By Judith Arcana and members of a London audience. A discussion of abortion history and present realities by a former Jane member. (1999)
Organised by the Birkbeck College Sociology and Politics Society and Pro-Choice Forum, this discussion was chaired by Amanda Callaghan, Public Affairs Manager, BPAS at Birkbeck College of the University of London. It place in October 1999.
Judith Arcana was a volunteer for the Abortion Counseling Service. Better known as "Jane", the Service performed an estimated 11,000 illegal abortions before the Roe vrs. Wade court decision of 1973. We have writings from Judith Arcana and a short video clip of her in our Jane Special Feature. The picture on the left was taken during her days in Jane and is from the video Jane: An Abortion Service.
Judith: I’ll begin by talking about what those of us who were 'Janes' called 'the Service' – though it was formally named The Abortion Counseling Service of The Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
There has been a remarkable pendulum swing since the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in January of 1973. The social and political climate around abortion in the US is now actually worse than it was before that ruling, when the Janes were operating. This situation is what made me decide that, as a writer, I should be writing about abortion, including my work in the Service, to bring that part of women’s health history to people's attention, to be of use, to stand as a witness. In this collection-in-progress, I will also deal with abortion now, not just as memory, and not as nostalgia for what some of us did in the past. My perspective is, naturally, different from when I was a Jane. Then we were doing clinical and counseling work, providing illegal abortions, working for women’s liberation. Now, 30 years later, I think I have a stronger focus on the ethics, morality and experience of abortion, though surely this focus is fostered and developed through my earlier clinical work, and is still strongly anchored in feminist politics.
I was in my late 20s when I joined The Service. Its history is four or five years long, depending on when you start telling the story; I was a member for two years. In the mid 60s in the US, the UK and Europe as you no doubt know, there was a great deal of ferment within and among liberation movements; in particular in the states, there was a burgeoning anti-war movement and the beginnings of women's movement, the relatively more-established civil rights movement, and organizing/action starting to appear among students. Out of that political context, as well as through the social/medical history of abortion and the history of medical practice(s), the work of the Janes was generated.
In 1966, a college student in Chicago, a young woman who had gone South for 'Mississippi Summer' to work on voter registration and in Freedom Schools, got a phone call from a friend, who said that his sister was pregnant, frantic, and didn't know what to do. This young woman was able to find someone who would do the abortion, despite the fact that it was illegal. Once word got around that she knew how/where to find an abortionist, people kept on calling her. Using the pseudonym Jane, short for Jane Doe, she began to keep a list of abortionists and reports on their practice; she gave out the phone numbers of those who were reported to be competent.
The number of people calling her grew and grew, and she reached a point where she could not deal with demand on her own. So she called a meeting, and a small group of women came together. First, the group just had a list of those in the city who performed abortions. As far as they knew, these people were reliable. As far as they knew, no one on the list had 'botched' abortions, they did not 'come on' to the women they saw, and some of them could be bargained with about money (abortion was very expensive, with prices ranging between $500 and $2000).
Soon the referral service evolved into a counseling service and, eventually, into a traveling underground clinic – and this, you understand, was criminal activity. Women joined the Service through periodic orientation meetings, and learned the necessary tasks from those who had come before them. Once their counseling skills had been developed in new recruits, and the group had come to trust them, they could learn more – doing everything from basic record keeping to becoming a medic, one who performed abortions.
Ultimately, we learned to do abortions in all three trimesters. Although we did only a handful in the third, as you may imagine, there were many in the second, no doubt because illegality forced women and girls to take so much time searching for abortionists and saving up money. The methods that we learned, we primarily learned from one man. He was not a doctor, but he was the best. Once we understood that many of the people doing abortions at that time were not doctors, we realized that we could do it too. This would mean women would not have to be charged a lot of money, could even come through the Service free.
So we pressed this man to teach us, as he had been taught. He was an extraordinary man in many ways, had been doing this work, and maybe other illegal work, virtually all of his life. It’s important to note that anything illegal will ultimately generate payments to the mob, so almost all the city abortionists were giving them a cut, as well as paying off the police. Our man, because he didn't live in Chicago, was always 'on the run', avoiding both the police and the mob. He liked us because we would pick him up at the airport, take him to one of our houses, and bring him work. You could say he was our 'kept abortionist' -- and we were his main source of work!
