The Least Bad Option
Americans will declare war on almost anything. Like most nations in history, we declare war on other governments. But we have also made a habit of declaring war on ideologies (Communism, Islamic extremism), on broadly defined patterns of violence (terrorism, piracy), and even on abstract social ills (poverty, drugs). And then there are the “culture wars,” a lazy phrase that at one point served as a shorthand for the political agenda of the Christian right, but which has recently expanded to refer to any controversial topic that doesn’t involve tax brackets or firing cruise missiles into foreign countries. Guns, medical marijuana, zoning regulations, soda bans, physician-assisted suicide, rent-controlled apartments, Citibikes, and the Pledge of Allegiance all are part of the culture wars according to one respected commentator or another.
But there is one front in the culture war where the word “war” doesn’t seem like overheated rhetoric, where real bullets are fired and where real bombs are thrown: the struggle over the availability and scope of abortion. It’s the hot-button social issue that stubbornly continues to divide Americans even as other bones of contention like recreational drug use and gay rights inch reliably towards liberalization. And the white-hot beating heart of the abortion debate—its bloodiest battlefield—is the question of late-term (i.e., third-trimester) abortions.
Late-term abortions and the forces arrayed for and against them are the subject of a wrenching new documentary, After Tiller, which opens in New York later this month. The film profiles the four remaining doctors in the United States who perform late-term abortions, all of whose lives were touched in one way or another by George Tiller, the Kansas-based, late-term abortion provider gunned-down by an anti-abortion extremist while attending Sunday church services three years ago. In the aftermath of Tiller’s slaying, Randall Terry, founder of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue, called Tiller a “mass murderer” who “reaped what he sowed.” Despite widespread condemnation, the killer got what he wanted: late-term abortions are no longer available in Kansas. Residents now must travel 500 miles to Denver for the procedure.
The Abortion Freedom Riders
There’s no disputing that here in the US there seems to be some kind of state-level legislative epidemic hellbent on condemning female reproductive rights for ever more. Never mind the explosive support of Texas Senator Wendy Davis during her abortion-bill filibuster earlier this summer—Governor Rick Perry saw that the bill passed in the bat of an eye in an instantaneously appointed special session. A couple states away, in North Dakota, recent legislation aimed to prohibit abortions after six weeks but was paused by a last-minute injunction granted on July 31, mere hours before the new laws were set to take effect. Not that it matters much anyway: There’s only one remaining abortion clinic in the entire state. Meanwhile, Arkansas has instituted its own ban on abortions after twelve-weeks.
So it sucks, but what are you doing about it? Probably nothing. Did you pile into a van and drive for a month straight through some of the most abortion-inhospitable states to protest in front of weird white men plaintively screaming at you to kill yourself? I doubt it.
But Sunsara Taylor gathered a crew of twenty-one fellow activists and embarked on a massive road trip—New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, by way of Fargo, Wichita, and Jackson, Mississippi. All for the purpose of demonstrating at last-remaining clinics, corrupt anti-abortion organizations, and state capitols. Their slogan: “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology.” Their name, a provocative homage to another tremendous civil rights protest that toured the Deep South: the “Abortion Rights Freedom Ride.”
I had a chance to speak with Sunsara as she and her crew wrapped up their tour in Charlotte, North Carolina.
VICE: How did it go in Charlotte?
Sunsara: Well, we went to Charlotte yesterday to make it to Moral Monday, which was a pretty major protest. In North Carolina, there are new restrictions that have been passed on abortion which would close down clinics in that state, but this is just part of the whole tapestry, nationwide, of drastic restrictions to women’s right to abortion, and really, it’s a state of emergency facing women’s rights. So we went there with that message—we had an incredible reception. We have this big, beautiful banner we’ve traveled around the country with that says “Abortion Providers Are Heroes” and people have been signing it at every stop along the country. But there, we were just mobbed with people who wanted to write a message on it and put their name on it, get literature and get connected.
Can you explain how you chose some of the stops on the tour?
