Guam Territory in Turmoil

Guam Territory in Turmoil

by Amy Goodman

She walked into the governor’s office wearing a Halloween mask, a purple wig, a floor-length red velvet cape and army fatigues. She was in disguise and she was scared. Her lawyer had tried to allay her fears the night before. But the setting hadn’t helped. They’d met in a dark back alley outside of town, hopefully not a symbol of things to come. The governor had just signed a law banning abortion and she was pregnant and shouldn’t have a baby. She had a medical condition which required her to take steroids, which would jeopardize the health of the fetus. And now she would have to tell her story to the governor’s attorneys, some of whom she knew because Guam is a tiny island.

But it is also a U.S. territory, which means her right to privacy is protected under the U.S. constitution. Or so everyone thought, until the governor’s attorneys went into court and argued that the right to privacy does not extend to Guam.

The young woman agreed to be the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the new abortion ban long enough to get a temporary restraining order against the law, but it was soon clear she would not be able to keep her identity secret. Already doctors in town could figure it out based on her condition and who had come into the office seeking an abortion within days after the ban was passed. But while her pulling out made headlines in the Pacific Daily News “MARIA DOE WITHDRAWS AS A PLAINTIFF” it did not end the lawsuit. Attorney Anita Arriola simply changed the lead plaintiff to the Guam Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, representing all the women who would suffer “irreparable harm.”

In fact, it was Dr. William Griley, president of the Society of OB-GYNs who first approached Anita Arriola to ask her to take the case. It was Friday morning, March 9, 1990, the day after the legislature had passed the law. “I remember it perfectly,” says the 32-yearold lawyer. “He walked into my office, took one look at me and said, “You know I’ve been referred to you because everyone says you’re the only lawyer who can take this case on Guam because you have all this experience in this type of law, but I also understand that your mother is the senator who introduced the bill.’ I said, ‘Yes that’s true on both points.’ Then I sat him down, discussed my experience and talked about the repercussions of the law.”

As for the other point, she clearly doesn’t like to talk about it. “I have been asked this question a lot and I always pause because it’s difficult to answer it. I love my mother very much. I think she has the same feelings for me and we respect each other greatly. On this issue we disagree. We have basically decided she has done her job in the legislative arena and I’m now doing my job in the legal arena.”

The young attorney smiles. “There’s a sort of saying, O.O.G., Only on Guam, basically referring to the fact that this could only happen on Guam. But the difference of opinion between my mother and me is not so much important for the case as it is important to illustrate the fact that even among Catholic families, even in one single Catholic family, we can have a difference of opinion about when life begins or whether the right to decide whether a woman should terminate her pregnancy should apply to all women.

But difference is not something the daughter relishes. Like most Guamanians, the Arriolas are Chamorro, the name of the island’s indigenous people and language. The community is extremely close-knit and blood runs thick. If your neighbor isn’t your aunt, she’s probably your cousin once removed. Confrontation is not the Chamorro way. “There’s a price to be paid. I’ve never been so lonely in my whole life since taking on this case.” Arriola called a friend in San Francisco where she had worked with a public interest law firm for six years before returning to her island in 1988. “I said, ‘What am I going to do? This is the most terrible dilemma I’ve ever had.’ I decided to take it on when my friend asked me one question: ‘If this were any place other than Guam, would you take it on?’ I said, ‘No question.'”

And the wheels began turning. On Monday, Arriola faxed the law to Janet Benshoof, a New York attorney who heads the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project. She told her nothing had happened since the law was passed so Benshoof asked if she should come to Guam. Arriola hesitated. What would it look like for an outsider to come to the island? One of eight children, Anita Arriola immediately phoned her sister, an administrative assistant to another senator who had voted for the abortion ban. “Lisa said yes, Janet should come out, but it should be a media event. She should give a speech.” And a media event it was. Benshoof flew out two days later.

