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Time to End the "Back Alley Butcher" Myth

The days of illegal abortion were ugly, but many clandestine abortion providers were competent, caring professionals who believed in justice.
 
 
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The new Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is rumored to have been overlooked at the Oscars because abortion is central to the story, and this is a climate in which film makers tend to assume that a woman cannot be a empathetic character while actively desiring an abortion. The film is, by almost all accounts, excellent -- it won the Golden Palm and International Federation of Film Critics prizes at the Cannes Film Festival; Best Film and Best Director at the European Film Awards; and more than a dozen other accolades at festivals and awards ceremonies. Lauren, who blogs at Faux Real Tho, has an excellent review up of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days which doesn't give away any major plot details, and is worth checking out for some basic background. In the review, she mentions one character in the film who is the famous archetype that symbolizes the entire era of criminalized abortion: The Back Alley Butcher. And while it sounds as though the movie uses this character in an interesting way -- and while this column should not be construed as a criticism of the film -- pro-choicers should be careful about resting on the Back Alley Butcher myth as an argument for abortion rights.

Even in the days when abortion was a crime, the vast majority of abortion providers were competent, caring professionals who entered the illegal field in no small part because they believed in justice. Far more interesting than the mythical character of the Back Alley Butcher, for instance, is the story of the Jane collective, a feminist organization in Chicago that provided abortions to area women as a protest against misogynist laws.

In the classic book Beggars and Choosers , historian Rickie Solinger argues for the use of the concept of " reproductive rights" over "choice" in the abortion rights movement. She further begs pro-choice activists to quit talking about the Back Alley Butcher as a reason abortion needs to be kept legal. In reality, she says, women and men took incredible risks to provide abortions to women in need; the imaging of illegal abortion providers as greedy and self-serving not only re-writes history, but it taints all abortion providers -- including legal ones.

But there's another reason to avoid resorting to the Back Alley Butcher argument: It perpetuates the myth that women need to be protected from themselves. You know the scenario: Anti-choicers run around saying that we have to ban abortion in order to protect women. That warped logic implies that women are basically children who can't be trusted to know what they really want -- and that women have one uniform desire, to have one child after another. In the litany of things that make you wonder if anti-choicers have ever had contact with the real world, this belief is one of the most mind-bogglingly out-of-touch. And the field of "mind-bogglingly stupid beliefs" is not an underpopulated one when it comes to the anti-choice philosophy.

The most egregious example of this kind of "Womenz is teh stoopid" thinking as of late is Mississippi's recent attempt to ban women in order to protect women's right not to have rights. The bill is worded as such:

A pregnant mother possesses certain inherent rights that are natural intrinsic rights which enjoy affirmative protection under the Constitution of the United States, and under the laws or Constitution of the State of Mississippi; that among these rights are the fundamental rights of the pregnant mother to her relationship with her child; her fundamental right to make decisions that insure the well-being of her child; and her interest in her own health and bodily integrity.

Anti-choicers invest in this nonsensical philosophy for political reasons. Voters don't want to imagine sending women to jail for terminating pregnancies, and this philosophy that states that women are the victims of their own rights. So, in a bit of logical ju-jitsu, anti-choicers claim that they want to criminalize a behavior that women participate in, but punish someone else entirely for it.

But we pro-choicers have ourselves to blame, at least in part, for this sorry state of affairs, and all because we have proliferated this stereotype of the Back Alley Butcher. The image of the sleazy abortion provider who mutilates women for the cold, hard cash that we imagine when we think of the Back Alley Butcher has been updated by the anti-choice movement to discredit modern day abortion providers. Pro-choicers perpetuated the image of the illicit abortionist with the air of criminality to him, and anti-choicers argue that there's no reason to think that such people would suddenly become professionals and heroes just because the law changed, anymore than we should think that pimps become upstanding citizens when prostitution is legalized or that drug dealers become caring professionals when drugs are legalized.

It's understandable that feminists are drawn to the Back Alley Butcher argument. Talking about the danger to women's bodies helps keep the focus on women, and we're winning as long as we're talking about women. Sure, anti-choicers talk about how abortion "hurts" women, but they'd mostly prefer to ignore women altogether and pretend that abortion is an assault on innocent fetuses floating somewhere in space, or imprinting their adorable little feet on your "pro-life" checks and jewelry. Confronting anti-choicers with the damage to actual human women with actual lives puts them in a perilous situation. The image of women dying from being mutilated by Back Alley Butchers gives lie to the anti-choice argument that they're "pro-life."

But there are ways to talk about the dangers that come to women when abortion is criminalized without resorting to lurid myths that slur the good name of those who risk life, limb, and freedom to provide this necessary service to women. Solinger argues that we should talk about how the law itself becomes a danger to women. Talk about women being pulled off tables mid-operation at clean, serviceable clinics and hauled off to jail. Talk about women who can't get a miscarriage treated at the hospital because the doctors fear she might have had an abortion. Talk about the women sitting on the stand being grilled about their sex lives during abortion trials. Talk about women douching with bleach because they can't find a decent provider. Ask an anti-choicer to tell you how much time a woman should do for seeking abortion.

You can help thank the front line heroes of the pro-choice movement, those who actually provide the service we all spend so much time protecting, by donating to the National Network of Abortion Funds. Most abortion providers try to keep their prices as low as they can (giving lie to anti-choice accusations that they're in this all for the money), but they still have to charge something in order to keep themselves in business. For women who can't afford the prices, this becomes a huge barrier. The NNAF helps bridge the gap, offering money to low-income women seeking abortion. A gift to them helps two people -- a woman who needs an abortion and a doctor who risks his or her personal safety to provide that service.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon.