(circa 1970-71) A statement from the CWLU calling for an end to restrictive abortion laws, and the reform of our entire healthcare system. (circa 1970-71)
(Editor's Note: The Chicago Women's Liberation Union issued this statement on abortion as the movement to reform our nation's abortion laws intensified.)
We in Women’s Liberation refuse to remain silent any longer. We do not accept the will of the so called experts or the powerful in government who up until now have taken it upon themselves to define the rules, the time, and the place where women must bear their children. Abortion is every woman’s right, may she be rich or poor, married or unmarried; and it is a decision which she alone can make, especially in this society where the responsibility for childrearing in the vast majority of cases falls directly upon the individual mother. The laws that restrict abortion to emergencies and exceptional situations, along with the ridiculously rigid policies of hospital abortion approval committees which limit the number of legal abortions to a minute fraction of the actual need are among the most obvious and unjust examples of the way our society oppresses women. We must fight these laws and the medical profession, embodied in the male controlled American Medical Association, on the issue of free and safe abortion, keeping in mind that even this is only a small step toward satisfying our total medical needs, and is by no means a satisfactory alternative to free child care, safe and sure birth control and a guarantee that our lives and our children’s lives are healthy, happy, and fulfilling. Unless we fight the abortion laws in this broader context, we will find that even after the laws are repealed, our oppression will remain. Our victory will be as hollow as the victory of the suffragettes 50 years ago who staked their movement on winning the vote and then found that having the vote didn’t really change things.
Pressure is growing to repeal or change the abortion laws. Ministers, doctors, legislators, and population experts are all joining the repeal effort. We are likely to see the laws fall in just, a few years. But we as women must raise broader social questions, stressing our right to voluntary pregnancy and the need for collective responsibility for children. The blatant racism in the medical profession that forces sterilization on ADC mothers who seek hospital abortions yet approves four times as many abortions for private patients than for ward patients must end.
Our fight puts us in direct confrontation with the AMA, the singly most powerful institution in the health field. Its policies and its wealthy lobby has enormous influence over legislation, while it maintains tight control over the policies of every hospital, medical school, and clinic in the country. The AMA refused to come out in favor of repeal of all laws restricting abortion, a blatant contradiction to the AMA’s own policy statement which says that government must not interfere in the relationship between patient and physician. By making this exception for abortion legislation the AMA is revealing that it is not concerned with the welfare of the women patients of childbearing age, but is concerned instead with its own image in a society burdened by an irrational taboo on abortion, a legitimate and safe contraceptive method. By its choice the AMA is imposing upon women its own male oriented conception of what women are supposed to be: breeders first, total human beings second. Toward fulfilling their responsibility to the female half of the population of this country at the very least the AMA must officially favor repeal of all laws restricting abortion, as the obstetricians and gynecologist- have already voted upon as a group. All hospital abortion boards must be abolished and additional facilities provided for the present and ever growing demand for inexpensive, if not, free, medically safe abortions.
One of woman’s most basic freedoms is her right to control her own body and to determine if she bears a child. Only she can determine whether she has enough emotional, physical, and economic resources at a given time to bear and rear a child. An unwanted pregnancy is a lonely ordeal, and the consequences are immeasurable in terms of personal suffering. Only the pregnant woman can understand the guilt, fear, and anxiety of being caught between society’s morals and her own needs and desires. But far more painful, and destructive than an unwanted pregnancy is an unwanted child.
Yet at present the decision to bear a child or have an abortion is taken out of her hands by lawmakers and pressure groups that have only the slightest notion of the problems involved. Doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and clergymen impose their advice on her, based on their sexist stereotypes of her psychological and biological makeup, adding to that their personal religious beliefs about the status of the fetus as a human being. The legislators in New York managed to overcome their stereotypes and religious biases in framing the recently passed law that makes abortion a decision between the woman and her doctor. Twenty-four weeks was named as the cut-off point for a legal abortion because only after this period an abortion becomes a premature delivery of an infant that with proper care can survive outside of the mother. But before 24 weeks the fetus is part of the mother and should not be considered as a separate human being with rights that contradict the desires of the mother.
Even in the case of the New York law, men decided what rights women can exercise. And the fact still remains that these institutions that retain the fight to determine the laws surrounding childrearing refuse to take responsibility for the well being of the children born under their laws. It is wrong that this society does not recognize children as the social wealth of everyone, instead of as the private property of their parents.
THE SAINT AND THE WHORE
Our society glorifies motherhood (if performed properly within the framework of middle class marriage, sanctified by the church and duly licensed by the county clerk). The married mother is a saint. She finds her ultimate fulfillment and achieves her biological destiny in motherhood. Childbirth is her most creative act. It is proof of her femininity. The married mother is a contented brooding factory and a devoted servant of her husband and children. She expresses her individuality through the things she buys for her home and family -— furnishings, food, clothes, and appliances. If a married woman does not want children, she is considered anywhere from cold and unfeminine to desperately in need of psychiatric help. If she indicates she wants an abortion, doctors and social workers will try to help her adjust to her pregnancy. They think of pregnant women as “expectant mothers.”
Yet statistics indicate that about one out of four married women terminates at least one pregnancy in abortion. In recent years approximately one of every five births in the U.S. was unwanted, and those births account for 35—45% of the population growth, according to Dr., Westoff of Princeton.
Just as the married woman is glorified as a wife and a mother, the unmarried women is glamorized as a sex object. She is taught that she achieves identity and fulfillment by pleasing and catching a man. To accomplish this, she is told to buy everything from Folger’s Coffee to strawberry flavored douche. But if she becomes pregnant then she is labeled a whore. Our society views pregnancy as a punishment for “immoral” or “careless” sexual activity of the unmarried woman. Society sets the trap and then condemns the pregnant woman for failing into it. It forces her to have the child, but refuses to take any responsibility for the child when it is born. Welfare laws are punitive, and child care facilities are nonexistent. The same society that condemns the unwed mother has virtually no concept of the unwed father. It glorifies motherhood within marriage, yet labels the unwed child “illegitimate.” There is no such thing as an illegitimate child. No child should be branded for life by a totally unnecessary stigma that implies that his or her existence as a human being is not fully recognized by society.
Abortion becomes the only realistic alternative for many women, married and unmarried, who are caught in society’s trap. Some of these women simply don’t want a child; others may want the child but are forced by economic need or threatened by social stigma to seek an abortion. In a humane society no woman would be forced either to have a child or to terminate a pregnancy against her will.
ABORTION: A MARKETABLE COMMODITY
Because abortions are illegal, they are exorbitantly expensive. Equal opportunity under our law means that well-connected middle class women can usually get hush-hush D&Cs in hospitals or can afford to fly to England, or to buy a safe abortions on the black market. Even therapeutic abortions can be bought, if the woman can stand the humiliation of pleading her own mental unfitness before a self-righteous board of doctors and psychiatrists. More than five times as many whites as non-whites are granted therapeutic abortions in New York City, a statistic which is inverse in relationship to the need.
Poor and black women, on the other hand, bear unwanted children or face unsafe backalley or self—induced abortions. In New York City, 80% of the women who die from illegal abortions are black or brown. There were almost 10,000 deaths from abortion, more than 4,000 of these from self-induced abortion. Those acts of desperation account for one—half of the deaths associated with pregnancy. In countries where abortion is legal the death rate is one in 80,000, or one-fourth the death rate from full-term pregnancy. Gynecologists who shake their heads when a desperate pregnant woman asks for help will shake their fists in righteous indignation at the “back alley butcher.”
A hospital D&C, even under the current profit-oriented health system, seldom costs more than $150. A black market D&C costs from $300 to $1,000, and the money often ends up in the hands of the syndicate or of corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials who get a kickback from the illegal trade.
REFORMERS SPEAK WITH FORKED TONGUES
We should be aware of reform laws which make abortions legal some of the time or under certain conditions, such as rape or danger to a woman’s health. Reform efforts avoid both the issue of woman’s freedom and the issue of social responsibility. Any reform law still holds that a woman’s childbearing is subject to legislative judgment or medical benevolence. Reform legislation will make it even harder to get all abortion laws wiped off the books.
