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.