We would bargain at the beginning, maybe urging him to do six abortions for the price he usually charged, and then two or three for free. Abortionists were charging between $500 and $2000 over 30 years ago. Hardly anyone had that kind of money; the rich have always been able to get abortions of course, but certainly not most people. So we tried to get the price down as much as we could. 'Our’ abortionist liked us, thought we were cool (which we were!), and we liked him, so it was a good arrangement all around. He eventually taught one of us, and then let others watch.
Eventually, the one he had taught then taught others. We did not have to send women to anyone else anymore, unless there was a situation we felt we could not handle. (For example, some of the people who came to us had already tried to abort in various ways, and we could not take on people with the resultant complications.) We were operating out of various apartments. We packed up our equipment and used different places around the city. So we could not deal with difficult cases. But all the other abortions women needed, we did ourselves.
I first heard about the Service when in 1970 I thought I was pregnant. As it turned out, that time I was not, but I had made the phone calls, had been given the number and told to call and ask for Jane. When I realized I was not pregnant, I called to say I could be taken off the list. The woman I had spoken to – at some length, both times – said she thought I sounded interested in what the Janes were doing, and would I like to join up? In the Fall of 1970 I did that, and remained a member until the fall of 1972.
In those two years, I had two unusual experiences for a Jane. First, I had a baby – on purpose – as did another Jane. Our pregnancies led to major policy discussions about whether pregnant women should keep working with the Service. Other pregnant women previously had decided not to, but we wanted to stay, and the group decided this was a good idea. We essentially subscribed to the idea that women should have babies when they want them and abortions when they need them. We conceptualized this as a sort of motherhood continuum.
Second, I was one of the people arrested when we were busted. It is very important to understand that the political climate in those days was incredibly positive, both in the country at large and in Chicago. I do not mean everywhere and everyone, but there was a general climate which supported positive change: hence Roe v Wade and other landmark events of that period. Chicago was (still is) a heavily Catholic city, but even in that circumstance, nobody messed with us! Everybody seemed to know what we were doing. Police department employees came to us, police officers’ wives, daughters and mistresses came to us. Politicians’ wives, daughters and mistresses came to us (no local politicians were women in those days, and virtually no police officers either).
Our abortion service was an open secret. In those days, like smoking dope, prostitution and many other illegal activities, abortion was known about and accepted. The bust, therefore, may have been something of an accident. It is also true that in that period, the anti-abortion movement (much, much smaller than it is now of course) was aware that a case would be coming soon in the US Supreme Court – the tide was moving, nationally, inexorably, in that direction, so it is not impossible that our arrest was part of the attempt to stop abortion from becoming legal.
We generally operated in neighborhoods where many local folks knew us. But a sister-in-law of a woman who was coming through the Service, who knew the address for that one day (in early May of 1972), was a devout Catholic; she called the police in her own neighborhood – which was not a district where we generally worked. Abortion was classified as homicide, so they sent the Homicide Squad. Those men apparently didn't know anything about us. Seven women were working that day, including me. We were all taken down to the station, as were all the women waiting, the men waiting with them, and the children too. There were about 45 people in all, from two apartments, the 'front' where people first came, and the ‘place,' where we did the abortions. Eventually the police arrested the seven of us. Ultimately the case was dropped, however, since none of the women who were there that day wanted to testify against us, and the case stalled on until the Supreme Court’s Roe decision in January of 1973.
I understand that you are interested in current abortion events in the United States, so I’ll talk a bit about that now. Almost immediately after the Court’s decision, more anti-abortion groups sprang up and organising increased almost exponentially. They were very clever in their approach, having learned a lot from progressive movements, especially the Civil Rights movement. Their tactics were drawn directly from mostly leftist, radical movement groups, and those tactics worked just as well for this new, reactionary movement. Their earliest successes were with State legislatures. Within 6-8 years after 1973, several states passed laws which disallowed abortion for various reasons, or were on their way to doing so. Examples of negation or stalling tactics include requiring parental consent for minors, or gestational limits on abortion, or waiting periods once pregnancy has been verified and the decision has been made to abort.
