At the conference held for the 25th anniversary of Consistent Life (of which All Our Lives is a member group), Mary spoke with Elizabeth Palmberg about her views on how abortion relates to issues of reproductive justice faced by women, as well as to other forms of lifetaking. This interview is reprinted, with permission, from the Fall 2012 newsletter of Consistent Life.

When I was small, I had a strong intuition that all lives are sacred. And I heard about women’s liberation; I heard the feminists burned bras, and this and that and the other thing, but there was something about it that, inside, made me cheer. I was always kind of a free spirit. What I learned in college, at Bryn Mawr, was that if you’re for women’s rights, you have to be pro-choice— something about that just didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t know many people who felt the same way who would talk about it. I came from a very conservative background, and I came out of college feeling that some of my earlier moral and political intuitions were validated by feminism and progressive politics. But this issue of abortion—I just could not get away from the feeling that this is violence and it arises from injustice against women.

I wanted to do something about violence, but I felt very discontent with the pro-life movement as such. I became a social worker and worked in pregnancy care services. When I became too disabled to work a “normal” job, I went to being a writer and editor; one of my specializations is recovering lost history.

I’ve written on black history, Polish-American history. And I’ve done work on early feminists—even though the situation is different today, obviously, they have a very keen analysis, that still holds, why women have unintended pregnancies and abortions.

Two years ago Jennifer Roth and I co-founded a group called All Our Lives; we very consciously take a reproductive justice approach. Reproductive justice is a movement that arose from women of color, people with disabilities, people with a working-class perspective. Reproductive justice involves having not only the right to have a child but the social power to exercise that right, to raise the children we have in safety, and it also includes the right not to have a child.

Many people who identify with reproductive justice take a pro-choice stand on abortion, but there are many of us who don’t. Loretta Ross, the head of SisterSong, a very influential reproductive justice organization, talks about “perfect choice.” If everyone had the means to do what they wanted to do reproductively and sexually, that would be the state of perfect choice. Some people believe that in that state there would still be abortions, and others of us think that it would be rare to nonexistent.

So that’s why we started All Our Lives, and we’ve had very interesting dialogues, mostly behind the scenes, with both pro-life and pro-choice people. One thing that we’re finding is a niche that nobody’s taken up is that a lot of scientific research now suggests that methods that were considered abortifacient really aren’t—there is so much resistance to hearing that perspective. We also have on our website a PowerPoint presentation called “Family Planning Freedom is Prolife.” It gives 10 reasons, many backed up with scientific studies. It addresses a lot of myths that both pro-life and pro-choice people have.

“As many as God sends us” is a family planning choice, and natural family planning is one, but the important thing is I don’t think “choice” is an empty word. Some people think it’s a cover for all abortion all the time, but I think it’s very real. You can’t just talk about choice in a vacuum; you have to talk about how it’s compromised by issues of race, gender, disability, class, sexual orientation. Environmental justice is one; a lot of women are losing their ability to conceive when they want to because of environmental toxins.

Believing that all life is sacred, that means women’s lives too, and that means we do have a right over our own bodies. Pro-lifers often interpret that as a selfish demand, but I [don’t.] I remember Muhammad Ali, when I was a little kid, boasting about how great he was; a lot of white people were saying, “God, this man has an ego!” But after living in a black community for a long time and having an interracial family, I realized that that’s not egotism—that’s saying, “I’m somebody, I have value.” That’s what women are saying when they say, “We have a right over our own bodies.”

Now with pregnancy, it’s a matter of two bodies, two lives. Our responsibility has two sides: one is responsibility for pregnant women and their children, and the other side is the responsibility to respect women’s right to prevent conception when they want to. That is a difficult thing to write in the pro-life movement. Some Catholics have objections; the other thing is the belief in something called the “contraceptive mentality,” that if your contraception fails, that you automatically have an abortion—that doesn’t explain millions of pregnancy outcomes. It certainly doesn’t explain why I had my daughter and why she had her son. I know lots of women who use contraception in the knowledge that it doesn’t always work as intended. But if it doesn’t work as intended, then you and your child have a right to everything that will help you both survive.

A lot of [the bridge-building we at All Our Lives have] done so far is behind the scenes. We find, in surprising places, opportunities to join with people who have a common concern. We have found pro-choice people who say, “I don’t agree with you on abortion, but I have respect for your perspective because it’s consistent, because you value women’s lives.” We found pro-lifers who say, “That’s exactly how I feel.” We share a lot of supporters with the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. One very interesting thing is that women of color, even those who identify as pro-choice, really can relate to this perspective. There’s probably a lot of opportunity for common ground there.

