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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Roe v. Wade wasn’t the only significant abortion decision released by the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973. The Court also ruled on the constitutionality of Georgia’s abortion laws, in the equally important but lesser-known case Doe v. Bolton, which the Court first heard in 1971.
The plaintiff, identified as “Mary Doe,” was nine weeks pregnant when she sued the state’s attorney general, Arthur Bolton, for the right to an abortion. At the time, Georgia allowed for abortion for state residents in cases of rape, severe fetal deformity, or the possibility that the mother could sustain a severe or fatal injury to her health. In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that the existence of the three conditions upon which abortion was allowed violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that the residency requirement violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause.
In Doe, the Court unambiguously favored the woman’s right to preserve her health over the government’s power to meddle. In an interview with Frontline, Jack Belkin, the editor of What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said, summarizes the Court’s opinion:
“…what the Supreme Court did in Doe v. Bolton was to say that where the state piles on procedures whose basic job is to slow down the process of getting an abortion or make it more difficult for women to get an abortion, those things are unconstitutional unless they have some clear relationship to preserving the woman's health or good medical practice.
And the Court said … that the things that Georgia did, the impositions they made, weren't the sort of impositions they made for any other kind of surgery, no matter how dangerous or life-threatening. There seemed to be special rules basically designed to impede and slow down the ability of women to get abortions if they were medically indicated, and so the Supreme Court said, ‘You can't do that.’”
In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin quotes Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in Doe. Blackmun wrote that the decision to have an abortion “may be exercised in the light of all factors— physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient.”
And herein lies Doe’s importance. Given that four decades on, the idea that pregnancy can have an adverse affect on a woman’s mental or emotional health is still controversial in some areas, the Court’s inclusion of these factors as legitimate considerations is indeed groundbreaking. Doe’s expansive view of “health” is even more important when you consider that this opinion is meant to be read together with Roe, which requires that even states that restrict abortion in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy must make exceptions “for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.” Allowing a woman to have an abortion if her mental or emotional health was at risk shows a holistic and realistic view of the strains and stresses that a pregnancy—whether wanted or not—can put on a woman; it acknowledges that a person’s mental and emotional health should be given equal weight along with the more easily understood physical risks of a pregnancy.
Doe and Roe have one other commonality: plaintiffs who, in the years after their cases, spoke out against legal abortion. Sandra Cano, aka “Mary Doe,” has become a anti-choice activist, even asking the Supreme Court to reverse its decision in Doe (the Court declined to do so). In a 2003 article, Cano claims that she was “used” by attorneys who wanted to challenge the state’s abortion laws; she ended up leaving Georgia for a number of months during her pregnancy, and by the time she returned it was too late to have an abortion.
Whether Cano, like Norma McCorvey, actually wanted to have an abortion seems destined to be a matter of debate; for as staunchly as these women have subsequently claimed that they either didn’t understand the cases they were involved in, or were misled by their attorneys, others involved in their cases have been equally firm that the women participated out of their own free will, and did want to obtain abortions. What isn’t a matter of debate, however, is that the cases that bear their pseudonyms have given millions of women the right to make the choices that they feel are best for their lives, their families, and their health.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Following the death of Savita Halappanavar in October, the Irish government has decided to legalize its abortion laws. The 31-year-old Halappanavar was seventeen weeks pregnant when she was admitted to Galway University Hospital on October 20 with back pains; tests performed at the hospital showed that the pregnancy was not viable. Though Halappanavar repeatedly requested an abortion, she was reportedly told that Ireland “is a Catholic country” and the pregnancy would not be terminated. Four days after Halappanavar was admitted, the fetal heartbeat stopped; however, her condition continued to deteriorate and she died of septicemia three days later.
Currently, abortions in Ireland are allowed only when the woman’s life (distinct from health) is in danger; however, there is no one agreed-upon method for determining when that is the case. The new laws, which, according to the Telegraph, are expected to be “ready by Easter,” would mean that abortion is no longer considered a criminal act. This legislation would also clarify when doctors can terminate a pregnancy when the woman’s life is considered to be at risk, “including by suicide.”
Sunday, December 16, 2012
You might have missed this story if you don’t watch The Daily Show or read RH Reality Check, but a dry cleaner in Ohio has been putting “Choose Life” messaging on, of all things, wire coat hangers. This strikes me as a pretty brazen action, and not just because wire coat hangers are, to put it mildly, fairly loaded images when it comes to abortion. It’s also because this dry cleaner is, as best as I can tell, a private business whose day-to-day activities, not to mention income, have nothing to do with the abortion issue.
Plenty of people have responded to the dry cleaner’s very special coat hangers with revulsion and snark, reactions that I wholeheartedly support. Yet I also recognize that a private business has the right to put whatever messages they want on their products, just as individuals have the right to decide whether to patronize a business. If my dry cleaner suddenly started disseminating anti-choice messages on its hangers—or started blatantly supporting any other political viewpoint with which I disagreed—I would take my business elsewhere, and make sure that the owner knew why.
The anti-choice movement has rarely, if ever, shown any qualms about integrating anti-choice views with other activities. Their messaging tends to veer towards the graphic, gratuitous, and attention seeking, and while I’ll be the first to say that it often makes no sense (anyone that compares abortion to the Holocaust or slavery only demonstrates how little they know about abortion, the Holocaust, or slavery), it’s hard not to admire their ballsiness.
