S. public opinion polls have shown that most Americans disagree with Trump and his right-wing base on abortion, health care, gun control, and other key issues.  That is why Trump needs to rely on ultraconservative judicial appointees to push his agenda. 

Of course, it should be remembered that overturning Roe v. Wade will not criminalize abortion in the U.S. as a whole.  Rather, decisions on legality will be left up to the individual states.  Now more than ever a woman’s reproductive rights will depend on where she lives.  The so-called “blue” states will continue to offer safe and accessible abortion and contraception as part of their comprehensive reproductive health services, while the laws of the “red” states will force women to flee to more enlightened constituencies, risk abortion under unsafe conditions, or carry their pregnancies to term and hope for the best. 

        

Polish women lead protests against abortion ban.

It is worth noting that the Trump strategy of subverting the democratic process by appointing ultraconservative judges to do his bidding is not unique to him.  Demagogic politicians in Poland, for example, have circumvented the wishes of the majority of Poles who, like the majority of U.S. citizens, believe that abortion must remain legal under at least some circumstances.  Using what Polish women activists and international human rights organizations have called a subservient and right-wing judiciary, the ruling Law and Justice Party has achieved the almost total ban on abortion that it repeatedly failed to obtain through the Polish legislature.  For the last six days the Polish nation has been wracked by massive protests and strikes led by women.  Catholic Churches have been focal points for many of the women’s protests nationwide, since the Church is a key supporter of the increasingly authoritarian and anti-women measures of the government.  The largely female demonstrations have been joined by (male) taxi drivers, farmers, coal miners, and others, all of whom are dissatisfied with their government’s flouting of democratic processes as well as its incompetent response to the corona virus pandemic. (Poland is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world.) 

A Tale of Two Books

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Recently, I reviewed two books for a librarians’ journal. Although both examine the experiences of U.S. women who wish to terminate undesired pregnancies, the two books couldn’t be more different. Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America, by David S. Cohen and Carole Joffe, is as straightforward as its title. Using first-person accounts by abortion providers, clinic volunteers, reproductive rights activists, and women seeking abortion, the authors chronicle the difficulties that confront women in most parts of the country: a distressing tangle of TRAP laws, long waiting periods, harassment by anti-abortion protesters, and state-mandated falsehoods that physicians must deliver to their patients before an abortion. These obstacles—which of course disproportionately affect women of color, rural women, and the poor—make accessing abortion far more time-consuming, expensive, risky and stressful than it needs to be (and certainly far more difficult than it is in any other industrialized country).

Cohen and Joffe don’t just focus on the negative, however. They also describe the situation in areas of the U.S. where abortion access is routine. In these places reproductive health clinics are not subject to TRAP laws, women seeking abortions are rarely harassed or stigmatized, and state financial assistance is available. Also, in some states early abortion is possible via telemedicine, and in a few jurisdictions abortion by means of medication can be overseen by physicians’ assistants or nurse practitioners. Obstacle Course is readable, nuanced, and comprehensive; if I were still teaching, I would happily assign it to undergraduates.

The second book, The Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Movement: Serving Women or Saving Babies, by Laura Hussey, has a title that immediately reveals the author’s anti-abortion bias (“pro-life” and “saving babies”). Hussey frankly admits her early involvement in anti-abortion activism and her belief that human life begins at conception. Given her own anti-abortion advocacy, it is not surprising that Hussey’s treatment of the crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) is admiring and uncritical. Because the CPCs have received negative press for their deceptive practices and intimidation techniques used against women seeking abortion, they have been rebranded by their supporters as “pregnancy help centers.” Hussey not only accepts the rebranding, but styles the women she surveys as benevolent, religiously-motivated “social reformers” whose opposition to abortion stems from their deep desire to serve women.

In Hussey’s account, CPC personnel distance themselves from the more extreme wings of the anti-abortion movement. Interviewees claim, for example, that they avoid what they euphemistically term “sidewalk counseling” but which personnel and patients at abortion clinics see as traumatizing harassment. CPC employees also claim that their work is non-political, and that they have nothing to do with lobbying for TRAP laws, mandatory pre-abortion viewing of ultrasounds and anti-abortion videos, and other barriers to abortion access so ably chronicled in Obstacle Course. (By the way, Karissa Haugeberg paints a very different picture of the women of the CPCs and their support for and in some cases participation in violent anti-abortion activities; see my review of her Women Against Abortion in this earlier post.)

