Editorial: Arlene Pfeiffer

Editorial: Arlene Pfeiffer

It was 1984, and Ronald Reagan was in the fourth year of his presidency. The country was awash in the mythology of patriotism and family values, and Arlene Pfeiffer met reality head on. It wasn’t that she was stupid or in any way naive. Perhaps she thought that in some unexplainable way she was exempt, that it could not happen to her and that, magically, it would not happen to her. After all, she was an honor student, had been one since the 10th grade and came from a good Pennsylvania family. Not her, not Arlene.

In all probability, Arlene’s meeting with reality started when she became obsessed with time and its passage. There were possibly many sleepless nights and continual trips to the bathroom, looking, always looking for the signs. Then, most likely, there were the frantic calls to friends in the middle of the night with a head full of desperate thoughts. Ahead full of all thoughts. And time, always counting and recounting the days from the last time. Until the counting stopped and there was no denying the reality that had to be dealt with: She was pregnant, 17 and unmarried. Thrust as it were into the vortex of competing and compelling options, into the realm of “choice” as millions of women and girls before her, Arlene must have deliberated and debated. She may even have contemplated abortion. What she thought of that choice – whether a “sad necessity” or a cardinal sin – we do not know, but the result of her contemplations was a decision that was at once both courageous and daring. This honor student was going to have her baby and she was going to keep and raise it herself.

It is important and interesting to note that Arlene lives in Pennsylvania, a state of great historical importance in the revolutionary struggle for American freedom and independence, and, most recently, a state of passionate “pro-life” sentiments; so passionate that, in 1989, the state legislature passed the most restrictive antiabortion legislation in the country. One might assume that in this environment of traditional family values, Arlene would have found reinforcement and support for her decision. The reality was just the opposite. She was summarily dismissed from the Honor Society. The five member faculty council of the Marion Center Area School Board voted unanimously to affirm Arlene’s dismissal. (New York Times, Jan. 26, 1984)

Arlene had sinned, not against the politicized and verbalized norms and expectations of the collective society in which having and keeping babies is a good thing, but against the far more powerful and pervasive assumptive societal regulations. These include, but are not limited to, a belief system that places women in no win situations in terms of their reproductive choices and punishes them no matter what choice they make. A Kafkaesque system where the rules are always changing, where “good girls” are few and far between, and scarlet letters are given out like candy.

Marcia Levine had her encounter with this reality in October of 1989. Marcia was a waitress at the Odeon restaurant in Manhattan. Her bosses’ initial reaction to news of her pregnancy was extremely positive. They even offered to buy her a black maternity outfit to match the other employees’ uniforms. But as time passed and Marcia’s pregnancy became visible, their attitudes towards her changed. Soon her employer was suggesting that she take a less visible position, one where she would be on the phones, which paid less and had longer working hours. Her employer even went so far as asking her to stand sideways in front of him so he could determine whether she was beginning to “show”. “My work was no longer valued because I had a baby in my belly,” she said. (Newsday, October 13, 1989)

A Kafkaesque system where the rules are always changing, where “good girls” are few and far between, and scarlet letters are given out like candy

Marcia was wrong. It was not her work that was no longer valued because of the “baby in her belly”; no, it was far more real than that. It was that Marcia herself was unvalued. “We do not hire ugly people. We do not hire fat people. We do not hire cripples,” Keith McNally, the owner of the Odeon, was quoted as saying. Obviously, a pregnant woman falls into his category of “fat and ugly”. If Marcia had had an abortion (“killed her baby”), then she could have kept her job and remained a productive member (worker) of society. She also could have kept her figure. She chose not to. She chose to have her child and to sue the Odeon in New York State Supreme Court, charging that the restaurant violated state civil rights laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Leticia Velasquez had a different problem but she faced a similar reality.

A recovering drug addict with three children and pregnant with a fourth, Leticia sought treatment for her addiction at a West Harlem Clinic. No one denies that babies born to drug addicted mothers can face a myriad of problems, including low birth weight, mental retardation or developmental or cognitive handicaps, interreactional and relational difficulties, prematurity, abandonment and AIDS. Despite the national scourge of drug addiction and national surveys showing that more than 10 percent of all babies are born to mothers who use illegal drugs, women in New York City and around the country are denied drug treatment simply because they are pregnant. (New York Newsday, October 31,1989)

There are no male counterparts in this situation. Thousands of pregnant women are turned away from treatment programs and they are turned away for a variety of reasons. According to Dr. Wendy Chavkin, a prenatal addiction researcher from Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, more than half of the 78 drug treatment programs that she surveyed in New York City had policies against treating pregnant women. Reasons for this range from the centers’ uncertainty about their ability to handle medical problems, to disagreement on the dosages of methadone a pregnant woman should receive. Many female addicts themselves are reticent to seek treatment because they fear retribution from the power structure, that is, those who profess to safeguard the life and welfare of the fetus.

