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Recognizing Female Personhood

Natasha Chart

I'm delighted that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-USCCB) is getting a pro-choice primary challenger, Connie Saltonstall, to take him to task for shafting his constituents on health care in order to shaft the nation's entire female population on the question of their autonomy.

It's been a long time since the days when it was common for middle-class, adult white women in the US to die from desperate, illegal abortions, so the nation forgets how bad it used to be. Stupak has capitalized on that, on the acceptability of misogyny, in order to turn himself from 'Bart who?' to the man that's helping Catholic Bishops all over the country change the subject away from their decades-long tolerance of pedophilia and towards their attempt to impose theocracy.

Though if you were looking, you'd be able to tell that banning abortion was a cruel, abuse-enabling, sometimes deadly thing to do to women. Stupak doesn't care about that, nor does much of the rest of Congress. The president doesn't seem very bothered by it, either.

But hey, most of them can't get pregnant, so why should they give a damn?


The recession has officially hit men harder, but single women with children, who faced a worse employment situation to begin with, have really been devastated.

To say it's hard to be a single mother glosses over the fact that aside from the reasons why single parenthood would be hard for anyone, even educated, middle class, married women haven't figured out how to avoid falling into mommy-track career purgatory and lowered salaries for the rest of their lives. For low-income women, whose jobs are likely less flexible than professional work, less likely to have paid leave or benefits, the struggle to make ends meet is enormous. In a country with as weak a safety net, and as great a need, as the US, it's entirely rational to be afraid of being poor, or becoming moreso.

Speaking of which, these are some of women's most common reasons for seeking an abortion, emphasis mine:

- The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

For black women, with a median wealth of $5 and alarmingly much of the black male population either incarcerated or part of the ex-felon under caste, the money concerns go double. It's therefore particularly insulting that anti-choice fanatics campaign as if black women were gullible victims of women's clinics and not deliberate seekers of care they believe they need.

Sixty percent of women who seek an abortion already have one or more children and know very well what it means to have a baby and be responsible for its care.

So I can only regard a recent spate of laws that seek to make even miscarriages a criminal matter on the basis of fetal personhood as an obscene failure to either empathize with the difficulty of women's lives or trust them to know best how to live those lives. Because if women are to be full persons under the law, we must own our bodies and the right to make decisions about what's to be done with them.

Enabling Abuse

This is a good synopsis of how partner abuse can pass under the radar due to the carefully cultivated charm of an abuser and the psychological manipulation that leaves their partner, stressed, worn down and feeling crappy about themselves. That same dynamic within a relationship can hide pressures to pregnancy that range from subtle bullying to deliberate, perhaps covert, interference with birth control.

Partner abuse can take many forms, including unwanted pregnancy:

... Sexual coercion and "reproductive control," including contraceptive sabotage, are a common, and devastating, facet of dating and domestic abuse. A growing number of studies, experts and young women themselves are testifying to boyfriends demanding unprotected sex, lying about "pulling out," hiding or destroying birth control - flushing pills down the toilet, say - and preventing (or, in some cases, forcing) abortion. ...

The study outlined at the links notes the influence of these more subtle forms of abuse in high teen pregnancy rates, but some adult women can face the same pressures.

When a woman is in an abusive relationship, whether it's outright illegal, or just some jerk of a teenager flushing his girlfriend's birth control pills, giving a woman no way out of an unwanted pregnancy hands all her rights to someone who has no respect for her at all.

We recognize this in the case of rape or incest, but not only isn't every situation as clear cut as that, we do live in a country where 'she was asking for it' can still win sympathy for rapists. Most rape victims will never tell their stories to law enforcement.

Bart Stupak doesn't have to be there personally to cover her mouth or flush the pills, but he and all his allies might as well be. From a distance, without knowing anything about an individual's situation, or their ability to meet a legal burden of proof in order to get needed care, Stupak would like to enable abusive men all over the country to more easily get the women in their lives pregnant and keep them that way.

If the excuse for that is not knowing any better, well, bull. Anyone so bloody ignorant about what it means to be a woman, that they don't know how common rape and abuse are in our lives, has just got no damn business making laws about women's health care.

I mean, some people talk about a rape 'exception' as though rape were rare and exceptional. Those people are dangerous f*cking idiots.

Sometimes Deadly

I mentioned up top about how the extension of abortion rights to adult white, middle class women who could afford it (well, and poorer women lucky enough to live near an inexpensive women's health clinic that hasn't been shut down by a mob,) had made the specter of how bad things were before legal abortion fade into the background.

But I don't have to speculate about how bad things would be for those women if abortion were made unavailable again. I just have to look at what happens to the other populations of women who've had it taken away from them because some guy who didn't know them decided that he knew better than they did.