The only clearly pro-choice advertising I can recall seeing in the past few years came courtesy of the fashion designer Kenneth Cole. While it’s great that a large company was running pro-choice ads in a national magazine, it would be even better if small, local businesses run by pro-choice individuals took a page from the Ohio dry cleaner’s approach and shared their views with their communities.
After all, other recent events have shown that even after the recent election, reproductive rights remain threatened. Michigan—where I grew up and went to college—became the latest state to deal women’s health and choice a serious blow this year. The legislature passed a so-called “super-bill” that would restrict the use of telemedicine for medical abortion procedures; regulate clinics as though they were surgical centers; and require that doctors screen women for coercion before performing the abortion. The “super-bill” is currently awaiting the expected signature of Governor Rick Snyder.
Each part of this bill is troublesome. Michigan is a pretty large state, and some areas—particularly in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, and the entire Upper Peninsula—are very rural. It’s already difficult to find a provider in these areas; as of 2008, 83% of Michigan counties lacked an abortion provider. Restricting the use of telemedicine will impose further burdens on women that don’t live near clinics that perform abortions.
Requiring physicians to screen for coercion means more than doctors being forced to ask patients intrusive questions. Michigan already has a 24-hour waiting period in place, and it already requires that a woman seeking an abortion be read information that is, according to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, “designed to discourage her from having an abortion.” This additional requirement makes it clear that the state does not trust its female residents to be able to make up their own minds about having a medical procedure.
Finally, requiring that abortion clinics be regulated like surgical centers means that clinics will be held to specific structural requirements that have nothing to do with women’s health and safety. However, if clinics do not undergo the necessary—and likely expensive—renovations to, for example, widen their hallways, they may have to close their doors.
Looking at this bill and the dozens like it that have popped up in states all across the country, it’s easy to forget that abortion is a safe, legal medical procedure. It’s easy to forget that one in three women in this country will have an abortion by the time they’re 45. Because these bills make it seem like nothing could be more rare or dangerous than having an abortion, and actions like that Ohio dry cleaner further promote the idea that abortion is the wrong choice. It’s past time for the millions of people that are passively pro-choice—who have had an abortion and never told anyone, who supported their girlfriend’s right to choose, who would never choose abortion but believe that a private health decision shouldn’t be made by politicians—to speak out for choice. Put your own sign in the window of your business or next to the cash register. Write a letter to your local newspaper. Vote for the candidate that respects women’s intelligence. The pro-choice side has a silent majority, but the silent majority strategy is failing us. Each of us needs to find our own way to speak up and make our voice heard.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
This week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down two anti-choice laws. One law would have made it mandatory for a woman seeking an abortion to see an ultrasound image and hear a description of the fetus; the other sought to ban "any off-label use of medications for abortion or treatment of ectopic pregnancy," although it would have still allowed "off-label use of the same medication for other purposes."
The ultrasound law had been passed by the state legislature in 2010, and the drug law was approved the following year. Following challenges by the Center for Reproductive Rights, both laws had been halted by lower court judges. In its decisions, the state Supreme Court said that both laws violated a 1992 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that it must "follow the mandate of the United State Supreme Court on matters of federal constitutional law."
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Seems like just the other week that Ohio politicians were trying to place severe restrictions on when women in the state could have abortions. Oh wait, that's right, it was: right after the election, anti-choice Republicans began trying to push through a modified version of the previously-failed "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat could be detected.
Looks like the second attempt proved no more successful, as on Tuesday the state senate president said that there were no plans to vote on the bill before the legislative session ends in December. According to an Associated Press report, both lawmakers and Ohio Right to Life were concerned that banning abortions at such an early stage (fetal heartbeat can generally be detected by the sixth week of pregnancy) would be unconstitutional and could jeopardize "other abortion limits." Senate President Tom Niehaus also said that he wants to "continue our focus on jobs and the economy ... [t]hat's what people are concerned about."
Well, yeah. That's probably what they were concerned about the first time this bill was introduced, too. Yet a whole bunch of elected politicians still decided that it was more important to grandstand about a blatantly unconstitutional bill, rather than direct their time and energy into more pressing and relevant issues. I'd like to hope that they wouldn't make that mistake a third time, but let's be honest, common sense doesn't seem to be the driving force here.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Just in case there was any doubt that the more accurate term for the anti-abortion movement is “pro-fetus,” lawmakers in Michigan recently held hearings on two bills that would grant tax exemptions for a fetus that is over twelve weeks’ gestation.
House Bills 5684 and 5685 were sponsored by Republican Reps. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (not making that name up!) and Jud Gilbert II, respectively. Lyons has served on the board of directors of a crisis pregnancy center; on that CPC’s website are a slew of misleading statements about the risks of abortion as well as incorrect information about fetal development.
This proposed legislation is particularly galling given that last year, the state cut tax credits for children—341,000 of whom, according to Think Progress, “live in high-poverty areas.”
So, just to recap: fetuses deserve tax breaks, but actual children—those that exist independently and require food and shelter—do not. Pro-life? Not if you’re actually alive. Michigan’s state legislature is heavily Republican, but many of these Republicans represent moderate and pro-choice constituencies, so if you live in Michigan, please call or write your state Rep and tell them to vote against these pro-fetus, anti-child bills!