Revolutionary Worker #1190, March 9, 2003, posted at http://rwor.org
I grew up in a generation after Roe V. Wade . Many of us have seen pictures of bloody back- alley abortions, but it seems to belong to a distant past . . . like slavery.
But when I stop to think about it, I realize that back-alley abortions and slavery existed not too long ago. A lot of women in my generation generally consider themselves pro-choice, but when it comes down to it many feel that it's not a choice that they could make. Why?
It shouldn't be surprising since many young women have seen the blown-up photos put out by the anti-abortion movement--pictures of bloody fetuses that say "ABORTION KILLS BABIES." Many of us have had these shoved in our faces when we enter women's health centers for information, a routine check-up, contraceptives, or an abortion.
We've grown up in a generation that has seen the rise of the rightwing Christian-fascist "Promise Keepers" movement--with its abstinence pledge campaigns that declare virginity a virtue.
We are not supposed to feel good about having an abortion. We're not told that this is an act of independence--an act of women taking control of their own lives and future. Instead, the church, the state, the mass media has made many young women feel that having an abortion is like having a skeleton in the closet--that a woman should feel ashamed of this, that it's a scar reminding her of the "guilt" of ending a human life.
* * *
Julia and Cynthia grew up with me. I remember we used to laugh all the time together. We went to the movies. We sat on the steps and talked about what we wanted to do in life. Sometimes we went to the beach when we wanted to talk about "life and the universe." We would stand at the edge of the shore watching the evening tide approach our bare toes. Their eyes shone with bright flickers of youthful enthusiasm as we talked about the future and changing the world from what it is to what it should be . . .
When Julia found out she was pregnant she said that she wanted to go through with her pregnancy because she supported a woman's right to "choose"--and she "chose" to have a baby.
Julia was 18 years old when her eyes started to grow tired, the youthful rebellious flame inside began to flicker.
* * *
I'm in my mid-20s and I remember learning about sexual reproduction and so-called "personal responsibility" in high school. Abstinence was promoted as the "responsible choice." But if any of us got pregnant because we had made the "wrong choice" of having sex outside of marriage, we had to live with the "consequences."
We had three options: 1) keep the baby; 2) give it up for adoption; 3) or have an abortion. Those were our choices, but if we decided to go with the second and third choices we were constantly told that we would have to "live with that decision"--as if it would be a big moral "X" on our soul that would make us feel regret and guilt for all eternity. We were warned: "Think about whether or not you can live with that kind of guilt."
Abortion was described in my health class as a painfully invasive procedure performed with pointy things and vacuums that sucked a tiny baby out of a woman. But what could be more painful and invasive than being physically forced--by parental consent laws, anti-abortion lies and propaganda, little or no access to abortion providers, poverty and lack of family support--to give birth to an unplanned and unwanted child?
* * *
Cynthia was 19 years old when she had her first abortion. The strength that won out over the "guilt" she was supposed to feel when she walked in the doors of the clinic was defeated by anxiety the second time she had an unwanted pregnancy. She had already had one abortion, and she wondered if she would have the emotional strength to have another.
I can only imagine what she was going through--how her thinking was affected by the suffocating atmosphere created by all the anti-abortion propaganda. Here she had another opportunity-- supposedly to now do the "right thing." She decided to go through with her second pregnancy and had a miscarriage shortly after. Her family prayed for its "soul," held a funeral ceremony, and buried it in a tiny coffin.
We never talked about what she had gone through when her family pressured her to bury the fetus, her guilt, or her questions. Actually, I don't think I'm even supposed to know about it. Everything was kept so quiet--as Cynthia was quietly made to feel like she was paying for "past sins."
* * *
How can something as simple as women taking control of their lives be such a volatile question in society? Mary Lou Greenberg, from the RCP, describes the argument over whether women should have the right to abortion like "debating whether Black people should have the right not to be slaves." It's that fundamental of a question.
The state claims it has a "vested interest" in protecting the life of so-called "pre- born" Americans. But what is this vested interest? Surely not some selfless interest in children in general!
Millions of children in the U.S. suffer from lack of adequate health care, nutrition, day care, education, etc., as a matter of routine and as a direct result of this system's policies. More than 5,000 children die in Iraq every month as a result of U.S. sanctions. Around the world countless others, including millions of children, suffer the terrible repercussions of U.S. imperialist policies ranging from starvation to the ravages of war. So what is this "vested interest"? It can only be a vested interest in regulating the lives and actions of women.
History has shown that one of the main ways oppressive societies have established control over women is to control women's reproduction. From the time human societies became divided along property lines and male dominance was imposed over the family and society, the right to make decisions about reproduction has been taken away from women. The church and the state dictate women's subservience to men. And religious and political institutions, laws, and the weight of reactionary ideology all work together as a coercive weight on women. And yet women have never ceased to resist this coercion.
This is a stark example of how property relations--which lie at the heart of capitalist society--are also at the heart of the abortion issue. From the point of view of those who run this country, women are property to be controlled. And fetuses are property that has become politically and ideologically very useful in their efforts to put women down.
