Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blog for Choice Day: "The Last Abortion Clinic"


This year's "Blog for Choice" campaign asks us to consider "why [we] vote for choice." Why think about that now? Well, Tuesday marked the 35th Anniversary of the 'Roe v. Wade' decision, in the States. And while I'm not, nor have I ever been, an American, I think a lot of Canadian feminists worry that the anti-choice forces in our own country will gain inspiration from their trailblazin' American counterparts.

In November 2005, I watched a PBS/Frontline documentary that scared the ever-lovin' crap outta me. "The Last Abortion Clinic," used the state of Mississippi to illustrate how successful anti-choice forces have been at all-but totally restricting access to abortion care in that state (full video available here). At the time of filming, there was but one abortion clinic left in the entire State of Mississippi. And the anti-choicers weren't satisfied with that, either: early on in the doc, the Fetishizer-in-Chief vows to make Mississippi the first "Abortion Free" state in the Union.

And she's had a lot of help. Sure, Roe is still in effect, federally, but individual States have been able to chip away at access via State laws. In an effort to figure out how things got so bad in Mississippi, the filmmakers discovered that the real restrictions seemed to come after a 1992 Supreme Court decision, "Planned Parenthood v. Casey:"
The Court was asked to review provisions of a Pennsylvania abortion law which included the following restrictions on first trimester abortion: 1) informed consent, including giving the woman information on fetal development and the medical risks of abortion and childbirth; 2) a 24-hour waiting period; 3) for a minor, consent of at least one parent, with a judicial bypass option; and 4) for a married woman to sign a statement that she had notified her husband of the procedure.

The Court's ruling:
By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld all the provisions of the Pennsylvania law except spousal notification.

More significantly, while reaffirming the central holding of Roe v. Wade, the court rejected "Roe's rigid trimester framework" and changed the standard of review for laws regulating abortion to the
"undue burden" standard proposed by Justice O'Connor in Webster. The majority opinion, written jointly by Justice O'Connor, Justice David Souter, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, explained, "An undue burden exists, and therefore a law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability."
"Undue burden?!" While you and I might think that's ridiculous language to attach to a medical procedure, the anti-choicers saw this as an open-invitation to back-door shenanigans. *cough* The Frontline doc explains:
While the Court upheld Roe v. Wade, it changed the standard by which abortion laws would be judged. It allowed states to regulate abortion so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on the women seeking the procedure.

"...[E]ver since
Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, people got the impression that abortion was safe; Roe v. Wade was safe," explains William Saletan, the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. "All the pro-choice people went home."

In the years after Casey, the pro-life movement has dramatically changed the landscape of abortion politics.
In Mississippi alone, they helped pass 10 laws regulating abortion. And in the last two years, the state has passed legislation on fetal homicide prosecution, new clinic regulations, requirements to report abortion complications, rights of conscience, and a law that would prohibit the state's last abortion clinic from offering abortions beyond the first trimester.
If Mississippi sounds impossibly bad, hold on to your cervical cap, 'cause these kinds of laws and restrictions are cropping up just about everywhere in the U.S. of A. PBS has even provided a map offering "the most recent information (as of June 6, 2006) on these regulations." Visitors are encouraged to "click on the map for a particular state's laws concerning mandatory waiting periods, counseling, parental consent for minors, taxpayer funding for abortion, rights of conscience protection for healthcare workers, state regulation of abortion facilities, and more."

With each new restriction comes less choice. And what if your options in life are already limited by factors like poverty, class or rural isolation? Frontline interviewed an abortion clinic owner in the rural South who was able to give us some important perspective on this:
I think that we're being triaged. I think that basically the folks that are supportive of abortion rights are saying: "We can't save everybody, so let's just let Mississippi...go. We're not going to be able to save those women, and let's concentrate on who we can save." And that's frightening. Certainly it's frightening because we're here. We're being triaged, cast out, if you will.

But yet again, these women, the neediest of the needy, are being deserted. And when we have the most major spokespeople in the country backing away from the abortion issue, then there's no one left. Who's speaking for these women now?"
She goes on to explain how these State laws erode women's access to abortion care. The owner also reminds us how her State's refusal to fund either (a) the care itself or (b) the training required for new abortion providers (doctors, etc) affect access:
And so this whole movement has occurred where it's almost a death by a thousand cuts. Each little law that's passed, each little regulation that passed on the surface may not seem like that much. And, you know, even with the 24-hour law, it looks good. What's wrong with giving women information and letting them take 24 hours to think about it, until you realize all of the devastation that can cause? And few folks follow that to the natural conclusion."
[...]
The procedure itself, first-trimester abortion, is just simple. It is minor surgery. Regardless of what you think of abortion, regardless of the moral consequences, the one thing that is absolutely true is a first-trimester abortion is very safe and very easy to perform. So you have this paradox of the very simple procedure, this very safe procedure no one's being trained in, and such a level of harassment around doctors providing abortion care that it makes it really difficult to find physicians that are brave enough and willing to provide care.
[...]
And the state also provides no monies for abortion services, although they will provide all resources for prenatal care. So what the state has done is basically subjected a class of women, poor women, to forced maternity on behalf of the state.

And
they can do it because they can get away with it. These are voiceless and faceless women. They don't have representation in the legislature or really in Congress. No one's speaking on their behalf. And in that example, to some extent, it is like the pre-Roe days...Abortion is not a fundamental right for many, many women, particularly for poor women and rural women. There's no doubt about it that it is as though abortion is illegal.
"No one's speaking on their behalf"

So. Who will speak up for these women, now? If we recall for a moment the 'official' Blog for Choice theme ('Why vote for choice?'), we can't help but worry about which 2008 presidential candidates will really speak up for these women. Gloria Feldt asked the same question, on Tuesday morning (Huffington Post):
The elections will determine the future for all of us Roes. That's why a mortally wounded Roe v Wade's 35th anniversary requires the candidates to answer my questions in full. Facile answers to "Are you pro-choice or anti-choice?" and "Do you support the Roe v Wade decision?" or "Do you believe the Constitution includes a right to privacy?" don't suffice any more.

I am Roe and I have these questions for presidential candidates:

1. Do you agree that reproductive rights are human rights? (If your answer is "no", do not pass go, do not collect my paltry campaign contribution, and no two-stepping explanation will bail you out.)

2. If your answer is "yes", tell me what you'll do to lead America to secure a more durable policy and legal basis for reproductive self-determination.
I am rooting for you, America's Pro-Choice population! I don't know whom you'll elect, but here are some parting links to help you make your choice about choice:
*NB: The next American President will probably have an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court Justice, as well as untold numbers of lower-court Judges!

Update [Wed, Jan 23, 2008, 3:02 AM]: Read lots of other Canadian perspectives on the 35th anniversary of Roe. Too many great ones to link to individually!

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