This fear of prosecution is well placed. Indeed, Toni Hudson of Orlando, FL had her brush with “reality” when she was arraigned on charges of providing drugs to a “minor”, her baby born last November with cocaine in its body.

“She was smoking coke an hour before delivery,” accused prosecutor Jeff Deen of Broward County, FL. Deen plans to file a similar charge against a woman who gave birth to a second “cocaine baby” last year and, since last October, state officials in Florida have checked similar cases within 24 hours of birth and often have gone to court to place infants in foster care. Another woman lost custody of her baby at birth because a judge ruled when she was pregnant that the child of an addict was more likely to be neglected. (U.S. News and World Report, February 6, 1989) Women throughout the country are being charged with crimes ranging from “delivering drugs to a minor” to murder. Another twist; if a woman decides to go “cold turkey” to rid herself of her addiction, this usually kills the fetus outright. Obviously, enough evidence for a charge of murder one.

The fact that more than one in 10 women, one in five in some inner city hospitals, are giving birth to drug addicted babies does not alter the reality that “if you are female, particularly if you are pregnant, drug treatment is almost impossible to find.” – Representative Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health and the Environment. (Newsday, October 31,1989)

This reality becomes particularly acute considering that women are now the fastest growing market for illegal drugs in this country. According to Justice Department statistics, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of women using drugs, particularly crack, {off our backs, December 1989)

Leticia Velasquez, who is now a drug abuse counselor herself, found that within one week of being turned away from a drug treatment center, she was free-basing cocaine again. When her son was finally born, he was taken away from her and put into a foster home. He is still there today. This growing prosecutorial attitude towards “inappropriately pregnant women” took a particularly insidious turn in another Florida case where a woman was denied her request to postpone her 60day jail sentence so she could have an abortion. Pamela Forney, a part-time unmarried bartender, decided on an abortion because she would be financially unable to care for her child. Afraid it would be too late for a safer first trimester abortion, Forney pleaded for additional time. Judge Rasumusse suggested that Pamela carry the baby full term and then give it up for adoption. His exact words were “you want a continuance so you can murder your baby, is that it?” (New York Times, October 29, 1989)

In another infamous example of judicial concern for fetal welfare, in the District of Columbia, a pregnant woman dying of cancer was forced to undergo a cesarean section against her wishes, the wishes of her family and those of her attending physicians, who did not provide treatment because they felt there was no chance to save her unviable fetus. After informing the administrators of George Washington University Hospital of their decision, the administrators rushed to a local judge who quickly gathered some lawyers and held a conference at the dying woman’s bedside, where she once again reiterated that she did not want to undergo a cesarean section. The judge overrode her wishes, the wishes of her family and the advice of her physicians, and ordered the operation to be performed because he felt there was a slight chance of saving the fetus, and the woman was going to die anyway. What would the difference be if it was one or two weeks earlier? The cesarean was performed, the woman died, the fetus died, and the operation was listed as a “contributing factor” in her death on her death certificate.

In yet another case of fetus vs. mother, Nancy Klein, 16 weeks pregnant, remained in a coma for two months after a tragic automobile accident. Her husband faced and fought a bitter battle that was taken all the way up to the State Supreme Court in New York.

Told by physicians that his wife’s life was at risk more and more with each day that the pregnancy developed within her, Mr. Klein chose to act for her in the way that he knew she would want him to. He ordered an abortion. Two “Right-to-Life” attorneys attempted to become “Baby Klein’s” guardians and filed legal brief after legal brief to prevent the life-saving abortion for Nancy. They did not agree that an abortion was necessary, and did not feel that Mr. Klein was the appropriate person to make decisions for his comatose wife. They alone should be empowered to do so. Interestingly enough, I debated one of the attorneys, a Mr. John Broderick, on a radio show recently and when I asked him what he would do if, in fact, it was his wife’s life that hung in the balance, his response to me was “a baby is a baby is a baby”. Sorry Mrs. Broderick, you lose.

