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Monday, February 14, 2005

Salon published Morality Play by Rebecca Traister late last week.

The article's teaser is:

By acknowledging painful emotional truths about abortion, pro-choice activists have reenergized their movement.

Regular readers, if you don't have a subscription to Salon, it is well worth your time to go through the process of securing a free day pass so that you can read this fascinating article.

Traister's primary focus in the article is on how the pro-choice feminist movement is reacting to post-election re-evaluations on how Democrats and feminists need to talk about abortion if they want to win (or avoid losing).

[Hillary] Clinton's sound bites [saying that for many women, abortion is tragic] may well have been a loud -- possibly misinterpreted, certainly oversimplified -- public signifier that a far more profound and uncomfortable discussion is heating up the women's movement itself.
and:

Confronting the status of the fetus is a scary proposition for pro-choice advocates. To acknowledge it as anything other than a mass of developing cells is to risk careering down a slippery slope to the word "murder." To write or speak a sentence on the subject of abortion rights is to face a field of semantic land mines; every reference to a fetus or its potential future must be preceded by the appropriate conditional. [Frances] Kissling understands this as well as anyone. Later in the conversation, after talking about the ambivalence of patients who would ask her, when she worked in clinics in the 1970s, Will my fetus feel pain? Kissling paused and said, "and they didn't say 'fetus.'"

Even Kissling -- willing to break many taboos -- is unwilling to say that the word they used was "baby." Pro-choicers shy from "baby" in reference to unborn humans like horses from flames. That's precisely why the seemingly quiet notion of "changing vocabulary" within the debate has the potential to be explosive. That's also part of why work, like Kissling's, that asserts a language of feeling and loss regarding the termination of pregnancy has such an impact. Is There Life After Roe?" struck a chord because it acknowledged an uncomfortable human truth: that for some happily, healthily expectant women -- and even for some who abort their fetuses -- the bump in their midsection is a baby.
Unfortunately, Traister is not able to shed much light in this article on the "uncomfortable discussion heating up the women's movement itself", unless the extent of that discussion is for leading pro-choice feminists to repudiate Clinton and Kissling for tapping the tiniest of hammers on the frozen monolith of established pro-choice ideology.

For example, Alexander Sanger (a descendant of Planned Parenthood foundress Margaret Sanger) says:

"I was disappointed that the value Hillary led off with is that abortion is bad. I don't believe we are ever going to win over the American public unless we make the case that abortion is a moral decision."
and:

"Young women are going to be tougher than any of us ever were. They have no hesitancy, no apology, no shame. They don't feel [abortion] is moral or immoral. They feel it's necessary, and they feel proud of it."
Contradictory, but there you have it. How interesting that "tough" is the word that comes to Sanger's mind. Whether you think we were created by God or by evolution, does anyone imagine that 18-year-old girls were created with the emotional equipment to be tough little soldiers, eliminating their babies so older men can applaud and assure them they're doing the right thing?

In all of this, I am the most interested in what's going on with Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice. She encouraged the pro-choice movement to adopt a more complex view of abortion after John Kerry lost in November. Her message was not welcomed. Traister follows up with Kissling two months down the road, and Kissling is not backing off:

Even if there were no legislative risks to pursuing questions of reproductive morality, doesn't it lay an additional burden on women who choose to abort? Why should we bring good-girl/bad-girl questions of guilt into it? Kissling's argument -- not in response to Smeal but in our earlier conversation -- is, "Women are already having this conversation with themselves ... Do you think women don't know there is something inside them? Duh. Come on. Do you think they are not bombarded with talk that is moralistic and negative every day? Do we not have something better to offer them in the way of moral framework? Women are dealing with this, and I don't think we should infantilize them."

Kissling also said, warning that she knew this response might sound "a little harsh": "I don't think that the right to choose abortion or the right to be treated as an autonomous empowered woman means you are entitled never to hear anything that might be troubling ... Life is not without its complexity ... In critical areas of moral inquiry we have to speak the full truth."
Getting back to Salon's teaser comment, that this dialogue has reenergized the prochoice movement: usually people use the word "reenergized" to mean something like "moving forward with renewed determination and purpose". Yet clearly, from reading the article, the right way to interpret "reenergized" here is as "in a state of highly conflicted ferment, from which we must hope that a consensus and clear direction eventually emerges".

We also are given the subtle impression that in feminist discussion circles, back rooms, and hallways, pro-choice feminists are discussing the questions, "Should we admit that an abortion kills a living human being?" and "Should we go ahead and admit that [some? many?] women experience emotional conflict and regret about abortion?"

But for public consumption in this article, the abortion advocacy establishment largely comes out in favor of sticking to the old lines.

What other bloggers have to say: American Digest (pro-life), Ellie [Smeal] needs a kick (pro-choice), Why Can't We Identify With Them Both? (pro-life), Feministing (pro-choice), and The XX blog (pro-choice).

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