by Merle Hoffman
“I love your enemies because they drive you to my arms for comfort” -Edna St. Vincent Millay – 1941
I was very young when I read that sonnet – when those words arrested me with the power of their insight. With similar shattering clarity, the recent Supreme Court’s decision allowing the states to restrict or regulate abortion may be viewed as having presented both the pro-choice and women’s movements with extraordinary opportunities. We are poised at a moment in time and history that is ripe with possibilities and the potential to truly enact positive and lasting social change.
On the surface, without reflection, it would appear that we have suffered a catastrophic defeat. But one can only truly lose what one has. Although supposedly guaranteed by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, legal abortion has been under constant attack since 1973 with a consistent chipping away at the most vulnerable target areas -parental consent and Medicaid funding (teenagers and minority women). The pro-choice movement, lulled into a false sense of security by the Supreme Court and restricted by class self interest and diffused political agendas, made the grave error of minimizing the opposition; so much so that when Medicaid funding was cut off in 1977, adversely affecting poor and minority women, few people protested to Washington. It would seem that upon closer examination, the concept and practice of women’s equality, liberation and full participation in society was built on shifting sand.
We have to realize that we are not safe, and there are no safe harbors, not in the Supreme Court, not in the states, not in the legislatures and not in the Constitution. Our safety must lie within ourselves and the movements that we build. Women are now going to have to win their rights to full and unrestricted sexual and reproductive freedom in potent social and political battle. We must struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people while not succumbing to personal or sectarian conflicts that siphon the power from our vision and struggle.
Far from being a complete disaster, or an omen that portends the destruction of the women’s movement, the recent Missouri decision may create a groundswell of activism, anger and politically strategic creativity that could well fuel a whole new order.
The crushing, immediate necessity of women and men working together in coalition. connecting heretofore unconnected issues, creates a situation ripe with its own particular challenges, struggles and extraordinary opportunities, quite apart from the external political threats.
There has already been an explosion of coalition work. The recognition of political, social or psychological congruence, the amalgamation of comradships -all have the ability to light up the social, political, historical landscape with a thousand points of power. A power that will comfort us in the heat that it generates while scorching the ideology and agenda of the opposition.
Search your heart. Are you ready for war? How much are you willing to sacrifice to see this massacre ended? The day of’ distress has dawned.” (Randall A. Terry’s Rescue News Brief August 1989)
The fact that the abortion issue has the potential of splintering the society and, in fact, has been called the “second civil war” and “the Vietnam of the ’80s”, still has not translated into the importance of women’s personal lives, in the scheme of things in general, and in the abortion battle in particular.
What issue is more central to the collective than whether or not to bring another life into it? If abortion were ultimately a “women’s issue alone”, by definition mere fluff, not nearly as important as the Pentagon, or Stealth Bomber, why all this fuss in the first place? If it is not politic to speak of women’s rights, women’s demands, women’s needs, women’s “issues”, because they appear too strident, too radical, too unfeminine, too selfish -let us not forget that this is the reality of the issue. Minimizing abortion to be merely a “women’s issue” gives the lie to the passions and profound responses that it generates.
As more and more young women are brought into the abortion rights struggle, as more and more people get up at 5 a.m. to physically defend abortion clinics, as more and more people march in the streets, as more and more sit down, lie down, in acts of civil disobedience, as more and more women say out loud, “I had an abortion”, as more and more students become activated on campuses, as more and more checks are written to pro-choice organizations, as more and more people ask “are you pro-choice?” of their political candidates, there is a new recognition of “Me” being part of a larger “We”. As more and more women of color join hands with their white sisters, and as more of the old guard leadership allows young women to take active roles and leadership positions, the women’s movement may gain what it so desperately and continually needs: the assurance of legacy, the knowledge that the torch will be passed onto the next generation, and the possibility of unifying behind a transcendent political vision.
The historic bifurcation of the service end of the pro-choice movement with the political end has begun to dissolve, forming the beginnings of a powerful new alliance. Through participation in direct action against Operation Rescue at clinic sites, ideological and activist feminists touch the direct reality of abortion. Once viewed as either the “dirty end of the business” by many medical professionals, or the “capitalist establishment control of the women’s health movement” by socialist or radical feminists, the reality of over one million women each year having abortions at clinics across the country, and their ultimate vulnerability to Operation Rescue, harassment, violence and more restrictive and dangerous regulations in upcoming Supreme Court cases, place the clinics and their staffs in the forefront of the abortion rights struggle.
Patients themselves, in the midst of the most personal and intimate of decisions and life events, are thrust into a vortex of politics and passion. It is possible that all this attention, all this struggle, all this resistance will enable women to feel stronger and more centered in their decisions, rather than weaker and riddled with guilt, as the opponents of choice would like us to believe that they do.
