politics and abortion in the USA: A discussion with Judith Arcana
by the Birkbeck College Sociology and Politics Society and Pro-Choice
Forum, this discussion was chaired by Amanda Callaghan, Public
Affairs Manager, BPAS at Birkbeck College of the University
London. It took place in October 1999.
Arcana was a volunteer for the Abortion Counseling Service. Better
known as "Jane", the Service performed an estimated
11,000 illegal abortions before the Roe vrs. Wade court decision
of 1973. We have writings from Judith Arcana and a short video
clip of her in our Jane Special
Feature. The picture on the left was taken during her
days in Jane and is from the video Jane: An Abortion Service.
Ill begin by talking about what those of us who were 'Janes'
called 'the Service' though it was formally named The Abortion
Counseling Service of The Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
There has been a remarkable pendulum swing since the US Supreme
Courts Roe v. Wade decision in January of 1973. The social
and political climate around abortion in the US is now actually
worse than it was before that ruling, when the Janes were operating.
This situation is what made me decide that, as a writer, I should
be writing about abortion, including my work in the Service, to
bring that part of womens health history to people's attention,
to be of use, to stand as a witness. In this collection-in-progress,
I will also deal with abortion now, not just as memory, and not
as nostalgia for what some of us did in the past. My perspective
is, naturally, different from when I was a Jane. Then we were
doing clinical and counseling work, providing illegal abortions,
working for womens liberation. Now, 30 years later, I think
I have a stronger focus on the ethics, morality and experience
of abortion, though surely this focus is fostered and developed
through my earlier clinical work, and is still strongly anchored
in feminist politics.
I was in my late 20s when I joined The Service. Its history is
four or five years long, depending on when you start telling the
story; I was a member for two years. In the mid 60s in the US,
the UK and Europe as you no doubt know, there was a great deal
of ferment within and among liberation movements; in particular
in the states, there was a burgeoning anti-war movement and the
beginnings of women's movement, the relatively more-established
civil rights movement, and organizing/action starting to appear
among students. Out of that political context, as well as through
the social/medical history of abortion and the history of medical
practice(s), the work of the Janes was generated.
In 1966, a college student in Chicago, a young woman who had gone
South for 'Mississippi Summer' to work on voter registration and
in Freedom Schools, got a phone call from a friend, who said that
his sister was pregnant, frantic, and didn't know what to do.
This young woman was able to find someone who would do the abortion,
despite the fact that it was illegal. Once word got around that
she knew how/where to find an abortionist, people kept on calling
her. Using the pseudonym Jane, short for Jane Doe, she began to
keep a list of abortionists and reports on their practice; she
gave out the phone numbers of those who were reported to be competent.
The number of people calling her grew and grew, and she reached
a point where she could not deal with demand on her own. So she
called a meeting, and a small group of women came together. First,
the group just had a list of those in the city who performed abortions.
As far as they knew, these people were reliable. As far as they
knew, no one on the list had 'botched' abortions, they did not
'come on' to the women they saw, and some of them could be bargained
with about money (abortion was very expensive, with prices ranging
between $500 and $2000).
Soon the referral service evolved into a counseling service and,
eventually, into a traveling underground clinic and this,
you understand, was criminal activity. Women joined the Service
through periodic orientation meetings, and learned the necessary
tasks from those who had come before them. Once their counseling
skills had been developed in new recruits, and the group had come
to trust them, they could learn more doing everything from
basic record keeping to becoming a medic, one who performed abortions.
Ultimately, we learned to do abortions in all three trimesters.
Although we did only a handful in the third, as you may imagine,
there were many in the second, no doubt because illegality forced
women and girls to take so much time searching for abortionists
and saving up money. The methods that we learned, we primarily
learned from one man. He was not a doctor, but he was the best.
Once we understood that many of the people doing abortions at
that time were not doctors, we realized that we could do it too.
This would mean women would not have to be charged a lot of money,
could even come through the Service free.
So we pressed this man to teach us, as he had been taught. He
was an extraordinary man in many ways, had been doing this work,
and maybe other illegal work, virtually all of his life. Its
important to note that anything illegal will ultimately generate
payments to the mob, so almost all the city abortionists were
giving them a cut, as well as paying off the police. Our man,
because he didn't live in Chicago, was always 'on the run', avoiding
both the police and the mob. He liked us because we would pick
him up at the airport, take him to one of our houses, and bring
him work. You could say he was our 'kept abortionist' -- and we
were his main source of work!