Perhaps this rush to jail women, force unnecessary cesarean sections on them or compel them to remain pregnant against medical necessity, ostensibly all in the name of fetal rights or fetal survival, is not about fetal rights, or fetal survival, or fetal protection at all. Perhaps, as the struggle over abortion rights has clearly demonstrated, the concept of “fetal rights” is a smoke screen, an opaque barrier, an intellectual and imaginative creation devised as a means of power and control over women’s lives and reproductive choices. In what may be seen as a perversion of liberalism, equal rights are now to be extended to a group of “beings in process”. Beings whose rights are often not only equal, but superceding those of women. In a large sense, what we are dealing with here is the fetus as a metaphor. The fetus itself is an ever changing reality, depending upon the life circumstances of its mother. In the cases of criminal prosecution of women for giving birth to drug addicted babies, there are attempts to protect the fetus prior to birth – to protect the fetus by punishing the mother. The real protection, that of drug treatment and prevention, is neglected and denied in a maze of bureaucratic medical excuses. The fetus now participates in the workplace and is part of our capitalist system, at least in a Milwaukee factory that makes automobile batteries. The United States Supreme Court of Appeals voted 7 to 4 that Johnson Controls was violating federal sex discrimination laws because it bars women from working where there is a high concentration of lead. This is just one of several cases that are addressing policies where employers choose to selectively bar pregnant women, or even women who are not pregnant but of childbearing age, from specific jobs because of what they say is a threat to the fetus.

In this situation the fetus is regarded as a “third party” according to Joseph Kinney, Executive Director of the National Workplace Safety Institute and any illness or deformity could expose the company to major lawsuits. (New York Times, October 3, 1989) The women who filed the suit against Johnson argued that they were the victims of sex discrimination. Denise Zuts, spokeswoman for Johnson Control, said a woman can be exempted from the policy and work where there are high levels of lead concentration if she has a written statement from a physician that she can no longer bear a child. In ruling for the company, the court stated that “an unborn child’s exposure to lead creates a substantial health risk involving the danger of permanent harm”. However, Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women stated that “this reminds me of the old protective laws; they protect women right out of the good jobs.” In this case, the fetus is a metaphor for the maintenance of the status quo and the power structure in society. Women now must work in particular jobs, not so much for the good of the company, the good of their families or the good of the state, but for the good of the fetus.

Fetus Power. Not only do you now have a chance to lose your job, your position in life, your economic security, you have a real chance of losing your freedom or your life. The thrust to “humanize” and consider the fetus as a full person is the ultimate divide and conquer game. Machiavellian in the truest sense, it places the woman in direct conflict with herself. Which ever way she expresses her biological imperative, whatever her choice, it is either a sin or a Pyrrhic victory. Strategically positioning the battle on two fronts at once, the antichoice forces intend to insure control of women’s reproduction, if they are unable to exert enough control over the decision of whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term (1.5 million abortions a year in this country), they will at least attempt to define the parameters of what an acceptable pregnancy is, that is how, when, and in what circumstances women should bring children into the world,and under what conditions society will provide support and, if any, reinforcement.

It is the ultimate NO WIN situation. A world where “good girls” are defined by strict codes of ever-changing norms and expectations – and a world where almost everyone loses. The collective assumption for women is that the decision to have a child and be a mother is an a priori positive. That reproductive freedom or the right to abortion is a negative value, the freedom from rather than the freedom to. Motherhood is good, abortion is bad. But the actualities don’t support the premise. The realities that women face look very much like brick walls.

A woman is young, middle class, unmarried and decides to keep and raise her own child. She loses. Loses respect, dignity and her place in her social and political sphere. A mother of three is an addict struggling to come off drugs and cannot find a program to help her. She wants to have and keep her baby. The baby is put up for adoption and she has a chance of being criminally prosecuted. She also loses. Another young woman wants to have a family and an adequately paying job so that she can raise her children with some sense of economic security. No good – she loses too.

Obviously, if you decide to allow your fetus to come to term and be born, it must be born into what are considered to be the appropriate circumstances or you lose again. If you happen to be incapacitated or in a coma, your next of kin may not have the ability to make decisions for you in the case of your pregnancy – you’re in a very real sense on trial for your life – your life vs. the fetus. Most times you lose here also. The power of mother, like the power of women in general, is feared. The response to this fear is the need to control and the desire to compel. The fetus is a metaphor for this power. And as they are being positioned by antichoice lawyers and strategic planners, fetuses may end up being a powerful constituency. The world and women in particular will have seen nothing like it. It is indeed a “brave new world” – one that Arlene Pfeiffer and Nancy Klein and Marcia Levine and Leticia Valesquez know very well – and one in which millions of women will have to live.