Aspen Baker was born in a trailer on the beach in San Diego on the third anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Her parents were "surfers, but surfing Christians," says Baker, now 29, who was home-schooled. Her mother was a former Catholic, and Baker was raised in a non-denominational Christian church. Baker was pro-choice, sort of, but she also believed that she could never have an abortion herself.
Then, just after she graduated from Berkeley, she learned she was pregnant. "Initially, I believed I was going to be a mother and have the baby," she says. She was living with roommates and working as a bartender ("Imagine the eight-months-pregnant bartender," she laughs), and she sensed that the relationship she was in was short term; she would be a single mom.
Two co-workers at the bar told her that they had had abortions and felt it was the right choice. Although Baker gradually realized that she didn't want to have the baby, the decision to have an abortion was hard. "When I finally went, it was in a hospital, and I had a nice doctor that explained the procedure to me, and plenty of counseling beforehand," she says. "I was so grateful for the positive medical experience, despite my ambivalence."
She assumed that at some point, though, someone at the clinic was going to tell her how to get follow-up counseling. But no one did. "I didn't bring it up myself because if it's not something that they do, then I figured that my feelings were abnormal and would go away," she says.
They didn't. In fact, her confusion and sadness only increased. "I thought I'd never have an abortion -- and now I had," Baker says. "I questioned my moral beliefs as a human rights activist. I didn't believe in the death penalty. I felt bad about the boyfriend, who had gotten back with his ex."
When she told her parents, who were divorced, her mother refused to talk about abortion and "when I told my dad, he cried all night and told me that this was something I would have to 'reveal' to my husband someday." She felt very alone, Baker recalls: "I cried all of the time, but I didn't want to burden my friends."
Her father called her the next day to say he wanted to support her in any way he could; he just hadn't known what to do in the moment. So Baker began looking for resources. All she could find were thinly disguised antiabortion messages. As a feminist, she says, "I didn't see anything that reflected my experience." Seeking resolution, she interned at CARAL -- the California arm of NARAL, one of the country's oldest abortion rights organizations. But when she would raise the lack of emotional resources for women, she confronted blank faces. It was, she says, as if admitting that she was struggling with her feelings meant that she wasn't really pro-choice.
Eventually Baker discovered several like-minded women in the Bay Area, and they founded Exhale, a non-judgmental post-abortion talk-line, in 2000. The group tried to eliminate anything that might stop a woman from calling, including words like "feminist" or even "pro-choice" in their materials (although Exhale is both).
"We didn't know if we'd ever get a call," recalls Baker. "But we got our first call the second night. It was from a father who wanted to know how to support his daughter." Five years later, Exhale gets about 60 calls a month -- and around 10 percent are from men, often wanting to know what they can do to help a daughter or partner going through an abortion.
In June, Exhale's talk-line is going national.
Exhale's approach to abortion centers on supporting women's experiences, rather than legal rights or lobbying. Haven, a hosting network in New York City, has a similar focus. Haven hosts provide a place to stay for women who travel long distances to have later-term abortions (and thus two- and three-day procedures) in the city. Hosts are vetted, and the vetting is to weed out pro-choice proselytizers as well as the pro-life ones.
Exhale and Haven are changing the way supporters discuss and approach abortion. This strand of the conversation that focuses on supporting women's complicated experiences instead of politicizing them, is gaining prominence -- and meeting resistance.
To wit, when Senator Clinton addressed 1,000 abortion rights supporters on the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade this past January, she both asserted her belief in Roe and said that abortion can be "tragic" for some women. Her words sent shock-waves through the major pro-choice organizations and spurred the New York Times to accuse the Senator of "recalibrating" her pro-choice position in preparation for a 2008 bid for the White House. In other words, she and politicians like Senator Kerry were backpedaling.
This seeming shift in focus in the national conversation, from "Keep your laws off my body" to "let's talk about feelings and sadness, and even (gasp) whether fetal life has value" actually has a long history.
One way of telling the story begins in 1980, with a 30-year-old counselor named Charlotte Taft. Ms. Taft was two years into her tenure directing the Routh Street abortion clinic in Dallas, Texas when, feeling enthusiastic, she decided to draw up a questionnaire for patients coming in for their two-week checkups.
