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.

(Reprinted from the Fall 2012 Life Matters Journal. An earlier version, titled “What the First Wave of Feminism Can Teach the First Wave of Common Ground” appeared at RHRealityCheck.org on July 9, 2009.)

Feminists of the 1960s and 70s were hardly the first to address abortion. Their nineteenth and early twentieth century foremothers also took a strong, if–to many today—unexpectedly oppositional stance. Since at least the late 1980s, prochoicers and prolifers have repeatedly, heatedly disputed the precise content and meaning of this herstory. After over two decades of research and writing on this subject, I cannot agree with prochoicers who outright deny that early feminists opposed abortion, or who claim that this opposition was for now irrelevant or retrograde reasons. Nor can I side with abortion opponents who crudely invoke early feminists even as they defend policies that harm women, such as restricted access to family planning (pregnancy prevention) services.

So what did early feminists really say and do regarding abortion, and why?

While I cannot here do justice to the abundant, many-voiced early feminist literature on abortion, I can briefly outline a consensus shared by everyone from anarchist, freethinking “free lovers” to Women’s Christian Temperance Union members. For documentation of primary and secondary sources, please consult the book I coedited with Rachel MacNair and Linda Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today: Second Expanded Edition (FNSA/Xlibris, 2005), as well as my article “Activism Through the Centuries” in Consistently Opposing Killing, edited by Rachel MacNair and Stephen Zunes (Praeger, 2008).

Like some who identify as feminists today, early feminists opposed abortion out of a belief that life began at conception and acquired human rights at that point. The context of this belief was something parallel to a present-day consistent life ethic. Early feminists’ concern for prenatal lives was hardly single-issue. It was interwoven with their robust advocacy for women, especially their defense of women’s nonabortion reproductive rights, and for already-born children. It was hardly unrelated to their challenges against racism, classism, imperialism, the death penalty and war and (in many cases) their promotion of animal welfare and practice of vegetarianism.

Early feminists did not oppose abortion simply in deference to its illegality. They nonviolently challenged many quite legal practices, such as the denial of women’s right to vote, marital rape and domestic violence, and bans on the open discussion and provision of family planning. Early feminists were deeply concerned about the danger to women’s lives from doubly unsafe procedures. At the same time, they spoke about any abortion that killed a woman as a taking of two lives, not one.

Early feminists demanded, and themselves created, greater social supports for pregnant and parenting women and their children. Single mothers and their children were ruthlessly denied food, clothing, shelter, and health care on the grounds that this was aiding and abetting “immorality.” Many single mothers could not survive without going into prostitution. Married mothers, too, struggled in isolation with such difficulties as domestic violence and economic insecurity. If they were middle or upper class, they faced enforced economic dependence; if working class, toxin-riddled, unsafe jobs that failed to pay living wages or allow for healthy child care practices. As happens today, pious rhetoric about the sacredness of marriage, home, and family frequently obscured these difficulties and blocked effective solutions.

Early feminists squarely held men responsible for any children they conceived, inside or outside marriage. They called men to responsibility in an even more radical way, starting with antislavery documentation of sexual and reproductive outrages that white men committed against African American women and children. As Matilda Joslyn Gage stated, no “subject lies deeper down into woman’s wrongs” than “the denial of the right to herself.”

Although this might seem very strange to today’s prochoicers, when early feminists spoke of a woman’s “right to herself” or “right over her own body,” for them this did not include a right to abortion. It did encompass many measures that would empower women to prevent unintended pregnancies, abortions, and cases of difficult motherhood. Woman’s right to her own body unquestionably meant her right to choose whether, when, and with whom she wished to have penis-vagina sex and thus face the possibility of conception. In other words, it meant freedom from rape, inside and outside of marriage—at a time when the very notion of marital rape was laughed at, even more than it is today. Despite the prevailing cultural belief that “virtuous” women should remain ignorant, feminists also insisted upon thorough sexual/reproductive health education as part of woman’s body-right.