We would bargain at the beginning, maybe urging him to do six
abortions for the price he usually charged, and then two or three
for free. Abortionists were charging between $500 and $2000 over
30 years ago. Hardly anyone had that kind of money; the rich have
always been able to get abortions of course, but certainly not
most people. So we tried to get the price down as much as we could.
'Our abortionist liked us, thought we were cool (which we
were!), and we liked him, so it was a good arrangement all around.
He eventually taught one of us, and then let others watch.
Eventually, the one he had taught then taught others. We did not
have to send women to anyone else anymore, unless there was a
situation we felt we could not handle. (For example, some of the
people who came to us had already tried to abort in various ways,
and we could not take on people with the resultant complications.)
We were operating out of various apartments. We packed up our
equipment and used different places around the city. So we could
not deal with difficult cases. But all the other abortions women
needed, we did ourselves.
I first heard about the Service when in 1970 I thought I was pregnant.
As it turned out, that time I was not, but I had made the phone
calls, had been given the number and told to call and ask for
Jane. When I realized I was not pregnant, I called to say I could
be taken off the list. The woman I had spoken to at some
length, both times said she thought I sounded interested
in what the Janes were doing, and would I like to join up? In
the Fall of 1970 I did that, and remained a member until the fall
In those two years, I had two unusual experiences for a Jane.
First, I had a baby on purpose as did another Jane.
Our pregnancies led to major policy discussions about whether
pregnant women should keep working with the Service. Other pregnant
women previously had decided not to, but we wanted to stay, and
the group decided this was a good idea. We essentially subscribed
to the idea that women should have babies when they want them
and abortions when they need them. We conceptualized this as a
sort of motherhood continuum.
Second, I was one of the people arrested when we were busted.
It is very important to understand that the political climate
in those days was incredibly positive, both in the country at
large and in Chicago. I do not mean everywhere and everyone, but
there was a general climate which supported positive change: hence
Roe v Wade and other landmark events of that period. Chicago was
(still is) a heavily Catholic city, but even in that circumstance,
nobody messed with us! Everybody seemed to know what we were doing.
Police department employees came to us, police officers
wives, daughters and mistresses came to us. Politicians
wives, daughters and mistresses came to us (no local politicians
were women in those days, and virtually no police officers either).
Our abortion service was an open secret. In those days, like smoking
dope, prostitution and many other illegal activities, abortion
was known about and accepted. The bust, therefore, may have been
something of an accident. It is also true that in that period,
the anti-abortion movement (much, much smaller than it is now
of course) was aware that a case would be coming soon in the US
Supreme Court the tide was moving, nationally, inexorably,
in that direction, so it is not impossible that our arrest was
part of the attempt to stop abortion from becoming legal.
We generally operated in neighborhoods where many local folks
knew us. But a sister-in-law of a woman who was coming through
the Service, who knew the address for that one day (in early May
of 1972), was a devout Catholic; she called the police in her
own neighborhood which was not a district where we generally
worked. Abortion was classified as homicide, so they sent the
Homicide Squad. Those men apparently didn't know anything about
us. Seven women were working that day, including me. We were all
taken down to the station, as were all the women waiting, the
men waiting with them, and the children too. There were about
45 people in all, from two apartments, the 'front' where people
first came, and the place,' where we did the abortions.
Eventually the police arrested the seven of us. Ultimately the
case was dropped, however, since none of the women who were there
that day wanted to testify against us, and the case stalled on
until the Supreme Courts Roe decision in January of 1973.
I understand that you are interested in current abortion events
in the United States, so Ill talk a bit about that now.
Almost immediately after the Courts decision, more anti-abortion
groups sprang up and organising increased almost exponentially.
They were very clever in their approach, having learned a lot
from progressive movements, especially the Civil Rights movement.
Their tactics were drawn directly from mostly leftist, radical
movement groups, and those tactics worked just as well for this
new, reactionary movement. Their earliest successes were with
State legislatures. Within 6-8 years after 1973, several states
passed laws which disallowed abortion for various reasons, or
were on their way to doing so. Examples of negation or stalling
tactics include requiring parental consent for minors, or gestational
limits on abortion, or waiting periods once pregnancy has been
verified and the decision has been made to abort.
