I have sort of been biding my time and sitting on my words for awhile. When the story about Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and his illegal late-term abortion clinic in Philadelphia broke, I watched intently, horrified as news of one bureaucractic oversight after another came to light and read the words from the grand jury reflecting on the multiple breakdowns in communication and accountability that occurred. They outline clearly multiple opportunities when federal and state organizations could have, should have and even DID become aware of the egregious practices in Gosnell’s clinic, but failed to act. In conclusion, the grand jury writes, “Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that. But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
Here was a devastating case that eclipsed any of the clear boundaries that both so-called pro-choice and pro-life activists have tried to so clearly demarcate, and it exposed all of the ways that our current legislation and legal environment are causing undue harm in unequal ways, leaving poor women especially exposed.
But still I wrote nothing.
I watched as President Obama’s administration, on May 13, the same day that Kermit Gosnell’s verdict was decided, launched a last-second appeal to stop the sale of Plan B to girls and women of any age without a prescription. Plan B, also sometimes referred to as the “morning after pill,”, is an emergency contraceptive that, when taken within 3 days of unprotected sex, can prevent conception from occurring. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration found that Plan B was safe for use by women of all ages, and that it should be made available without age restrictions or prescription. However, in what one US Judge Edward Korman calls a “politically motivated move,” the Obama administration appealed to stay this decision by suggesting that the age for access be lowered to 15 and available only with presentation of a valid ID.
Proponents on both sides of this debate are, again, fired up. For pro-life individuals, Plan B represents yet another foray into the tricky and morally unacceptable area of abortion. For those who consider themselves pro-choice, this was making access to a safe drug, that can prevent pregnancy before it even starts, needlessly difficult. Carol Christ, at Feminism and Religion, wrote,
“Let us be clear. Allowing 15 year olds to buy Plan B with a legal ID begs the question of how a 15 year old who is too young to drive is going to have a valid ID with her age on it. Or how a 17 or even 21 year old girl without access to her own or a family car is going to prove her age…Some girls who need the morning after pill have been raped by their own fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, or boyfriends of their mothers… Some know they would be punished or beaten or even thrown out of the house if they admitted to having sex. Some simply don’t want to disappoint their parents and are afraid to speak to them. Does Obama really want young girls like these to be denied access to the morning after pill and then to find themselves pregnant at age 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17? Would he rather these girls have abortions, or would he prefer they become mothers? Does he expect them to put their children up for adoption without regret? Or does he want them to have to struggle to complete their education so they can support children?”
And still, I wrote nothing.
But last week, an e-mail from Ethan Bodnaruk, who writes and reflects over at www.ethanbodnaruk.com, prompted me to begin moving towards writing. And honestly, as a blog that wants to take feminist thought and concerns seriously, it’s hard to ignore two such public and visible conversations that involve reproductive rights and women’s bodies. Ethan had a proposal for a post, but because so much of the debate about reproductive rights (which obviously intimately involve women in a way that they cannot, by nature, involve men) has ironically been carried forward by men, it seemed unfortunate that the only statement on this site about these issues would come from a man, too. Not that men can’t say good things. Ethan’s post will run tomorrow, and I think you will find it helpful and thought provoking. But women also need to continue to dig into these conversations and to begin owning the discourses that are out there about our bodies, collectively and particularly.
There are no easy answers. I agree with blogger Rachel Held Evans when she reflects on her dis-ease with both the pro choice and pro life “camps,” who either seem to privilege the child or the woman exclusively, but my own sentiments would certainly fall much more closely along pro choice lines. I think that legislation restricting abortion too often leads to an increase in the number or abortions performed and a proliferation of “underground” and unaccountable operations like Gosnell’s. I think that having a baby and pregnancy should not be a punishment for having unprotected sex or being raped. I believe that the government should not demand or legislate whether a woman carries a child within her or not. I believe that if we did a better job of providing social services, education, contraception and support to women, then we would naturally reduce the number of abortions that are necessary. And I honestly believe that Plan B is not that far a cry from a condom or from the birth control pill, which prevent fertilization and conception from occurring.
Some of the current debate surrounding Plan B may come from the fact that we hate picturing a 12-year-old girl being in need of emergency contraception. It’s an unsettling thought. But shouldn’t we be examining the root causes that might lead this girl to need Plan B in the first place, rather than punishing her once she is in a situation where she is at risk of becoming pregnant?
However, having just been pregnant, I also want us to do a better job of respecting life. I know that, from the moment I learned that I was pregnant, I felt different. My body began to change and respond quite quickly. The debate about when and where exactly life begins, and the difference between early and late term abortions, can quickly become sticky. It is hard to truly sort out when a “change” occurs, and when a group of cells becomes a baby that is worthy of our legislative protection. It should not be a discussion about which we are flippant or celebratory.
I also know that I was lucky. I was pregnant with a baby that I wanted, conceived out of a consensual and loving relationship. I had a wide-ranging support system, so this baby was not going to be born into my home alone, but would be cared for my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so many friends. I was financially stable. When these conditions aren’t met, pregnancy certainly does not and will not always feel like a blessing.
I think that both sides have room to learn from each other on this controversial issue. There is value in both respecting a woman’s right to have a say over what happens to her body. It is harmful to wield pregnancy as a threat or a punishment that must be born. But it is also good to respect the sacredness of life and the seriousness of sex.
I haven’t offered anything radical here, I know that. But in cases like these, it sometimes feels like it’s just important to enter the conversational fray and to hope for grace.
This conversation will continue later this week with two more posts: one from Ethan Broadnaruk and another where Justin, my husband, and I discuss our thoughts on reproductive rights.