Watch Loretta Ross on Democracy Now! discussing the latest wave of attacks against abortion and contraception!
Cross-posted with The Abortioneers.
It can be a scary prospect to call up an abortion clinic and make an appointment for what has become one of our society’s most stigmatized — and yet one of its most common —medical procedures.
Which is probably why some patients don’t immediately admit that’s why they’re calling.
As a former phone counselor at a clinic, I used to hear a lot of: “Um…I wanted to know how much it costs?” and “Hi…I’m looking for some information about…abortion?”
(This last one was spoken as a question, with the word “abortion” issued in a whisper, like a big, bad, ugly secret.)
I sometimes tried to use the word as much as possible when I answered those tentative calls.
“I would be happy to answer any questions you have about ABORTION! What type of ABORTION do you think you might be interested in having?”
Often, these patients weren’t simply calling for information; they knew they wanted an abortion, but they were scared and confused about what the process might entail.
I sometimes felt like women called just to test us out. Maybe they had always believed abortion was murder and they wanted to know whether we would tell them what they were doing was wrong or try to make them feel guilty. Maybe they were wondering whether the women who worked in the Big, Bad Baby-Killing Center were human beings like them. Many were scared they wouldn’t be able to have children in the future, or that we would do something violent and terrible to remove their unwanted pregnancies.
They were certain we would judge them, just as others in their life had judged them. They were wondering whether they could trust us with their stories.
They ached to justify themselves.
“Look, I have to do this, I have a nine-month-old at home.”
“I’m homeless and I already have two kids.”
“I’ve never believed in abortion, but I just can’t have a baby right now.”
I was sometimes amazed at how relieved women were to tell their stories. To a stranger. Over the phone. And to have that stranger accept their stories Without judgment. Without telling them what was right and what was wrong. So listening became part of the process of making an appointment. When I finished booking the appointment and asked if they had any other questions, I could sometimes hear the relief in their voices.
Given how terrifying that first step can be for many patients, I often wondered how many women wanted to call, but never did.
The abortion rate has been declining among almost all groups of women across the country (although a recent study showed that the global abortion rate has stalled after a period of decline). Many in the abortion-providing community believe this decline is a result of rising stigma, not of improved access to birth control or sex education (since, by and large, those things are not improving). Nor is it happening because women’s economic situations have magically improved, since the abortion rate is still rising among poor women (which proves, by the way, that you can’t advocate for reproductive justice without combating capitalist exploitation of the poor).
Brigit Ordway, a veteran counselor whom I interviewed as part of an audio project compiling voices from the abortion-providing community told me she thinks women face more stigma now than they did back in the decade or so after it was legalized.
“That’s the biggest difference now — women aren’t telling each other about this. We all did and we got support, for the most part. Now, probably most women would get support from their friends and family, but they’re assuming that they won’t. They’re assuming that everybody is not pro-choice and that they’re going to be judged and maybe even worse, you know, maybe somebody’s going to come throw something at them. So women are silent about it now. They don’t get the support of each other or society, because they don’t talk about it, I think. It’s a huge difference. It’s all now secret and shameful for people.”
So abortion counseling, for me, whether it was done on the phone or in person, became largely about trying to lift the burden of guilt that women thought they were obligated to feel for having an abortion. It was about helping them realize that they were still good, still loving, still worthy of respect. They drove past protesters and graphic posters of chopped-up babies to get into the clinic, but once they were inside, they were treated with respect.
Every so often we would get a call from a woman who wanted to come to the clinic, but couldn’t bring herself to enter the doors after she saw the protesters’ signs. Those women reminded me how limited my understanding of abortion is. I saw women who were beating themselves up emotionally for having an abortion they felt was necessary. But I never saw the women who were too scared to come in, too scared to even call.
One abortion provider whom I interviewed has found a way to help those women.
Dr. Deborah Oyer, who owns a clinic in Seattle, Washington, created a series of videos describing the process of an abortion at her clinic. In a soothing and straightforward voice, she describes the steps a patient goes through, from the moment she enters the door until she leaves. This is the kind of education I tried to do with patients over the phone — but she has found a way to do it without requiring women to take that scary first step. Instead, wrapped in the Internet’s comfy blanket of anonymity, they can learn that abortion is not as scary as they might have imagined.
The videos provide basic education about abortion and birth control that counteract common and harmful myths. They also show women that — contrary to popular mythology — the doctor who will be performing their abortion is a friendly and approachable woman, not a crazy, rabid devil-monster with horns (Oyer told me she often sees women relax visibly after she enters the room, since she is so un-monsterlike). She has one video that consists entirely of her introducing herself. That video, uploaded two years ago, has 550 views on Youtube.
The video about surgical abortion has 58,816.
The one on medication abortion has 27,668.