How did this change come about, and why did the political climate
change so fast? There are four points to note: The first is what
I call the rise of 'the bad guys'. This is the anti-abortion movement,
both those who are overtly religious, and those who are not. The
majority in that movement are religion-driven. Both the Roman
Catholic Church and the Mormon Church are significant in the ongoing
structure and action of that movement, and both appear to be possessed
of virtually unlimited funds. So the anti-abortion movement has
major league money, some might say enough to buy whole state legislatures,
as well as to be effective in ways other than simply buying votes
and lobbying like mobilizing its proponents to inundate
merchants or media that appear to support womens reproductive
Second, there is the power of the media. Primarily this is television,
and to a lesser extent radio, and to a much lesser extent film.
For reasons we can only speculate about, the anti-abortion movement
has been perceived, and continues to be perceived in the US, as
news. Everything they do is news, and because of the power of
their organizing and money, they have had an enormous effect,
editorially, on the media over the past two decades.
Third, there is science, the technology of pregnancy. People can
now make fetuses live, keep them alive outside of a womans
body, from far earlier in pregnancy than was ever imagined by
us, thirty years ago. Rapidly changes in medical technology have
changed pregnancy utterly. We can now watch babies growing, virtually
from the beginning of pregnancy, throughout their development;
one result of this is that women relate to their fetuses quite
differently, even in the early weeks of fetal development (which
is, ideally, when abortions should be performed).
Fourth, there is the important central fact that abortion is a
womans issue: its all about the lives of women and
children; its clearly related to female sexuality and womens
autonomy; its an issue that was brought forward by feminist
movement in the USA. The anti-abortion movement is part of the
powerful backlash against womens liberation.
These four factors have combined to make the majority of political
elections at any level in the USA be decided (really, in great
numbers) according to the candidates views on abortion
this is true in elections ranging from school boards and library
boards to the federal government. The abortion vote is often measured
by the media and the pundits before military spending, even before
taxes. The question asked of candidates is: Where do you stand
on abortion? (sometimes coded as a womans right to
choose or choice).
Moving from the situation in electoral politics to the sociopolitical
effect of anti-abortion activists, its enormously important
that you know the following: many clinics in the US have been
strenuously picketed for 15 to 20 years; virtually all clinics
where abortions are performed have been picketed at least sporadically
in that time. The picketers are people who carry pictures of dismembered
fetuses, who thrust crucifixes into the faces of people attempting
to enter the clinics, thrust bibles in their faces and pray at
them. There is a lot of screaming, thereve been scuffles
over the years and, on several occasions, terrorist violence.
Clinics have been bombed resulting in serious injuries
and deaths, clinic personnel have been shot at, and abortion providers
have been assassinated.
In the past, prior to the Roe decision, most doctors in the US
would not touch abortion. They were not moved by the needs of
women and children, nor were they interested in taking risks for
moral and political reasons. Now, a lot of doctors won't touch
abortion because, though their licenses are not at risk, their
lives are. And who can blame them? The most recent murder was
in the autumn of 1998, when DR Barnet Slepian was assassinated
in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He was the only doctor performing
abortions in the Buffalo metropolitan area. Thats a big
community, equivalent perhaps to Birmingham or Liverpool.
Comments and Questions
The picture you paint of the current situation the US looks grim.
Do you see any area where things could improve?
J: Yes and no. The extreme violence of the most dangerous members
of the anti-abortion movement has, I think, finally begun to affect
media representations of anti-abortion sentiment and action, and
public opinion as well. Most people dont like the idea of
doctors being gunned down by high-powered rifles in their own
homes. The screaming on the sidewalk, the waving of the bloody
fetus pictures did not have the same effect on the public. But
the extreme violence has made a difference. I think there is some
turning of the tide because of that.
however, there is more power on this issue wielded by the right
than by the left or even the centrists in the US at present. The
man who may well be our next President, George Dubya as we call
him, is strongly anti-abortion. The public is ignored on this
issue by legislators, who get a lot of money and support from
the anti-abortion movement. Moreover, there has been, as you may
know, a heavily rightwing House of Representatives for the past
several years, and most of those folks have been anti-abortion
from the jump they didnt need campaign contributions
to urge them to go that way.