"I wanted to know if patients were afraid to be intimate sexually and emotionally after a procedure, and did they feel adequately protected from another intended pregnancy? So I asked a lot of open-ended questions," recalls Taft, now 54 and a counselor in private practice in Glorieta, New Mexico.
"I was shocked by how many who seemed fine during the procedure were now having thoughts and feelings that no one had anticipated." The biggest thing she noted was that women felt sadder than they had anticipated. "They wondered, 'How can I feel sad about something I chose?'"
Abortion patients get more counseling than those undergoing any other medical procedure -- and still, Taft found, it was not safe for women to talk about abortion in their lives.
"Number one, it was supposed to be a secret," says Taft. "So these women had no idea who else in their lives had gone through this experience. Number two, we don't have good language even today for making a good, but complex, decision. Third, some women felt that if they said anything, it was ammunition to remove the right to choose. You either said you were fine or admitted you were a murderer."
Around that same time, in 1981, Peg Johnston was opening Southern Tier Women's Services, an independent abortion clinic in Binghamton, New York. Johnston, now 56, came out of a rape crisis counselor background. "Back then, rape was really controversial. People didn't believe that it was a problem."
A red diaper baby and the grand-niece of suffragist Elizabeth Freeman, Johnston had grown up with radical ideas and had a reputation as someone who could handle controversy. And she got it: Five years after Southern Tier opened, fellow Binghamton resident Randall Terry founded what would become the nation's most high-profile anti-abortion organization, Operation Rescue, and pioneered his strategy of blocking clinic entrances at Johnston's clinic.
Johnston kept her sense of humor, counter-picketing Operation Rescue, and posting a sign outside the clinic that read "Please Don't Feed the Protesters."
After a while, though, Johnston turned her attention from the protesters to her patients. "I don't know if I just started getting bored with Operation Rescue, but I definitely started to get interested in what women were saying instead," recalls Johnston. She'd hear the protesters say "You're killing your baby!" and then she'd sit in a counseling session with a woman who'd say, "I feel like I'm killing my baby."
At first, she says, she assumed that the patients were simply repeating what they'd heard outside, having internalized right-wing disinformation that Johnston needed to "correct." But "once I began listening more intently to her, I learned that she wasn't saying what the picketer was saying -- although she used the same words."
Johnston believes that women were struggling with the value of life, how to do the right thing and be a good person. "Frequently they were already mothers and they knew a time when, at that same stage of pregnancy, they had welcomed the life and felt like it was their baby," says Johnston. "They weren't mouthing an anti-choice message -- they were acknowledging that this was serious stuff. 'How can I want one kid and not the other?'"
During the course of counseling, Johnston would draw the disparate threads together. "I felt like they needed a place to say the worst and then work their way to the rightness of their decision. Some were on a journey to realize the power and responsibility of being a mother," Johnston says. "Which is that sometimes it's the power of saying no to a life."
Listening to patients -- and letting them use words like "baby" and "killing" -- is one of a number of innovations among abortion activists to break away from the calcified approach to abortions and abortion rights post-Roe. A clinic in Fargo, North Dakota (the only clinic in the state), has journals in the waiting and recovery rooms for patients to jot down thoughts. Many women wrote some version of "Don't think of it as losing a baby, but as gaining a guardian angel." These were women who clearly felt a relationship to a pregnancy as a child, not a mass of cells.
It is a sensitive moment to acknowledge this. Supporters of abortion rights have long been losing ground, while the pro-life world has recently had a call from President Bush commending them on their respect for life. The threat that legal abortion could be overturned has animated most strategic discussions of choice for the past three decades.
In the face of that defensiveness, there is a loose cadre of abortion providers who call themselves the November Gang -- a combination think-tank and support group named after the month in 1989 when they first met in response to the Supreme Court's Webster decision. Webster upheld a Missouri statute banning the use of public facilities for abortions and codified that most restrictions were fine, as long as they weren't too onerous for a woman. In other words, she might have to jump through many hoops on the way to the abortion -- from mandatory delays, to having to sell her car in order to pay for the procedure -- but if she could jump, then the hoops didn't conflict with Roe v. Wade.
