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Day 17

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Abortion Rights and the Roberts Court

Women Under Siege

by LEAH FISHBIEN

As many already know, last Wednesday The Supreme Court contradicted its own 2000 decision to overturn a Nebraska ban on "partial birth abortion" and upheld the federal abortion ban in the cases of Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood and Gonzalez v. Carhart. This hearing occurred in response to the Federal Abortion Ban Act legislation passed by Congress and signed by Bush in 2003. This decision is an appalling one, and it is furthermore an unprecedented setback for women and those who care about them. The Supreme Court has never, in the thirty-plus years since the right to abortion was won in Roe V. Wade, made a decision restricting women’s reproductive rights without providing for cases in which a woman’s health is at stake.

Why you should be concerned

Here is what some prominent people have been saying about this ban:

"I consider the Supreme Court Ban on one type of abortion procedure to be an annexation of Women’s Wombs by the U. S Government and as such should be viewed by all people of conscience as an act of war against women."
-Merle Hoffman, founder, Choices Women’s MedicalCenter, Queens NY on Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"This ruling shows the true colors of the current Bush-stacked majority of the Supreme Court: it does not care about the health, well-being, and safety of American women. This must serve as a wake-up call to women: we are losing our fundamental rights as Bush continues to stack the courts."
-Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority Foundation

"The time is now right to launch aggressive legal challenges across America to abortion on demandThe court has now said it’s OK to ban procedures. We can do more than just put hurdles in front of women seeking abortions; we can put roadblocks in front of them."
-Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue (in the past leading proponents of violence directed at abortion providers and clinics)

"The government has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life."
-The Supreme Court of the United States, in its decision on the PBABA

For all those who have been waiting for a sign that the Christian right minority in this country has co-opted our government and society (because on paper it just "sounds too conspiratorial", or because "they haven’t really made any attempts to change things in a radical way") that sign appeared yesterday in the form of a ruling dropped by judges intent on forcing old-school, biblical morality on us, and it dropped like a bomb onto women’s bodies. That ruling spread over this country like a silent alarm, the opposition and outrage necessary to stop this and further attacks on women palpably missing from most of the country, at least in any massive way, at least yet. That ruling slapped us in the face, challenging a basic assumption that healthcare decisions should be between doctors and patients rather than outsider religious factions and politicians, leaving the patient out of the process entirely. That ruling poured over us like a bucket of ice cold water hopefully waking us up to the reality that this is the ultimate sign, one that declares that Bush and his counterparts in the Supreme Court, now holding the majority, do not value in the least women’s health. This consideration is especially secondary in the face of support from their theocratic political base and in light of their personal "moral values," (values that don’t contradict with the possibility of free fire zones in Iraq or of using the death penalty as a conflict-resolution tool). If permitted-if there is not massive uprising in the face of this ruling-the Christian Right, c/o the Bush Regime, will move to overturn Roe. V Wade, with the stated goal of federally outlawing abortion as a whole. Seriously. Just take a look at any of a number of websites for the National Right to Life Committee, Focus on the Family, Operation Rescue/Save America and this is easily understood.

The science of things

Blatantly missing from this whole debate, from the media coverage and the demands of the Christian fundamentalists and the wobbly democrats’ opinions and public opinion in general, is the science that is an invaluable tool in understanding why the procedure banned in yesterday’s decision should never have been up for question at all. To clear things up, we must first understand that the very language of the ban is confounded by a familiar forgetfulness of the media and of the culture in this country.

Where are the reports of the origins of this term "partial birth" in light of the ban? Are we so quick to forget that the very people attempting to outlaw abortion invented this non-medical term, one not even acknowledged by the scientific community, to scare people into railing against this process (really called D&X, or Dilation and Extraction). Coined by the National Right to Life Committee in 1995 with the hopes that "as the public learns what a ‘partial-birth abortion’ is, they might also learn something about other abortion methods, and that this would foster a growing opposition to abortion," the term was quickly introduced in the title of republican-sponsored legislation to ban the new procedure developed by an Ohio-based physician. The alternate process commonly utilized after the 20th week of a pregnancy, dilation and evacuation, performs the necessary dismemberment of the fetus inside the womb, often causing severe blood loss and also possibly gashing the cervix which can easily prevent any future possibility for pregnancy-in effect, sterilization. Likewise, in the event of an attempted c-section in place of other methods there is a high risk of infection.