[We chose] Wichita, because it’s the home of where Dr. George Tiller practiced for many years. He was stalked and hunted by Operation Rescue—Christian fascists, a very theocratic organization with ties into the power structure at the national level and who relocated their offices to Wichita to target Dr. Tiller for years, and he, as you know, was assassinated in his church, and we wanted to go there because there have been so many more restrictions passed in Kansas. Even though after four years, some people very heroically and courageously re-opened an abortion clinic, they can’t do abortions as late as Dr. Tiller had performed them. They have further restrictions there than were there four years ago. The new doctor who has been flying in there has now been outed by the anti-abortion protesters and she is being targeted and stalked in her home in Oak Park, Chicago. So we wanted to go there and rally support.
Irish Women Are Buying Abortion Pills Advertised on Street Lamps
Names and identities in this article have been changed.
"This is what it’s coming to," said Katie. "These stickers are popping up on lampposts all over town." The Dublin streetlamp she’s pointing at, along with many others around the city, has been branded with a large, pink dot beneath the words, "A SAFE ABORTION WITH PILLS." It’s part of an ad campaign for a website selling miscarriage-inducing drugs, a good deal of which are being snapped up by young Irish women for whom abortion remains a stigma that can’t be addressed openly.
"Vulnerable girls and women are ordering shite like this online and hiding away to ride it out and hope for the best. It’s hideous," Katie told me, repulsed. Ten years ago, she—like tens of thousands of Irish women have in the past decade—made a secret trip to the UK to terminate her pregnancy. But today, abortion in Ireland is still illegal and divisive. Politicians may have voted overwhelmingly to introduce limited abortion last week, pushing the bill onto the next stage, but even if it were passed, it would only allow women who were deemed to be sufficiently “suicidal” to stop unwanted pregnancies in their tracks.
Ireland’s quietest export—women who travel to the UK seeking an abortion—is often referred to in the country’s ferocious abortion debate. But the less publicized practice of self-administering—when Irish women order their own “abortion pills” online—is actually much more common.
“No one talks about women who self-administer,” says Amy. Four years ago, she carried out an abortion on herself using a pill bought from the internet. “We talk about our 5,000 women a year who travel, but no one talks about the really dark underbelly of self-administering, and there are far more of us. We’re swept under the carpet.”
Anti-abortion posters in Dublin. Photo courtesy of @redlemonader
“This kind of abortion is a lot more common than people think,” said Cathy Doherty from the Abortion Rights Campaign. “Before I’d heard of it, I never really thought you’d still have the ‘back-alley abortion’ in Ireland these days—women sitting alone in their houses, still desperate enough to try it.”
The Abortion Rights Battle in Texas Comes to Term
The battle for reproductive rights is on in Texas. You might not have known that if you watch the 24-hour cable news channels, since during state senator Wendy Davis’ ten-hour filibuster against an extreme anti-abortion bill and the subsequent too-late vote forced by the Republicans last week, they were talking about muffins and George Zimmerman.
Media attention or no media attention, yesterday marked the second day of the second special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, which governor Rick Perry called on June 26 so lawmakers could vote on the anti-abortion bill and a couple of other measures. “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn,”Perry said, while meanwhile, the state of Texas was executing its 500th prisoner since 1976, a woman namedKimberly McCarthy. The big event yesterday, which drew hordes of pro-choice and pro-life protesters, was the second public hearing on the anti-abortion bill at the Capitol building in Austin.
Phony Abortion Clinics Are Scaring Women with Lies
Warning: This article contains extreme imagery. All images are from the literature given out at the Aid to Women crisis center.
If you’re pregnant and panicking, there’s a good chance your research will lead you to the website of a crisis pregnancy center. There are about 200 of them across Canada and 4,000 in the United States, and if you believe their advertising, they offer no-judgment counselling services for women who want to know what their options are. Most of the time, they won’t tell you they’re religious organizations hell-bent on convincing you to avoid having an abortion. They’ll have innocuous-sounding names, like “Aid to Women” or “Pregnancy Care Center,” and to the untrained eye, they won’t look like they’re being run by nutjobs who have no problem lying to women.
When I call Aid to Women, a Toronto crisis pregnancy center, to schedule a pregnancy options consultation, I speak with Enza Rattenni, the executive director. She seems friendly enough at first, but it’s not long before what should be a pretty simple phone call starts feeling like an interrogation.
