Reclaiming Abortion Rights' Language

Dr. Susan Hill, President of the National Women's Health Foundation, and friend of the recently slain Dr. George Tiller, has spent a great deal of her week giving interviews. She makes clear, this from an interview on Salon, that Dr. Tiller helped women other doctors refused to help: "We always sent the really tragic cases to Tiller." Those included women diagnosed with cancer who needed abortions to qualify for chemotherapy, women who learned late in their pregnancies that their wanted babies had fatal illnesses, and rape victims so young they didn't realize they were pregnant for months. "We sent him 11-year-olds, 12-year-olds who were way too far along for anybody [else] to see," said Hill. "Eleven-year-olds don't tell anybody. Sometimes they don't even know they've had a period." There is even a section on a website called A Heartbreaking Choice, which shares stories of people trying to become parents whose pregnancies were such that continuing them would have meant a painful, brief life for baby or endangered the woman/mother's life, devoted to "Kansas Stories." These Kansas stories all begin with a couple thrilled to be expecting a baby. People who needed Dr. Tiller's help express gratitude and awe that he was so kind and patient and brave. Dr. Hill has been sharing this recent exchange during her interviews, his answer to her question two weeks ago–he was sixty-seven–to why he didn't simply retire in the face of increasing harassment, after already having been shot in both arms and seen his clinic bombed. He replied, "Because I can't leave these women."

There are two critical themes to discuss and act upon here. First, access for all abortions. In brief, the number of clinics, the number of counties where a woman can find an abortion has shrunk dramatically over the past decades. This fact alone adds greatly to a woman's burden if she seeks to obtain a legal, medical procedure (just for example, Hampshire County, where I live used to have abortion services; I know, because I was an abortion counselor, but that option is long gone and now women in Hampshire County must travel to Springfield, Hampden County, or Hartford CT, across state lines to find the next closest service.This is the story all over, yet in many places the next closest service is very far away). Add to lack of services, the fact that many states have laws that burden women seeking an abortion, twenty-four hour waiting periods, parental consent (if a young woman cannot ask her parents for consent–overridingly because of rape/incest or extreme religious views, she then must go in front of a judge to ask to bypass this step), spousal consent… Because there are many "crisis pregnancy" clinics that offer propoganda rather than information–and lure women to call with the promise of free pregnancy testing, many women stumble into misleading (I think we could even say abusive) "care" when seeking actual, unbiased health care. Securing a late-term abortion is next to impossible, especially now (there were three providers; now, two). Two percent of doctors provide fifty percent of abortions. A critical organization Medical Students for Choice makes this clear: there are not enough abortion providers. In 2000, 87% of US counties had no provider. The “graying” of current providers (57% are over age 50), violence that targets physicians, and restrictive legislation threaten to drive these numbers even lower. Medical schools are not addressing the topic adequately; most physicians are graduating with little more than circumstantial knowledge of abortion. Medical Students for Choice encourages medical schools to teach doctors in training abortion procedures and practices.

The second issue to revisit continues to be language. In outlining the organization's history, Medical Students for Choice describes a brochure sent to medical students by an anti-abortion organization in the spring of 1993 (not long before the first abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn, was killed.) Medical Students for Choice: "Tens of thousands of medical students across the U.S. received an anti-choice pamphlet at their homes. The offensive, meant-to-intimidate tone of the brochure can be most quickly conveyed by a "joke" that said: 'Q: What would you do if you were in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and an abortionist and you had a gun with only two bullets? A: Shoot the abortionist twice.'" That's rhetoric from a movement that opposes abortion. Andi Ziesler writes in the Bitch Magazine blog that headlines of newspapers across the country referred to Dr. Tiller as an "abortionist" or "abortion doctor." She argues that these terms feed into the extreme, BIll O'Reilly style of histrionics that equate a physician performing an abortion with Nazis and baby killers. Ziesler asserts, "Just substituting 'abortion provider' could make all the difference in editorial tone and framing."She also questions the Washington Post for its story headline: in the Washington Post:"Pro-Life Activist: Doctor 'Reaped What He Sowed.'" Ziesler also summons the powerful words and stories shared online at A Heartbreaking Story. She affirms the import of hearing their words and their stories, writing, "Let’s try and make sure that they get reprinted and circulated and made as central a part of this story’s coverage as are the smarmy, faux-concerned contributions of the Pavones, Terrys, and O’Reillys."

In one way, calling those who oppose abortion "anti-choice" makes sense; they are, indeed, opposed to women having any say in their reproductive lives. What will shift the course of events–not those at the extreme poles of the movement against abortion–is for the issue to be again reclaimed by women and to again place women's stories in the center of the debate. Would calling those opposed to abortion "anti-abortion" be more effective? The reasoning for answering "no" is that everyone's against abortion, as in no one likes abortion. One of those oft-repeated lines amongst "pro-choice" supporters is that the goal is to decrease unplanned pregnancy so fewer abortions take place. Sure, it would be great to get rid of unplanned pregnancies (and have real access to birth control, for starters, for women of all ages). But as the stories surrounding late abortions reveal, even in the best of worlds, there are going to be some abortions, because unforeseen things will happen (cancer discovered during a pregnancy, for example). So maybe, we should try on calling those who oppose abortion "anti-abortion." Maybe supporters of abortion rights could be "pro-abortion." Maybe we could be "pro-reproductive justice" (and come up with something less cumbersome to call it). Whatever words we use, we must remember these: access, reproductive justice, and women's equality.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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