There are numerous questionable aspects of Hussey’s laudatory treatment of the CPCs. To my mind, most damning is her refusal to take a stand on the junk “science” that the CPCs disseminate to their clients. CPCs routinely claim that abortions cause breast cancer, are more dangerous than carrying a pregnancy to term, negatively affect women’s long term mental and physical health, and so on.

These false claims have been refuted by professional bodies ranging from the World Health Organization to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Yet Hussey portrays the CPC propaganda as having equivalent weight to those refutations. This stance is inexcusable. By spreading medical misinformation, the CPCs give the lie to their claims to be serving the interests of women.

 

Abortion Access During the Pandemic

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Last time, I commented on the efforts of anti-abortion politicians in Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and other U.S. states to restrict women’s reproductive rights by declaring abortion a “nonessential” procedure. An article that appeared on 14 June 2020 in The New York Times (“Coronavirus Created an Obstacle Course for Safe Abortion”) discusses the obstacles that exist in some other countries as well. That article, along with websites of UNFPA, WHO, and NPR, are the sources for this post.

Julie Burkhart, a former associate of the murdered abortion doctor George Tiller, founded “Trust Women,” a group that operates clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas. She has commented on the ways that anti-abortion forces are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further corrode women’s abortion access. Desperate women have no choice but to travel hundreds of miles in search of abortion. Burkhart’s Kansas clinic has been registering huge increases in patients, many of whom are fleeing from the lockdowns in other jurisdictions. In a recent week, she noted, her clinic saw 250 women, compared to forty per week in more normal times.

The U.S. situation is particularly bleak for a so-called “developed” country, both because of the pandemic’s economic consequences falling disproportionately on poor women and women of color, and because of the highly politicized nature of abortion access here. But even in countries such as Germany and Austria, where women’s reproductive rights are less restricted, public health officials apparently forgot about abortion when they made lists of time-sensitive procedures that should be available immediately rather than postponed. Feminist activists had to remind regional governments and individual hospitals to consider women’s reproductive health and include abortion as an essential, time-sensitive medical need. Another problem in Germany is that some abortion providers themselves are in at-risk categories. In one rural district of Bavaria, for example, the only abortion doctor is over seventy and so had to stop to guard his own health.

There have been some bright spots. France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Colombia have loosened their restrictions on telemedicine. They now permit at-home use of pills for early abortions after a phone or online consultation with a doctor. Health activists are hopeful that this relaxation will continue after the dangers of the pandemic have passed.

In Colombia, professionals in the Orientame reproductive health clinics note that contraceptive access in rural and underserved areas can be erratic under the best of circumstances, so telephone and online consultations for early medical abortions are an important aspect of women’s reproductive health services in the country.

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Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA

As always, the worst effects of the coronavirus and the accompanying economic dislocations have hit and will continue to hit women of scarce resources all over the world. Women’s health rights activists and officials of the United Nations sexual and reproductive rights agency UNFPA have been sounding the alarm for months. In April UNFPA’s executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem warned that the travel restrictions and disruptions to regular clinic services caused by the pandemic could result in an added seven million unintended pregnancies worldwide. “As a corollary,” Kanem noted, “unsafe abortions will increase.” Earlier this month the World Health Organization went further, predicting dire consequences if poor countries either cannot or will not support continuing reproductive health services at pre-pandemic levels. “Even a 10 percent reduction in these services could result in an estimated 15 million unintended pregnancies, 3.3 million unsafe abortions and 29,000 additional maternal deaths during the next 12 months,” the WHO warned.

U.S. Politicians Use Pandemic As Excuse to Attack Abortion Rights

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Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Women’s Health. Miller was the lead plaintiff in suing Texas to stop newly passed extremely restrictive laws designed to force the closure of abortion providers. In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those laws were unconstitutional. See the post “Cautious Optimism after a U.S. Supreme Court Decision”

It’s happened again. All reputable commentators are agreed that the medical and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. Yet politicians in Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and elsewhere are seizing upon the excuse of the pandemic to make further attacks against the reproductive rights of the most vulnerable populations. Texas, for example, has banned all abortions other than to save the life of the woman on the grounds that abortion is a “non-essential surgical procedure.” First, this ignores the fact that an increasing number of abortions are not surgical at all; rather, they are medical. Moreover, the “non-essential” designation by the Texas attorney general flies in the face of the opinion of the experts of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who have issued a statement warning against calling abortion non-essential. On the contrary, these highly-respected physicians say that abortion should be viewed as “an essential component of comprehensive health care” and as such should not be subject to COVID-19 restrictions. But of course, the Texas lawmakers and their ilk are less concerned with the public health of their most vulnerable citizens than they are with pushing through increasingly extreme anti-abortion measures.