None of what I tell Enza on the phone is true. I’m not six weeks pregnant, I don’t have a boyfriend, and I don’t need options counselling. But I’ve heard a ton of horror stories about crisis pregnancy centers and wanted to find out for myself.
“Where did you get our number?” she asks. My boyfriend. “What’s your boyfriend’s name?” I blurt out the first name that comes to mind. “Oh, OK. Where did he get our number? Just curious because it’s always interesting to hear how people find out about us.” Shit. I’m a terrible liar and haven’t thought this through. I mumble something about finding the center online. Luckily, Enza seems satisfied that I’m not a reporter—just a vulnerable pregnant girl in need of some advice.
She tells me if I’m only able to come in after hours, it’s fine and that she knows how important it is to have these conversations. Sometimes, she tells me, girls walk out of abortion clinics and find out they’ve been LIED to, and she doesn’t want this to happen to me. It makes me wonder how the women who mistakenly stumble into the clinic must feel when they realize they’ve wandered into the hands of an anti-abortion organization.
What was happening inside the Senate chamber?
At this point, Davis was off the clock, so everyone was in the main room outside the chamber. Nobody knew what was happening, we’re all just checking Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, a guy came running out of the chamber and got on the second floor and started screaming — everyone erupted and cheers and claps. For a minute, I thought it was over. The genius selling “Fuck Rick Perry” shirts takes off his shirt and starts waving it around, still hanging off the balcony. The cheering went on for ten minutes. I was like, “Hey, did it end? What happened?” The only answer I could get was, “I dunno.” It was so fucking loud, I felt like I was at a Slayer concert. My ears were shaking, everyone was losing their mind, and half didn’t know why.
—Scenes from Last Night’s Pro-Choice Protest at the Texas Capitol
Kenya’s Slum Abortions Pit God Against Death
While in Kenya, through a contact at a local radio station, a friend and I were able to access an illegal abortion clinic run by a Catholic doctor. We had hiked for more than an hour across Nairobi’s hot and dusty Kibera slums to reach the clinic, and found ourselves sitting awkwardly while we waited for our friend Jobe to make the necessary arrangements.
The pharmacy was no bigger than my bedroom. At the back of the tiny room a wooden door blended into the wall. Above it hung one of the portraits of the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, which are ubiquitous in businesses across Kenya.
Peter, a doctor from Kisii, had opened the clinic several years earlier. Working in the slums can be tough, and occasionally dangerous. During the violence in Kenya after the 2007 presidential election, which killed 1,000 people and forced a quarter of a million to flee their homes, he patched up fighters in return for protection. In spite of the risks, however, the large population and lack of competing medical facilities in the slums meant he could run a lucrative business, generating more income than some of the doctors at the major hospitals.
Through the wooden door we found a treatment room where Peter carries out minor surgeries. Inside we found little more than a couple of chairs, a wooden desk, and a blue plastic bed with grimy yellow stuffing poking out through several large tears. Abortions were being performed here four or five times a month, either chemically, using Misoprostol, or through manual vacuum aspiration.
Abortion remains illegal in Kenya, and women can’t discuss it or ask about it openly. “People are ashamed to talk about abortion,” Peter told us. “They know it’s going on, but they fear talking about it and they are ashamed.” Instead, a careful and secretive negotiation takes place: “First they come in for the pregnancy test and then maybe the test is positive. Then the lady tells you, ‘I’m unmarried,’ ‘I’m divorced,’ maybe ‘I’m supposed to go for a job somewhere,’ and then ‘I don’t want this pregnancy.’”
El Salvador to Pregnant Women: Drop Dead
El Salvador’s Supreme Court decided late last night not to allow a 22-year-old woman named “Beatriz” (an alias) to have an abortion, even though she is at risk of serious injury as a result of the pregnancy—and despite the fact that the fetus has an almost zero chance of survival because of its own health issues.
