Rx for Change: Abortion Disconnect

Taken from the March/April 2016 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

The fuzzy thinking that even our allies express amazes me.  I’ve found that it’s not unusual to encounter people who hold all kinds of theoretical, philosophical, and moral positions about abortion, even when those positions are contradicted by actual, real life experiences.  Let me share some stories that illustrate this point.

Before I left my job as a community organizer to write my book, The Story of Jane, I trained my replacement, a man who was a few years younger than me.  He asked me what “Jane” was, and, when I told him that it was an underground, feminist abortion service that performed about 11,000 illegal abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, he offered his thoughts, describing himself as a devout Protestant who was pro-choice.  But, he added, he believed that a woman who had an abortion would have to carry the moral weight of that decision for the rest of her life.  Knowing he had an adolescent daughter, I asked, “So, if your daughter got pregnant, what would you want her to do?”

Without pausing, he replied, “I hope she’d get an abortion.”

“And,” I asked, “Would you want her to carry a ‘moral burden’ for the rest of her life?”

His face registered shock, “Oh, no, I’d never want that!  I guess I better rethink things.”

My friend "Judy" (not her real name) is an OB-GYN with a private practice.  She and her partners perform abortions when their patients need them, just as part of the women’s health care they provide.  Recently, they wanted to add a new doctor to their practice.  They interviewed many young OB-GYNs who said they were pro-choice, but, when questioned, not one of them was willing to perform abortions. Judy was appalled. What does it mean to be a gynecologist who is pro-choice if you refuse to perform an abortion?  Happily, Judy and her colleagues were eventually able to find a doctor they liked who would perform abortions.

People who run abortion clinics where protests are regularly held will tell you that it is not unusual for a protester to sneak into the clinics for an abortion for herself, for her daughter, or for a friend.  When these patients are asked what they plan to do after their abortion, they say: go right back out and join the protesters. Huh? At least the man I was training as my replacement admitted he had to re-evaluate his beliefs when confronted with how those beliefs might affect someone he loves.

Some years ago, I was invited to speak about Jane at a college in Arkansas.  During the Q&A after my presentation, one young man monopolized the discussion spouting his anti-abortion views. I responded by talking about the need to respect women and their decisions.  My comments didn’t dissuade him, but he came up to me afterwards to thank me for treating him with so much respect. I was so taken aback by what he said that I couldn’t even point out the inconsistency between his appreciation for being respected, and his unwillingness to respect others. Again, huh?

Decades ago, when I was interviewing former members of Jane for my book, one of the women told me that she got married in the late 1950s because she was pregnant. She said, “If anyone then had asked me if I thought abortion should be legal, I would have said ‘no,’ but I sure thought I should have been able to get an abortion.”

What’s going on here?  Logic and personal experience don’t seem to affect deeply held beliefs. Sometimes it seems a chasm stretches between what is good for me, the way I want to be treated, and the way I believe others should be treated.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy way out of this conundrum.

This cognitive dissonance is especially troubling right now because of the spread of the Zika virus. In Brazil and other Latin American countries, government officials whose response is to advise women to postpone pregnancy demonstrate a disconnect from the real lives of women in their countries. Poor women don’t live in air-conditioned homes or even have mosquito netting, making them most vulnerable to the virus. For these women, access to birth control is, at best, severely limited. Making the situation more harrowing for women, sexual assault is prevalent. And, of course, in many of the affected countries, abortion is illegal.

The parallels between what is happening now in Latin America and what happened in the mid 1960s — when the U.S. experienced a rubella outbreak, causing birth defects in babies born to infected mothers — are worth noting. Rubella in the U.S. led to the beginnings of abortion reform. The difference is that today, throughout South and Central America, unlike in the U.S. during the rubella crisis, a vibrant, vocal feminist movement exists. These activists are fighting for women, challenging the disconnect.

Laura Kaplan authored The Story of Jane, and is an activist for women’s health, reproductive justice, and domestic violence. She served on the NWHN’s Board of Directors for 8 years and co-founded Woodstock Immigrant Support. Now retired, Laura continues her activism through volunteering.

Read more from Laura Kaplan.