Mandy Van Deven

Why Sexual Fundamentalists Dominate Politics and How We Can Stop Them

During the 2008 presidential election, historian and political commentator Nancy L. Cohen became interested in how sex has changed American politics. She was so intrigued by the gender issues that surfaced around Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin that she began working on what would become Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America. The book is a meticulously researched political history of the Democratic self-destruction and Republican stealth that has allowed many of the gains of the sexual revolution to be lost.

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Who Says Media Is Dead? 5 Takeaways From Progressive Journalists and Activists at the Allied Media Conference

In the hullabaloo about the demise of traditional media, some have taken to denigrating a future penned by untrained bloggers who lack formal credentials and “average folks” who meticulously document life through social media. While some of the media’s old guard uncomfortably squirm in their seats at the notion that we are all experts on our own experience, many tech-savvy activists are taking advantage of this historical opportunity to forge a new structure of citizen-powered communications.

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Eight Ways Men and Boys Are Helping to End Gender-Based Violence

“What can men and boys do to end gender-based violence?”

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Can You Be a Feminist and Anti-Abortion?

Abortion is, in many ways, a played-out topic in the women's movement, but activist and writer Jennifer Baumgardner (author of Look Both Ways, Manifesta and Grassroots) continues to breathe new life into this contentious issue. In 2004, she created the "I Had an Abortion" speak-out campaign, which both shocked and awed feminists and non-feminists alike through the dissemination of shirts with the controversial "coming out" statement emblazoned across the front. Today, Baumgardner continues to carve out a space for women's narratives and take an unabashed look at issues that have a tendency to be swept under the rug by the abortion rights movement in her new book, Abortion & Life (Akashic Books, 2008). An excerpt follows.

Mandy Van Deven: Why are abortion narratives important, personally and politically, and what makes this moment in history the right time for them to re-surface?

Jennifer Baumgardner: The history of women's gains in reproductive freedom is tied to women speaking out and telling the truth about their lives. The early days of the women's liberation movement saw women shedding shame and guilt by coming out about their illegal abortions; this lent momentum and urgency to the abortion law reform movement. In fact, it was women speaking out that took the movement from one of doctors, legislators and clergymen advising reform to a much more radical repeal movement. This is the right moment for abortion narratives because the movement needs to evolve again. It's no longer 1973. We know much more about fetal development, women who have unplanned pregnancies nowadays don't face as much societal scorn if they have a baby outside of marriage, and abortions have been legal for nearly four decades. Times have changed, and we need new politics to go with these new times. Thus, we should return to women's (and men's) lives to see where the movement needs to go.

MV: Some might say Abortion & Life gives the anti-abortion movement fuel to add to an already raging fire by criticizing the abortion rights movement. How do you respond to what you call "knee-jerk naivete"?

JB: I used to be resistant to hearing that a woman had a bad experience with her doctor or that she was extremely sad or had regrets about her abortion. I chalked it all up to right-wing propaganda. I see it differently now. These stories aren't necessarily the most common abortion experience (the best guess I have is that they account for less than 10 percent), but to suppress them or not want to hear them is a position of weakness. I don't think the abortion rights movement has to be as defensive as we've been. As a movement, we need to turn away from our commitment to arguing with the protesters and listen to the women again. To not do so gives fuel to the anti-abortion movement because then it is only those who oppose abortion who are willing to hear its complicated stories.

MV: In the book, you alternate the use of words like "fetus" and "child". With language being so controversial, why did you vary yours?

JB: I think there is legal truth around this issue, and then there is personal or emotional truth. In terms of the law, there is a difference between a potential child -- a fetus -- who is totally dependent upon its maternal host to survive and an already born baby who is dependent, but not exclusively on its biological mother. I understand the need for that language, but it is limiting and even alienating for many women who have had abortions. I have met women who think of the child -- their word -- every year on the day it was due to be born. I have read journals in abortion clinics in which women write prayers to their unborn babies, asking them to be guardian angels. I don't think "fetus" fits the bill in describing who they are talking about.

MV: I know you've got an entire chapter on this, but can you be a feminist and pro-life?

JB: Yes. Certainly you cannot bomb an abortion clinic and be a feminist, nor can you prohibit another woman from accessing an abortion and call yourself a feminist. But you can say that you believe that life begins at conception, that you are ambivalent or even deeply sad about abortion, or that you don't want to attend the March for Women's Lives. What you do have to do is find a way to be authentically pro-life that isn't anti-woman. You can work on birth control and sex education. You can become a foster parent. You can work with your place of worship or elected representatives to make sure women who are having abortions are supported. There is so much to do on the pro-life side that simply isn't being done.

MV: Mainstream -- white -- reproductive rights activists have recently begun to co-opt the language and politics of more radical women of color-led groups like SisterSong. There is a long history of white feminists claiming the theory and practice of women of color as their own, and many times getting it all wrong. How do you see this playing out today?

JB: The reproductive justice frame that is emerging was developed by women of color, and it provides a way for the movement to evolve to more clearly represent the diversity of women who get abortions, as you allude. Reproductive justice says that there is no objective experience of "choice" -- that we all make reproductive decisions within a community and have to deal with whatever oppressions act on that community. It also says that we should all have the right to choose an abortion, adoption or raising a child; to choose the conditions under which we give birth; and to parent the children we have.

I see white activists and thinkers, like Marlene Gerber Fried, who really believe in reproductive justice and work in relationship with organizations like SisterSong, but Loretta Ross comes right out and says that, though everyone loves the term "reproductive justice," few want to include the women of color who created it. That's obviously wrongheaded. Ross and others are working on a book that will lay out the theory and strategy more clearly, so I hope this problem will diminish a bit in the future.

MV: Can you talk about how your pro-choice position has changed over time?

JB: I'm clearer than ever that most restrictions on abortion are merely punitive and do not have a pro-life function at all. I'm radically pro-abortion in that I don't want any restrictions, just ways to support women who want to end a pregnancy to have earlier, better abortions whenever possible. I also think that fetuses are human life, and I'm not cold to the process of ending that life. I used to think of an abortion as nothing more than removing inanimate tissue. I've seen abortions now, which challenged me to face its reality. I can face it, and I think it is the moral responsibility of pro-abortion people to not protect themselves from the thornier or grislier aspects of abortion.

MV: You write again and again in Abortion & Life about the humility that you felt throughout the "I Had an Abortion" campaign, and it's been four years since you unveiled the T-shirts. How has this work affected you?

JB: I know! They were on the Drudge Report the night that Planned Parenthood's very courageous Gloria Feldt addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and here we are heading into the convention again. I feel humility mainly because I haven't had an abortion, and I'm not an expert on that experience. I have listened to hundreds of abortion stories, I've visited dozens of clinics, I've interviewed countless activists and lawyers, and I've had an unplanned pregnancy, but women who have had abortions know more than I do. I see myself as a conduit to their expertise, and I'm still open to hearing what I need to learn.

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