All abortion is illegal in El Salvador but Beatriz’s supporters hoped the Supreme Court would make an exception in this case. After deliberating for fifteen-days, the Salvadoran Supreme Court revealed the fate of Beatriz, the nom de guerre of the five-month-pregnant 22-year-old woman who had legally appealing for a potentially life-saving “therapeutic abortion.” That’s not to say she’ll die when she gives birth in four months—though it’s a possibility, considering she suffers from lupus, an illness which has given her kidney disease as one of its many side-effects, not to mention her fetus is anencephalic, which means it’s missing parts of its brain or skull and thus will live anywhere from only minutes to mere weeks.
Also hanging in the balance these past two weeks was the question: In this staunchly Catholic country—which has declared all abortion illegal since 1998, even in cases of rape, incest, or maternal mortality—would this young woman win the right to choose for or against an abortion in the name of her own health and safety.
Women Are Being Prosecuted for Losing Their Babies
In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs’ unborn child died after 36 weeks. An autopsy of the fetus showed traces of a metabolite of cocaine. Her doctors informed the authorities that she had tested positive for drugs while pregnant and she was arrested on a charge of “depraved heart murder”—a legal phrase used when it’s alleged that a “callous disregard for human life” has resulted in death. For the last seven years, the case has bounced around in the Mississippi court system as her lawyers wage an extensive legal challenge. Today, Gibbs is still awaiting a trial that could yet send her to prison for life.
The abortion argument is one that has rumbled on noisily for over a century in this country. Gibbs’ case isn’t unrelated to the pro-life/pro-choice debate, but it’s more of a grim sideshow to it, in which laws originally set up to punish third parties who attack pregnant women and cause miscarriages have been used to punish prospective mothers. Another recent example is that of Bei Bei Shuai, who was pregnant when she tried to commit suicide by swallowing rat poison in 2010. Though she survived, her baby Angel died days after birth and Shuai was charged with murder.
Relatively speaking, these two cases have attracted more attention because both women have pleaded not guilty. Many other women have not had the legal support to fight against their charges and have pleaded guilty in order to obtain reduced prison sentences. After reading about Bei Bei’s case in 2011, I wanted to know more their situation and women like them. Lynn Paltrow runs a non-profit organization called National Advocates for Pregnant Women, based in New York. While it’s a small, it’s talking on a national level, getting involved in legal proceedings as well as educating young women so they are aware of their rights. She also campaigns against the personhood movement—a collection of pro-life groups seeking to establish separate constitutional rights for fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses.
About My Abortion
Manifesto of the 343 was published in France in 1971, when abortion was still illegal. It was a confession of having had an abortion, something that made you liable for arrest, signed by 343 famous women. Among them were Catherine Deneuve and Marguerite Duras, Francoise Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jeanne Moreau. Nearly every cigarette-sucking French sex symbol admitted she had had the procedure. The newspapers called them “the 343 Sluts.” Leave it to the French to make abortion glamorous.
In 1974, abortion was legalized in France. The 343 sluts changed everything.
In America today, abortion is legal. But few famous women would add themselves to a similar list.
When some defenders of choice talk about abortion, they often focus on edge cases: rape victims, life-threatening pregnancies, or teens who don’t know how babies are made. That kind of dialogue sometimes makes it seem like abortion is reserved for “other” women. Women who aren’t like them. Which, despite all delusions of enlightenment, is exactly what I thought when at 20, I realized I had an embryo growing inside of me.
Then, just like that, the other was me.
There are so many reasons why women need abortions. Those reasons are often wedded intractably to money. Some women have to abort longed-for pregnancies because of illness. Abortion is sometimes a trauma, sometimes an anticlimax, sometimes a relief. There are a million abortion stories just like there are a million stories of fucking and giving birth and going to war. None are representative. This is mine.
For me, whether or not I would have an abortion was never a question. It was just a question of how soon I could get one. I have never had maternal instincts. I was also broke. I was proud to have clawed my way to that elite station in life represented by having a room that no one walks through to on the way to the bathroom. I slept on a mattress on the floor, and worked as a naked model for amateur photographers—a job that, at the best of times, I often suspected would get me murdered. I was in school training to be an artist.
A baby meant the destruction of everything I might become. Being pregnant made me understand how and why women, pre-Roe v. Wade, stabbed knitting needles into their cervixes. Abstract debate meant nothing while I was throwing up every hour, just wanting to be how I had been before.