Amy Hagstrom Miller (pictured above) is the founder and CEO of the Whole Women’s Health group of clinics, three of which are in Texas. Ms. Miller said that her clinics were forced to cancel more than 150 scheduled abortion appointments in one day, despite the tearful pleas of desperate women who needed the procedure, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles because many abortion providers in Texas have been forced out of business by the state’s TRAP laws.

Ms. Miller and other reproductive rights advocates and health professionals have noted that it is absurd for the Texas officials to claim that their bans on abortion are intended to free up medical personnel and facilities to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. If it weren’t for draconian restrictions on abortion providers (insisting that the pills used for medical abortion be administered by a physician in person, demanding that patients make two or even three visits to a clinic for ultrasounds and anti-abortion propaganda lectures, for example), clinics could provide early (up to 11 weeks) abortions with one quick visit. Indeed, as some physicians have observed, the procedure for administering early medical abortion could even be handled online. Thus, the rational non-political response would have been to suspend enforcement of the TRAP laws for the duration of the pandemic.

Many women are likely to think that the coming months are not a good time to have another child. Because of the economic impact of the pandemic, which has already caused massive unemployment and especially affects poor and working-class women, the demand for abortion will probably increase. In addition, there are reports that pregnant women are at higher than average risk from COVID-19, especially if they have hypertension, which often occurs during pregnancy, or gestational diabetes. There are also predictions that the pandemic could last for as long as 18 months, particularly if there are two or three waves of infection. In that case some health care systems in underserved regions would be hard-pressed to handle routine medical matters such as prenatal care and childbirth.

In Ms. Miller’s words: “Abortion is essential health care, and it is a time-sensitive service, most especially now in this public health crisis when many people are already financially insecure and futures are uncertain.” She added: “We cannot sit idly by while the state is forcing Texans to be pregnant against their will” (quoted in the Huffington Post).  On March 25, Women’s Whole Health once again sued Texas in federal court. We can only hope that they will be successful. But time is running out for those women whose appointments have been canceled. They will be forced to spend more time, energy, and money in an attempt to secure the procedure in another state that adheres to the ACOG recommendation that abortion be considered an essential part of health care.

As of this writing, it seems that the epidemic has run its course in China with a death toll of under 3,300. In the U.S. projections are grim. A March 25 report from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation gave an estimate of 40,000 to 160,000 deaths, assuming a nationwide lockdown. One of the reasons for the human tragedy that’s being played out in the U.S. is that many politicians have refused to respond promptly and appropriately to the pandemic. Instead, they see COVID-19 as an opportunity to advance their anti-women agenda by attacking reproductive rights.

Clarence Thomas Race-Baits Abortion Rights Advocates

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Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to block part of an Indiana law banning abortion based on the sex, race, or health defects of the fetus. In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas maintained that the current reproductive rights movement has disquieting similarities to earlier population control groups that sought to limit the birth rates of those they deemed unfit. He cited Margaret Sanger’s eugenic proclivities and allies, and stated that currently abortion rates are highest among racial minorities and the disabled — precisely the groups that old-style eugenicists had hoped to reduce. He insinuated that the abortion rights movement is racist.

Many anti-abortionists like the idea of associating present-day reproductive rights activists with the racist agendas of earlier zero population growth advocates, and right-wing commentators such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times welcomed Thomas’ remarks as if they contained some sort of profound truth.  (Occasionally in the past this line of argument has been used as a cover for opposition to women’s health rights. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s some male Black nationalists such as Amiri Baraka and several Black Panther leaders battled with their female counterparts and other Black women’s health activists over this point, with the men denouncing birth control as a genocidal plot and the women insisting on their right to limit family size.)

But Thomas’ efforts to link modern-day abortion rights proponents with 20th-century eugenicists are hypocritical and historically unsound. For one thing, except for a brief time in her more radical youth, Margaret Sanger opposed the legalization of abortion. Neither she nor even the most viciously racist eugenicists whose support she solicited (for example, the Nazi sympathizer and Ku Klux Klan member Lothrop Stoddard) advocated abortion as a means of limiting “undesirable” populations. Rather, they pushed contraception and in some cases sterilization of those they considered “unfit.” Abortion rarely if ever figured into the discourse of eugenicists.