The day the legislature unanimously passed the law 21-0, the Archbishop was sitting in the balcony overlooking the senate floor. At the time, a local reporter quoted him as saying he would excommunicate anyone who voted against the ban. There was little debate on the floor. The democratic legislators had met in caucus, added amendments, and agreed there would be no debate on the floor. Senator Arriola’s bill was an outright ban on abortion except if the pregnancy posed a serious health threat to the woman. There were no exceptions for rape or incest. The last-minute amendments required a second medical opinion and a medical review panel to approve the abortion if the woman’s life was in danger. And a solicitation clause was added which criminalized abortion counseling and referrals. As a U.S. territory, Guam had passed the strictest abortion law in the country.

Anita Arriola watched the vote from a closed circuit TV-in her sister’s office. Arriola called her cousin, Lou LeonGuerrero, the former president of the Guam Nurses Association. Lou is from a powerful family on the island; her father owns the Bank of Guam. She was upset. “Afterwards, I asked a lot of senators why they signed the bill. They’re friends of mine and they said, ‘Lou, what do you think you would do if you were sitting there and you had the Archbishop looking down at you and he knows your mom and dad?’ It’s almost like their principles were compromised because of the threat of excommunication. To me, that’s not democracy, it’s rule by fear.” And that made Lou LeonGuerrero angry. She started making calls.

But Chamorros were not the only ones beginning to mobilize. Non-native Guam residents like Carol O’Donnell, a former cloistered Carmelite nun from California, were getting in on the act. In fact, when Janet Benshoof arrived on Guam and met with prochoice activists, there wasn’t a Chamorro in the room. It was March 19. That afternoon, Governor Joseph F. Ada signed the bill. The law was effective immediately and the seven doctors who perform abortions on the island all cancelled their appointments. The next day, Janet Benshoof gave a speech before the Guam Press Association. In it, she held up Hawaii’s yellow pages and read out the phone numbers of Planned Parenthood clinics to let women know where they could go to get an abortion. She was the first and last person to be charged under the solicitation clause of the new abortion law.

As Anita Arriola was preparing Benshoof s defense, she was also preparing her case against the law. On March 23, Federal Judge Alex Munson granted a temporary restraining order against the abortion ban. And on August 23, he made the injunction permanent, ruling that the right to privacy has to extend to Guam.

“It was a slamdunker. It was so blatantly unconstitutional in every respect,” says Judge Munson, explaining his decision a week after he handed it down. Sitting in his court chambers on Guam’s neighboring island of Saipan, the silver-haired Reagan-appointee is chief justice of the U.S. District Court. Did he consider severing those aspects of the law he deemed unconstitutional, but saving the rest? “Nothing would have been left.” If every aspect of the law flew in the face of the constitution, why didn’t he throw it out immediately as frivolous? “Because this is such an emotional, personal issue. Just because it’s blatantly unconstitutional, it doesn’t mean it’s frivolous to protect what they consider to be unborn babies.” And what if such a bill were passed again? Would he consider throwing it out immediately? “If the legislature passed a bill in the future that was almost the same…there’s a better argument to deem it frivolous.”

Senator Elizabeth Arriola expected this reaction. “I knew if he went according to Roe v. Wade, he would rule this way.” One of the issues the judge addressed in his decision was the separation of church and state, otherwise known as the establishment clause of the constitution. In his opinion, he quotes Senator Arriola’s statement that “Guam is a Christian community.” When asked to comment on this, the senator seems nonplussed. “But Guam is a Christian community. There are no pagans, or hardly any pagans, here on Guam. You can go anywhere in Guam. If they’re not Catholic, they have some kind of Christian belief. That’s the strength of Guam. You can’t take that away from the people here. Otherwise they’re not Guamanians, they’re not Chamorros, they’re something else.”