How did this change come about, and why did the political climate change so fast? There are four points to note: The first is what I call the rise of 'the bad guys'. This is the anti-abortion movement, both those who are overtly religious, and those who are not. The majority in that movement are religion-driven. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church are significant in the ongoing structure and action of that movement, and both appear to be possessed of virtually unlimited funds. So the anti-abortion movement has major league money, some might say enough to buy whole state legislatures, as well as to be effective in ways other than simply buying votes and lobbying – like mobilizing its proponents to inundate merchants or media that appear to support women’s reproductive rights.
Second, there is the power of the media. Primarily this is television, and to a lesser extent radio, and to a much lesser extent film. For reasons we can only speculate about, the anti-abortion movement has been perceived, and continues to be perceived in the US, as news. Everything they do is news, and because of the power of their organizing and money, they have had an enormous effect, editorially, on the media over the past two decades.
Third, there is science, the technology of pregnancy. People can now make fetuses live, keep them alive outside of a woman’s body, from far earlier in pregnancy than was ever imagined by us, thirty years ago. Rapidly changes in medical technology have changed pregnancy utterly. We can now watch babies growing, virtually from the beginning of pregnancy, throughout their development; one result of this is that women relate to their fetuses quite differently, even in the early weeks of fetal development (which is, ideally, when abortions should be performed).
Fourth, there is the important central fact that abortion is a woman’s issue: it’s all about the lives of women and children; it’s clearly related to female sexuality and women’s autonomy; it’s an issue that was brought forward by feminist movement in the USA. The anti-abortion movement is part of the powerful backlash against women’s liberation.
These four factors have combined to make the majority of political elections at any level in the USA be decided (really, in great numbers) according to the candidates’ views on abortion – this is true in elections ranging from school boards and library boards to the federal government. The abortion vote is often measured by the media and the pundits before military spending, even before taxes. The question asked of candidates is: Where do you stand on abortion? (sometimes coded as “a woman’s right to choose” or “choice”).
Moving from the situation in electoral politics to the sociopolitical effect of anti-abortion activists, it’s enormously important that you know the following: many clinics in the US have been strenuously picketed for 15 to 20 years; virtually all clinics where abortions are performed have been picketed at least sporadically in that time. The picketers are people who carry pictures of dismembered fetuses, who thrust crucifixes into the faces of people attempting to enter the clinics, thrust bibles in their faces and pray at them. There is a lot of screaming, there’ve been scuffles over the years and, on several occasions, terrorist violence. Clinics have been bombed – resulting in serious injuries and deaths, clinic personnel have been shot at, and abortion providers have been assassinated.
In the past, prior to the Roe decision, most doctors in the US would not touch abortion. They were not moved by the needs of women and children, nor were they interested in taking risks for moral and political reasons. Now, a lot of doctors won't touch abortion because, though their licenses are not at risk, their lives are. And who can blame them? The most recent murder was in the autumn of 1998, when DR Barnet Slepian was assassinated in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He was the only doctor performing abortions in the Buffalo metropolitan area. That’s a big community, equivalent perhaps to Birmingham or Liverpool.
Comments and Questions
The picture you paint of the current situation the US looks grim. Do you see any area where things could improve?
J: Yes and no. The extreme violence of the most dangerous members of the anti-abortion movement has, I think, finally begun to affect media representations of anti-abortion sentiment and action, and public opinion as well. Most people don’t like the idea of doctors being gunned down by high-powered rifles in their own homes. The screaming on the sidewalk, the waving of the bloody fetus pictures did not have the same effect on the public. But the extreme violence has made a difference. I think there is some turning of the tide because of that.
Politically however, there is more power on this issue wielded by the right than by the left or even the centrists in the US at present. The man who may well be our next President, George Dubya as we call him, is strongly anti-abortion. The public is ignored on this issue by legislators, who get a lot of money and support from the anti-abortion movement. Moreover, there has been, as you may know, a heavily rightwing House of Representatives for the past several years, and most of those folks have been anti-abortion from the jump – they didn’t need campaign contributions to urge them to go that way.
How do young women get abortions? Are there illegal services?