For instance, I know candidate Obama mocked having a health exception for abortion in cases where the mother's mental health is at risk, but women can become suicidal when faced with an unwanted pregnancy or because they have a history of pregnancy-related depression. Suicide risks are taken seriously among the prison population, but women, eh, who cares.

What could possibly go wrong with forcing an unstable person to go through a painful, traumatic event and then committing them to an enormous amount of responsibility?

Women who take their own lives, or who suffer from severe postpartum depression and take their children's lives, are rare, unlike rape victims. Though in Andrea Yates' case, she was part of a fanatical, if small, subculture in the US that believed a woman's role was to have children, as many as she could. For Yates, who believed in her faith so strongly that the imminent threat of hell for her children was real to her, this can be regarded as not only a de facto restriction on abortion, but any form of birth control, and her partner insisted on sticking to this dogma even when her doctors told him that she was a suicide risk. It was deadly.

Poor women, a permanent favorite target of social conservatives, have long been denied abortions through the Hyde amendment. Because they can't afford private health care and the federal government refuses to pay for full reproductive health care, they comprise a class of women in the US for whom abortion might almost as well be illegal.

The Hyde amendment passed in 1976, it killed Rosie Jimenez in 1977, when she decided that she could neither afford a second child nor a legal abortion. She went to a back alley provider to try and terminate her pregnancy and died.

Parental consent laws take away the rights of women who can't vote yet in order to make parents who can vote feel better. Indiana's parental consent law killed Becky Bell in 1988, because she refused to tell her parents she was pregnant. Bell died of a severe infection and hemorrhaging from her botched, illegal abortion, and her parents started campaigning against such laws.

Maybe Bell's parents would have dealt with it fine, maybe they would have helped her get the abortion she wanted. But she should have been able to get the care she needed in confidentiality from a licensed physician, the sort of doctor-patient confidentiality even recovering drug addicts are allowed to expect, and if she'd gotten that basic respect, she might be alive today.

People aren't always good at estimating risk and we get embarrassed sometimes for very little cause, such that the embarrassment can seem worse than threats to our health. That's why your doctors aren't allowed to just tell anyone why you visit them, because the greater good is that people seek care and get or stay healthy, not sit at home too ashamed to talk to anyone. When it comes to pregnancy, a fraught and stigmatized condition, this can be deadly.

Last, let's take the most straightforward case, where a pregnancy directly threatens a woman's life.

The Catholic Church has successfully pushed the nation of Nicaragua to criminalize all abortion, and all medical treatment that could result in abortion. So no matter who you are in Nicaragua, if you can't afford to leave the country, you could be the next Rosie Jimenez or Becky Bell. Or, you could be a 27-year-old Amelia, mother of a 10-year-old girl who's been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Amelia has been denied treatment for cancer because it might terminate her pregnancy, though the cancer is likely to kill both her and the fetus before the pregnancy comes to term.

Forced birth proponents like to pretend that nothing ever happens that threatens a woman's life during pregnancy or medically justifies an abortion, but it isn't true.

This same sectarian social movement that wants to ban abortion also pushes for restrictions on contraceptive access, pushes to have fetuses recognized as persons with rights superseding their worthless hosts, pushes to jail women for trying to end a pregnancy without permission and make miscarriages a matter for criminal investigation.

The Catholic Church, having gotten full abortion bans in Nicaragua and El Salvador, would surely like to add more countries to the list. No matter that in Kenya, complications from illegal abortions (and they're almost all illegal) are responsible for about a fifth of all maternal deaths. The Church seems happy to work with any and all allies that will let them continue their work to end the autonomy of women during their childbearing years.

Deaths would follow such bans, as well as many more numerous stories of private misery and hardship. Things only work out all right in the end every time in fairy tales, or the minds of people who believe that there's an afterlife that will make up for how crappy we treat each other in our time on earth. I waver about whether I believe in an afterlife, but I don't waver in the opinion that it's a stupid belief to base policy on.


There are just people in this world whose religious beliefs don't allow them to care whether or not women suffer or die because of pregnancy. Their motives, their 'real' feelings, are irrelevant. The fact is, preserving women's well-being doesn't matter to them, it's not actionable.

So I'd think they wouldn't be allowed to make policies about decisions that should only be made by people who really care about the outcome. That would be wrong though, because they seem to get extra clout, instead, by virtue precisely of not caring what happens to women.

Which is why I'm donating to Saltonstall next payday. I'm broke and I barely knew who Stupak was a few months ago, but I'm tired of having politicians say that my life, or that of other women, is worthless beyond having children.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Natasha Chart writes for OpenLeft

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