Posts Tagged ‘abortion rights’

Roe at 42: An Unapologetically Pro-Abortion Rights View – posted 1/18/2015

January 18, 2015 4 comments

January 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision. It has to be one of the most controversial opinions ever released by the U.S. Supreme Court. As someone who is unapologetically pro-choice, I wanted to offer a few comments on the occasion.

I think the Court basically got it right on Roe. Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, did what a good judge should do. He carefully weighed the competing interests. While many quibble about the grounds he used to decide the case, the Court ruled abortion was legal until viability which was defined as 24 weeks.

Most importantly, Roe established abortion as a decision protected by a right to personal privacy. The decision prevented states from subjecting women and their doctors to criminal sanctions in the first trimester. While restrictions on abortion could be imposed later, states could not ever jeopardize a woman’s life or health.

Justice Blackmun saw the case as necessary for the emancipation of women in America. He knew because he had lived through the era of coathanger and back alley abortions.

While there has always been opposition to abortion rights especially from fundamentalist Christians and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, in the last four years, the anti-abortion movement has stepped it up. Their chip away strategy has been effective.

The strategy is multi-pronged. Try and ban abortion after 20 weeks; lengthen waiting periods; force clinics to close by admitting privileges law and burdensome regulations; attack Planned Parenthood and contraception;use religious exemptions to fight insurance coverage; and use ballot initiatives to try and add personhood amendments to state constitutions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the last four years, states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions. Contrary to the spirit of Roe, in parts of the country, especially the South, it has become increasingly difficult to find an abortion provider. In this connection, the names Dr. Barnet Slepian and Dr. George Tiller come to mind. The murder campaign against abortion providers by extreme elements of the pro-life movement would, at the least, cause pause for doctors who might consider performing abortions.

I probably come at this issue from a different angle than many. Before I became a judge, I spent my professional life representing poor people in civil matters as a legal aid attorney. For 25 years, I represented, among others, unemployed workers, disability claimants, debtors facing bankruptcy, domestic violence victims and tenants facing eviction. These experiences educated me about the extent of poverty. I wish I could say we are doing better than we are. I think our efforts to lessen poverty have been dismally inadequate. We have been going backwards for a long time now.

In this context, I find all the concern about the unborn as phony sanctimony. We don’t even care about the born. It is hard to take seriously any concern for the unborn when, as a society, we treat those that make it into this world in such a trashy way. Take a good look around. There is no shortage of homelessness, hunger, lack of access to health care, child abuse and child neglect. The traumas visited upon millions of born children in America are daily and significant.

We have tons of people who are falling through our shredded safety net who are living on almost nothing, maybe food stamps. Unfortunately, they are invisible. Invariably, the same politicians who cry crocodile tears about the unborn are the first to cut needed social programs.

In my opinion, the person with the clearest view of these matters was not a lawyer or a judge. It was the late comedian, George Carlin. To quote Carlin:

“Boy, these conservatives are really something aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no daycare, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If your’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re f—ed”.

Only a black sense of humor can appreciate the irony of so much concern for xygotes and early fetuses. And yet, many anti-abortion advocates see an equivalence between fully grown adults and the potential life of a tiny clump of cells.

This is no exaggeration. Consider the Alabama law which forces pregnant teens seeking an abortion to first receive parental consent. If the teen cannot get parental consent, the teen is put on trial and the state appoints counsel to defend the unborn fetus. Alabama has no statewide public defender program. So there fetuses get counsel but adults who need constitutionally guaranteed legal representation do not.

I am hardly alone in submitting that only the women facing the abortion decision should make that choice. No one else, not the spouse or boyfriend, not the state, not the anti-abortion advocate, has to live with the decision. It is the woman’s life and it is the height of presumption for others to force their values on the prospective mother. They do not live her life.

I also did want to say: enough with the stupid attacks on Planned Parenthood. Anti-women health legislators in many states, including New Hampshire, have tried to eliminate funding for family planning. This jihad needs to stop. Planned Parenthood has provided absolutely critical health services which have reduced unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy. So much of the work of Planned Parenthood is focused on things like cancer screening, breast exams, birth control and sex education, stuff that is unrelated to abortion. Yet that seems to be lost.

Sometimes it seems like the anti-abortion movement is motivated by an asexual 1950’s world view that wants to turn back the clock to a time before birth control and candid sex education. I find it shocking that such an anti-modern, religious-based perspective can gain so much ground in a pluralist and secular democracy.

To my pro-choice brothers and sisters out there and to the many who seem to take rights for granted, I say “wake up”. The anti-abortion movement is nothing if not persistent. Rights that are here today could be gone tomorrow.

Book Review: “My Notorious Life” by Kate Manning – posted 1/12/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 2/9/2014

January 12, 2014 3 comments

This book review was published in the Concord Monitor on 2/9/2014 under the title “Rags to Riches Tale of an Abortionist”. Jon

Kate Manning’s novel “My Notorious Life” grabbed me from the start and it did not let go. It was one of those rare books you hate to see end.