J: I don’t think there are as many underground abortionists now as there were before Roe, though of course there are some – there are always some to serve or exploit the very poor. But women, doing what we did – I don’t think so. Some women are saying that we need to learn again, and soon, because abortion will be totally against the law very shortly.
If laws and court decisions come to counteract Roe v Wade completely, as has happened in some states, then I suppose that could happen. But I don't think it has happened yet. What has happened is this sort of thing: clinics and other organizations arranging for young women, who feel they cannot tell their parents but live in a state where parental consent is required, to be taken across state lines to procure abortions. Some state laws are now being drafted to make this illegal, but it is happening at present. However, for very many young women this is impossible – mostly because even finding out about such services is difficult, and there are so few of them.
For women who are older, there is great expense, and often the grief of going through the pickets. There is fear and shame, and a great emotional burden. Now people are talking about abortion pathologically, in terms of the psychology of women. Even those women who do get abortions carry an onus that had been lessened enormously by 1973 in the states, and is now back in a giant wave, a cultural backlash of huge proportions.
In an interesting – and to my mind related – corollary, there has been a rise in the numbers of women having babies in the states, a 'mommy boom'. In part, this is happening because the medical industry, eager to play with its new technology, is encouraging women who might not have conceived without chemical interference to have babies, and touting the ‘right’ of others, even women in their 60s, certainly women in their 40s and 50s, to become pregnant. Lots of people who did not choose to have babies in the 1960’s, 70’s and early 80’s, are now doing so.
Women in the states have bought this new mumsy package in great numbers, almost as great as those in the post WWII “baby boom.” Some women are having babies because they are afraid of seeming selfish, unfeminine, unnatural, or think they are missing a core experience that they are somehow “meant” to have – yes, just as if twentieth century women’s political movement hadn’t happened. We had the three steps forward, now we’re having the two steps back. This cultural wave also makes abortion somewhat less likely than it has been for three, maybe even four, decades.
Are there areas where it is not like that?
J: In the big cities, in areas where people have more education and more money, things may be a bit different – and it’s often a question of class. But, generally, this is what’s happening. Even urban/urbane, single, financially successful, women are having babies in their late thirties and forties. Even women with wealth are now going to extreme measures to get babies, buying babies from eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America, employing a surrogate, or subjecting themselves to the chemical and surgical vagaries of IVF – which is still essentially experimental. It's scary! It's a bad time for women, in terms of the reality of motherhood issues – and I’m speaking as a mother here, not only as an abortion rights advocate. Of course there are still many women seeking abortions, but abortion resources are so much scarcer that, ironically, in the face of all this rush to get pregnant and get babies, there are still many women also have babies by default, or deliver and give their babies away, or have late-stage abortions, procedures that have greater potential for being difficult, even dreadful, experiences.
Think about this: 86 per cent of the counties in the US have no abortion providers right now. This means women seeking abortion services have to travel, pay more, and lose days of work. Abortion is, in theory, available, because it’s ‘legal,’ but hard to get, even to find. One of the first backlash decisions following Roe was that the federal government does not have to pay for Medicare abortion, so poor women have to scramble for the money or bear a child they can’t afford to raise in good health. The insurance of federal employees will not pay for abortion; this includes military personnel, of course, and all of their dependents who are female. And many states have other laws restricting abortion. Individual clinics also tend not to take chances, so even where there are not very restrictive laws, where perhaps a law is just suggested or lobbied for, clinics will be cautious, and fewer will offer abortion services.
There are a lot of techniques the anti-abortionists have for attacking clinics. Not just bombs, but suing for negligence against clinics, to try to bankrupt the doctor through legal means.
J: There are many, many tactics, and they are using all of them.
Who are the women who ask you to teach them? What resources are there to do this?
J: Usually college students. You don’t need much (in the way of resources) to do what we did. I don't know how many women would be prepared in these times to do what the Janes did. There weren’t exactly droves even then, after all, when we were not risking our lives. I think they may be motivated by what I call the romance of the Janes. I would prefer to quash that. We were risking a great deal, and sometimes thought about going to jail, but this, now, is a totally different situation. I want them to understand that they would be practicing medicine without a license and would be taking terrible risks with the fanatics – all without the unspoken positive sanctions that we had. We operated in a supportive climate, one far more like the climate here in Britain, around abortion. If the law is overturned, however, there may be women who will do it. You may be sure I’ll wish them well.