How do young women get abortions? Are there illegal services?
J: I dont think there are as many underground abortionists
now as there were before Roe, though of course there are some
there are always some to serve or exploit the very poor.
But women, doing what we did I dont think so. Some
women are saying that we need to learn again, and soon, because
abortion will be totally against the law very shortly.
laws and court decisions come to counteract Roe v Wade completely,
as has happened in some states, then I suppose that could happen.
But I don't think it has happened yet. What has happened is this
sort of thing: clinics and other organizations arranging for young
women, who feel they cannot tell their parents but live in a state
where parental consent is required, to be taken across state lines
to procure abortions. Some state laws are now being drafted to
make this illegal, but it is happening at present. However, for
very many young women this is impossible mostly because
even finding out about such services is difficult, and there are
so few of them.
women who are older, there is great expense, and often the grief
of going through the pickets. There is fear and shame, and a great
emotional burden. Now people are talking about abortion pathologically,
in terms of the psychology of women. Even those women who do get
abortions carry an onus that had been lessened enormously by 1973
in the states, and is now back in a giant wave, a cultural backlash
of huge proportions.
an interesting and to my mind related corollary,
there has been a rise in the numbers of women having babies in
the states, a 'mommy boom'. In part, this is happening because
the medical industry, eager to play with its new technology, is
encouraging women who might not have conceived without chemical
interference to have babies, and touting the right
of others, even women in their 60s, certainly women in their 40s
and 50s, to become pregnant. Lots of people who did not choose
to have babies in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s,
are now doing so.
in the states have bought this new mumsy package in great numbers,
almost as great as those in the post WWII baby boom.
Some women are having babies because they are afraid of seeming
selfish, unfeminine, unnatural, or think they are missing a core
experience that they are somehow meant to have
yes, just as if twentieth century womens political movement
hadnt happened. We had the three steps forward, now were
having the two steps back. This cultural wave also makes abortion
somewhat less likely than it has been for three, maybe even four,
Are there areas where it is not like that?
J: In the big cities, in areas where people have more education
and more money, things may be a bit different and its
often a question of class. But, generally, this is whats
happening. Even urban/urbane, single, financially successful,
women are having babies in their late thirties and forties. Even
women with wealth are now going to extreme measures to get babies,
buying babies from eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America, employing
a surrogate, or subjecting themselves to the chemical and surgical
vagaries of IVF which is still essentially experimental.
It's scary! It's a bad time for women, in terms of the reality
of motherhood issues and Im speaking as a mother
here, not only as an abortion rights advocate. Of course there
are still many women seeking abortions, but abortion resources
are so much scarcer that, ironically, in the face of all this
rush to get pregnant and get babies, there are still many women
also have babies by default, or deliver and give their babies
away, or have late-stage abortions, procedures that have greater
potential for being difficult, even dreadful, experiences.
about this: 86 per cent of the counties in the US have no abortion
providers right now. This means women seeking abortion services
have to travel, pay more, and lose days of work. Abortion is,
in theory, available, because its legal, but
hard to get, even to find. One of the first backlash decisions
following Roe was that the federal government does not have to
pay for Medicare abortion, so poor women have to scramble for
the money or bear a child they cant afford to raise in good
health. The insurance of federal employees will not pay for abortion;
this includes military personnel, of course, and all of their
dependents who are female. And many states have other laws restricting
abortion. Individual clinics also tend not to take chances, so
even where there are not very restrictive laws, where perhaps
a law is just suggested or lobbied for, clinics will be cautious,
and fewer will offer abortion services.
There are a lot of techniques the anti-abortionists have for attacking
clinics. Not just bombs, but suing for negligence against clinics,
to try to bankrupt the doctor through legal means.
J: There are many, many tactics, and they are using all of them.
Who are the women who ask you to teach them? What resources are
there to do this?
J: Usually college students. You dont need much (in the
way of resources) to do what we did. I don't know how many women
would be prepared in these times to do what the Janes did. There
werent exactly droves even then, after all, when we were
not risking our lives. I think they may be motivated by what I
call the romance of the Janes. I would prefer to quash that. We
were risking a great deal, and sometimes thought about going to
jail, but this, now, is a totally different situation. I want
them to understand that they would be practicing medicine without
a license and would be taking terrible risks with the fanatics
all without the unspoken positive sanctions that we had.