Manning tells the story of Axie Muldoon, a young orphan girl growing up in 19th century New York City. The story tracks Axie from her early life as an utterly impoverished street urchin to her later evolution becoming a wealthy 5th Avenue midwife serving women of all social classes. It is a rags to riches story but that is hardly all it is.

The novel is based on the true story of Ann Trow Lohman, later known as Madame Restell. Lohman developed an interest in women’s health and medicinal cures. She advertised and sold female products through the newspapers. Women came to her with all types of reproductive problems, but especially birth control and abortion. She practiced as a “female physician” for almost forty years in New York City from approximately the early 1840’s to her death in 1878. Lohman’s business was under constant attack from yellow journalists, criminal courts, and prudish reactionaries. Called “the wickedest woman in New York”, she went to jail for a year on an abortion-related charge.

Axie’s story has some definite parallels. She too achieved notoriety after apprenticing as a midwife and starting her own business under the name Madame DeBeausacq. She also went to jail for her practice. Scurrilous newpapers referred to her as “notorious she-devil”, “hag of misery”, “Evil Doctress”, and “Foul Murdress”. She faced repeated criminal prosecutions with biased judges, hostility from the male medical profession and threats from mob violence that were instigated by vicious, lying press.

In the story she also has her run-ins with Anthony Comstock, Crusader Against Vice. He was a Rick Santorum-type except far worse. Comstock was a holy roller hell bent on confronting sin and smut. Through his political connections, he became a Special Agent of the Unites States Postal Service, a post he used to carry on his personal jihad. Unfortunately for Axie, she got into his crosshairs. For those unfamiliar with Comstock, he was a real 19th century guy with expansive ideas about what constituted obscene, lewd, and lascivious behavior. When not putting people he considered smut peddlers behind bars, he pursued midwives and abortionists. He proudly claimed he drove 15 people whom he opposed to suicide. He was a warrior against sin or as Axie called him “a rat terrier for Christ”.

As for for what I liked about the novel:

The heroine of the story, Axie aka Ann Jones, aka Madame DeBeausacq, is a feisty big-hearted character who you have to root for. She is not left alone by all the needy women who beg her for help. Women were really between a rock and a hard place in the 19th century. Sexuality was so castigated and stigmatized. When Axie gets into trouble, it is because she could not stand to see women suffer when she was in a position to help. Axie, a reject on the orphan train, ends up overcoming so much. The novel does an excellent job of evoking the extreme poverty of 19th century America. Book One of the novel artfully begins this way:

“In the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans, and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would be better off never born.”

The politics of the novel are dead on and the comparison to our era is not far off. Just as in 19th century America, women today continue to fight the same battle for reproductive rights, including facing off against the same type enemies.

I personally find America’s backsliding around reproductive rights almost incomprehensible. How can it be that in 2014 Roe v Wade hangs on by a thread, that abortion becomes almost impossible to obtain for poor women in many states, that abortion providers are actively persecuted and even murdered and that even birth control becomes an issue?

Twenty states now have unconstitutional and unenforceable bans that could outlaw abortion as early as the twelth week of pregnancy with no exception to protect a women’s health. There are numerous further efforts to chip away at abortion rights including efforts to eliminate insurance coverage of abortion. Some states like Texas are also trying to regulate abortion providers out of business. The anti-abortion movement has politically out-organized the pro-choice forces and it is hard to know where it will end. Pro-choicers remain on the defensive. It is better now than Axie had it but it would be a lie to deny that every inch of territory around reproductive rights is contested terrain.

One other observation i would make: poverty remains an almost unalterable fact of life both in the 19th century and now. As a society, we show callous disregard for the life circumstances of the poor. More often than not, we look the other way or we blame the victim. How can we want more poor children born, when our citizens neglect and abuse so many kids that do make it into this life? Don’t we have some societal obligation to the children already born? There is a remarkable obliviousness to the real lives of children. The sanctimoniousness of the pro-life movement is matched only by its silence about poor and victimized kids who are already born.

Manning succeeds in putting you inside the shunned orphan child. Reading the novel, you feel Axie’s distrust, her suspicion of any good fortune (because it will probably disappear), her desire for a stable family life and her anger at the world. There is a suicide at the end of the novel with some surprising twists and turns. Manning did not remain entirely true to the historical record of Madame Restell. She gave herself the novelist’s liberty to revise. Without saying more about the events at the end of the novel, I will leave the last words for Axie:

“It was the hounds of hell drove me to it. Mr. Comstock with his underhanded sneakery and Mr. Greeley and Mr. Matsell with their lies, and Dr. Gunning that sanctimonious snake. You never NONE of you did care about a WOMAN, no matter how misfortunate, and all of society shall think of its uncharitableness toward the fair sex when they think about me, who only tried to give sanctuary and comfort to your poor afflicted daughters and sisters, your mothers and discarded sweethearts. I can’t no more face the canker of your laws or waste away in your Tombs. So thus I choose to spare my family the pain of the trial about to start at Jefferson Market Court. It’s nothing but a charade. Farewell, and may my death be on the conscience of my false accusers for the rest of their days.
Mrs. Ann M. Jones, April 1, 1880”