It is this issue of what is Chamorro that underlies much of the debate. In the past century, Guam has been occupied by the Spanish, the U.S. Navy, the Japanese, and then the United States once again. In the past few years, Guamanians have formally asked the U.S. Congress to change their status from territory to commonwealth, thus giving them more autonomy over their own affairs, but with the signing of the abortion ban, some key congressmembers who backed commonwealth have withdrawn their support for the new status.

The aspect of the law that particularly angered critics was the clause criminalizing any mention of abortion between doctors and their patients. When I asked the governor about the clause, he clearly did not want to discuss it.

“There is no problem with respect to freedom of speech.”

“Do you think if the law is upheld and a doctor says to a woman, ‘I can’t perform an abortion here on Guam, but you can go to this place in Hawaii to have an abortion,’ that the doctor should be arrested for saying that?”

The governor paused, looked at his watch, got out of his chair and walked to the door. “I gotta go.”

And with that, he ended the interview.

And where would women go if abortion was banned on Guam, either if the law is upheld on appeal or, as Senator Arriola promises, abortion becomes more restricted through another law?

“There will be a bloodbath,” says Dr. William Freeman, an obstetrician-gynecologist who works at the Women’s Clinic, a few minutes drive from the courthouse. He had just been to a luncheon meeting of People for Choice.

“You know, throughout history where abortions are by statute illegal, for instance Ireland or the Philippines, there are always many more abortions done in those countries because the women there also don’t have access to good birth control programs.”

If this ban on abortion is upheld on appeal, would he continue doing abortions? “No, not if it’s considered a criminal act. I’m not willing to get myself thrown in jail to do ’em. But I’m sure we will end up having to take care of the complications of illegal abortions.”

It is not only native Guamanians and women from the surrounding islands like Saipan (a U.S. commonwealth that amended its constitution several years ago to forbid abortion) who rely on Guam as one of the only islands in Micronesia where abortion is safe and legal. Of the 130,000 inhabitants of Guam, about 30,000 are U.S. military personnel. While there is a naval hospital on the island that provides for all of their health needs, it does not provide abortions. This has been the case since the late ’70s with the passage of the Hyde Amendment which forbids federal funding for abortion. On June 1, 1990, the Secretary of the Navy sent out instructions reiterating this policy to all of its personnel. On Guam, Dr. Tom Yetman, the head of the OB-GYN department of the Naval Hospital, is also president of the Guam Crisis Pregnancy Center, an antiabortion counseling agency. He is careful to point out that he does this work on his own time.

If servicewomen or military spouses want an abortion, they must go either to a local clinic, like Dr. Freeman’s, or Guam Memorial Hospital. It is estimated that between 600 and 1,000 abortions are performed on Guam each year. Freeman warns that if abortion is banned or restricted further, it will encourage some on Guam to seek abortions in Hawaii or Tokyo where it is legal, or the Philippines where it is not.

“I personally know two nurses who used to work in outcall abortion services in Manila. The woman who wants the abortion would check into a hotel. The nurse would go out with her suction machine and wheel it right through the hotel lobby under a cover that generally says, ‘Food and Beverage Department.’ The hotel management got a percentage fee for looking the other way. The nurse would go up to the patient’s room. First trimester suction abortion, they’ll do right in the woman’s hotel room. If they come to your room, they charge $1000.

“Or, for 500 American dollars, a woman is picked up at the hotel, driven around the neighborhood for a while and then she’s taken to some back-alley building. The woman receives a quick abortion or scraping of the uterus. Then the driver returns the patient back to her hotel. She has no idea who did the abortion, where it was done and there’s no place she can go for follow-up if she has problems.”

Interestingly, a recent University of Guam survey found it was the Filipino community now residing on the island that gave Governor Ada the highest approval rating for signing the abortion ban. Yet while antiabortion activists like Senator Arriola say they will continue to fight to restrict abortion on Guam because it goes against Chamorro culture, the survey indicates that a plurality of Chamorros did not agree with Governor Ada’s signing of the bill
a finding that does not surprise attorney Anita Arriola.

