As Access Slides, Feminists Need to “Extract” From Our Self-Help Past

As Access Slides, Feminists Need to “Extract” From Our Self-Help Past

by Carol Downer

If working in the abortion movement for over 40 years qualifies me to gaze into my crystal ball to see the future for abortion rights in the United States, here goes.

Prediction Number One: I see the Supreme Court continuing to interpret Roe v. Wade in a way that will make abortion, especially later abortion, more expensive, less convenient to access and more humiliating, but I do not see the court reversing Roe v. Wade outright. I see clinics closing down due to restrictive regulations and lack of doctors, especially in areas far from an urban center. This lack of access will mostly affect young women and poor women of color. But, as was the case before the decision in Roe v. Wade, the majority of unwillingly pregnant women will continue to get abortions, no matter how far they have to travel or no matter how great the cost or risk.

Why? The hypocritical leaders of this country, both right and left, recognize that the U.S. industrialized economy is built on the small nuclear family with both parents working, so large families are out. This lowers the birth rate, which satisfies the leaders, who, rather than creating a more just, sustainable society, think reducing women’s fertility solves social problems such as pollution and poverty. Immigration, legal and illegal, produces the influx of workers and soldiers so desired by the conservatives who have created an unjust society where one percent possess the wealth and resources, further enabling them to keep the 99 percent low-paid and politically powerless.

Prediction Number Two. I see successive generations of young U.S. women accepting new restrictions. I also see some radical feminist actions, such as the formation of an underground movement of menstrual extraction groups. This will keep the technology alive, but will not change the trend that makes abortion less available, more expensive and more stigmatized.

Why? Once Roe v. Wade became the law in 1973, all organized efforts to educate the public and to seize the technology of abortion came to an abrupt halt. The leadership, by default, fell to a few political advocacy groups, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington D.C. and Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York and D.C. They keep a vigilant eye on how Congressional members vote on legislation affecting birth control and abortion. They, and NOW, have organized a couple of mammoth abortion rights marches on Washington over the years. But Washington D.C. ignores the masses who come in on Saturday, march through the streets, then board the busses and go home on Sunday.

In 1976, the first, most devastating blow to Roe v. Wade came through Congress, not the Supreme Court. Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, an addendum to an appropriations bill, to stop any federal funding of abortion for low-income women. Every year, Congress re-passes this amendment. Every year, Congress exploits the racist and classist bias of the women’s movement. We were ignominiously defeated by the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, 35 years ago.

Even though the vast majority of American women are pro-choice, even feminists are complacent and do nothing other than voting for pro-choice elected officials and sending a check to their favorite national pro-choice organization.

Turning Back the Attack

In my opinion, the factors keeping abortion “safe and legal” are: (1) the continuing broad public support for the decriminalization of abortion; (2) the stalwart daily work of hundreds of doctors and abortion clinics around the country in the face of anti-abortion harassment and violence, and (3) the policymakers’ need to keep women in the workforce.

Even feminists are
complacent and do
nothing other than voting

To regain the ground the women won in the past, we have to learn how we won it and apply those lessons to today. We must revive the spirit of the second wave of the feminist movement, which came out of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. The Women’s Liberation Movement started out to liberate women by challenging the whole “system,” but, unfortunately, changed its focus to raising women’s status in that system.

Most American women today were not born then or were children, and have not experienced being part of a major social movement for women’s liberation, as I experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. I joined the Los Angeles chapter of NOW in 1969, and was part of that huge wave of women who came forward to demand women’s liberation, including repeal or reform of anti-abortion laws. Through the decade before that, I read frequent newspaper articles announcing that a respected community or professional organization had passed some resolution recommending the decriminalization of abortion. In 1962, I saw the television coverage of Sherri Finkbine’s trip to Scandanavia to get an abortion.

This coverage was part of a powerful campaign to stop back-alley abortions. It was led by white religious leaders, mostly men, and professionals, mostly men, who educated the public and roused public outrage against these unjust laws. By the end of the decade, the women’s movement started. Many women’s groups set up “women’s nights” at the local free clinic to provide birth control; they were referring women to New York and California to get abortions. One group, “Jane”, in Chicago, set up an abortion service. The women at Harvard were delving into the medical library to write a newsprint booklet, “Women and Their Bodies,” which was so popular that Simon and Schuster published it as Our Bodies Ourselves in 1970.

On the West Coast, our group worked with Lana Clark Phelan and Patricia Maginnis, the founders of NARAL (which stood for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws). We learned to do abortions with a new hand-held device that used suction to remove the contents of an early pregnancy; Lorraine Rothman modified that device so that groups of us who were minimally trained could extract either our menstrual period or an early pregnancy. We called this procedure “menstrual extraction.” In 1971, Lorraine and I toured the country, teaching vaginal self-examination; self help and menstrual extraction groups sprung up at most of the places we visited. Rebecca Chalker described the process of menstrual extraction in On The Issues Magazine in 1993.

It was the cumulative effect of all these years of mainstream efforts, topped off by the massive numbers of women coming forward to protest, to march and to start projects to circumvent the law that laid the foundation for Roe v. Wade. The seizing of the means of reproduction by the women of the self-help movement did not escape the notice of Justice Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice who authored Roe v. Wade and referred to it in his opinion among a list of new medical techniques. I believe that in another couple of years, one way or another, abortion laws would have become irrelevant because women in the U.S. were taking the matter into our own hands.

Forces are
shaping up
that will
promote a
new wave of
feminist activism

The Women’s Liberation Movement saw the right to an abortion as part of the right of a woman to control her own body and her own reproduction and sexuality, which, in turn, is part of women’s full participation in society and their power to assert their values.

Through the years, women have been somewhat successful in raising women’s status, but in a militaristic, environmentally destructive society. U.S. women may come closer to earning as much as their male counterparts and getting as much education, but the system has become more entrenched and women’s education and work only makes it more so.

Women are losing ground every day in the control of our sexual and reproductive lives. Women seek genital surgery to make their vulva and clitoris look like some non-existent ideal; the medical profession dictates that women submit to radical intervention in their births, and, women face multiple physical and social barriers to nursing babies.

Even the movement pushing for liberation from the tyranny of heterosexual roles doesn’t challenge the patriarchal nature of society, but rather seems to be challenging the legitimacy of women’s pride in our women’s bodies, our ability to bear and raise children and to fight together, as women, for social and economic equality and a humane stewardship of the environment.

Rebuilding the Future

There are powerful stirrings of people around the world challenging non-democratic structures; even in the U.S., we see the Occupy Wall Street protests. Perhaps the forces are shaping up that will promote a new wave of feminist activism.

Whether this is so or not, there are women’s health groups building a sound base for a broader women’s movement, doing radical feminist health and sex education with a holistic self-help foundation. Some midwives and full-spectrum doulas are rebuilding the network of menstrual extraction groups. In short, we will be ready.

Carol Downer is the author of “A New View of a Woman’s Body,” “How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist’s Office,” “Women Centered Pregnancy and Birth,” and “A Book of Women’s Choices.”

Also see: Can We Choose Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? — And How? by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: The Grand Folly of Focusing on “Common Ground” by Gloria Feldt in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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