We operated in a supportive climate, one far more like the climate
here in Britain, around abortion. If the law is overturned, however,
there may be women who will do it. You may be sure Ill wish
only other group I have heard of who did what the Janes did was
in Rome in the 1970s. It is surprisingly easy, however. If you
take abortion out of the social, political and legal contextual
conversation, the actual doing of it is simple. You really do
not need much, as long as you have someone skilled to teach you.
What is the state of the law in the US at present?
J: It is different in every state, and sometimes within states.
There are very few abortion providers, few medical schools teach
it, and most doctors are afraid to do it anyway, or say they disapprove.
Beyond that, in terms of the law, it depends on which state you
live in. In my state, Oregon, youd be in luck, despite the
fact that we have a periodically resurgent anti-abortion movement.
They move back and forth between attempting to bring forward and
pass referenda against gay people and against abortion rights;
at the moment theyve not been successful in either endeavor,
but they sometimes come close, and fighting them is a lot of work.
But if you lived in Missouri, or Florida, you would be entirely
out of luck.
state can outlaw abortion altogether, because of the Supreme Court
ruling, but they try to get as close as they can by finding ways
to restrict access, like a requirement for a waiting time of one,
two or three days between a positive pregnancy test and initial
contact with the clinic, and the operation itself. For women who
need to travel significant distances to a clinic or private practitioner
(and thats a lot of women because those are so few providers),
the time and money of that waiting period is a significant barrier
to abortion access. Say you live in Western Montana and have two
children and a job and the closest abortionist is a whole days
travel both for the initial visit and then for the operation
after the waiting period. You have to get time off from work,
you have to get child care, you have to have the money to cover
both of those, and you have to do it all twice.
It's very hard to imagine the situation you describe living in
Britain. One factor that makes the situations quite different
is the existence of the National Health Service in Britain, and
the protection it offers to those who practice abortion here.
If you practice as part of a service in obstetrics and gynaecology,
not just abortion, and in a hospital that provides a whole range
of services, you are much less exposed than in the US. Where an
individual doctor has to make a decision to set up his or her
own practice as an abortion doctor, the challenge and exposure
is much greater. You single yourself out in a way gynaecologists
don't have to here. It therefore perhaps is no surprise that most
abortion doctors in the US are over the age of 65. Few young doctors
want to take the risk. There is a similar trend here, where younger
doctors are also not opting enthusiastically for abortion work.
The reasons may be different though. It perhaps is not because
of the level of risk involved, but because abortion work is perceived
as boring, unchallenging and also unglamorous, compared say to
working in infertility, providing IVF.
also is why in the past not many doctors in the US got involved
in abortion work, even in the first few years after Roe when it
was not so dangerous. Abortion - who wants to do that? It's not
disliked simply for moral and ethical reasons, it's because it's
simple, and it's about women. It is not like brain surgery, or
anything like the high-tech reproductive medicine that can be
J: Yes, yes and yes.
The other point about Britain is the response to attempts by extreme
anti-abortion activists like Operation Rescue. When they tried
to come to the UK they were kept out, under order from the Home
Secretary, and refused admission.
There are other approaches taken by the anti-abortion movement
here however. I used to live near to a Marie Stopes clinic in
Brixton, and close to it a board was put up which said 'Pregnant?
Worried? Come in and talk'. This gave directions to an anti-abortion
That is a tactic imported from the US.
There are some anti-abortion counseling centres set up with American
money, where women are misinformed particularly about the health
risks of abortion. I wanted to ask a question about the ethics
of abortion. You said you had become interested in this aspect,
but what do you think has most changed in this area in the last
J: I think there is a need for us to talk more about what it is
we are doing, when we carry out or support abortion. We
in the states have dealt heavily, up to now, in euphemism.
I think one of the reasons why the 'good guys' the people
in favor of abortion rights lost a lot of ground is that
we have been unwilling to talk to women about what it means to
abort a baby. We don't ever talk about babies, we don't ever talk
about what is being decided in abortion. We never talk about responsibility.
The word 'choice' is the biggest euphemism. Some use the phrases
'products of conception' and contents of the uterus,
or exchange the word pregnancy for the word fetus.