The only other group I have heard of who did what the Janes did was in Rome in the 1970s. It is surprisingly easy, however. If you take abortion out of the social, political and legal contextual conversation, the actual doing of it is simple. You really do not need much, as long as you have someone skilled to teach you.
What is the state of the law in the US at present?
J: It is different in every state, and sometimes within states. There are very few abortion providers, few medical schools teach it, and most doctors are afraid to do it anyway, or say they disapprove. Beyond that, in terms of the law, it depends on which state you live in. In my state, Oregon, you’d be in luck, despite the fact that we have a periodically resurgent anti-abortion movement. They move back and forth between attempting to bring forward and pass referenda against gay people and against abortion rights; at the moment they’ve not been successful in either endeavor, but they sometimes come close, and fighting them is a lot of work. But if you lived in Missouri, or Florida, you would be entirely out of luck.
No state can outlaw abortion altogether, because of the Supreme Court ruling, but they try to get as close as they can by finding ways to restrict access, like a requirement for a waiting time of one, two or three days between a positive pregnancy test and initial contact with the clinic, and the operation itself. For women who need to travel significant distances to a clinic or private practitioner (and that’s a lot of women because those are so few providers), the time and money of that waiting period is a significant barrier to abortion access. Say you live in Western Montana and have two children and a job and the closest abortionist is a whole day’s travel – both for the initial visit and then for the operation after the waiting period. You have to get time off from work, you have to get child care, you have to have the money to cover both of those, and you have to do it all twice.
It's very hard to imagine the situation you describe living in Britain. One factor that makes the situations quite different is the existence of the National Health Service in Britain, and the protection it offers to those who practice abortion here. If you practice as part of a service in obstetrics and gynaecology, not just abortion, and in a hospital that provides a whole range of services, you are much less exposed than in the US. Where an individual doctor has to make a decision to set up his or her own practice as an abortion doctor, the challenge and exposure is much greater. You single yourself out in a way gynaecologists don't have to here. It therefore perhaps is no surprise that most abortion doctors in the US are over the age of 65. Few young doctors want to take the risk. There is a similar trend here, where younger doctors are also not opting enthusiastically for abortion work. The reasons may be different though. It perhaps is not because of the level of risk involved, but because abortion work is perceived as boring, unchallenging and also unglamorous, compared say to working in infertility, providing IVF.
That also is why in the past not many doctors in the US got involved in abortion work, even in the first few years after Roe when it was not so dangerous. Abortion - who wants to do that? It's not disliked simply for moral and ethical reasons, it's because it's simple, and it's about women. It is not like brain surgery, or anything like the high-tech reproductive medicine that can be done now.
J: Yes, yes and yes.
The other point about Britain is the response to attempts by extreme anti-abortion activists like Operation Rescue. When they tried to come to the UK they were kept out, under order from the Home Secretary, and refused admission.
There are other approaches taken by the anti-abortion movement here however. I used to live near to a Marie Stopes clinic in Brixton, and close to it a board was put up which said 'Pregnant? Worried? Come in and talk'. This gave directions to an anti-abortion centre.
That is a tactic imported from the US.
There are some anti-abortion counseling centres set up with American money, where women are misinformed particularly about the health risks of abortion. I wanted to ask a question about the ethics of abortion. You said you had become interested in this aspect, but what do you think has most changed in this area in the last 30 years?
J: I think there is a need for us to talk more about what it is we are doing, when we carry out or support abortion. We – in the states – have dealt heavily, up to now, in euphemism. I think one of the reasons why the 'good guys' – the people in favor of abortion rights – lost a lot of ground is that we have been unwilling to talk to women about what it means to abort a baby. We don't ever talk about babies, we don't ever talk about what is being decided in abortion. We never talk about responsibility. The word 'choice' is the biggest euphemism. Some use the phrases 'products of conception' and ‘contents of the uterus,’ or exchange the word ‘pregnancy’ for the word ‘fetus.’ I think this is a mistake tactically and strategically, and I think it’s wrong.. And indeed, it has not worked – we have lost the high ground we had when Roe was decided.
