Losing the Fight For Reproductive Rights

Image via iStockPhoto/Ed Telling

I first published the following on my blog a year ago. At that time, I was watching the laws I mention in the post unroll across the feminist landscape with horror and a growing resignation that rolling back this tide of anti-choice legislation in the states was going to be a decades-long struggle.

I had no idea what was still ahead for us when I wrote this. I didn’t know about the Virginia law that would mandate sonograms, administered vaginally without doctor or patient consent, I didn’t know that Arizona would make it legal for doctors to lie to their patients about the state of their pregnancies if the doctor thought doing so would prevent the patient from seeking an abortion, I didn’t know Idaho would pass labyrinthine sonogram mandates for women seeking abortions. I didn’t know Kansas would try to prevent medical schools from teaching abortion procedures or that Tennessee would try to legislate more transparent publication of doctor and patient data related to abortions.

I didn’t know but perhaps I should have known. 2012 is an election year and conservatives are leaping at the chance to have a sturdy plank for their campaign platforms. They are unable to go home and say that jobs are increasing by leaps and bounds, foreclosures are dropping, and consumer confidence is rising to the skies. And since they can’t say that, they are falling back on eroding abortion rights instead. They can’t fix the economy but they can make sure no babies die in utero. Or so they like to promise.

What I foresee from these laws is not an abortion-free nation but one in which the death and injury rates from illegal abortions begin to creep up. The increase will be invisible at first but soon, all too soon, we will all know a woman with a story of trying to end a pregnancy despite all the barriers in place to doing so. The fear of those stories will inform how I vote in November.


Every day there’s a new story about new or proposed laws – at the state or federal level – to limit women’s access to a full range of reproductive choices. Laws that tread the line of criminalizing miscarriage. Laws that broaden the definition of acceptable homicide to potentially include killing gynecologists performing abortions. Laws that redefine rape. Laws that take funding away from Planned Parenthood. Laws that force abortion providers to adhere to burdensome new  regulations. Laws that criminalize abortion in the case of a women seeking to select gender or race. Laws that force waiting periods and anti-abortion counseling on women seeking abortion, that force doctors to share incorrect medical data, laws that force transvaginal sonograms on women.

State Legislatures, the U.S. House of Representatives are suddenly moving in concert to make abortions harder and harder to access. It’s a mission that many lawmakers are carrying out with single-minded focus. It will not create jobs. It will not balance the budget. It will not end any of the wars we’re fighting. But it is their goal, their raison d’etré into politics. It is their fight of fights.

Ladies and gentlemen, they are going to win.

A woman close to me worked in an inner-city hospital doing women’s health work before Roe v. Wade. Her views on abortion were formed by watching women come into the emergency room week after week suffering from massive infections caused by un-sterile, unsafe abortions – there were beds the staff held for cases like these that they called the “septic tank,” named for the blood sepsis that sickened or killed the women. This was not a sad but rare occurrence. It was every week. These women did not want to be pregnant, for whatever reason. Maybe they were poor. Maybe they were unmarried. Maybe they had too many children already. Maybe they had found themselves having sex against their better judgment, through coercion or force, rape or something just short of rape, but certainly not a union that is ideal for producing a wanted, loved child. Whatever the reason, they did not want to continue their pregnancy and, seeing no other option, took matters into the back alley and risked death.

In 1973, everything changed. Legal abortion, in sterile conditions, performed by a trained health care provider is as epic an advancement in women’s health as the discovery that washing one’s hands before helping to deliver a baby reduced the risk of deadly “childbed fever.”

But 1973 was 38 years ago and not everyone knows what it was like before. Not everyone believes those stories are true. Not everyone believes that it could all happen again. Not everyone believes that a woman who is determined to end a pregnancy will end her pregnancy even if the risks are terrible. Not everyone knows that there are people who will assist women for money regardless of the state of the law.

The anti-abortion movement instead operates on dreams of saving apple-cheeked infants who will warm the heart of even the most reluctant prospective mother.  They promote a morality of abstinence, which even the staunchest pro-choice advocate will admit is a fail-safe contraceptive. They play to the heartstrings of the undecided voters with their calls for pity for the lives of the unborn. They protect the potential lives of the unborn, not realizing (or not caring) that they may be jeopardizing the lives of the already-born. They take the mountain of the high moral ground and stake their claim in defense of the innocent, whereas those of us who support abortion rights are standing on a molehill begging for consideration of the women who could easily be painted as guilty.

They are going to win. And women are going to start dying.

Reducing access to legal abortion won’t change the abortion rate dramatically. The only things that will do that is reducing the unintended pregnancy rate. If you look at statistics from the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, you will see that the rate of abortion in Europe where the procedure is safe and legal is 28 per 1000 pregnancies. In Africa, where is it not legal, the rate is 29  per 1000 pregnancies. But the rate of maternal death and complication? Far greater.

