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Kansas Women: The Breeder Class

By Diane Wahto
Advocacy | November 17, 2014

Katha Pollitt, longtime Nation Magazine "Subject to Debate" columnist, has a new book out, How Pro-Choicers Can Take Back the Moral High Ground. I've read an excerpt of the book in The Nation, and I would like to buy the book, read it, and share it with my pro-choice friends.

In Kansas, the only thing that changed in the 2014 midterm elections was that the state legislature became even more infested with anti-choice legislators. Rep. Pat Sloop's loss was one of the disasters we suffered. Rep. Sloop, now in her 70s, has been a longtime fighter for women's abortion rights and stood up for women against anti-choice zealots in the Kansas House. Other pro-choice advocates, Rep. John Carmichael and Rep. Ed Trimmer did keep their seats. Carmichael won handily over his anti-choice opponent, but Trimmer pulled out only a 17-point victory over his fundamentalist church backed opponent.

With people like Mary Pilcher Cook, she of the pregnant-woman-behind-the-sheet sonogram in a House committee room fame, still in the Kansas Legislature, the going will be tough for those who believe women have the right to control their bodies and their lives. Hiding a pregnant woman behind a sheet is a good metaphor, in fact, for what happens to many women when they get pregnant.

Pollitt says her abortion rights activism came from her belief that her mother had an abortion while it was still illegal. She figured this out from the hints contained in an FBI file kept on her activist mother. At that time, no one called the procedure by its name. Sometimes they referred to it as an emergency appendectomy or a dilation and curettage, known as a D&C. I will admit that when I taught a college class called Women and Society, I was surprised to learn that women and their doctors would often refer to an abortion as a D&C. Having had a D&C to clear up a medical problem, I never thought of it as anything but therapeutic. However, I understand why women and their doctors, pre-Roe v. Wade, would use such a euphemism.

Pollitt's main thesis is that abortion should be private--period. When Roe v. Wade was settled, privacy was the issue mentioned in the decision. However, as Pollitt says, abortion has never really been private. It is generally performed in abortion clinics created for one purpose. Any woman going to the clinic, whether she's a clinic worker, a family member, or someone seeking information, leaves herself open to the prying eyes of the ubiquitous sidewalk harassers. In fact, no one active in the pro-choice movement has any privacy. When I was doing clinic support in the '90s and early '00s, some of these harassers would write down my license plate number and photograph my car every time I showed up.

What about rather than privacy, finding in favor of equal rights for women when it comes to control over their bodies? Men have body rights. That is, they can do anything they please with their bodies, including taking drugs that could harm them--"If your erection lasts more than four hours, call a doctor"--kind of harm. No one stands in their way of taking these drugs, or other drugs or drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. Yet, now even pregnant women planning to carry their pregnancies to term are sometimes subject to legal scrutiny. Some of these women ending up in jail or confined during the course of their pregnancy, as if pregnancy was a kind of awful condition that steals women's personhood. Some women with perfectly normal pregnancies have been forced to have Cesareans for the sake of the fetus.

Here's Pollitt's take on the equality versus the privacy issue:

And only a self can have equality. Many feminist legal scholars, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have argued that the Supreme Court should have legalized abortion on grounds of equality rather than privacy. Pregnancy and childbirth are not only physical and medical experiences, after all. They are also social experiences that, in modern America, just as when abortion was criminalized in the 1870s, serve to restrict women's ability to participate in society on an equal footing with men. Would we be living in a different world today had Blackmun based abortion rights on the need to dismantle women's subordination? Or would the same people who don't accept women's privacy rights say, "Well, if women can't be equal without abortion, they'll have to stay in their place"?

I think of my own mother, who in the mid-1940s after her third child was born, told the doctor she wanted her tubes tied. The doctor asked her what she would do if her children died in an accident. She told him that no child could replace the children she already had. He did the procedure and she was able to raise the three of us, the family she wanted.

As the Kansas Legislature gears up for its session in January 2015, it doesn't take too much imagination to figure out that Kansans for Life and other, more extreme, anti-choice groups have their wish lists ready to send to legislative leaders. One group wants to get a heartbeat bill in place. That is, abortion will be illegal once what might be considered a fetal heartbeat is heard.

Julie Burkhart, Dr. George Tiller's spokesperson, founded Trust Women after his murder. She has opened a well woman clinic in the same office where Dr. Tiller worked. This clinic provides a range of treatments, including abortions, for women. Burkhart's family has been harassed and threatened since the clinic opened and it's a sure bet that the legislature will come up with even more draconian laws to try to get her to close. Yet, she continues with the optimistic attitude Dr. Tiller left her with, the attitude that allows her and her staff to provide what women need.

Women have a place in the scheme of things. Without the ability to control our own bodies, we will have to fight even harder to realize our place in the world.

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