Clearly, people need this information.
I’m grateful to Deborah Oyer for putting her voice and face out there, despite the risks that it could mean for her in a world where abortion providers are targeted with hate speech and harassment, and even sometimes with bullets. I’m grateful that there is accurate information out there about abortion for everyone — of every gender — who wonders how it is done. But I’m especially grateful that there is education for the patients whom I never got to talk to — for the ones who never call.
This post is by Aphra Behn of Guerilla Girls On Tour! It is cross-posted with Gender Across Borders.
While on tour this year, I felt an uncomfortable cramping near my crotch. It was somewhere between Arkansas and Oklahoma that I realized what it was. The government was tightening its grip on my uterus.
In Kansas, my uterus signed up for a sex education class but the only subject taught was abstinence. In West Virginia, my uterus got tired of abstinence and got a prescription for birth control, but my health insurance company wouldn’t pay for it. As a result, by Texas my uterus was pregnant and sought pre-natal care, but there wasn’t any because state legislators decimated Planned Parenthood’s funds.
Conservatives proclaim to detest government interference in one’s life. Republicans make careers out of repealing regulations. Yet, both groups seem obsessed with restricting what goes on inside my uterus. It got so bad this year that at one point, I think Congress believed that controlling my uterus would create more jobs.
Now, my uterus may not see ovary to ovary with other uteruses across the land. But no matter where we reside, we are all American uteri and as such are guaranteed a fundamental human right, the right to privacy. But without much outcry, my uterine rights are shriveling away.
In the first half of last year, 80 abortion restrictions were enacted in male-dominated legislatures across my country, more than tripling the 23 enacted in 2010. The last half of the year was gloomier yet, marked by Mississippi voters pondering an initiative that would have declared a fertilized egg a legal person and Health and Human Services Secretary Katheleen Sebelius overruling the FDA’s decision to make Plan B emergency contraception available over the counter for all women.
In Missouri and eight other states, my uterus is required to receive counseling in person before waiting 24 hours for an abortion, necessitating two separate trips to any clinic. In Georgia and ten other states, my body must receive verbal information about the ability of a fetus to feel pain. In North Carolina and four other states, it has to be given written materials that show medically inaccurate connections between abortion and infertility and between abortion and the possibility of developing breast cancer.
There are some rare places in the U.S. where my uterus is free. In California, a law requires health-insurance plans that cover prescription medication to provide the same coverage for contraception. In Hawaii, low-income women are provided access to abortion. In Maryland, women seeking reproductive-health care are protected from blockades and violence, as are medical staff. In Connecticut, Maine, Washington and Oregon state laws protect a woman’s right to choose. And just last week the Obama administration ruled that most insurance plans must cover contraception for women free of charge.
Even though access to abortion has been legal for almost 40 years, there’s been a backwards change — a slow but steady movement to manipulate what my uterus can and cannot do. Therefore, I shall resort to what I learned in self-defense class. If someone lays their hands on you without your permission, look them in the eye and state in a loud and controlled voice “LET GO.”
LET GO OF MY UTERUS, LAWMAKERS.
If you would like to control something, I suggest requiring law schools to teach reproductive rights law. Only one out of every five American Bar Association-approved law schools have offered a course in reproductive rights law in the last eight years. Law school graduates quickly become the judges and politicians responsible for abortion policies. Why not guarantee that they are well educated on reproductive rights law?
While others fight for the right to dominate my uterus, be warned. This year, it plans to lead a movement to bring back the single-issue vote. It will campaign to elect pro-choice legislators to replace those meddling with my private parts.
Uterus owners can’t rest on decades-old victories that are being legislated away. Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. One year ago this month, President Obama said in his State of the Union address that our destiny remained our choice. I, along with my uterus, have the right to choose my own destiny. Reproductive rights are human rights and mine are being abridged. Warning world: Permission not granted.
Guerrilla Girls On Tour! is an internationally acclaimed touring theatre company, one of three groups that formed when the original Guerrilla Girls split into three new groups in 2001. As artistic director of the troupe, Aphra Behn has written and directed over 200 performances in 38 states and 13 countries, creating theatre that takes a hilarious look at the current state of women in the arts and beyond. Each member of Guerrilla Girls On Tour! takes the name of a dead woman artist and when they appear in public they wear gorilla masks to conceal their true identities. They are the 2010 recipients of Yoko Ono’s Courage Award for the Arts.
For me, it was the serene-faced mother of a two-year-old who looked toward the ceiling after her abortion and said:
“I am so grateful for this option.”
Each abortion care worker has at least one patient in recent memory who gave us that mushy-gushy feeling in our bellies — who made the work feel worthwhile.