We have a small board; most of us have disabilities. We’re all female; one of our board members is a woman and an independent ordained Catholic priest. We’re not anti-religious; we’re open to people of all faiths. I’m someone with Catholic and Protestant ancestry, and I also practice Buddhism, and Jen Roth is an atheist. We really try to bring in multiple perspectives, which can be difficult sometimes, but so far it’s worked out really well.

I was involved in Feminists for Life, I think, from 1986 until I resigned in 2007. I don’t quarrel with what they do—what they do is good—but I left specifically in protest of their inaction on pre-conception issues. [They] said [they] couldn’t come to a consensus because people disagree. I feel like we’ve worked out another approach. I kind of understand; Catholics in the United States, including my white ethnic ancestors, Polish and Irish, were targeted for eugenics, and that collective memory is still there. That legacy is one reason it’s hard to talk about birth control in the pro-life movement. But I think it needs to come more out in the open, it needs to heal.

As a multiply disabled person who depends on expensive medical care, I am really concerned about the threat euthanasia poses, especially to people on public assistance. I think disability rights folks—who are often not included in the debates, but we have had some impact—have gotten people to think about the fact [euthanasia often] isn’t a free choice; it can easily slide into coercion. As for the death penalty, I really think that’s tied into racism, it’s tied into poverty. I know a family with a member who was eventually exonerated, but he was on death row for something like 14 years. He was a young man, and he lost those years of his life. So that issue has a very human face to me. All these issues do.

War is very tied in. I know people who have gone into the military for very noble reasons: they want to serve their country, they know that some things are worth dying for. It’s unfortunate that they’re dying for such horrible reasons.

I see a parallel between that and a lot of women I know who’ve had abortions. They are not evil people; they are people trying, like all of us, to make the best of very bad situations. I know women who’ve had abortions who go to either the pro-life or the pro-choice movements, and I see good people in both groups. A lot of women feel they have to have an abortion because it preserves a relationship with a man, or with their parents. They are concerned about the situation they bring the child into. I just think it’s unfair that women are placed in that position to begin with, that the whole karmic burden is thrown on that woman and that child. We always talk about most of these issues in terms of individual rights, but what about collective responsibility? I think that’s where Americans really, really have gone wrong.

I love my country, the United States. And that’s why I am so embarassed about the current cavalcade of birth control follies now overtaking our public life.

We have so many material resources, why can’t we share them to help all who need help covering the full range of family planning choices, without all this uproar? Poor Americans, immigrants, people of color, women, people with disabilities…why why why are these the groups that always get lost in the shuffle?

Exhibit A of said cavalcade: The all male panel that was convened before Congress to explain why the recent Department of Health and Human Services ruling on family planning coverage intrudes upon religious freedom.

When pressed, apparently, some of the panel members conceded that maybe contraception was OK in cases of “medical necessity.”

In an animated conversation with people I know, I submitted that this concession might stem from a belief that women with disabilities/health impairments have no business reproducing. Someone said that I was prejudicial, leaping to conclusions.

So I read through each of the panelists’ testimonies. If anyone can provide substantive evidence that any of these men have good disability and/or women’s rights records, then pleasantly surprise me, would you please?

Reading the testimonies just made me even more skeptical that any of them get the reproductive rights of women with disabilities–let alone *all* women’s family planning rights. Below are my notes on each testimony. If you want to read the testimonies yourself, please go here.

William Lori, US Conference of Catholic Bishops: Compares the proposed contraceptive coverage regulations to the government forcing Orthodox Jewish delis to serve pork, when that pork eaters can easily, cheaply, and freely get their chosen meat elsewhere.

This analogy does not hold (and it offends me as someone whose vision of reverence for life encompasses being a vegetarian, and an anti-anti-Semite). Pork is death-dealing, first of all to pigs, and second of all to humans who develop serious health problems from eating it. Access to free/affordable voluntary contraception, on the other hand, is often life- and health-giving for women, especially women with disabilities.

The analogy also suggests that contraception is somehow an optional luxury, one already easily, freely, cheaply available through many other venues. Yet the reality is that family planning access is far from a given for millions of US women, including and especially women with disabilities.