If we criminalize abortion in this country, the abortion rate will drop a bit but the complication rate will rise as women seek abortions that are unsafe, un-sterile. The first women who die in the back-alley will be invisible women. Poor women. Minority women. The kinds of women who turned up dead after visiting that grey-market abortion factory in Philadelphia that fed off the desperation of the poor and uninsured who would do anything, anything at all, to make a crisis pregnancy vanish. This will not cause a stir except to putatively illustrate how evil abortion providers are that they will flout the law to peddle their murderous trade. No one will investigate why women turned to them and what we can do to prevent crisis pregnancies in the first place. Just as they didn’t discuss that in Philadelphia.

No, what will become news is when middle-class white girls start dying. And they will die. When they can no longer escape to the next state over to get an abortion because all of the states have made it next to impossible to do so, and instead they have to go underground or attempt to abort on their own using heaven only knows what kinds of horrific self-abortifacients they read about on the internet, they will begin to die. They will get infections. They will bleed out. They will ingest poison or sustain traumatic injury. If they don’t die, they will lose their uterus and their hopes of becoming a mother in the proper time.

How many honor students will have to end up in the morgue before the anti-abortion activists go quiet? How many bright young women will be buried before abstinence advocates start to concede that a condom or a cervical ring would have saved a life? How many parents will grieve the loss of a daughter before we stop assuming all women who get pregnant outside of a secure, lifetime commitment are sluts who deserve what’s coming to them? How many of your neighbors will suffer emergency hysterectomies after perforating their uterus with a coat hanger or a knitting needle before legislatures start to wonder if the laws against abortion are the right laws?

How many women, visible and invisible, are we willing to lose in the name of winning the battle against abortion?

I don’t have a proposed solution to beating back the forces that make the laws that will be the death of desperate women someday soon. They have the upper hand today. They hold majorities in governing bodies across the land. They are righteous in their quest and they will win. But I know, I know like I know the sun will rise, what the result of their crusade will be. I know who the casualties will be. I know that this quest to save the unborn will cost the lives of the already-born. And I know that only when the bodies of women start piling up in the back-alleys of America will we revisit the rationale behind safe, legal abortion and begin to regain the ground we are losing today.

I don’t know how to live with this knowledge, this certainty of defeat in the short term, this death sentence visited upon women.  I just keep calling my lawmakers and begging them to think of the already-born. I may lose but at least I’m not silent.

  • “I just keep calling my lawmakers and begging them to think of the already-born. I may lose but at least I’m not silent.”

    It’s almost unbearably disheartening, but you’re right. We are losing, and we have to keep making noise regardless. Vote, write, call, march, sign, and everything else we can think to do. I have a 16 year old daughter and I’m disgusted that so many people believe that any of her potential children could possibly be more precious than she is herself. She is not a baby, but she is MY baby, and her body is her own.

  • We are losing and I think one of the reasons is that we refuse to get angry and demand that a woman count more than a “potential life”. And there’s are sad reality. Women are worth so little that someone who has yet to be born is valued more than we are. But they won’t admit that and we don’t want to call them on our obvious inequality. Everyone wants to pretend that we’ve made “progress” because we can access education and careers and have all these other superficial trappings of equality but not real equality itself.

    This shouldn’t surprise us. It’s been coming since Reagan opened the door to the religious right and Clinton pandered with “legal, safe and rare”. And we went along with it. Women have let themselves be lulled and our daughters and grand-daughters are going to pay the price of it.

  • Something that I see as missing from these debates is the fact that abortions used to be readily available and safe, BEFORE the advent of the modern clinic. There are many herbs that will induce an abortion, and women used to know about them. The wise woman of the village was well versed in all things herbal, and she used them to cure, heal, treat and yes, abort when necessary. Then came the church and witch hunts – only god had the power to heal, but these women were proving otherwise, so clearly they were devil worshipers and needed to be killed. With their deaths, we lost so much, and we are still suffering the effects today. In fact, the system in place looks mighty similar to me.

    Our reproductive rights will never be whole again until we take back our fertility, our health, our rights by exercising them, by being personally responsible for them, by educating ourselves and our daughters. We have a long way to go, but education is that powerful.

    Real change always starts from the bottom up, and it can start now. We don’t have to wait for policies to change, laws to be made or revoked, or people to be elected. As long as we have access to the resources we need to act out on the information we own, they cannot stop us.

    Sadly, we do not have this information anymore. That information was well and truly lost, and so we are stuck following this new medical model of doing things until we regain the knowledge of our mothers past. And so we fight with laws, politicians and bureaucracy for something that should never have been in their domain in the first place.

  • “not everyone knows what it was like before.” We will be forced to repeat history if we cannot educate newer generations of the struggles and horrors of the past.

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