Why Are Pro-Choicers Spending So Much Time Fighting Stupak-Pitts?

Illustration for article titled Why Are Pro-Choicers Spending So Much Time Fighting Stupak-Pitts?

Earlier today, Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle argued that Stupak-Pitts isn't that bad, and it certainly isn't bad enough to derail health care reform over. What's scary isn't McArdle's pragmatic position - it's the anti-choice dogma wrapped around her words.


McArdle seems to have a low opinion of the various opinions put forth against Stupak, writing:

Most of them seem to come from feminists who blithely assume away concerns about the personhood of the fetus, and the staunch political opposition to subsidized abortion from those who lean towards the "person" side. This allows them to spend 1,000 words or so having a completely irrelevant discussion of the disparate effects of the Stupak amendment on poor women, arguing that women's reproductive health care is too real health care, and similarly unrelated side points.

Memo to authors: you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that women's health care is important, that this has a hugely disparate impact on women, that it will result in more women carrying unplanned pregnancies to term, etc . . . and that still wouldn't make a majority of the country want to pay for other peoples' abortions out of their tax dollars.

And once again, the majority of the country doesn't want a lot of shit. People didn't want to desegregate, or have their tax dollars fund schools and public services in minority areas. I don't want to pay for wars with my tax dollars. But the government doesn't work that way - did I miss the line-item veto form on my taxes?

McArdle then busies herself misusing the 13% statistic and making some really large assumptions:

The women who genuinely can't afford $500 bucks for an abortion are the women closest to the poverty line. Those women will be covered by Medicare, and they won't get abortion coverage anyway in most states. The women who will be buying insurance on the exchanges presumably mostly do not have health insurance now, and thus are losing nothing if their new insurance doesn't cover abortions. [...]

Obviously, I am not saying that feminists shouldn't worry whether women will be denied access to abortion if this passes. But the number of people who are going to lose access that they currently have, and therefore be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, is not likely to be all that large. We're mostly talking about a modest number of women who will have to hand over several hundred dollars that they would really rather spend elsewhere. The very small number of women who currently have access to abortion services, and will lose them, and cannot get together a few hundred dollars for an abortion in time—those women can easily be taken care of if everyone who is outraged by this makes a small donation to Planned Parenthood.

Exactly, because that takes care of all the problems, shifting a public health issue onto the plates of private donors. It also makes a huge assumption - that Planned Parenthood and other like-minded organizations are able to reach all the women impacted, particularly when one considers that it can be difficult to find access to these services outside of major urban areas. A donation to Planned Parenthood won't do much good if the person in need of an abortion is more than 250 miles from the nearest provider.

In the new New York magazine, Jennifer Senior provides disheartening facts and figures about support for abortion. While noting that even at the time of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision was against the popular majority, Senior points out that over the years, our nation has swung closer and closer to the anti-choice side of the pendulum. More troubling appears to be the attitudes of the neo-lifers, which fall along these lines:

NARAL's Nancy Keenan likes to say that abortion's biggest defenders right now are a "menopausal militia"-a rueful, inspired little joke. These baby-boomers, whose young adulthoods were defined by the fight over the right to choose, will soon be numerically overtaken by a generation of twentysomethings who is more pro-life than any but our senior citizens. As GOP strategists Christopher Blunt and Fred Steeper have pointed out, this group came of age during the partial-birth debate and was the first to grow up with pictures of sonograms on their refrigerators. The major development in reproductive technology during their lifetimes wasn't something that prevented pregnancies but something that created them: IVF. These kids have no idea-none-what it was like to live in a world without abortion rights. ("This generation's knowledge of Roe is like, ‘Roe vs. what?' " says Keenan.) And they feel much more strongly about personal responsibility than the generations preceding them: Didn't use birth control? The burden's on you.


These anti-choice narratives are changing how women view abortion - and leaving less and less room for stories like this one:

The woman is 28 years old and ten-and-a-half-weeks pregnant. She wears false eyelashes, blue eyeliner, and a striped shirt of black and gray. The condition is: I can sit in on her counseling session if I do not know her name.

"I can see that you are stressed," starts Claire Keyes, her counselor.

"Yeah," the woman responds. "Always look stressed."

Keyes was particularly interested in counseling this woman because of the constellation of adjectives she'd checked off on her intake form: selfish, uncertain, guilty. If you listened only to pro-life cant, you'd think that women were unconflicted-cavalier, even-about their abortions, using them fungibly with birth control. Keyes can tell you this is seldom the case, especially in such a Catholic city as Pittsburgh, and especially among African-Americans, like this woman, who on national surveys are less inclined than whites to identify themselves as pro-choice.

"I see you're going to school," says Keyes. "Is it harder doing that or working?"

"Going to school."

"Because …?"

"Because I got to cram in homework; sometimes I don't do it," says the woman. "I got three kids: 13, 11, and 8. And I got to deal with them, and the household, and phone calls from school, 'cause they're cutting out. So it's just like … a whole lot of … everything." She reaches for a tissue. "Basically, I go to school, and as soon as I come home, I go straight to sleep."

Not all abortion clinics drill down and do this kind of work. But the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh, from which Keyes stepped down as director in January but still works as a counselor, has a national reputation for being psychologically oriented. If there's any place where the complexity and ambivalence surrounding abortion plays out, it's here.

Keyes opens the woman's folder. "The first thing I saw in your chart," she says, "is you're not sure about your decision. What do you want to tell me about that?"