The November Gang's mission is to "explore the work abortion providers are doing" simply by providing a space for the women to talk openly about their actual fears and experiences. Taft and Johnston are founding members. At first they focused on defense outside of the clinic -- would Roe stand? How much were they spending on security? But after a while, they began to discuss what happened within the clinic. Once they did, they began asking questions that shocked some of their colleagues. What if we showed fetal tissue to patients if they wanted to see it? Why are we protecting ourselves from what the patients are really saying?
Many of the clinicians do indeed offer to show fetal tissue to patients, and viewing it is often a relief to the patient. For her part, Johnston began developing the all-options element of counseling, saying to patients, "Okay, you have a complex decision to make and there are only three options. I focused on pregnancy, not abortion." She eventually created the Pregnancy Options Workbook (www.pregnancyoptions.info) that is used at hundreds of clinics for counseling.
Charlotte Taft wrote the abortion section of the workbook. "We worked so hard to have abortion rights," says Taft, "not so that every woman could have an abortion, [but] so that women could have fuller experiences of their lives."
Projects that focus on telling women's stories are popping up around the country. Emily Barcklow, a 27-year-old from Seattle, Washington recently decided to create an abortion zine, Our Truths/Nuestras Verdades, to reflect women's experiences, which will launch in print and on the web in May 2005. I've been working on a documentary called Speak Out, a photo exhibit (by Tara Todras-Whitehill), and T-shirts that read, "I had an abortion."
Sarah Varney, a 32-year-old reporter for NPR, created radio documentaries in which older women tell their pre-Roe abortion stories. Varney also produced a series of events called the Beta Project to use the stories to help people talk about and understand abortion. Two other filmmakers, Faith Pennick and Penny Lane, are also completing documentaries. While Lane's focuses on younger feminists, Pennick's is called Silent Choices and explores the experiences of black women.
The experiences of women of color are particularly submerged in the terms of the mainstream debate. This fact is not lost on Loretta Ross, age 52, who has long worked to bridge the divide between women who get abortions, who are often lower-income and disproportionately black women, and abortion-rights advocates, who are often middle-class and white.
"If you're in the field, you know that black women are 12 percent of the female population but get 25 percent of the abortions in the country," says Ross, the co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (SouthEnd Press, 2005). "Yet black women are saying this is not their issue. I have to ask why not." An organization Ross works with, Sister Song, was instrumental in changing the name of last year's pro-abortion rights demonstration in Washington from "March for Freedom of Choice" to "March for Women's Lives."
"We couldn't endorse the march unless they recognized the entire complex issues that women face," says Ross. "Every woman who is pregnant wonders if she has a bedroom for that child; can she afford to take off the time to raise that child? Why flatten the decisions around abortion to just abortion? When women don't have jobs or health care, where is the choice? There is nothing worse than a woman aborting a baby she wanted because she couldn't support it."
Ross notes that black women were the first to resist the pro-choice/anti-choice dichotomy. "A very large percentage of [black] women are personally opposed to abortion but are pro-choice," says Ross. "Women of color agree with not giving unborn children more rights than grown women, but even when they're terminating a pregnancy, they call it a baby. This has been going on as long as we have had the debate. What women of color mostly say is that we have the right to do decide what children are born or not, that is part of women's power."
Loretta Ross takes the long view. "The defensiveness that the pro-choice movement has is well earned," says Ross. "We've been shot at, picketed, fought every step. But I'm very glad that the conversation is changing."
"Rape crisis, birthing experiences, divorce law all got changed because women dared to speak the truth of their lives," says Peg Johnston. "If we can't hear women, then where are we?"