Women with disabilities are far more likely than nondisabled to live in poverty, rely on government benefit programs, be unemployed or underemployed, and thus to have constricted access, if any, to health care of all kinds, including voluntary family planning services and supplies. Any HHS ruling that expands voluntary family planning access, whether through government programs, private health plans, or some combination of the two, thus promotes the interests and needs of women with disabilities. Does Lori know this?

 

Matthew C. Harrison, President, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: “We object to the use of drugs and procedures used to take the lives of unborn children. We oppose this mandate since it requires religious organizations to pay for and otherwise facilitate the use of such drugs by their employees.”

As All Our Lives asserts every day, just about, according to the best, most current scientific evidence, IUDs and hormonal birth control methods such as the pill and Plan B emergency contraception work *before* conception and not at any point after. Thus the contraceptive coverage ruling is in fact solely about pregnancy *prevention*, by *anyone’s* definition of when life or pregnancy begins.

If Harrison believes this misinformation about such a critical health issue impacting so many women, with or without disabilities: then why should I be optimistic that he is amply informed about, let alone eager to promote and defend the family planning concerns of women with disabilities, a frequently overlooked and neglected minority population?

 

C. Ben Mitchell, Union University: “I am here to decry the contraception, abortifacient, and sterilization mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on January 20, 2012…” , See my objections to Harrison’s testimony.

 

Meir Soloveichick, Yeshiva University: “The administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity.” This definition of “people of faith” does not include or side with disabled women who make prayerful, conscientious, lifegiving, and lifesaving decisions about which family planning method(s) to use and when and whether to pursue conception.

 

Craig Mitchell, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: “This rule…takes away the freedom of the citizens while emboldening the federal government to do whatever it wants.”

Whoa….Just about every discriminated-against group in the US has heard such an argument leveled against its own struggle for justice.

Mitchell’s definition here of “citizens” who are deprived of freedom sides with powerful religious institutions whose policy on birth control, especially when intruded into the public sphere, infringes upon the freedoms of many women with disabilities (not to mention women in general, but let’s stay focused on this doubly discriminated against minority for the time being.)

In effect it forces a “choice” between lifelong celibacy and a single method of family planning, natural family planning that may be right for some women. But for many women with disabilities, NFP is quite ineffective and illfitting, even as pregnancy may be quite risky for them, and they wish *themselves* to conceive sparingly, or not at all.

Mitchell’s notion here of “citizens” deprived of their freedom in regard to family planning does not appear to recognize women with disabilities and their children’s and their own rights to health and life.

 

I treasure religious freedom, especially as someone affiliated with a distinctly minority, other than Christian faith. Some of my ancestors were forcibly deprived of their religious freedom. Never again! But these testimonies…so awry…so unaware, it seems, of who they are excluding, and why, and how. In the name of prolife, even though their unwillingness to meet the administration halfway could end up costing lives, unborn, already born.

The editor and publisher of On the Issues Magazine, Merle Hoffman, has been involved in providing abortions for over 40 years. In Where the Reality of Abortion Resides: Intimate Wars, she bears witness to

…so much vulnerability: legs spread wide apart; the physician crouched between white, black, thin, heavy, but always trembling, thighs; the tube sucking the fetal life from their bodies.

A poignant thread runs through so many of her clients' stories.

"I would want to keep this pregnancy, if only…" I learned that it is in the "if only" that the reality of abortion resides…

If only I wasn't fourteen.

If only I was married.

If only my husband had another job.

If only I didn't give birth to a baby six months ago.

If only I didn't just get accepted to college.

If only I didn't have such difficult pregnancies.

If only I wasn't in this lousy marriage.

If only I wasn't forty-two.

If only my boyfriend wasn't on drugs.

If only I wasn't on drugs.

If only . . .


Yet Hoffman concludes:

The act of abortion positions women at their most powerful, and that is why it is so strongly opposed by many in society…the assumption — the myth — that women should not be trusted with this ultimate power.

But Hoffman's perspective does not leave any room for the very real motives for the stance that All Our Lives-takes against abortion. We trust women to exercise power-with, nonviolent power. Power-over, for people of any gender, is another matter. However, we don't agree to begin with that abortion "positions women at their most powerful."

I do not question Hoffman's intent to help women in difficult situations. But I hear in this claim a strange reminder of certain antiabortionists who also believe that abortion is women's "ultimate power."

Unlike Hoffman, they take this as the ultimate reason to oppose abortion. They harbor a virulent suspicion and hatred of women who dare to exercise any kind of power. Let alone any power over life and death of the sort that men have traditionally and territorially staked out for themselves. This is precisely why they can behave as if life begins at conception and ends at birth without becoming so ashamed of themselves, they crawl under a rock.

