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Casualties of a 50-Year War

In 1968, five years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing women the right to legal abortions (ironically also the year that Pope Paul VI declared his opposition to birth control pills), I was a high school student living in a dorm at U.C. Riverside, part of a program for juniors about to enter their senior years to experience college life and pick up some early credits. One of my dormies became pregnant, hardly an unheard-of phenomenon in a mixed dorm full of randy 17-year-olds. I don’t remember why her boyfriend didn’t come along, or why she wouldn’t or couldn’t appeal to her parents for help: but I’ll never forget driving her in my red VW Bug to get an abortion in East L.A. I parked on a grubby back street and we entered a building identified as a dental clinic. Women, some with children, sat on folding chairs pushed against the walls of a large waiting room, and a harried nurse would dart out into the room whenever the word “abortion” was spoken loudly enough for her to hear it. Occasional groans and even screams from somewhere in the back rooms were chilling. I learned later from my dormie that she had not been given an anesthetic. That’s the way it was back then and I’m sure early Baby Boomer women reading this have similar stories to tell about either themselves or women they knew who despairingly found themselves pregnant and alone. Shotgun weddings had for the most part fallen out of favor by then; on the cusp of the women’s movement, it was a dark time for a young woman in search of a safe way to end an unwanted pregnancy. 

When Roe v. Wade was passed by a 7-2 vote in the Warren Burger court in 1973, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Women within the demographic bubble known as the Baby Boomers assumed that the Roe decision had permanently relegated back-alley abortions to the glad-it’s-gone past, especially welcome since most of us at that time were at the peak of our fertile years. Yet here we are, nearly half a century later, still fighting for that guaranteed constitutional right - though now that fight has spread like a stain through states and counties with pro-life political majorities. Today 87% of U.S. counties do not have a single abortion provider.

Passage of Roe only intensified pro-life efforts to either strike down or fatally weaken the new law of the land through death by a thousand cuts. The saddest, unfortunately successful, and uniquely American of these was congressional passage of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for abortions, including through Medicaid. Since the amendment’s initial passage pro-life politicians have added abortion coverage and funding bans and restrictions through Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program enrollees; federal employees and their dependents; women in the military; Peace Corps volunteers; women in federal prisons and detention centers, including for immigration purposes; and women who receive health care from community health centers. Poor women covered by Medicaid were and still are the most severely impacted by the Hyde Amendment, which has been reaffirmed every year with minor changes but is still intact. According to recent data nearly 1 in 6 women of reproductive age are currently enrolled in Medicaid, and 60% live in states that restrict Medicaid funds for abortion. Just 17 states have opted to make up the difference and continue to provide that funding, among them California. In 1980 Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote prophetically that “The Hyde Amendment is designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion.” 

It must be said that pro-life strategists conceived and have executed one of the greatest public relations coups of the past half-century; they have, in the public mind, somehow insanely granted first-trimester fetuses and living children equal rights. Just a few years ago I was listening to an NPR panel discussion on abortion when a pro-life activist was asked whether he would save a three-year-old toddler or a tray of human embryos if he could rescue only one from a burning building. He didn’t have the grace to even hesitate before replying that he’d “have to think about it.” 

In 1973, after Roe, the assumption was that women would be able to legally go to safe clinics, staffed by doctors and nurses, to undergo an effective 10-minute aspiration abortion procedure far safer than carrying a pregnancy to term. Many of those clinics have since closed as pro-life political forces have used a smorgasbord of tactics – including threatening doctors – to shut them down. But desperate women will always find a way, and medical abortions are rapidly filling the vacuum, both through prescriptions at clinics and, that failing, by ordering directly from the Internet. 

Medical abortions, though slightly less effective than surgical abortions (depending on variables like the number of weeks pregnant, how the drug(s) are taken, and other factors), are fast gaining on surgical abortions and can only be performed in the first trimester of pregnancy. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 66% of legal abortions are within the first 8 weeks of gestation, with 92% within the first 13 weeks.) According to nurse practitioner Leyza Savin, who works at the Anderson Valley Clinic, this is the only abortion option available to Mendocino County women who choose to stay within the county. Savin told me there used to be an abortion practitioner on the coast but is no more. She said that the AV clinic refers abortion requests to Planned Parenthood in Ukiah, which she said only offers the medical option. She doesn’t see this as a bad thing. “It cuts out the hospital procedures,” she said. “Misoprostol [the drug], taken once, is like having a big period” about 24 hours later. She roundly debunked the pro-life notion that women who get abortions are somehow scarred for life. “All of the data on trauma shows that most women are not traumatized by their abortions,” she said. Since these drugs are now also safely available through the Internet, pro-life activists are frantically trying to legally plug the holes allowing the drug orders to cruise through cyber space to eventually be delivered as the real thing directly into our mailboxes. But as its wealthiest billionaire profiteers are learning the hard way, the Internet is by its nature untamed and untamable. This could well prove to be an impossible hole to plug. 

The country is still at war over abortion and I’m still writing about it 46 years after Roe because opposing forces represent irreconcilable differences anticipated by the nation’s Founders who wisely separated Church and State: it’s the Law v. the Lord.

Savvy pro-life activists don’t usually come right out and say it that way, and it doesn’t say flat-out in the Bible that you can’t get an abortion (though biblical interpretation runs rampant these polarized days). And the online announcement of PRO-LIFE AMERICA’s annual 3-day conference, to be held next month in New Orleans, is entitled “When Women Lead,” which sounds downright secular until the schedule itself trends celestial. The speakers, all women, are doctors, lawyers, and leading pro-life activists who will lead breakout sessions called things like, “Strategic Planning for Non-Profits,” “Self Care for the Activist,” “Healing After Abortion,” “Embrace Grace,” “Body Image and Pregnancy,” and, my personal favorite, training for sidewalk counselors – you know, those folks who harass women by waving posters of aspirated fetuses in their faces and handing out gory leaflets on the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood. But there’s also a mass scheduled, and the bios of the speakers nearly always include the speaker’s personal commitment to, and relationship to, God. This is The Church.

The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), established four years before Roe and still going strong, is aggressively secular. Its positions don’t speak in the language of love, self-care, forgiveness or redemption, but rather in terms of law, medical choice, and constitutional rights. This is The State. 

Pro-life and pro-choice are still two warring groups led by smart, educated, strategic women locked in perpetual combat because there are few areas of compromise in moral  absolutes: embryonic tissue the size of a grain of rice is or isn’t a protected life, choosing to expel it from your body is or isn’t legal, is or isn’t a sin. 

If there is hope for peace, its potential resolution is perhaps most eloquently expressed in a 1984 speech by then-New-York-Governor Mario Cuomo, a devout Catholic, to the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. He exhorts anti-abortion Catholics to move beyond a single focus to practice love and respect for life in its fullest: to promote education and fight the poverty that often leads to unwanted pregnancies, to oppose capital punishment, to look to a child’s needs beyond its birth, to its health, education, and overall nurturing. He talks about the personal compromises demanded of him as the governor of all people, of all faiths, and of his decision to reject a state constitutional amendment banning abortion, in opposition to the leadership of the church he calls his spiritual home. He chose to separate his own closely held religious beliefs from his secular responsibilities to all of the people in his State, whatever their beliefs.    

He also reminded his audience that no woman has to get an abortion if she doesn’t want one.

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