"I don't know," says the woman. "In a sense, I got too much going on, and I can't afford to take on another child. But in a sense, I feel pressure from my boyfriend, because he don't want the kids … so it's like, I want to. I'm not into the whole abortion thing. I did it before"-twice, according to her chart, once last year at this very clinic-"and I really didn't like it. I think some things happen for a reason."


Worst still are how all of our discussions of "choice" and "life" can still be so woefully inadequate:

Keyes gestures toward the waiting room, where the patient's boyfriend is sitting. "Is he an important part of your life?"

The woman hesitates. "I guess. For now."

"He doesn't have kids?"

"He's got kids. He just don't want any more."

Keyes pauses. "I don't feel you in this decision, and that makes me sad." She thinks. "If you had to name a percentage-pick a number-what percentage of your decision to be here today is yours?"

The woman stares into space. "Basically, 99 percent of it is him." She looks listlessly at Keyes. "So. Get it done and over with."

Keyes gently returns her look. "We have a saying around here: We don't do abortions for boyfriends."

The woman is silent for several long, drawn-out seconds. Then, she offers something. "But see, that's where it comes down to my percent. I have three kids already. So, he leaves, and now I have four children and no dads."


Often, the default pro-choice discussions shy away from these moments, while anti-choicers relish them. To some, this woman is exactly why the government should not assist anyone in paying for abortion. Her story plays neatly into existing stereotypes about black women, promiscuity, and parental responsibility that seems pulled straight out of the pages of the Moyinahan report. And yet, this woman's story is true, and it is one of the many different circumstances that lead to why women seek abortions in the first place.

What generally isn't applied to this type of analysis is a look at the larger factors surrounding choice. Race and racism loom large in various aspects of the debate, but are rarely discussed. African American children are disproportionately placed in the foster care system, and it is often difficult to find these children homes - the GAO even commissioned a study in 2007 to analyze the problem and propose solutions. Poorer women are already banned from receiving abortion coverage, but this is not a fight that has been taken up. Many mainstream feminist organizations are just concerned with maintaining what American women have, and lack the resources and support to push for more equality.


This may be partially an issue of our own making. As Kimala Price writes in Homegirls Make Some Noise:

From the 1980s to the present, women of color have continued this activist legacy in reproductive rights and justice. In the late 1980s, a group of thirty-five prominent African-American women, including political activists and members of Congress, issued the statement "We Remember." The statement connected reproductive health with other issues such as economic and social justice issues:

We understand why African American women risked their lives then, and why they seek safe legal abortion now. It's been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emotional, physical, mental, economic, social – the reason for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, urgent and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal (African American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom 1999, p. 39)

This re-articulation is in light of the U.S. government's ugly history of determining who can and cannot be mothers, who has the right to bear and raise children, through coercive policies. In the past, the federal government had sterilization campaigns targeting African America, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and Native American women. Today it uses more insidious ways of accomplishing the same end, such as family cap policies in the "reformed" welfare system in which mothers may lose benefits if the number of children they bear exceeds the limit set by state governments. Thanks to the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding of abortions, most state Medicaid programs will not cover abortions, and women who serve in our nation's armed forces cannot obtain abortions on military bases or through the military's health plan. Women in federal prisons and most state prisons don't have access to abortions as well.

The problem has been that the mainstream reproductive rights movement has not paid that much attention to these and other related issues. Out of their frustration with this, women of color activists are busy building our own movement. [...]

Drawing from human rights and social justice principles, women of color activists have re-defined "reproductive rights" into what they now call "reproductive justice." Reproductive justice is not just about the individualistic right to have an abortion (i.e., the right not to have children) but to include the right to have children and to raise them in healthy and stable families. Accordingly, these activists have broadened reproductive rights and freedom beyond abortion rights, the rights to privacy and "choice" which are normally associated with the movement. In sum, reproductive justice encompasses many other issues such as economic justice, immigration rights, housing rights, and access to health care.


This is the reason that Stupak-Pitts has become an important dividing line for the pro-choice movement. The amendment is horrid enough on its own - however, as a symbol, it continues to show the quiet erosion of women's right to choose and a painful reminder of all that progressives have failed to accomplish.

Interested in helping to Stop Stupak and expressing support for the right to choose? There are events scheduled this week that you may be interested in. There is a National Day of Action (that's this Wednesday, December 2) where coalitions from different Reproductive Rights Organizations will lobby their congresspeople as well as rally. Supporters are welcome, and Planned Parenthood is asking for people to RSVP. NOW has more details on the basic schedule for the day. There are also rallies planned in Illinois (Dec. 2) and New York (December 4) with more details here.


The Abortion Wars Heat Up [The Atlantic]
The Abortion Distortion [New York Magazine]
The Moynihan Report (1965) [The Black Past]
African-American Children In Foster Care [GAO]
Quoted: Kimala Price On Hip-Hop Feminism and Choice [Racialicious]
National Day Of Action [Planned Parenthood]
National Lobby Day And Rally [NOW]

Earlier: Nancy Pelosi: "This Is Not A Bill About Abortion"



This whole thing just depresses the shit out of me. It just seems so insurmountable and hopeless. I feel the pro-choice side losing ground every day and it seems like the whole movement is just getting lost to apathy. Not to mention the constant misinformation that is circulated by the anti-choice side which is relentless.