Against widespread contempt for “old maids” like Susan B. Anthony, early feminists defended women’s right and ability to choose a generative singlehood. Although voluntary pregnancy prevention was cast and abhorred as some monstrously wicked, selfish shirking of maternal duty, many early feminists stood up for women’s liberty to use contraceptives and even resort to “Dianaism,” or sexual practices other than penis-vagina intercourse. In a time when women were reviled or pitied even more than they are today for not marrying men, a number of women’s rights activists openly chose “Boston marriages,” or committed same-sex domestic partnerships, or at the very least warmly supported their friends and colleagues who made this choice.

Could the herstory of early feminists on abortion still mean something for today’s abortion debate–other than more pointless, unproductive argument that leaves real-life women and children, born and unborn, out in the cold? Despite all the bickering I have heard and despaired over, I dare to hope so. I believe that this herstory holds two-at least two–big lessons for the present time.

First, many—not all, but many—prochoicers and prolifers alike can validly claim these pioneering feminists as foremothers. Substantial numbers on both “sides” share a consciousness of women’s and already-born children’s rights arising from shared historical sources. Second, if people from both “sides” share this consciousness, they can together contemplate the early feminist analysis of causes and solutions for unintended pregnancy and abortion. They can ask: How does this analysis fit and no longer fit the present? To what particular collective as well as individual responsibilities does it invite us?

What if a strong prochoice-prolife coalition demanded a toxin-free environment, a better child support enforcement system, a living wage, paid family leave, and genuinely universal health care, including a full choice of voluntary family planning methods, prompt access to quality prenatal care, and drug rehabilitation for those who need it? What if we redesigned schools, workplaces, places of recreation, and religious facilities to be truly family-friendly, to all kinds of families?

In regard to abortion itself, today’s prolifers and prochoicers obviously draw the parameters of a woman’s body-right differently. For many prolifers, pregnancy interconnects two equally valuable bodies and lives. For many prochoicers, pregnancy is a matter of one body and life, the woman’s, and/or perhaps a fully realized life nurturing a potential life inside of herself. But why can’t both “sides” at least cooperate on defending a woman’s body-right before conception?

Comprehensive sex education already enjoys a broad base of public support. It can incorporate strong messages of male responsibility and nonviolence towards women and children, as well as teaching young women the assertiveness and self-respect vital to making positive decisions about their bodies and lives.

And rooted as it is basic rights of health, speech, association, religion, and privacy—freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention is another potentially large area of common ground. This includes the right to personally choose, or not choose, from among the various reversible or permanent contraceptive methods, fertility awareness/natural family planning, abstinence/celibacy, and sexual practices other than penis-vagina sex, whether in the context of straight or LGBT relationships. I’m not one of them, but I hope people with religious or ethical objections to any of these practices can agree that it is not government’s place to decide specifically how any of us do or do not exercise this right—even if government is responsible for ensuring that everyone can exercise it freely.

At the same time, I would like skeptical prochoicers to consider that prolifers may already be more supportive of woman’s body-right than expected. I personally have advocated this right for years, and know other prolifers who have done the same. We are not isolated cases—as shown by the appeal of All Our Lives, a nonprofit that I cofounded with Jen Roth. This nonprofit organization describes itself as “pro every life” and “pro nonviolent sexual and reproductive choices.”

If prolifers and prochoicers both take up and work steadily on these shared reproductive justice responsibilities, both at the collective and individual levels: what will our descendants be talking about and doing in a century or two? What places will unintended pregnancy and abortion have and not have in their society? I for one would love to know! Surely such a cooperative effort will both expand women’s choices and protect the lives of the unborn. And—even though we cannot be sure of what they would think—wouldn’t our feminist foremothers be proud of us, at long last?

In countries where there is a vocal, well-funded minority against contraception, stereotypes against women who use it abound.

In the United States, for example, women who use contraceptives–the overwhelming majority of women, by the way–have been derided as feckless, irresponsible, selfish, monstrously unnatural, man-hating, child-hating sluts who want to live parasitically off hard-working, moral-paragon taxpayers, and who automatically have abortions without a thought if they become unintentionally pregnant. Women who do not use contraceptives, on the other hand, are praised as spiritually superior, virtuous, man-loving, child-loving, fruitful Good Girls who know their ordained place in G*d’s Order of Things.

What a different, and much more flattering, much more accurate picture emerges from a new Guttmacher Institute study, Reasons for Contraception: Perspectives of US Women Seeking Care at Specialized Family Planning Clinics, which is forthcoming in the journal Contraception.

From a release about the study:

“Women value the ability to plan their childbearing, and view doing so as critical to being able to achieve their life goals,” says study author Laura Lindberg. “They need continued access to a wide range of contraceptives so they can plan their families and determine when they are ready to have children.”

Few studies in the United States have asked women directly why they use contraception and what benefits they expect or have achieved from its use. To fill this gap, the authors surveyed 2,094 women receiving services at 22 family planning clinics nationwide.

The majority of participants reported that contraception has had a significant impact on their lives, allowing them to take better care of themselves or their families (63%), support themselves financially (56%), complete their education (51%), or keep or get a job (50%).

When asked why they are seeking contraceptive services now, women expressed concerns about the consequences of an unintended pregnancy on their families’ and their own lives. The single most frequently cited reason for using contraception was that women could not afford to take care of a baby at that time (65%). Nearly one in four women reported that they or their partners were unemployed, which was a very important reason for their contraceptive use. Among women with children, nearly all reported that their desire to care for their current children was a reason for contraceptive use.

Many women reported interrelated reasons for using contraception, suggesting that the complexities of women’s lives influence their decision to use contraception and their choice of method. Other reasons for using contraception, reported by a majority of respondents, include not being ready to have children (63%), feeling that using birth control gives them better control over their lives (60%) and wanting to wait until their lives are more stable to have a baby (60%).

The release also includes this commentary.

“Notably, the reasons women give for using contraception are similar to the reasons they give for seeking an abortion,” according to Lawrence B. Finer, author of a previous Guttmacher study on that topic. “This means we should see access to abortion in the broader context of women’s lives and their efforts to avoid unplanned childbearing, in light of its potential consequences for them and their families.”

What does this study mean from an All Our Lives sort of perspective? For one, it fits well with what we already know experientially about the critical reasons why women need and want access to the full range of pregnancy prevention methods. Reasons that have nothing to do with the abovementioned belittling stereotypes.

For another, any serious effort to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions must include expanded access to the full range of methods and understanding and alleviation of any problems that might hinder their effectiveness.

We do not advocate this course because we equate contraception with abortion, let alone believe the hype about some foreordained, inevitable “contraceptive mentality.” We advocate it because it works best in the real world, honors most women’s preferences to avert rather than interrupt unintended pregnancies, and does not involve the taking of prenatal lives. In other words, it evinces the most respect for human beings and universal human rights.

For yet another–the study findings call into question the sharp division between women who use contraception and those who do not. All Our Lives has long questioned this as just another brutal variant on the sundering of womankind into Madonnas and Whores. We assert the right of all women to use/not use any particular method of pregnancy prevention in accordance with their own preferences, values, and circumstances.

Thanks, Cristina Page, for bringing the Guttmacher study to our attention.

Next month in London, England, the British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will convene a global summit on family planning. All Our Lives has endorsed two important human rights declarations created in anticipation of the summit.

“Women’s Human Rights Must be at the Center of the Family Planning Summit” warns:

Our experience, built over decades of work around the world, has taught us that the failure to take actions guided by women’s human rights – to health, to life, to live free from discrimination among others – can have devastating consequences. Policies that accept or tacitly condone forced sterilization, the coercive provision of contraceptives, and the denial of essential services to the young, poor and marginalized women that need them every day have violated, and continue to violate, women’s human rights.

