What women's rights look like when the two sides come together as one.
What women's rights are when women are no longer manipulated by party rhetoric.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Abortion & 21st Century Thinking

Anna Belle

Last week Cynthia wrote a brave piece on abortion, which she referred to as the third rail of feminism. This is an apt metaphor. As with the "third rail" of a railway train, the third rail of feminism is electrifying and potentially fatal. But if we carry this analogy one step further, we can begin to see our way to thinking about the topic of abortion from a 21st century perspective. Instead of being bystanders stumbling upon the third rail and getting burned, as the metaphor is usually interpreted, we can see it from the perspective of the inventor or technician, who understands the value of the rail, and works to keep it a safe, useful, and functioning part of our society. To make this transition, we need to rethink what we've been told and what we've chosen to accept about abortion in America today.

I first began to rethink the issue of abortion several years ago as a pro-choice activist working to hold Democrats accountable for their lack of support of abortion rights. I was working on a series of articles in which I sought to establish the case for why women had to hold Democrats accountable because I believed abortion rights were under zealous attack from the right and that Democrats weren't doing their part to protect them. In doing the research for those articles, I came upon the Guttmacher Institute and its studies, which offered a wealth of statistical data on abortion collected over decades. Of particular interest was their presentation of Trends in Abortion in the United States, 1973-2008 (since updated).(The Guttmacher Institute was formerly a creation of, and attached to, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, but became a separate entity in 1977.)

I was shocked at what I found in the studies. Take a look at the link on abortion trends for yourself. Access to abortion has remained steady over the years since Roe v. Wade was passed. In fact, a lot of things about abortion are pretty stable and have been for some time.

I had intended to write a fiery piece shaming Democrats for failing women so badly, from the acceptance of pro-life Democrats to the Roberts and Alito votes in the Senate, but I had to change my mind and write what I found out, as opposed to what I believed. I had to write about how much energy we were wasting fighting so hard, because abortion was a stable phenomenon. And I had to write about how I was rethinking the treatment of abortion by Democrats. It was a scary proposition to consider for someone like me, for whom abortion has always been the centerpiece issue of my political ideology. Bad enough that abortion might be on the decline and Democrats weren't acting, which suggested they didn't care. But worse was the idea that access was stable and Democrats were still using it as leverage for women's votes, which suggested more sinister motives. I do understand how the politics of fear works.

Since then I've come to what I consider I much more dynamic view of abortion. I'm as pro-choice as I ever was, I just don't buy the party line like I used to. As a result, I feel less bogged down in the crisis and more empowered to advocate for sensible, rational change. And as Cynthia suggested in another great article about advancing women into the 21st century, part of that is talking about it with people, sharing the experience, and offering solutions. Here's some of my re-thinking on the issue of abortion.

We're Never Going Back
My entire life I've heard the stories of back alley abortions, of women dying or being permanently sterilized because they had neither access to contraception nor safe, medical abortion. This history is real, and worth remembering. However, it should not be used as an argument for maintaining a radicalized view of abortion. We must constantly examine our beliefs and adjust our thinking if we are going to be taken seriously. Reproductive health care has changed dramatically in our country and so we should not assume that the loss of abortion would result in the exact same conditions faced by women prior to the 1960s. To offer that history as a persuasive argument is an exercise in hyperbole.

Here's something to keep in mind about hyperbole: constant use of it wearies the intended audience. It eventually decreased the credibility of the person relying on it to make the point. Consider that you can now get an abortion-by-pill from a remote-operated drawer in a room where no doctor is actually present in Iowa. Consider also that 89% of sexually active women who are not currently pregnant are using birth control. Advances in medicine and the dramatic increase in the number of women using birth control both suggest, quite sensibly, that we are never going back to the days of back alley abortions.

Energy, efficacy, & old battles
Once we can clearly put the idea of abortion in perspective, we can generally more clearly see the political side of the rhetoric surrounding it. Just one example is the rhetoric surrounding the Republican initiative to defund Planned Parenthood. This particular debate is so rife with hyperbole and misinformation that it is often frustrating to discuss with true believers. One the one hand the argument is offered that tax dollars don't pay for abortion services at Planned Parenthood. On the other hand the argument is offered that Republican initiatives to defund Planned Parenthood are an assault on abortion. These arguments cannot work together because they actively refute each other. If tax dollars are not used to pay for abortion services, then reducing or eliminating taxpayer funding does not affect the ability of the agency to perform abortions.

Another hyperbolic argument in the debate is that poor women will lose their access to birth control if Republicans are successful. A quick examination of the facts dispels such notions. The money being discussed with regard to Planned Parenthood are federal and state Medicaid funds. Planned Parenthood plays no role whatsoever in determining Medicaid eligibility. They merely accept Medicaid as one form of payment. If a woman is on Medicaid and cannot go to Planned Parenthood, she can get those same services at a regular physician's office, or she can arrange for a referral to a gynecologist. Planned Parenthood also has a sliding fee scale, so unless they are proposing to dispense with this feature of their business model, poor women will still be able to get reproductive health care even at Planned Parenthood.