Moreover, reform legislation does not significantly change things. In the eight states where reform laws have been passed, the inequities are increased rather than decreased. Authority relinquished by the legislature has been taken up by the medical societies, hospital boards, and private doctors. Safe abortions, once again, are for the rich but not the poor. In California, for example there are more therapeutic abortions being performed by private doctor in private hospitals, but the number of abortions performed in clinics has not changed under reform laws. The illegal abortion rate remains the same, and so does the number of casualties from illegal abortions.
ABORTION LAWS ARE UNCONSTITUTIONAL
California's s reform abortion law was struck down in September of 1969, as unconstitutional by the Municipal Court of Orange County, on the grounds that ‘The right to choose to bear or not to bear children is a fundamental right of the individual women to be exercised in any manner she chooses and (it) may not in any way be abridged by law.” One of the major faults of the law recognized by the court was that undefined and unlimited authority was given to the Joint Commission of Accreditation of Hospitals, which resulted in unfair and unequal application of the law. Two months after the California decision the U.S. District Court for Washington D.C. declared unconstitutional that part of the statute that defined abortion legal only when done “for the preservation of the mother’s life or health.” But as the civil rights laws showed, a legal provision of right does not guarantee that right in actuality. The hospitals in Washington will not increase their abortion rate although doctors would no longer be running the risk of prosecution for performing abortion. One reason is that the hospitals fear getting swamped with abortion cases from out of state. The answer to the dilemma is that the right to abortion must be made a federal constitutional right, like freedom of religion or freedom of speech. If women had written the constitution it probably would be a basic freedom today. A poll conducted in May of 1969 by Modern Medicine showed that 63% of the 27,000 doctors who responded favor of making abortion available upon request and 51% of them did not qualify this. Nevertheless at the 23rd Clinical Convention of the AMA the House of Delegated voted down as proposal endorsing repeal of all state abortion laws.
The exports, the AMA, the hospitals, the government are the real decision makers. Abortion decision making, like all other questions of life, must be taken out of the hands of these huge institutions and given to the people who are effected by theses decisions in the most intimate way.
Certain individuals and groups are lobbying for legalized abortion solely on the grounds of the population explosion. In reality, many of these groups want to control some populations, prevent some births, especially those of poor or black people. The population explosion has been used as an excuse for genocide by legislators and taxpayers who are sick of welfare and ADC payments. While it is true that the population explosion has freed women from the need to reproduce in order to preserve the species, it has also been used to institute now types of control and oppression over poor and third world women.
The same myths about the population explosion that are used to justify planned parenthood clinics in the ghetto and sterilization of ADC mothers are also used to justify U.S. -financed sterilization of 5.5 million men and boys in India in exchange for a transistor radio.
If there is a danger from the “population explosion” in this country, it comes from the middle-class suburbs where families with four to six children are the norm. A suburb an boy consumes and occupies 50 times as much as his environment as the Indian youth. Yet there are no planned parenthood clinics in the white suburbs urgently fighting the population explosion.
We are opposed to any form of genocide. We are for every woman having exactly as many children as she wants, when she wants, if she wants.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?
What we want sounds just like what everyone in high and in low places in this country are supposed to want: that every child be born healthy, happy and wanted by healthy, happy, and loving parents. This brings up social, economic, and political problems far bigger than abortion, or even the problem of general health care alone. We in Women’s Liberation recognize that the present medical care, contraceptive methods, and abortion legislation, as well as the commonly excepted role of woman as housewife and mother, the unavailability of day care, and the rotten living conditions and poor diet of 25 million Americans and a health system run for profit instead of for people pushes the rosy vision of healthy, happy people far into the future But we are not willing to wait. Things must improve for the people living now
As women we are concerned about women’s medical needs. free and available abortion being only one urgent problem, because women’s needs have been pushed aside and neglected too long. But we realize that, in order for all the health needs of women to be filled, not just those relating to childbearing, the priorities within the medical care system must be changed. Instead of being designed to suit the conveniences and pocketbooks of the, hospitals, the AMA, the government, the drug and insurance companies and the medical schools, the medical system must be greatly expanded, and oriented toward preventive medicine with private, personal attention for all people in the same facilities. The finest health care that our technology can provide must be available to everyone and not only to the rich.This means that the money will have to stop flowing into the hands of the drug companies and doctors , and start flowing from the war expenditures into medical facilities that are free or fully available at a nominal fee to all residents of the U.S. It is a revolting fact the the U.S. infant mortality rate is 17th for the nations of this world; that the infant mortality rate is highest in Chicago, the same city in which the average salary of obstetricians and gynecologist is the highest for the nation. Because the health care system is a profit system that makes its money over bad health , we do not foresee the present policymakers who have enriched themselves up until now, as the future leaders of a complete overhaul of the health system. The only real alternatives, then, appear to be the things that we can do ourselves, by our own initiative. In the area of women’s health these include community women’s clinics, an abortion referral service, day care centers, test cases en the constitutionality of abortion laws, and an ongoing effort to bring the problems of contraception, and social responsibility for children out into the open.