My objection here is not only that we have lost ground, but also that our tactics are not good ones; they may even constitute bad faith. It is morally and ethically wrong to do abortions without acknowledging what it means to do them. I performed abortions, I have had an abortion and I am in favor of women having abortions when we choose to do so. But we should never disregard the fact that being pregnant means there is a baby growing inside of a woman, a baby whose life is ended. We ought not to pretend this is not happening. That pretense has allowed the anti-abortion people to hold the high-ground only because we never talk about it! When they talk about the life of the baby, we talk about the life of the woman. This is a big mistake, not a useful or even accurate way to frame the situation. In this scenario, the decision is a contest: a woman's life against a baby's life. And when she aborts, then of course she can be seen as a heartless, selfish bitch – just as the anti-feminist mother-blamers and woman-haters have always said.
In my view – obviously – that is not what is going on in abortion. If we ignore or avoid discussing the reality of abortion, then when women and girls want to think about what it means, we – the ‘good guys’ – have no vocabulary to do so. We are told it's just an operation, a simple procedure, but there is no emotional content to the conversation. In the clinics and counseling offices, having an abortion is sometimes compared to going to a dentist. This is a big mistake. There is no discussion of, and no acceptance of, what is actually being done when the choice is made, when the responsibility to abort is accepted.
Do you think that is why groups like Project Rachel, which aims to counsel women after abortion about the impact it has on their minds have set up? Maybe they are the only people out there who are tackling this issue.
J: Yes, I agree with that. I don't know about that particular group. I believe that the pathologising of abortion, the creation of a Post-Abortion Syndrome – even by well-meaning psychologists – is one result of this. I think abortion belongs in the same context as assisted suicide, euthanasia, even war and domestic self-defense – all situations that require the taking of life with moral, ethical knowledge and acceptance of responsibility.
Post-Abortion Syndrome originated as part of an anti-abortion strategy where the movement tries to present itself as concerned with women's health. Project Rachel is a Catholic organisation that exists to do that. There are number of different counseling organisations that exist to counsel women who, they suggest, are suffering from this [so-called] Syndrome. In England we have similar organisations, which base their activities on those set up in the US, for example British Victims of Abortion, which is modeled on American Victims of Abortion, and LIFE counseling centres.
My difficulty with the issue is not a disagreement with your representation of what has changed. With regard to women's experience of abortion, I think a shift has taken place where in the mid-1970s, abortion for a significant section of women was thought of through the prism of women's rights, and a positive assertion of independence and freedom. Now that context has gone, women are likely to experience abortion as an individual dilemma, shaped by the ethical and moral arguments around abortion. These focus on the 'unborn child', a phrase which was not popularised in the late 1960s in Britain.
J: They have created the language, so we have to struggle against it.
The difficulty is that while on the one hand we can understand that abortion is experienced differently than in the past, and is difficult for many women who choose to abort. However, what conclusions do we draw from this? First, this does not, to my mind, change the ethical issues that are at stake. The fetus is no more of a person than it was in 1970, just because it may be perceived that way. The issue rather is how we explain that to people, in a convincing way. Second, does the fact that women can find abortion difficult to decide on, and dwell on their decision afterwards, mean that we should respond in this in some way, by for example providing more counseling for women? I don't believe that it does.
J: Neither do I. I don't think we should be talking about trauma or psychological risk. However I do think we should be asking women, “What does this mean for you?” This attitude comes out of the counseling I learned in 1970. “Have you thought about why you want to do this? Do you take responsibility for this?” We – the Janes – could be clear about responsibility, partly because we were deliberately committing a crime. We could say, you are in this with us; we are committing this criminal act together. You, your mother who brought you to us, your boyfriend who is sitting here with you – it’s you and us, together. That was excellent education – giving women a sense of collaborating with and being supported by others and acting with the knowledge, the understanding, that this action, this decision, is their right.
We don't have that context now, but we can still talk about what we are all doing. When it was made legal, the women who came to abortionists became clients, as opposed to women who needed abortions coming to other women who could help them. We need to talk about how to change how we represent, offer and perform abortion, pay attention to what now dominates women's experiences with the medical industry, particularly the technology around pregnancy, like ultrasound. We have to accept that women are relating to fetuses differently. The relationship we all have to fetuses is in rapid transition these days.
