What would make you leave the country you call home? When does your sense of right and wrong override your desire for comfort and familiarity? I draw the line at abortion. If it becomes illegal again, I’m out of here.
Last Sunday Pomegranate Radical Health Collective, a local group of feminist health advocates, hosted a free screening of Jane–An Abortion Service at Mess Hall, a cultural center in Rogers Park. The 1995 documentary, by Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy, outlines the history of a Chicago women’s health collective that performed roughly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973. The Jane abortion procedure went through several permutations, including blind drop-offs and dealing with unlicensed men who called themselves doctors, before the women cut out the profit-minded charlatans and got one of the “doctors” to teach them how to terminate pregnancies.
In some ways Jane was alarmingly informal, from the limited medical training to the hush-hush shuffling between venues to the striped sheets on the beds, but they used sterilized equipment and administered drugs with medical precision. Just as important, they provided extensive counseling before a pregnancy was terminated, and performed abortions with kindness and sympathy. Plus, no one was turned away because of age or lack of money. Many women who received abortions through Jane returned as volunteers.
In 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, Jane stopped its services, but I wish it hadn’t. In the documentary, a member of the group says that in med school “doctors learn professional distance when handling people’s bodies.” Jane’s goal was to create “a loving experience where a woman felt in control.”
I didn’t really understand the history of Roe v. Wade until a recent New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin put it into perspective. Basically here’s what happened: A 22-year-old carny got preggers for the third time, freaked out about having to put yet another baby up for adoption, and lied and said she was raped because she thought it might make it easier to obtain an abortion, which was illegal in Texas. She filed suit against Henry Wade, the Dallas County District Attorney, in 1970 as “Jane Roe” and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. (Thirty years later, after finding Jesus, “Jane Roe,” aka Norma McCorvey, petitioned the Supreme Court to overrule the decision, arguing it was based on misinformation about the effects of abortion on a woman’s health.)
The case of Roe v. Wade, though couched in “right to privacy” terms, in practice is less about a woman’s right to choose than a doctor’s. Roe gives physicians ultimate power to determine if a woman should have a legal abortion, considering a variety of factors like the age of the fetus, a woman’s age, and risks to her health of carrying a baby to term. If there’s no consenting doctor, there’s no abortion–so it’s a right contingent upon the willingness of someone else to give you what you want.
There’s no law that puts a cap on abortion prices–and in 1977 government-funded abortions were outlawed. There’s no law that mandates the number of abortion providers in each state. Roe v. Wade left these and other holes, which is why from 1989 to ’92 married women in Pennsylvania had to obtain spousal approval before terminating a pregnancy. According to NARAL, 28 states currently have mandatory waiting periods for abortions; 44 have laws requiring parental consent or notification for minors; 34 have laws “subjecting abortion providers to burdensome restrictions not applied to other medical professions,” and all but 8 of those restrict abortions to hospitals or other specialized facilities.
Another hole in Roe v. Wade gave South Dakota the balls, just last week, to ban all abortions that aren’t necessary to save a mother’s life. (In Roe, Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote that, “subsequent to viability” of the fetus, a state could ban abortion except when it’s necessary “for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”)
I’m pro-choice but not pro-abortion. Abortion is inhumane and physically and emotionally painful. It’s not something you get better at the more you do it. I’ve tried terminating two pregnancies in several ways: playing kickball and lounging in hot tubs; imbibing concoctions of pennyroyal, celery seed, and/or mistletoe in varying degrees of potency, one of which nearly poisoned me; receiving acupuncture from an unscrupulous student who kept pestering me to date him; undergoing an extremely painful scrape-and-suction procedure minus any real anesthesia (I couldn’t afford it), during which the doctor barked at me to hold still or I’d have to come back another day and try again; and ingesting RU-486 pills, with which, as it was put to me at the clinic, “you bleed in the comfort of your own home”–for me that meant hemorrhaging out of a white-hot uterus for an exhausting ten hours and vomiting painkillers because I was too nauseated to keep anything down. Only the last two methods actually worked, and I can’t recommend either one. I would honestly rather be shot in the gut than have another abortion.
I’m pro-choice but not pro-Roe. The shakiness of the decision makes it impossible to focus on anything else when choosing new Supreme Court justices, and it’s a convenient bit of sleight-of-hand right-wingers use to quietly pass scary legislation like the Patriot Act (which Congress renewed this month, making most of its provisions permanent) while we’ve all got our eyes on abortion rights. It reminds me of this one crack whore who six years ago approached my boyfriend in broad daylight and started rubbing his crotch with one hand while trying to pick his pocket with the other.
So what to do? This is what a group of moviegoers–about 30 in all, 9 of whom were men–discussed after the screening. Pomegranate cofounder Emelda Ortiz asked how we can recontextualize the pro-choice movement to make it, in her words, “less full of shame and more positive.”
I was afraid this would turn into a touchy-feely support group, but we avoided sharing personal stories and talked about conservative opposition to Roe and how to reframe abortion as a human rights issue (rather than strictly a matter of health) and brainstormed about what we can do to preserve the right to abortion. Suggestions ranged from advocating more abortion classes in med school to offering scholarships for ob-gyns who will provide them. My favorite idea was to raise funds to pay for the education of anyone who agrees to go to South Dakota and perform abortions for five years.
But we never really found a good solution to Ortiz’s challenge. People who oppose abortions don’t have to have them. End of story. I think that’s the best argument we have.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.