Here's why I don't have a problem with defunding Planned Parenthood: I believe the bickering over abortion has led to a ghetto-ification of women's health care. We are living in a state of separate but equal when it comes to our health. Planned Parenthood itself is some proof of this. Also consider that in 2009 our Congress passed health care legislation wherein abortion services were completely removed from the equation, put on another level, and permanently assigned that place with a special Executive Order that replaced the Hyde Amendment. Now, instead of trying every two years to defeat the Hyde Amendment, we have to find another, future President willing to write an Executive Order nullifying that one. This is where all our defensiveness over the issue of abortion has led: to an act of separately legislating our healthcare issues based on gender and an entrenchment of pro-life values at the federal level. And this from the supposed great protectors of our rights?

If nothing else, this calls for an evaluation of the efficacy of our activism. Perhaps if we had insisted on integrating our reproductive care, instead of isolating it in order to protect it, we might have experienced different results.

A Stronger, Smarter Fight
At the end of the day I am reminded that we let this happen. We insisted on supporting politicians who failed to deliver because we focused on the words they said instead of the acts they did. We insisted on centering the debate on this topic above all else, and became so myopic about it that we accepted whatever happened and failed to question when we should have. We also failed to understand and use leverage to move the debate forward. I often think back to those days in the early 1970s and wonder what the world would look like today if we had collected our energies to put fair wage issues in front of the court instead of the abortion issue. Would the world look different with more women with financial and political power? Might we have come to a different place with regard to abortion if we had focused on affording women educational and career opportunity? So a woman doesn't have to be a mother now. But what good is that if she can't be the President, or a CEO either?

We must change our thinking on this issue.
We must fight stronger and smarter, instead of harder and louder. Advocating for broader women's rights is a way to fight for protection of abortion rights. Women who accumulate power are going to go the distance to make sure they can preserve that power, and part of that involves control of reproductive destiny. A nation full of female white collar professionals, politicians, and corporate executives would never allow the power of reproductive control to be taken from them, and they would be much better situated to protect it. Empower women outside of the confines of their reproductive capacity, and watch that critical mass grow as more women demand and enjoy their rights as modern women. It is actually just this--that four generations of women are living in a country that offers them reproductive choices and that they are making those choices--that has moved us forward as far as we have.


  1. Thanks for this excellent piece Anna Belle. It is so important to rethink what we are doing, and you have made some great points as to why the left needn't go so irrationally overboard on the subject. The thought that when we women run things in proportion to our numbers that we will be the decision makers gives a completely different perspective to the whole idea. It should make it much easier for the left to pivot and focus its full energy to getting more women elected, etc.

  2. Great article Annabelle. I always took note of the male leadership of the anti-abortion movement (Randall Terry, etc). The women were the workers.

  3. Anna Belle---I hope that people thoughtfully ponder the points you make. The new way of looking at this issue is much more productive. Like you and Cynthia, I see the most important task ahead to be getting more women into positions of power on all sides of the political spectrum. Your piece arms us with facts that will allow us to counter the knee jerk reaction that women's rights mean keeping abortion legal. Great piece of writing!!

  4. I am sorry but this argument makes no sense at all. Do you really think that women can take their eyes off protecting the right to have an abortion, and instead put all their energies into the equality fight, without consequences? Abortion rights are under attack and without a vigorous defence they will be eroded - the right to an abortion is fundamental to the freedom of women TO DO ANYTHING. Without this right, women would be bowed down with the weight of trying to support children they don’t want and can’t afford, and would have no time or energy to get a job in the mall, let alone become CEO of a company. Further, you argue that using history – back street abortions etc – to maintain Roe v Wade is counterproductive – hmmm – how may women were CEO’s of companies back in 1973. In fact, how many women worked outside the home, had the legal right not to be raped or beaten by their husbands and had access to refuges? Get real.

  5. Matarji-----although you think that Anna Belle's argument makes no sense, your argument has a hole a mile wide in it. You are basing your argument on a point of view that doesn't factor in the scientific advances that we have in the 21st century. Furthermore, the argument that abortion is THE women's rights issue might have been salient 25 years ago. However, it's done absolutely nothing to help get women into more positions of power in our society. In effect, the abortion argument has completely stalled women's progress because we haven't tended to anything else. I too am pro-choice, but the last century tactics are just outdated. Sure we need to keep an eye on the abortion argument, but what about everything else? Women have been KEPT DOWN by putting all of our energy into one basket.

  6. Matarij, no, women were not allowed to be CEOs in 1973 when Roe was decided. However, the birth control pill was just over a decade old at that time, and since then significant options have become available with birth control. That's the real tragedy of Roe--we were already on our way to controlling reproductive destiny. We needed fair pay and equal opportunity far more than we needed another way to avoid pregnancy.

    Quite a few women worked outside the home and every woman had a legal right not to be raped or beaten by their husband in 1973. You apparently missed the point about hyperbole and credibility.

    As for the rest of your hyperbolic response, abortion isn't going anywhere. Yes there are people who are pro-life and they are fighting for what they believe in. They live in a free country that allows them to believe what they want and to express it too. But at the end of the day there are far more women enjoying reproductive freedom than there are people trying to squash it. And actually, the pro-life movement is also undergoing a reform of sorts (http://almostverbiage.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/abortion-and-the-art-of-compromise/). Responses like yours will do nothing to promote reasonableness on the other side.