Nearly twenty years ago, governments at the [1994 Cairo] International Conference on Population and Development agreed that respect for women’s reproductive autonomy is the cornerstone of population policy. Any return to coercive family planning programs where quality of care and informed consent are ignored would be both shocking and retrograde.

A global letter of support for the summit emphasizes a program of action to increase family planning access to the millions of human beings who currently lack it.

We applaud the London Summit on Family Planning for its commitment to work with poor and vulnerable populations to increase individual awareness, address socio-cultural barriers, and increase community acceptability of family planning, including comprehensive sexuality education. In particular, we applaud the initiative’s emphasis on empowering women and girls, and delivery through increased service provision. We encourage you to focus on providing information and services to those who have historically faced poor access to family planning, especially young people, poor women, people with disabilities; rural, indigenous, displaced and post crisis populations. Similarly, we encourage you to make linkages to other programmes including those for economic development, education (especially for girls), environmental protection, HIV/AIDS,maternal and child health, security and youth.

We commit to working with communities and reaching poor and vulnerable women and girls with evidence-based information so that they can make informed choices regarding their fertility and choice of contraceptive method.

Yes and yes. If we are the sole prolife group signing on to these statements, well, it’s got to start somewhere.

The organization Liberty Counsel has its own amicus brief in support of Alabama’s drive to criminally prosecute pregnant women who use substances.

Why? On the grounds that the unborn child is a full-fledged human being.

Liberty Counsel amasses historical evidence that the law has treated unborn children as human beings like any other.

But its brief does nothing to assess whether in the real world, the criminal prosecutions in Alabama actually foster the treatment of unborn children–not to mention their mothers!–as full-fledged human beings.

Liberty Counsel thus takes an enormous and unwarranted leap from the claim of fetal humanity to a position that *threatens* fetal and female lives, health, wellbeing, and rights.

Any such claim needs to have advocacy of robust, generous, nonpunitive assistance with abortion alternatives written right into it, or it has no validity whatsoever.

In the case of pregnant women who abuse substances and their fetuses, that means immediately accessible, free/affordable, specialized, high quality drug treatment programs.

Liberty Counsel mentions nothing of the sort in the brief, or anywhere else.

It also invokes nineteenth century physicians and academics who opposed abortion, without mentioning or discussing the fair amount of misogyny mixed into their views.

The brief does quote the antiabortion views of one feminist doctor, Mary Dixon Jones. But it omits her connections to the women’s rights movement.

It says nothing of early feminists’ consensus on abortion. They defined it as unjust prenatal lifetaking that could not be opposed without simultaneously and throughly challenging its root causes, such as the denial of women’s sex education and family planning rights, and the criminalization of single mothers as sex offenders.

Small wonder that All Our Lives got behind the opposing brief, not Liberty Counsel’s!

Joining over 40 other organizations concerned about maternal and child health and welfare, All Our Lives has signed onto an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief documenting the many evidence-based reasons why the State of Alabama should not criminalize substance using pregnant women.

One reason is that women will feel pressure to have abortions because substance abuse treatment is so difficult for them to access during pregnancy and they fear prosecution. Yet this criminalization is pushed in the name of establishing rights for unborn children! Punishing women and driving up the abortion rate doesn’t accomplish that in the real world.

We signed onto the brief after reaching out to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, in response to an RH Reality Check article by their attorneys Lynn Paltrow and Emma Ketteringham, Now It’s Clear: Pro-Life Means Pro-Imprisonment.

It doesn’t have to. And it won’t, if we can at all help it!

Thanks especially to Emma Ketteringham for her help.

There’s a scenario that’s gotten way past tiresome. (Example: here.)

To wit: Right-wing prolifer invokes early feminism. S/he produces problematic quotations in an utterly sloppy and yet oddly selective way to give the impression that early feminists did not simply oppose abortion; they were all exemplars of today’s misogynist “traditional family values.”