Desiree was a high school senior from Buffalo who already had a 1-year-old daughter when she came to spend the night with me. She wore jeans and a huge sweatshirt, but anyone could see she was pregnant. Desiree was at twenty-one weeks and had never been to New York City. In fact, she didn't know one person here, nor did she have money for a hotel, which is why the clinic called me. I picked her up at the end of her first day of the three-day procedure. She had been counseled about the abortion and her options. Laminaria, tubes of sterile seaweed, had been placed in her cervix in order to dilate it overnight. We ate Mexican food and then she fell asleep by the light of MTV. At 7 the next morning, we headed back to the clinic and she continued her abortion. As we entered Parkmed Eastern Women's Center, a scary nun and toothless old man divebombed Desiree, surrounding her like autograph-seekers, begging her not to kill her baby.
Most women I have hosted are facing situations similar to Desiree's. (I host through Haven, a loose coalition of women who provide a place to stay for people in town for what are always later-term abortions.) The women find out they are pregnant too late to get an abortion in their hometown, or they can't raise the money. The abortion starts out costing $300, but by the time they get through the dangerously sticky red tape of Medicaid (if they are lucky enough to be in a state where Medicaid pays for procedures), it's $500 -- or $2,000. (The New York Abortion Access Fund--NYAAF, founded by a recent college grad and run by a half-dozen young women--contributed to forty abortions last year, almost all of which cost between $995 and $3,000.) Often the woman herself has almost no money or spent it getting to New York, and the clinician has to call around to various funds that will pick up part of the cost of an abortion. It can take days and a half-dozen calls for the clinician to get the money together. Haven and these funds are a sort of underground railroad for abortions -- the irony being that abortion is legal and a woman's right.
This month, abortion has been legal for thirty years. The terrain has become increasingly complex. The same moment the planets aligned so that conservatives had a monopoly on government, the Alan Guttmacher Institute announced that abortion rates had declined -- dramatically. In 1992 the AGI predicted that 43 percent of American women would have an abortion before the age of 45. Basically, the abortion rate was pushing 50 percent. A decade later, the number was one in three. Due to population growth, this still means just over 1.3 million abortions per year, but it's the lowest abortion rate in twenty-nine years. Six percent are medical abortions (RU-486); the rest are surgical.
The fact that the abortion rate has dropped is that rare thing: good news for both those who wave gory photos of 21-week-old fetuses and those who wave signs that read George, Get Out of My Bush! After all, pro-choicers want women to have the tools that make the need for abortion minimal. "We'd prefer women have adequate contraception to control reproduction," says Lauren Porsch, a 23-year-old staffer at Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and founder of NYAAF. "It's cheaper, easier on the woman, less painful all around." (Most pro-choicers see abortion ideally as a backup, since 54 percent of women getting abortions report that they were using birth control the month they got pregnant. Desiree was on the pill when she got pregnant.)
The decline coincided with the approval of emergency contraception in 1998 (the AGI estimates that 51,000 abortions were averted by the use of EC in 2000 alone, and Planned Parenthood distributed 459,000 doses to women in 2000) and eight years of President Clinton, who vetoed almost every piece of antichoice legislation that crossed his desk. Ironically, though, the downtrend in unwanted pregnancies is poised to be reversed. If successful, the Republican agenda is sure to pave the way for more late-term abortions like Desiree's.
Until recently, it was more likely the Bush Administration would do something sneaky, like remove crucial information about condoms from the Centers for Disease Control website, rather than launch overt assaults on choice. Meanwhile, it was the Democrats' role, with their slim majority in the Senate, to keep bans and restrictions at bay after they passed the House. And they succeeded. As Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, put it colorfully in the New York Times, the 107th Senate was "a veritable graveyard of pro-life legislation." As of Jan. 7, though, when the 108th Congress convened, the Senate has been primed to become a veritable "pro-life" birthing center.
In route to swift delivery is a ban on "partial-birth" abortions, a ban on human embryonic cloning, the Child Custody Protection Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Each bill is notably uninterested in protecting the woman's rights, worrying instead about the fetus, the pregnant woman's parents (if she's a minor) and the religious healthcare worker. (This value system was reinforced on Jan. 14, when George W. Bush declared National Sanctity of Human Life Day for the following Sunday.) There isn't a lot of reason to believe that these proposals, which have all passed in the House before, won't clear the new Senate in the near future.