Even conceding (however briefly, for the sake of argument) that women are at their most powerful in the decision to have an abortion: what does this say about the severity and gravity of the constraints that still bind women's lives? If abortion is an exercise of women's "ultimate power"-isn't that a cause for weeping? And isn't that a cause for ensuring that no woman and child/as few women and children as possible ever end up in that position?

All Our Lives opposes abortion-and tries to build substantive alternatives-because we believe it is so often a sign and symptom of women's powerlessness.

Powerlessness to prevent unintended pregnancies, powerlessness to get through and beyond difficult pregnancies.

It is not fear or mistrust of women's power that moves us. It is sorrow and distress and outrage that women are so robbed of power, on such a massive scale, in such an intimate, painful, lifetaking way.

I am a multiply disabled person who strongly advocates the sexual, reproductive, life, and all other human rights of people with disabilities. And I am a feminist who loves the "f" word that so many "but" away. So I welcome almost everything in this statement against the opposition of women's reproductive rights and the rights of disabled people.

 

I would really like to sign it, but I cannot, because it implies yet another unnecessary opposition of rights: between the rights of those who are already born and those who are unborn. So, where and how do I show my solidarity? Do the disability rights and feminist movements have room for people like me who want to fully bridge that often created divide between prenatal and postnatal lives?

 

Now, I am in those movements regardless of who does or does not want me in on them. I am going to keep doing the work, no matter what, just as I have for years. But any sign that people like me are at least sister (or fellow) travellers would be good.

Unfortunately, All Our Lives is not in a position yet to launch the dream feminist CPC described in our last blog entry. But that doesn't mean we will decline to address real-life pregnancy problems in whatever ways we can right now.

The Nonviolent Choice Directory, http://www.nonviolentchoice.info, will soon become a project of All Our Lives.

The Directory lists resources from all over the world that can help alleviate problem pregnancies and abortions. It covers:

–Post Abortion Care

–Male Responsibility

–Sexual/Reproductive Health Education (comprehensive)

–All Pregnancy Prevention Methods

–Crisis Pregnancy Support

–Mother & Child Health

–Parenting/Childrearing

–Adoption, Foster Care, & Guardianship

–Food & Nutrition

–Clothing

–Shelter

–Finances & Income

–Education

–Employment/Career

–Relationships

–Eco-Friendly Living

–Other Ways to Give Life

 

The Nonviolent Choice Directory was launched in 2007 to fulfill a promise made in the book Pro Life Feminism Yesterday and Today, Second Expanded Edition.

You can email the Directory here: editor –at– nonviolentchoice –dot– info

Surfin3rdWave at Feministing.com describes her vision of a feminist crisis pregnancy center.

It would:

  • Refuse to engage in "slut-shaming…'marry your baby's daddy'…fearmongering."
  • Foster choices in birthing, such as midwifery care, as well as in parenting.
  • "Offer realistic parenting classes that promote responsible parenthood while also encouraging women to view themselves as individuals–with personalities and careers" apart from their parenthood.
  • Give "free counseling services to women coping with anxiety and depression during an unplanned pregnancy," including access when needed to licensed mental health professionals.
  • "Encourage pregnant women to view their bodies as beautiful and sexy…provide information about maintaining a good sex life and a positive body-image before and after pregnancy."
  • "Help women find the financial and material resources needed to make it through pregnancy and give birth…[such as] the WIC program.  Donors could bring baby car seats, maternity clothes, cribs, nursing bras, breast pumps, and canned goods…"

All Our Lives cofounder Jen commented on this post, saying that she shared this vision of a feminist CPC and our organization would like to run one like this someday.  There are in fact ethically run CPCs who already engage in these services for women.  And to the above services, we might want to add:

  • Prevention measures such as comprehensive sex ed curricula, a full range of family planning options, and outreach tailored to groups of clients most at risk for unintended pregnancies, such as LGBT youth.
  • Male responsibility programming.
  • An advocacy department to work on systemic-level/collective changes necessary to alleviate the plight of so many pregnant women and reduce the numbers of unintended pregnancies and abortions, locally, nationally, globally.
  • Standards to help existing CPCs evaluate and improve their services, and aid in the creation of new ones.

 

Please also see the discussion of Surfin3rdWave's post on the All Our Lives Facebook group.