Prochoice critics rightfully point out the sloppiness and selectivity–thereby leaving their own impression that only an unscholarly, idiotic, deceptive person would argue that early feminists opposed abortion. Especially for any reasons that could matter today.

What *does* the historical record say?

Early feminists left plenty of solid material in their own words that expressed opposition to abortion–as prenatal lifetaking that resulted from the denial of women’s right to family planning and other substantive alternatives. Very often as part of a serious critique of “traditional family values”! For reasons that in many ways still apply today.

I have carefully researched and published on this material for over two decades and this is my well substantiated conclusion.

But who cares what *I* think, right? I’m just a family-destroying fake prolifer/antichoice woman-hating liar, right?

It wasn’t just the notorious antifeminist pundit Rush Limbaugh who said truly ugly things about the sexual character of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for her brave defense of women’s access to contraception.

While she did not take as nasty and perverted a turn as Limbaugh–not very hard to do, really–the actor Patricia Heaton tweeted a number of highly disrespectful, appalling things about Fluke. Heaton has since apologized. She apparently took down her Twitter feed for a while.

But All Our Lives still has some grave concerns about Heaton’s slutshaming of Sandra Fluke. After all, Heaton has long served as a celebrity spokesperson and honorary chair for Feminists for Life of America.

We hope Heaton is sincere in her apology.

We simultaneously wonder why such a public face of an organization that has feminism in its very name would go so quickly to insulting the sexual character of a woman who speaks up for affordable contraceptive coverage.

Especially an organization that names itself as feminist in its reasons for opposing abortion and creating postconception alternatives to it.

And it’s not just Heaton we are questioning. *Anyone* who identifies as pro both pregnant women’s and unborn children’s lives needs to speak up strongly, publicly, and unequivocally against slutshaming.

Many prochoicers have spoken up against slutshaming. Some abortion opponents, such as Abby Johnson, have spoken up–but where are the rest of the voices?

Slutshaming is a profound form of disrespect for women’s lives, in and of itself.

And it is a major cause of abortion in the US and worldwide, in history and in the present. Slutshaming heightens certain risk factors that female human beings and the children they conceive have for unintended pregnancies and abortions. It:

–Prevents girls and women from learning everything they need to know about their bodies and accepting and loving themselves as human beings with sexual and reproductive rights.
–Inhibits access to the full range of family planning methods and sabotages women’s ability to use their chosen contraception.
–Makes girls and women more vulnerable to all forms of gender-based violence.
–Puts intense pressure on those who have conceived in nonmarital relationships especially to have abortions rather than run the gauntlet of judgmentality, ostracism, and assault they will face if evidence of their sex lives becomes public.

If respect for life means anything: it doesn’t mean slutshaming. It means the very opposite!

All Our Lives, a pro *every* life nonprofit, does *not* stand with the anti-contraception Stand Up for Religious Freedom.

We support religious freedom, but that does not include employers' restriction of workers' family planning freedom. Instead we support and applaud the Coalition to Protect Women's Health Care in its defense of contraceptive access.

Family planning freedom is a human right in its own right, and indispensable to reducing unintended pregnancies and abortions.

All people, whether prolife or prochoice on abortion, should join together in the defense of family planning freedom, so that it becomes a reality for all women, especially women whose exercise of it is hindered by discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, socioeconomic class, race/ethnicity, disability, national origin, and/or sexual orientation.