For Deborah Oyer, the Seattle doctor who owns Aurora Medical Services, one of those patients was a religious 17-year-old who was against abortion…until she ended up in Oyer’s office seeking one.
Now, I would venture to guess that each abortion care worker also has one or two patients who make them want to scream. For some of us, those are the anti-choice patients who, through tightly woven, convoluted and protective mental processes, have decided that they are the only ones who should ever, ever be allowed to have an abortion.
Deborah Oyer summed up the basic argument made by some of these patients:
“Everyone else in your waiting room is a slut, and I have a good reason for having an abortion. I’m against abortion, except I need one.”
I’ve struggled recently with the question of whether abortion needs to be a politically transformative experience. Is it fair for me to secretly wish all patients were as pro-choice as the mother whom I mentioned?
On the one hand, abortion is a legal right and a minor medical procedure. I wish women did not have to drive past pictures of aborted fetuses to access it. I wish they did not have to suffer from shame and stigma because of the way our society abuses the issue of abortion, using it as a distraction from other issues and as a political wedge.
Sometimes I feel like the last thing I want to do is make the experience more political.
On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if the many millions of women who have had and will have abortions in this country — the one in three of us — and their allies, were to stand up and defend the validity of our experiences.
We would have a revolution tomorrow.
And the Religious Right would have nothing, nothing to say. Because their mothers and sisters and daughters would be with us.
Deborah Oyer told me how she deals with this issue. It’s beautiful:
“I had a woman recently who was against abortion and I don’t ever let that go. You’re here for an abortion. I need you to recognize that that’s what you’ve done. And so in the future I’d like you to remember that when you vote; I’d like you to remember that when you talk to other people. Your abortion really isn’t different than someone else’s.”
Deborah Oyer is a firm and loving person, and she says this in a firm and loving way. I ask her how she balances her kind, thoughtful request — her nonetheless political request — with caring for the patient.
She leans forward and puts her hand on my knee, and she says:
“You’ve been against abortion your whole life and now you’re having one. So I’m concerned about how you’re going to feel tomorrow. What’s your support system?
“And we start from there.”
So this 17-year-old religious woman promised Oyer that her life would be different after her abortion.
As it turns out, she meant it.
Here’s the story:
This article is cross-posted with Gender Across Borders.
I have been planning a trip to Greece. So as you read this, I am taking a break from my job at an abortion clinic to gaze out on something like this photo.
Don’t hate me.
In addition to researching Greece’s legendary beaches…and history — and the country’s protests in response to austerity measures — I decided to research abortion laws there. In part, I wanted to know how open I could be about my work. But I was also curious. As recent and unparalleled legal attacks in this country have shown, abortion laws can be fascinating studies in systemic absurdity. When one belief system (the one that says abortion is murder) hits an irreconcilable belief system (the one that says women are more human than fetuses) the legal results are convoluted and bizarre. Governments try to compromise incompatible perspectives by regulating those procedures that involve slightly larger fetuses, or by making it harder for women to access abortion.
For example, at the end of March, South Dakota adopted a measure (which was blocked after a legal challenge) that would make a woman wait 72 hours for an abortion after her first visit with a doctor and force her to visit a crisis pregnancy center (havens of religiously fueled brainwashing) in the interim. A federal appeals court recently upheld parts of a 2005 law in that state requiring doctors to tell a patient that abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” and inform the woman that she has “an existing relationship with that unborn human being.”
In June, Ohio’s House of Representatives passed a measure banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which happens as early as six weeks — before many women even realize they are pregnant.
Since states here in the first half of 2011 enacted a record number of restrictions on a procedure that is a woman’s legal and human right, I was feeling a bit jaded as I went to research laws in Greece. Here’s what I found:
Abortion in Greece is fully legal up to 12 weeks. In cases of rape or incest it is legal up to 19 weeks, and in cases of fetal abnormalities up to 24 weeks. Minors need consent from their parents or guardian. Then I found this an interesting line from an undated United Nations document on abortion in Greece: “A physician other than the one performing the abortion must confirm the existence of valid grounds for the abortion.”
As the debate over abortion rages, the voices of those who provide this common procedure are not often heard. This is not surprising. For many years, the anti-choice movement has dehumanized providers, casting them as heartless killers. This campaign has resulted in the murders of eight members of the abortion-providing community in the United States.
Today, providers face many reasons not to help women terminate unwanted pregnancies, from a record number of onerous laws to harassment, stigma and death threats. One in three women will have an abortion. Their right to do so is upheld by law. But that right means little without access to the necessary medication or surgical procedures. With 87% of U.S. counties lacking an abortion provider, women’s access is in crisis.
It is perhaps more important now than ever to listen to the hopes, jokes, fears, dreams, visions and beliefs of the nurses, doctors, clinic workers and others who help make a woman’s right to control her own body a reality.