I think this is a mistake tactically and strategically, and I
think its wrong.. And indeed, it has not worked we
have lost the high ground we had when Roe was decided.
objection here is not only that we have lost ground, but also
that our tactics are not good ones; they may even constitute bad
faith. It is morally and ethically wrong to do abortions without
acknowledging what it means to do them. I performed abortions,
I have had an abortion and I am in favor of women having abortions
when we choose to do so. But we should never disregard the fact
that being pregnant means there is a baby growing inside of a
woman, a baby whose life is ended. We ought not to pretend this
is not happening. That pretense has allowed the anti-abortion
people to hold the high-ground only because we never talk about
it! When they talk about the life of the baby, we talk about the
life of the woman. This is a big mistake, not a useful or even
accurate way to frame the situation. In this scenario, the decision
is a contest: a woman's life against a baby's life. And when she
aborts, then of course she can be seen as a heartless, selfish
bitch just as the anti-feminist mother-blamers and woman-haters
have always said.
my view obviously that is not what is going on in
abortion. If we ignore or avoid discussing the reality of abortion,
then when women and girls want to think about what it means, we
the good guys have no vocabulary to
do so. We are told it's just an operation, a simple procedure,
but there is no emotional content to the conversation. In the
clinics and counseling offices, having an abortion is sometimes
compared to going to a dentist. This is a big mistake. There is
no discussion of, and no acceptance of, what is actually being
done when the choice is made, when the responsibility to abort
Do you think that is why groups like Project Rachel, which aims
to counsel women after abortion about the impact it has on their
minds have set up? Maybe they are the only people out there who
are tackling this issue.
J: Yes, I agree with that. I don't know about that particular
group. I believe that the pathologising of abortion, the creation
of a Post-Abortion Syndrome even by well-meaning psychologists
is one result of this. I think abortion belongs in the
same context as assisted suicide, euthanasia, even war and domestic
self-defense all situations that require the taking of
life with moral, ethical knowledge and acceptance of responsibility.
Post-Abortion Syndrome originated as part of an anti-abortion
strategy where the movement tries to present itself as concerned
with women's health. Project Rachel is a Catholic organisation
that exists to do that. There are number of different counseling
organisations that exist to counsel women who, they suggest, are
suffering from this [so-called] Syndrome. In England we have similar
organisations, which base their activities on those set up in
the US, for example British Victims of Abortion, which is modeled
on American Victims of Abortion, and LIFE counseling centres.
difficulty with the issue is not a disagreement with your representation
of what has changed. With regard to women's experience of abortion,
I think a shift has taken place where in the mid-1970s, abortion
for a significant section of women was thought of through the
prism of women's rights, and a positive assertion of independence
and freedom. Now that context has gone, women are likely to experience
abortion as an individual dilemma, shaped by the ethical and moral
arguments around abortion. These focus on the 'unborn child',
a phrase which was not popularised in the late 1960s in Britain.
J: They have created the language, so we have to struggle against
The difficulty is that while on the one hand we can understand
that abortion is experienced differently than in the past, and
is difficult for many women who choose to abort. However, what
conclusions do we draw from this? First, this does not, to my
mind, change the ethical issues that are at stake. The fetus is
no more of a person than it was in 1970, just because it may be
perceived that way. The issue rather is how we explain that to
people, in a convincing way. Second, does the fact that women
can find abortion difficult to decide on, and dwell on their decision
afterwards, mean that we should respond in this in some way, by
for example providing more counseling for women? I don't believe
that it does.
J: Neither do I. I don't think we should be talking about trauma
or psychological risk. However I do think we should be asking
women, What does this mean for you? This attitude
comes out of the counseling I learned in 1970. Have you
thought about why you want to do this? Do you take responsibility
for this? We the Janes could be clear about
responsibility, partly because we were deliberately committing
a crime. We could say, you are in this with us; we are committing
this criminal act together. You, your mother who brought you to
us, your boyfriend who is sitting here with you its
you and us, together. That was excellent education giving
women a sense of collaborating with and being supported by others
and acting with the knowledge, the understanding, that this action,
this decision, is their right.
don't have that context now, but we can still talk about what
we are all doing. When it was made legal, the women who came to
abortionists became clients, as opposed to women who needed abortions
coming to other women who could help them. We need to talk about
how to change how we represent, offer and perform abortion, pay
attention to what now dominates women's experiences with the medical
industry, particularly the technology around pregnancy, like ultrasound.