D&X is a dilation of the cervix in order to pull the fetus out of the woman’s body, with the doctor then puncturing the fetuses’ head, often sucking the fluid out so that the cranial area might compress enough to pull the fetus out of the woman’s body. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists indicates that in certain circumstances, the D&X procedure is the best one for a women’s health. The procedure is not encouraged in other cases. This process is clearly not used lightly, in fun or by scheming doctors out of spite for "babies". The American Medical Association bylaws actually explicitly prevent physicians from performing this procedure unless the patient’s health is at risk. This is the medical community self-regulating to prevent a serious and, yes, controversial operation from taking place unless completely necessary by medical standards. But this regulation is not enough for people who are not concerned with science, medicine or women’s rights, people who would see women’s lives chained to the unpredictability of childbearing whenever their God deems it necessary, people who would rather jeopardize a woman’s health and have her fetus born, free to live its 5 minutes of life-often the case in situations where this procedure is necessary.

Let’s provide some statistical basis for an understanding of the utility of this process. The Alan Guttmacher Institute research group found that in 2000, around 15,000 abortions were performed on women 20 weeks or more along in their pregnancies-those abortions overwhelmingly occurring between the 20th and 24th week. Of those 15,000, only about 2,200 D&X procedures were performed–0.2 percent of the 1.3 million abortions believed to be performed that year. These procedures are almost never performed after fetal viability, this being so rare that the "pro-life" movement actually panicked when Congress originally attempted to ban D&Xs only in cases of fetal viability-according to the "pro-life" movement, this ban wouldn’t even be effective with that stipulation because those cases hardly exist. This is why this ruling is much more political propaganda rather than a genuine move for "life."

Many D&X abortions occur because of a fetal condition called hydrocephalus–which 1 in 2000 fetuses develop–in which the cranium is abnormally enlarged up to 20" (compared to a normal adult diameter of 7-8"), making delivery dangerous, extremely painful and even fatal for both the fetus (especially in a caesarean section) and the mother. Hydrocephalus is hard to detect before or even early in the second trimester-hence a major part of the justification for the legality of this procedure. Aside from all of this, it is necessary to understand that setting the precedent for this exclusion of the patient-the woman-from the patient-physician relationship is a major violation of human rights and women’s rights. We should have this information, and be confident in a scientific justification for this procedure, but we must also push forward with an understanding of the plans of the Christian Right for women and society and a firm belief in the autonomous power women must hold over their own bodies and futures in order to have justice, real human dignity and a future in which all are really equal. Any encroachments on this autonomy equal a negation of the basic principles it rests on-the equality of women (we’re still working on that one, huh?), the right of women to any kind of future they might choose, and the inherent human value of half the world’s population.

Painting the bigger picture

In light of the fact that this ban will disproportionately affect working class people and people of color who already have limited access to family planning services and are less likely to be able to abort early or prevent pregnancy with contraceptivesIn light of the fact that for these groups, this means unsafe, back-alley abortions that often result in severe injury and death. In light of the Federal Deficit Reduction Act and the consequent price hike on birth control pills on college campuses (at the college that the author attends, the price rose 133%, from $15 to $35 dollars without the subsidy)In light of the continuing attacks on RoeIn light of the fundamentalist Christians refusing to sell women their prescriptions for birth control or Plan BIn light of the Florida woman who was raped, then jailed and refused her second emergency contraception pill by a fundamentalist jail workerIn light of the Keroack appointment to HHS (and subsequent removal!) and the hundreds of identical appointments that we don’t even hear about, and in light of the FDA appointments, the reactionary extremist legislation being proposed and even passed all over on a state level (death certificates for aborted fetuses; public record of abortion patients–women’s names and information; parental notification, etc…), the pregnancy crisis centers being funded by our tax money, abstinence only education being funded, the churches being funded to wage war on women’s rightsIn light of all this

This entire set of distasteful and moreover scary events is only the beginning of what has been going on. The attacks on women’s rights under the Bush Regime could fill pages and pages, but that research is up to each one of us. What space we have left here is for us to understand that these attacks are not something the Christian Right is going to let fizzle as we wait for Bush to be replaced with Bush-lite in 2008. They will push this through as long as they have disproportionate institutional power, and they will have that power as long as Bush stays in office.

Not one of us wants to see the end to Roe V. Wade; and this event really and truly is their second major victory (the first being getting someone so firmly on their side in office). This is a major decision through which the Christian right and the Bush Regime are signaling to us. They are significantly and clearly stepping up this cultural battle, and this "surge" is now clear to the U.S. and the world. In the war on women, this is their Sand Creek Massacre, and if we don’t revolt because of this, they will be able to push the rest of this whole program forward whether we change our minds or not.

Leah Fishbein is an organizer with the World Can’t Wait. She can be reached at: lfishbein@oxy.edu