  7. Cynthia, Jennifer, and Kathy, glad the piece spoke to you. I'm especially glad to see you mention getting armed with facts, Kathy. That's the way to do it!

  8. I see Anna Belle is still taking any opinion that is not hers and trashing it. I thought all women and all viewpoints were allowed at the table?

  9. anonymous---sounds like you've had some personal interaction with Anna Belle. I say that because I don't see her trashing anyone here. If you have an issue with her, I'd appreciate it if you'd take it up with her privately and not on this blog.

    Also, ALL opinions and points of view are welcome here. After all, how are we going to craft a vision of 21st century feminism without putting together a variety of visions?

  10. Anna Belle, Although I don't fully agree with your logic, I totally agree with your conclusions. I understand Kathy's concern about ignoring the abortion issue. She's thinking of what it would be like if our country had no abortion rights. It is very scary to think of voting for someone who comes right out and says they want to overturn roe v wade. But we have to keep in mind some of the very relevant points AB made. First, it is unlikely the courts will over turn Roe. Most women have access to birth control and are using it. Politicians aren't going to remove the right to birth control. They wouldn't get away with it. They can talk about abortion bc it doesn't affect most women - since they are on birth control. This is also the reason why the feminist groups have lost the attention of most women. Women's groups talk of very little other than abortion, an issue which doesn't affect most women's lives. So, the prolife movement will win every time. Their audience (who is also not affected by abortion directly) feels like they are doing something moral and want to be engaged. The feminist movement focuses solely on an issue which is not relevant to their intended audience's lives. This is a losing battle for the feminist movement, pure and simple. The feminist movement is distracted and bogged down by focusing on a losing battle and women lose. Once feminist movement gets focused focusing on issues that directly impact women's lives (equal pay, women in leadership, violence against women, etc), women will move forward. The feminist movement has proven that when focused on what impacts women's lives, it will move women's live forward. let's work to get women and feminists focused on what matters to all women. And as AB points out, once this happens and women are in positions of leadership, have financial and political power, the abortion issue will be history. Most women are enjoying having control over their own bodies. That's not going to go away if women have the financial and political power that comes along with equality. No one can argue with that.

  11. Greta---I read this blog all of the time and I have to say that I can really relate to what you are saying. Your point about birth control is right on. I don't think that the people working on the abortion issue realize how birth control is so much more prevalent than ever and that the subject of abortion holds a different place in people's lives than ever before. Also, as Anna Belle mentions, we have the morning after pill. Plus the dynamics of the abortion debate have changed quite dramatically since ultrasound techniques have become so good and because of fetal viability outside the womb is so early these days. It just changes the way people perceive things---even pro-choice women. I like the way we are talking about this because for sure it's time for women's economic issues to take the forefront.

    I'm also sorry anonymous felt offended, but I must defend Anna Belle as I really didn't find what she said to be insulting.

  12. Greta & Jeannie, I appreciate your comments. I'm not suggesting that everyone has to agree with everything I've said. I'm just trying to offer different ways of thinking about the issue in the hopes that something will resonate. I think it's important that we have this conversation out in the open, even if some people are not persuaded.

    I am also sorry that anonymous felt offended. If she or he would like to discuss whatever is bothering him or her directly, I can be reached at peacocksandlilies AT gmail DOT com.

  13. Anna Belle Brava! I am so darn proud if you! I am behind you Gal hook line and sinker.
    Let me know if you want some BTR radio time!

  14. Anna Belle: This is a fine article, laying out the issues beautifully. Congratulations. For a future piece, could you do maybe 10 or fewer talking points? I am concerned that people have simple points and the words to rattle off.

    Today I was pleased to be able to rattle off a number of your points (that I remembered, and I hope correctly) too a friend I haven't seen for a while, who was receptive to what had been said. This is an Obama supporter. (Or was.) I have sent her the full article now. A reasonable person cannot object to what you have said. It is hard to refute.

    I guess one of my latest "things" is that we have to give people the words to use, the talking points in brief.

  15. Good idea, SantaFeK. I'll see what I can work up :)

  16. Fabulous, Anna Belle. Make it another little article for this blog (doncha love how I just offer up WWtoo, someone else's blog?)
    This is great. I think it is will be a great way of helping with the words. People find their own words, but have to have the schtuff in their heads, easily retrievable, or I am not very swift and retrieving isn't my best suit. Thanks so much.

  17. SantaFeK-----you can offer up this blog any time LOL!!!!!!

  18. Great article!

    Thanks Cynthia. I appreciate all this meaningful, actionable information.

  19. I'd like to second the motion on SantaFeK's idea. It would be helpful.

    Great article Anna Belle!

  20. 1.2 to 1.5 million abortions in the U.S. per year is out of hand. With birth control, there is no excuse for women to be so careless, and with these Million Mom Marches and talk about "saving the children", that just doesn't mesh with the reality of rampant abortion.

    There needs to be a discussion about the selfishness of aborting healthy innocent life just to spend a few more years partying.