We have to accept that women are relating to fetuses differently.
The relationship we all have to fetuses is in rapid transition
I was thinking about how to make the strongest argument for abortion.
I think using images of starving children might be the best. Abortion
will always be necessary, but how do we make this more acceptable?
Surely the outcome of that approach is to make the case less woman-centred.
Surely the child is really irrelevant to the issue. We have services
for children, to look after when once born. This is about abortion
services, and what women need.
It is tempting to talk about wanted children, but I think the
focus should be because that is what women want, rather than to
move the emphasis entirely over to the needs of the child.
Then you almost inevitably end up with a polarised debate between
women's rights and children.
In terms of public opinion, we should note that the vast majority
of Americans are happy with what the law says at present. Polls
in America, regardless of the merits of the pro-life or pro-choice
positions, show that the vast majority are happy with the situation
that exists. That is to say, Roe v. Wade still stands, but states
are allowed to introduce their own legislation. It is 10 per cent
of people who are pro-life, and 10 per cent who are pro-choice
who are on the extremes. What you are arguing for is either a
change in the American political system or for different Americans!
My own view, talking as someone who works for an abortion provider,
would certainly be to separate any future problems a child might
encounter from the abortion request. Most women who come for abortion
do not want to be pregnant, and that is the issue. The argument
should be that women should be able to enjoy sex without the consequences
of unwanted pregnancy. We should be able to just talk about abortion
as a practical, medical issue.
That would be to suggest that having an abortion doesn't have
J: I think that we can talk about abortion and the lives of children
at the same time. We can talk about the life of a woman who is
deciding whether she wants to make a new person and raise that
person. We do not have to split those questions or their answers
off from each other. I definitely do want to talk about the fact
that when you are pregnant, there is a baby growing inside of
you. I think the quality of life of children is important, more
important than the dubious value of simply being alive. We can
say women need to decide, once pregnant inadvertently, whether
to have the child; and one of issues that they need to consider
is whether they want to make a person, raise it for 18 years,
and throughout that time be emotionally, financially, spiritually
responsible for it. That is the situation, the question, which
is raised for a woman by pregnancy. Do I want a baby? a woman
thinks; what would happen if I had this baby? what would happen
if I didn't have this baby, if I aborted it? what would happen
if I gave it away?
But if we use the image of the starving child, the implication
is that abortion can be used to prevent women having children
in certain circumstances, and this is about population control.
J: I absolutely agree that we should be careful with our language,
our meaning, even our graphics. It is a complex issue. The young
American women I have encountered, and those asked in surveys,
are now starting to say something they never used to say in the
60s and 70s. Now they say 'I think abortion should be legal, but
I could never have one'. This reminds me of when women used to
say of rape, 'How could she let that happen to her? I would never
let that happen to me'. We learned fairly quickly, once we began
to study rape, that that response is not only unkind, but deeply
ignorant of the reality of rape. But with abortion, something
has changed the other way, gone backwards, so to speak. A US generation
has grown up in a context where abortion is a negative word. Granted,
abortion was never a jolly subject, but simply thinking and talking
about abortion is once again something people do not want to do,
something fraught with guilt and fear and shame. This is because
they have learned to think simply about abortion they think
only that abortion is a bad thing. They do not identify
with the struggle for it, or with the need for it. That has all
been minimized in these past three decades, proving (yet again)
that what Ida B. Wells-Barnett said to the American public about
lynching just about a hundred years ago, is still true, and broadly
applicable: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
(Judith Arcana. Do not use/reproduce without permission.)
her days in Jane, Judith Arcana became a writer, and is
currently writing fiction about tattoos and poems about abortion.
Her work is supported by a Poetry Award from the Barbara Deming
Memorial Fund, a Poetry Fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts,
and grants from the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Union Institute
poems and short prose pieces appear in anthologies, newspapers
and literary magazines including ZYZZYVA, Nimrod, Fireweed, CALYX
and Prairie Schooner.
longtime teacher of writing, literature and womens studies,
Judiths nonfiction books are Our Mothers Daughters,
Every Mothers Son and Grace Paleys Life
Stories: A Literary Biography. Fifty years resident in the
Great Lakes region, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995.
Judith is a member of the Graduate Faculty of The Union Institute.