I first read Our Bodies, Ourselves when visiting my brother and sister in law. My sister in law, who is pro choice, had it on her bookshelf. I found it to be a very comprehensive and informative resource on women’s health, despite not agreeing with its stance on abortion. I was thrilled, however, when I noticed discussion of the prenatal testing/disability rights issue, as well as disability and sexuality. Noticing my enjoyment of the book, my sister in law gave me the updated edition as a Christmas present.                                                                                              

Imagine my disappointment when I cracked the cover of the book and looked for those sections, only to find they had been removed. Issues related to race, religion, gender and sexual orientation remained, but discussions about disability had been relegated to a sidebar instructing anyone who wanted information on disability and prenatal testing to visit the OBO website. The section on disability and sexuality had been completely removed, without any mention of where that information could be found. As a woman with a disability, I felt ostracized. Here was a well-respected resource for women singling out disability as something so insignificant/controversial/whatever as to be segregated on the group’s website.  The book, to put it candidly, was subtly telling women with disabilities that we had no role in the discourse surrounding reproductive rights. I did bring this up on an OBO blog post in 2010 and was answered by an administrator:

“I’ve been part of the editorial team for the past several editions of OBOS, including the one currently in production, due out in October 2011. We faced a lot of space constraints in 2005, as that edition was quite a bit smaller than the 1998 edition, and some of the content you mention was cut. But our recent single topic book, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth (2008) has an entire chapter on prenatal testing that addresses the complicated issues raised by testing and underlying assumptions about disability.”

I appreciate that OBO legitimized my concern with a response, which shows that they took it at least somewhat seriously. I’m glad that their book on planned childbirth includes a section on prenatal testing and disability. However, I continue to feel frustrated. Facing “space constraints” is not an excuse for segregating disability to the group’s website. The omission of the previously cited material from the 2006 edition, and the explanation that this omission was due to space constraints, indicates that the editorial board considered disability to be of lesser importance than issues impacting other minority groups. The omission sends the message that prenatal testing and disability is only worth knowing about if one is a nondisabled woman planning a family. The implication is that women in general don’t need or want this information, let alone let alone that pertaining to disability and sexuality.                                                                                 

I don’t know what happened between 1998 (the first edition I read) and 2006 (the newer edition) to make the editors decide that disability issues no longer merited use of the space provided for their book.  Was there someone on the 1998 committee with an interest in disability issues who was no longer on the committee when the 2006 version was compiled? Where people who experienced a termination for fetal disability offended that the book urged parents considering this decision to carefully consider their preconceptions regarding “quality of life,” and the editors felt their feelings trumped the concerns of disability advocates? The response I received indicates that the editorial board decided that something had to go and it might as well be disability issues. If so, did they appreciate how this decision contributed to the oppressive cultural zeitgeist that ignores the sexuality of people with disabilities, uses us as pawns in the abortion debate, and thrusts us outside the scope of human diversity? If not, why not? Why, in the very least, didn’t someone think that those with disabilities would complain about these changes? Did they just think we’re too powerless to say/do anything about them? Did the editors actually buy into the eugenic idea that people with disabilities shouldn’t/don’t have sex and hence didn’t deserve a place at the table when discussing issues related to sexuality and reproduction? I don’t know, but I feel these are all possibilities.                                                                                                                                       

My next statement will be somewhat controversial: I think that whoever was in charge of the 2006 OBO book felt that the book was automatically disability friendly because it extols a politically liberal worldview. This is, of course, crap. While most disability advocates believe in things strongly supported by the Democratic party (social security, Medicaid/care, a full range of family planning choices, LGBT rights, healthcare reform) we do have positions that deviate from mainstream liberalism, including critiques of selective abortion, efforts to eliminate institutions in favor of small group housing, and strong opposition to assisted suicide/euthanasia. We also support the social model of disability, something that people on both sides of the political aisle have struggled to accept or have resisted completely. People on the right shouldn’t expect our automatic support because they oppose selective abortion, and people on the left shouldn’t expect our automatic support simply because they support Medicaid/care. This is the result of both sides seeing us as “the least of these” who they, of course, want to support. If there is  no understanding of what that support entails, the so-called support becomes a very cynical form of tokenism. I hope that the 2011 edition reflects a reconsideration of whatever lead the editors to exclude disability issues in 2006.