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Lothrop Stoddard (1883–1950)
Eugenicist, white supremacist, Nazi supporter, and co-founder of the American Birth Control League

Moreover, mid-19th century movements to make abortion illegal in the U.S. and other countries emerged not so much from some pious life-begins-at-conception notion but rather from fears that the wrong women were practicing abortion. Doctors and other upper-middle-class white professionals pointed uneasily to the relatively large families of people of color, immigrants and the working class, and lamented the propensity of affluent, educated white women to limit family size through abortion. Even in more recent times, echoes of these racist fears can be found among some foes of legalized abortion. In 2007, Portuguese Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo couched his opposition to legalizing the practice in racist terms, saying that European (i.e., white) culture and values would be put at risk by low birth rates relative to those of (non-white) immigrants to his country.

Besides distorting history, Thomas’ argument blatantly ignores two basic facts. First, if women of color are disproportionately represented among women who seek abortions, it is because they are disproportionately represented among the poor. (According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion patients in the U.S. are poor or low-income.) Yet self-styled “pro-life” crusaders are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to advocating comprehensive sex education, free prenatal care, onsite infant day care at Walmart’s and other low-wage employers, and similar measures that might actually help underprivileged women and their offspring. Until Clarence Thomas, Ross Douthat, and other opponents of legal abortion demonstrate concrete support for babies of the disadvantaged who have already been born, their professed concern for minority populations is disingenuous and hypocritical.

abortdemog

Second, anyone who has any knowledge of the historical or present-day statistics on abortion worldwide knows full well that prohibiting abortion does virtually nothing to prevent the practice. The procedure becomes more costly and more difficult to obtain, and desperate women without the means to flee to a more reproductive-health-conscious state or country are likely to attempt self-induction or fall into the hands of unscrupulous clandestine providers. Meanwhile, affluent women can virtually always obtain safe illegal abortions.

Safe, legal, accessible abortion is a vital necessity for women’s reproductive health and wellbeing, and this is especially true for low-income and minority women, who are the main victims of policies that restrict access. Right-wing jurists such as Clarence Thomas are no friend of minority women.
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An Opportunity for Indonesia?

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indonesia

The New York Times recently published an article titled “With Joko Widodo’s Re-election Indonesia Bucks Global Tilt Toward Strongmen.” Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, just as the U.S. is the largest Christian-majority country. But while the U.S. head of state is a narcissist and compulsive liar who is taking his country in the direction of fundamentalism and intolerance and giving aid and comfort to extremists around the world, Indonesia’s leader is a moderate, self-effacing reformer who favors a syncretic, locally-inflected version of Islam and equal rights for women and ethnic minorities.

President Widodo’s cabinet of 34 boasts eight women, including the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister, and he supports microfinancing programs that benefit large numbers of women in the informal sector — small traders, farmers, and market gardeners, such as the sellers in the floating market pictured below.
 

floating-market-lok-baintan-6Indonesia’s Lok Baintan Floating Market

President Widodo is far from perfect — he’s a politician, after all, and is no stranger to the vacillations and reversals characteristic of the breed. But observers are cautiously optimistic. He no longer has to worry about re-election, and has a fairly strong mandate for reform, since he defeated a right-wing Muslim fundamentalist on a platform of fostering pluralism.

Despite President Widodo’s opponent’s claims that Widodo’s platform is a betrayal of Islam, in fact it reflects the dominant beliefs and practices of Islam throughout its history. For example, Moorish (Muslim) Spain was an intellectually vibrant and religiously tolerant region for centuries. Only with the ascendancy of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did Jews, Muslims, and other non-Catholics face persecution and expulsion from the realm.

Islamic traditions of tolerance have also extended to women’s reproductive concerns. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence (historically the most influential interpreters of Islamic principles) accepts abortion until ensoulment, which for them takes place 120 days after conception. Other schools of jurisprudence, such as the Shafi’i and Hanbali, have debated when ensoulment occurs, but traditionally Islamic jurists never put it earlier than 40 days after conception. Thus, abortion before this time was no one’s business but the woman’s, and abortion has been widely practiced and condoned throughout the Muslim world from the time of Mohammed.

Since 2009, the only circumstances in which abortion is legal in Indonesia are to save the life/health of the pregnant woman, or (up to six weeks) in the case of rape. Of course, as in many (if not most) countries with restrictive abortion laws, illegality has little effect on frequency. Estimates are that approximately two million illegal abortions are performed in Indonesia each year. Although complications from illegal abortions are estimated to cause about 16% of all maternal deaths, it is interesting to note that an Indonesian woman is twice as likely to die in childbirth as from an illegal abortion.

President Widodo could enhance his reputation as a friend of women and opponent of fundamentalist extremism if he joined Indonesian health rights advocates in pressing for liberalization of abortion laws. That way, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country could honor the pluralistic, women-friendly traditions of mainstream Islam, while casting further into relief the misogynistic and backward-looking policies of the Christian-majority U.S.