THE WOMEN’S CLINIC
One of the projects of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union is a free community women’s health clinic which is new only in its preliminary stages. The clinic will concentrate on preventive care, as well as good human treatment of the sick. We emphasize community education in health, including pro-natal care, women’s and children’s nutrition, individualized counseling on birth control methods, sex education for teenagers, natural childbirth, and abortion counseling.
We chose the Southwest Side of Chicago for the clinic so that we could reach out to our sisters in working families from all the ethnic and racial backgrounds who live there.The women in the community will decide which services they want and will hopefully work in the center and play a major role in directing it.
We women need a free clinic of our own because we make 25% more doctors visits than men and more than twice as many with our children. Our clinic will give complete attention to the needs of each woman, unlike doctors new who often assume that women are incapable of understanding complex medical explanations, so often omit crucial warnings and the medical choice involved in prescribing a particular treatment. In the controversy ever the pill and the lack of sufficient information about what side effects and ether serious complications are being risked the medical profession has violated every woman’s option to control her body processes. The woman, not the doctor should decide what should or should not be risked. Not only have doctors been sloppy in providing information but they have been in some cases grossing irresponsible in prescribing the appropriate pill to a particular woman’s s chemical make-up. One planned parenthood clinic cut down the dosage for some women arbitrarily without warning them that they could get pregnant. When some women did get pregnant the clinic would not take responsibility for the unwanted pregnancies.
THE ABORTION COUNSELING SERVICE
The Women’s Liberation Movement in Chicago runs an abortion referral service that will help any woman who wants an abortion to got one as safely and cheaply as possible under existing conditions. More than a thousand women have passed through our service, and have been saved the dehumanizing and terribly frustrating experience of finding an abortionist through unreliable contacts, or of experiencing the humiliation of trying to prove to an abortion approval board that she is psychotic. But these women had to still pay $400-$500 on the average for an operation that should cost nothing or a few dollars as a government sponsored, alternative contraceptive method.
Although abortions are illegal in Illinois, the state has not brought charges against any woman who has had an abortion. Only those who perform abortions have been prosecuted.
Any information given to the counselor by the women seeking an abortion is confidential, and would be used for other purposes only with her explicit consent. But no matter how many women get safe abortions by sympathetic doctors they are only a minute fraction of the 1-1.5 million women who desperately seek this minor operation every year.
SUCCESS THROUGH COLLECTIVE ACTION
The health clinic and the counseling service are only two projects made possible by women working together to satisfy their needs. The Women’s Liberation Movement was formed when more and more women all across the country realized that they were helpless as individuals who, even if they were lucky, could sneak past the obstacles like job discrimination, unwanted pregnancies, the pressures of the mother-housewife role, and somehow make a compromise with the system, providing of course that they had money, determination, and talent.
The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union is one of many organizations in a decentralized movement with branches in large and small cities all across the country, The Chicago Union is itself made up of about 20 smaller chapters located all over the city, which come together in a city-wide meeting once a month. Each chapter has its own interests and projects, yet recognizes its solidarity with the larger group by the sense of the sisterhood,i.e., the feeling of support and kinship with other women. Perhaps what sisterhood means to us is best expressed by this anonymous poem.
Our history has been stolen from us.
Our heroes died in childbirth,
Of bottled-up anger.
Our geniuses were never taught to read and write,
We must invent a past adequate to our ambitions.
We must create a future adequate to our needs.