I was thinking about how to make the strongest argument for abortion. I think using images of starving children might be the best. Abortion will always be necessary, but how do we make this more acceptable?
Surely the outcome of that approach is to make the case less woman-centred. Surely the child is really irrelevant to the issue. We have services for children, to look after when once born. This is about abortion services, and what women need.
It is tempting to talk about wanted children, but I think the focus should be because that is what women want, rather than to move the emphasis entirely over to the needs of the child.
Then you almost inevitably end up with a polarised debate between women's rights and children.
In terms of public opinion, we should note that the vast majority of Americans are happy with what the law says at present. Polls in America, regardless of the merits of the pro-life or pro-choice positions, show that the vast majority are happy with the situation that exists. That is to say, Roe v. Wade still stands, but states are allowed to introduce their own legislation. It is 10 per cent of people who are pro-life, and 10 per cent who are pro-choice who are on the extremes. What you are arguing for is either a change in the American political system or for different Americans!
My own view, talking as someone who works for an abortion provider, would certainly be to separate any future problems a child might encounter from the abortion request. Most women who come for abortion do not want to be pregnant, and that is the issue. The argument should be that women should be able to enjoy sex without the consequences of unwanted pregnancy. We should be able to just talk about abortion as a practical, medical issue.
That would be to suggest that having an abortion doesn't have consequences.
J: I think that we can talk about abortion and the lives of children at the same time. We can talk about the life of a woman who is deciding whether she wants to make a new person and raise that person. We do not have to split those questions or their answers off from each other. I definitely do want to talk about the fact that when you are pregnant, there is a baby growing inside of you. I think the quality of life of children is important, more important than the dubious value of simply being alive. We can say women need to decide, once pregnant inadvertently, whether to have the child; and one of issues that they need to consider is whether they want to make a person, raise it for 18 years, and throughout that time be emotionally, financially, spiritually responsible for it. That is the situation, the question, which is raised for a woman by pregnancy. Do I want a baby? a woman thinks; what would happen if I had this baby? what would happen if I didn't have this baby, if I aborted it? what would happen if I gave it away?
But if we use the image of the starving child, the implication is that abortion can be used to prevent women having children in certain circumstances, and this is about population control.
J: I absolutely agree that we should be careful with our language, our meaning, even our graphics. It is a complex issue. The young American women I have encountered, and those asked in surveys, are now starting to say something they never used to say in the 60s and 70s. Now they say 'I think abortion should be legal, but I could never have one'. This reminds me of when women used to say of rape, 'How could she let that happen to her? I would never let that happen to me'. We learned fairly quickly, once we began to study rape, that that response is not only unkind, but deeply ignorant of the reality of rape. But with abortion, something has changed the other way, gone backwards, so to speak. A US generation has grown up in a context where abortion is a negative word. Granted, abortion was never a jolly subject, but simply thinking and talking about abortion is once again something people do not want to do, something fraught with guilt and fear and shame. This is because they have learned to think simply about abortion – they think only that abortion is ‘a bad thing.’ They do not identify with the struggle for it, or with the need for it. That has all been minimized in these past three decades, proving (yet again) that what Ida B. Wells-Barnett said to the American public about lynching just about a hundred years ago, is still true, and broadly applicable: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
(Judith Arcana. Do not use/reproduce without permission.)
After her days in Jane, Judith Arcana became a writer, and is currently writing fiction about tattoos and poems about abortion. Her work is supported by a Poetry Award from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, a Poetry Fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts, and grants from the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Union Institute Graduate College.
Her poems and short prose pieces appear in anthologies, newspapers and literary magazines including ZYZZYVA, Nimrod, Fireweed, CALYX and Prairie Schooner.
A longtime teacher of writing, literature and women’s studies, Judith’s nonfiction books are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Every Mother’s Son and Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Fifty years resident in the Great Lakes region, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995. Judith is a member of the Graduate Faculty of The Union Institute.
photo from Jane: An Abortion Service by Nell Lundy and Kate Kirtz