"These are the worst threats I have ever seen in thirty years of this work," says Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). Within days of winning back the Senate and keeping the House, Republicans made their first moves on reproductive freedom. Mississippi's Trent Lott, then poised to become Senate majority leader, promised a ban on late-term abortions, a gift to conservative Christians in his party. After Lott was forced to resign due to his sudden endorsement of affirmative action on Black Entertainment Television, Dr. Bill Frist of Tennessee stepped into his cowboy boots. Dr. Frist, a dashing cardiovascular surgeon from a state that flunks NARAL's contraceptive-access report card, is just as conservative as Lott and brings with him the added ammo of being a doctor, as he made clear during the "partial birth" abortion wars of 1998 (soon to be reprised). "As a physician," he remarked at the time of President Clinton's veto of a ban on D&X (intact dilation and extraction, or so-called partial birth) procedures, "I believe that partial-birth abortions cannot and should not be categorized with other medical procedures -- or even other abortions.... For the sake of women, their children and our future as a society, we must put a stop, once and for all, to partial-birth abortion." His press release urges the Senate to "listen to the facts" -- facts on which he, the only MD in the bunch, presumably has a grip. As a heart surgeon, though, Dr. Frist is not a medical expert on matters of reproduction any more than a gynecologist is well versed in angioplasty. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (representing 95 percent of the field) believes a ban of the D&X abortion procedure to be "inappropriate" and "dangerous."
Recently, Dr. Frist did the Sunday morning talk-show circuit, confidently discussing a ban on D&X procedures as if it were already in the bag. But as PPFA's Gloria Feldt points out, "The Republicans could overreach and fail." Advocates "out in the field are not despairing at all; they are angry." Feldt also notes that the general public is "connecting the dots in terms of the Administration's war on women." As far as the D&X ban goes, Feldt believes that the 2000 Stenberg v. Carhart Supreme Court decision (which held that bans on abortion procedures without an exception for the health of the mother are in violation of Roe) is helpful. "There will be an argument within the Republican leadership between those who will want a bill that they know to be constitutional and those who will want to be more extreme," Feldt told me. "They may kill their own chances and not make it constitutional. This type of legislation gives us the opportunity to lay the case for laws to codify principles of Roe."
Planned Parenthood reports that Dr. Frist has voted to "limit or deny access to the constitutional right to abortion services of women in the military, women federal employees, low-income women, women in prison and young women. He never missed an opportunity to vote to make abortion a right that more and more women cannot exercise." It will come as no surprise, then, that Frist is a big-time proponent of abstinence-only sex education, voting for a $75 million budget to lobby teenagers not to have sex in lieu of acknowledging that many do and providing them with information and contraception. This, when poor teenagers have an abortion rate that is rapidly rising.
Dr. Frist and the anti-sex education crowd are clearly speaking to an imaginary teen population. There is a direct relationship between poverty and abortion, and an utter ignorance about sex and procreation is epidemic. This especially has an impact on later-term abortions. "The women I see can't get any healthcare to determine how pregnant they are and often don't know their own cycle. Sometimes, by the time they get their Medicaid straightened out and can come in, they are at twenty-seven weeks," says a counselor at Parkmed Eastern Women's Center, sighing. "Last week I told a woman with six children living in a shelter that she is having number seven."
The reproductive rights movement needs to amplify the voices of the women affected by Republican bans on Medicaid for abortions, bans that result in the death of more-developed fetuses and untold hardships for the women and their families. Instead, we have too frequently reached out to a stereotypical "young woman" who is clueless, ungrateful and often in need of a "wake-up call." In fact, of the ninety-seven funds under the National Network of Abortion Funds, many are staffed by younger women. Both Haven and NYAAF are run by 23-year-olds, NOW-NYC by a 27-year-old. Planned Parenthood's VOX program (on many campuses) and most of the work on choice that the Feminist Majority does (also on college campuses) is run entirely by young women, as is Choice USA and the Pro-Choice Public Education Project. "Face it, younger women are the ones that are having abortions," says Amy Richards, 32, who administered an abortion fund through the Third Wave Foundation until just this past year. "And they are coming to abortion politics through personal experience -- just as it was thirty years ago."