* * *
A woman approaches a clinic. She must put on a suit of armor to protect her from the stoning she is about to receive. She must tell herself that it will all be over soon. Her attackers don't literally have stones (although sometimes they do). They stone her by calling her a "murderer." They stone her with rosaries and prayers shoved into her face. They stone her with religious propaganda and pictures of bloody fetuses. She enters the clinic after stepping through a minefield to get to the door. She clears her throat as she talks into the speakerphone to the people behind the bullet-proof glass. Her doctor wears a bullet-proof vest to work every day.
Once her visit is over she still has to go through it all on her way out.
* * *
In the 1980s and 1990s there was an intense battle between both sides of the barricade. The anti- abortion forces organized themselves into reactionary groups that resembled screaming, fanatical armies to harass and intimidate women going into women's health and abortion clinics. They terrorized--using threats, violence, bombs and even murder--doctors, abortion providers and clinic staff.
Thousands of women organized to fight against vicious and daily attempts by anti-abortionists to physically close down health facilities that provide abortions. In cities all over the country, women organized clinic defense and confronted the Christian fascist fanatics head on at the clinic doors. In places like Wichita, Kansas, women and men mobilized from all over the country to stop anti-abortion campaigns aimed at closing clinics and threatening doctors and clinic workers. Hundreds of thousands of women and men rallied against government efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade . And defenders of abortion rights found ways to honor and protect the brave doctors who continue to provide abortions even in the face of death threats.
The anti-abortion forces not only bombard clinics that provide abortion services with firebombs and anthrax, but in society at large they assault women with constant unscientific lies, images, hysterical talk, and politicians who call abortion "murder" or at best say it is an "unfortunate choice" that should be "rare."
The objective effect of all this is an ideological and political assault on all women throughout society. Our freedom and ability to choose has been eaten up by anti-abortion laws and closed-down clinics--as well as the constant assault of lies and confusion aimed at making us confused and racked with guilt.
There are more than 1.31 million abortions in the U.S. every year. Abortion is actually one of the most common surgical procedures. Yet, there are decreasing numbers of doctors who have ever performed an abortion and many abortion doctors are having their medical licenses reviewed as a result of anti- abortion sentiments among physician boards.
* * *
George Tiller, a long-time abortion provider, told a local paper in Wichita, Kansas, "It is not unplanned pregnancy, it is unwanted motherhood that shipwrecks people's lives. Make no mistake, this battle is about self-determination by women of the direction and course of their lives and their family's lives. Abortion is about women's hopes and dreams. Abortion is a matter of survival for women."
* * *
Women's lives are not negotiable. There are not two extreme views on abortion. Abortion is about whether or not a woman has a right to be free, whether or not she is able to act upon her highest aspirations. Abortion is not "sad." It's not "unfortunate." It shouldn't be "rare." The pro-choice and anti-abortion movements should not try dialogue to find common ground--there isn't any!
Some people say that the pro-choice movement should "compromise" and appeal to the more "moderate" forces in the anti-abortion movement. For example, earlier this year NARAL changed their name from National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League to NARAL Pro- Choice America. This is apparently an effort to appeal to a broader base of people.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times (2-15-03), Peggy Loonan, founder and executive director of Life and Liberty for Women, says this move by NARAL "sacrifices principles that the abortion-rights movement holds dear and leaves it operating from a place of weakness and compromise rather than from a place of strength." Loonan argues that forging of alliances with lawmakers and voters on their terms, rather than on the terms of what should be every woman's right, has only helped put in place more barriers to abortion. And Loonan says, "The position of the mainstream abortion-rights movement not to confront anti-abortion activists in the street is a mistake. Unchallenged rhetoric and pictures of what appear to be aborted fetuses have left the public feeling shame about legal abortion and have marginalized abortion providers."
A defensive posture around abortion rights only concedes ground to the anti-abortion rhetoric. It makes the central issue not one of women's independence and liberation--but instead simply a question of women being able to make a "choice"--that may be "right or wrong." And this leaves the door open to the argument that the "choice" to have an abortion is "unfortunate," or even "wrong and immoral."
But FETUSES ARE NOT BABIES! And WOMEN ARE NOT INCUBATORS! And in the fight for a women's right to choose, we need a clear and firm stance of ABORTION WITHOUT APOLOGY.
Defensive compromises aimed at appealing to those who have been confused by anti-abortion rhetoric only feeds into the lie that there are two "extremes" in the abortion battle and that both are wrong. The truth is that the two "extreme" sides in this battle are right and wrong. The fight against abortion is about oppressing women. The fight for abortion rights is about liberating women. All those who believe in the equality and liberation of women should be uncompromising on the question of a woman's right to choose.
The reality is that abortion is a necessary method of birth control which must be available to women. Without this means of controlling their reproduction and terminating unwanted pregnancies, women will be no more than slaves. The heart of it is that having the right to an abortion is a question of whether or not women can play a full and equal role in society.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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