Arriola shored up her court brief with testimony from anthropologists and sociologists who have studied the Chamorro culture and have found that abortion “has been known and recognized and practiced throughout our history.”

One of those people was Dr. Laura Thompson, a renowned anthropologist who studied Guam in the 1930s. Her book, Guam and Its People, was the first comprehensive anthropological study of the tiny Pacific island then under the control of the U.S. Navy. Interviewed at her home in Honolulu, Thompson pulled out her monograph on Guam and began reading aloud, “Several means of bringing on abortion are known. Boil a small piece of ironwood from which the bark has been removed. You boil it with aguardiente. Drink one cup of this brew three times. This is the most effective dose.” She goes on to recite three other recipes.

Back on Guam, Senator Arriola shakes her head at the mention of Thompson’s name. “Her book was banned in my high school class because a lot of people were angry. It got in a lot of messages that were not the right things.”

University of Guam anthropologist Donald Rubinstein discounts the criticism leveled at his senior colleague. “I think there would be many reasons why books might be banned other than their truthfulness. I don’t know of any other anthropological work that’s really called into question Dr. Thompson’s work.”

Rubinstein points to the native language as further proof that abortion exists in the culture. Although the Archibishop of Guam says there isn’t even a Chamorro word for “abortion,” Rubinstein cites several. “The term ‘pokka’ is a generic term which means to break or crack or shatter and it’s used as a term for actively ending a pregnancy. The other term, ‘mafog,’ probably translates more accurately as ‘to miscarry.’ “

Dr. Thompson says her recipes for herbal abortifacients came from an old suruhana, or woman herbalist. These local healers have been practicing traditional medicine since before the Spanish Conquest. They have also been known to induce abortion through herbal douches, potions and massages. But Thompson says it is not something that is openly discussed. “I had the impression it was secret on the part of suruhanas and secret on the part of the women. But I also think that abortion usually is a secret process. It’s a woman’s world and a woman’s job.”

“KEEP ABORTION SAFE AND LEGAL” and “DON’T WANT AN ABORTION? DON’T HAVE ONE” are the slogans on the first posters the new abortion rights group has put up along the roadside throughout Guam. People for Choice formed shortly after the Governor signed the abortion ban into law. The group now boasts a mailing list of 300 about the same number of people that showed up at a prochoice rally in those frenzied days following passage of the Arriola bill. It was the first prochoice rally ever held on Guam. Although a counter-rally called for the same day drew 1000 supporters, prochoice organizers were amazed that even 300 dared show up to demonstrate public support for abortion.

Both Lou Leon-Guerrero and Anita Arriola are products of Guam’s Catholic schools, yet they are continually surprised by the Church’s level of involvement in the abortion debate. Arriola recalls walking to the prochoice rally with Janet Benshoof and being approached by a group of Catholic high school girls who had seen the lawyers on the news. The girls said they supported what they were doing, but when Benshoof suggested they join them at the rally, they said the nuns told them they would be expelled if they went. Afterwards, Arriola said a friend called her and said her two children, aged six and eight, were told by their school’s nuns that they would get an A in religion if they went to the antiabortion rally. A few months later, just before the September primary for all elected positions, the Archbishop sent out a letter to all Catholics calling on them to vote only for “prolife” candidates.

On September 21, Gov. Ada said he had decided “after tremendous soulsearching” to appeal the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

Lawyers familiar with the case said it could reach the Supreme Court as early as next fall.

The Church continues to plan events, like the Chain of Life where the Catholic schools send home letters urging parents to gather their children for demonstrations on one of Guam’s most important thoroughfares. The road is near the courthouse, which stands around the corner from a lifesize, rotating statue of the Pope, and across the street from the Archdiocese. For many of Guam’s most powerful personalities it is still as easy to cross the line between church and state as it is to cross the street.

Amy Goodman is News Editor of WBAI/Pacifica in New York City