Real men and women raised with Roe have complex responses to abortion, as they do with many once black-and-white issues that 1970s feminists tackled three decades ago. Prior to Roe, an estimated 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed each year, according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. About 10,000 women in the United States died annually from complications from illegal abortions. Roe unquestionably liberated my generation of women to enjoy freer lives than our mothers did. For those of us who never knew a time when abortion wasn't safe and legal, we have the privilege of having complicated feelings about abortion. "I consider myself antiabortion but prochoice," says Mark Andersen, a 43-year-old author and activist in Washington, DC. A devoted Catholic vegan who doesn't even eat honey "for fear of causing problems for the bees," Andersen nonetheless votes for prochoice, Democratic candidates. "I think that the left has the pro-life platform overall, because it is concerned with the most vulnerable. Rick Santorum, for instance, isn't a pro-life candidate as a whole -- just when it comes to the preborn."
Andersen's view is progress, in a way, as is writer Elizabeth Wurtzel's when she says that her abortion was a sad and nasty experience from start to finish. After all, if we have to put a fresh and smiling face on everything we do -- even if the procedure is constantly under attack by the right -- then we haven't come far from the days of the Stepford Wives. Wurtzel and Anderson want better choices for women, not fewer. Still, such complexity poses a challenge to the prochoice movement when it is accompanied by greater tolerance for abortion restrictions. Several surveys, notably the UCLA study of incoming freshmen, have reported a decline in the proportion of those who support abortion rights.
The left isn't always the firmest ally of reproductive freedom, either. In a 1989 cover story for Ms. magazine, just before Webster v. Reproductive Health Services almost overturned Roe and ushered in the state's right to restrict abortions, Gloria Steinem insisted that we look at choice as a human right, not a "'single issue' to be bargained away." Sadly, some on the left have cast abortion as a kind of distraction, the inconvenient reason we are (fearfully, shortsightedly) tethered to otherwise compromised Democratic candidates.
Clearly, however, our big problem is the conservative Republican government and its veritable free pass to spawn confusingly named antichoice laws -- laws that will affect poor women, young women and women of color most harshly because they are the most vulnerable and because they are the ones getting abortions. Poor women -- whether teens or adults -- are the only group whose abortion rate is rising. Black women are overrepresented when it comes to abortion, with a rate nearly four times that of white women. Latinas and Asian/Pacific Islander women have an abortion rate about two and a half times that of white women. It's illustrative to walk into a clinic in New York -- "almost all of our patients are women of color," says the director of counseling for Parkmed Eastern Women's Center. And they're poor.
If Republicans don't quake in their boots at the thought of feminists coming after them, they are vulnerable as racists. Dr. Frist may not have openly pined for the plantation days, but he is from Tennessee, a state with a relatively large African-American population that has 13.5 percent of its population in poverty -- constituents he is supposed to represent.
But for abortion to be perceived as a race and class issue, not just a white women's issue, the choice movement needs to represent -- or at least connect with -- the women getting abortions, who are the natural activists. The voices of young women, women of color and especially poor women (often also young women of color) tend not to inform abortion politics. You rarely find many women of color in prochoice organizations, especially on the boards. Whether the group is as huge as Planned Parenthood or as small as the New York Abortion Access Fund, you can almost bank on the fact that white women run it and black women (and to a lesser degree Latinas) are the "beneficiaries." Some current strategies of the prochoice movement, from focusing on the clueless young straw woman to NARAL's recent name change (to NARAL Pro Choice America, a moniker designed to appeal to mainstream -- white, middle-class -- America), aren't speaking to the women getting abortions, either. "It goes all the way back to Jane Roe," says Matthea Marquart, 27, the president of NOW-NYC. "If she had been a higher-income woman, she would have gone to Mexico to get an abortion."
"We are the real experts," feminists declared back when abortion was illegal. They took the debate out of the hands of men (doctors, judges and legislators) and put it in their own. Thirty years later, the most powerful feminist line on choice can't be forgotten: Decisions governing abortion should be made by the women getting the abortions.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author, with Amy Richards, of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future."