Item: this past summer, I was called to assist an abortion clinic in the middle of an attack by Operation Rescue. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and the waiting room was crowded with patients, husbands, lovers and friends. In the middle of the waiting room, Operation Rescue faithful were lying on the floor attached to a “Cryptonite Block”. This madly creative device allows a group of protestors to attach themselves to specially designed bicycle locks that defy police attempts to free them. Used successfully in clinics in the Mid and Southwest, Operation Rescue (OR) targeted New York City for the strategy.
By the time I arrived at the clinic, five OR participants had been in the same positions, leg to neck to ankle to thigh, for approximately three hours; it would be at least another two before the police would dismantle them. One Catholic priest, attached to five women, was sitting with his neck chained like a dog, screaming to the women in the waiting room “Go home, go home. There’ll be no baby killing here today -go home. You will not be killing your babies this Saturday.”
Far from being intimidated or ashamed by all of this, the patients became electric and erupted with what was basically a spontaneous rally and speak out. “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do with my life anyway?” “Hey man, are you going to raise my three other kids too?” “Go home and pray in your own church.” Not one patient changed her mind or turned away.
We may only guess what seeds of dissent were planted that day in those people.
Obviously, much more needs to be done. The early work of the New York Pro-choice Coalition, the Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue and an Atlanta, GA coalition that stood up to months of assault by OR in the summer of 1988, should be formalized and reinforced. No clinic should ever be closed, no woman should have to be brutalized by the continuing harassment of Operation Rescue. Clinics should, and can, become training grounds for both activists and patients. Patients can be politicized through their individual experiences; activists should be educated about the reality of women’s direct abortion experiences. Feminist counseling centers can evolve as natural extensions of abortion clinics and other women’s health care facilities to offer on going support for women who may be experiencing ambivalence or difficulties with their abortion decisions.
And there is a secondary gain: clinic workers and professional staff would gain immeasurably by a broader understanding of the ultimately political nature of their work.
But other tasks also exist. Clinic owners should create financial policies that allow subsidies for indigent women. This is particularly critical in states that have no Medicaid funding. No woman should be turned away from a legitimate abortion provider because of an inability to pay. All women, feminists and those who are not historically affiliated with the movement (including moderate Republican women), should consider tithing a certain percentage of their incomes so that the chronic lack of funds that besets all progressive and feminist causes can be minimized.
How to think about abortion?
How to think about women and their place in society?
In a sense, the way we think about abortion mirrors the way we think about ourselves. It touches, as well it should, the deepest, most personal core of our image of the world and our place within it. While every poll taken on this issue shows that the majority of Americans are pro-choice and don’t want government interference in this decision, they also show very clearly that the majority of Americans are ambivalent when it comes to the reasons for abortion -otherwise known as the “Rape, Incest or Me” position.
According to a recent New York Times poll on the women’s movement (August 22, 1989) “roughly half of the women who say America needs a strong women’s movement favor more restrictions on abortion than exist under current law.”
For the anti-choice movement, this ambivalence often centers around sexuality. Many in anti-choice groups truly believe that sex resulting in pregnancy has to come to fruition – sex for pleasure is unacceptable. The fact that some anti-choice activists would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest says it’s all right to “kill a baby” if the woman is forced to have sex, but, let a woman be an active participant -choosing her partner and her involvement – -then abortion becomes absolutely unacceptable.
Larry Letich, writing in Tikkun, July/August 1989 says that “Reproductive Freedom’ and the ‘right to choice’ seem to emphasize the primacy of the individual and neglect other moral considerations. Sadly, these phrases conjure up a vision of self indulgence and selfishness.” This thinking from a supposedly pro-choice person reflects much of a general attitude that reads: women are having abortions for selfish reasons, meaning that “women are having abortions for reasons that I wouldn’t have them for.” I have personally heard countless women, prior to their abortions, say “I’m not like all those other girls in the waiting room; they don’t seem upset about it at all; I don’t take it as lightly as they do;” etc., etc. This lack of empathy from woman to woman is the microcosm of the macrocosm -from women separating themselves from each other -to the separation of the importance of women’s lives and women’s equality from the general agenda of the society. Underlying this reality is the strong assumption and myth that women are just not to be trusted with moral and/or life and death decisions.
The words “pro-choice” are really not descriptive of what we are talking about on anything but a theoretical, ideological level. We are talking about pro-woman politics that are pro women’s lives and pro women’s sexuality. If, in fact, there are millions of Americans who are ambivalent about abortion, this must be acknowledged. Yes, there are people who will not agree with my reasons: who will decry them. Should we limit the number of abortions? ‘There are many avidly pro-choice people who are very disturbed about multiple abortions and say perhaps we should only allow “them” to have three or two or four, etc., etc. They must understand that when one goes into that slippery slope of what is an acceptable number, or an acceptable reason, we begin to be the regulators.
It may, in fact, be necessary for the pro-choice movement to cloak to some degree the crushing, blinding, primary reality of abortion -that if is absolutely necessary for women’s survival and participation as full citizens in this society; that the price of women’s equality may ultimately have to stand on millions of aborted fetuses -into palatable political terms for the majority of the American people. According to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, “The opponents of abortion would like to frame the debate as one of ‘irresponsibility and excess’.” Lake advises the advocates of abortion rights to steer the debate to the issue of government interference with individual rights. (New York Times July 21, 1989)
It seems that women’s rights, women’s lives and women’s equality and autonomy just doesn’t sell in the American marketplace. In the struggle to win the “hearts and minds” of the American people, the pro-choice and women’s movements must take care not to lose their souls. Self reflection is necessary for any type of personal or political growth, but its purpose should be to strengthen and inspire, as opposed to defensively explain. Certainly we must look to our movement for more reality -and then move on creatively and boldly to address the issues that are raised.
We must also understand that when we argue that the anti-choicers don’t care about people after birth, that they turn a deaf ear and cold heart to the economic and day to day sufferings of much of the population, that both sides are really looking at reality through a far different set of glasses. Jay Bagget, writing in the Victims of Choice Journal, has problems with, a “pro-choice” ethic that says “unless the child is wanted, unless the mother won’t end up on welfare, unless the child will be loved, then it should be aborted.” She and many of the anti-choice advocates see this as a “terrorist ethic” holding the “weak and defenseless” hostage in a utopian vision of society. For the anti-choice movement, showing compassion and love, caring for the weak and helpless are good and noble things, but they are outweighed by the one objective overriding value: the sanctity of human life. All other issues are relegated to second place -life, regardless of how it is lived, is the ultimate priority.
Using this understanding, the pro-choice movement must work to create a society where “choice” truly exists -not one where economic deprivation, racism or despair dictates the outcome of pregnancies. Choice diminishes in relation to the equity of the opposing options -a 12 year old victim of incest does not have much “choice” -63 percent of women who are economically driven to choose abortion do not have much “choice”. Instead, the pro-choice movement must move to a position where “choice” is truly possible, not where it is always the lesser of two evils.
If our movement has not been there in terms of adequately supporting women who are young and wish to continue their pregnancies against all odds (without parental or economic support), we must answer not only with the rhetoric of abortion, but by positing an alternative program or “feminist birthing home”, where women and girls can choose to have their babies in supportive enriching environments. If it is true that there are endemic concerns in this society about the loss of parental control, the growth of “decadence” (sexuality among the young), the feminist movement has a responsibility to address these issues in a more thoughtful way. A deeper understanding of the limitations of education regarding birth control usage is imperative so that we are not caught in the trap of believing that better and more effective methods are all that is necessary. Methods and education about them must be combined and integrated into the individual and collective political psyche so that women truly feel responsible and empowered about their sexuality and life choices. As long as women remain economically and politically inferior, all education and intellectual, ideological or political gains along the way will be shallow victories. Alternative programs should be developed whereby women’s groups, organizations and college Women’s Studies departments can activate volunteers to go to the junior high schools, high schools and community groups to educate students about birth control in the context of their lives, which would necessarily include discussion of politics and individual responsibility.
Women are the majority of this country’s health care consumers, yet have almost nothing to say about how funds or Research and Development monies are being spent. The health care industry spends billions of dollars each year on research into esoteric and elitist technology, useful for saving the lives and health of the few. Where is the concerted political pressure for drug companies to spend research dollars finding safer and more effective methods of birth control? A focused, powerful and consistent lobbying effort must be employed in terms of making the drug companies accountable to the world’s women. New, safer, more effective birth control must be researched and eventually made available. RU486 is merely one possibility -not the panacea. We should not be lulled into thinking that if we are able to produce and market one abortifacient, that we have won any kind of battle, let alone the war.
If we should not, or will not, “love our enemies” as Millay exhorts, we must, at the very least, know them and use them.
Know the breadth, scope and limitations of their ideology and understand the passions from whence they sprung. The pro-choice movement must speak to the hearts of people -challenge the best part of their consciousness.
The movement for reproductive freedom must be grounded in the understanding that the right to choose is a fundamental civil right. Abortion is the fulcrum of a wheel whose spokes include economic parity for women, child care, health care, housing, etc. In a word, all the communal, societal relationships that integrate relate and define women in relationship to their families and society. If the right to abortion is a “single issue”, it is the apex of many others that both support and define it.