Saturday, May 26, 2007

Impoverished Women Need to Connect with a Reproductive Rights Movement

IsThatLatinjust sent me this really interesting article from Alternet discussing how lower income women seeking abortions are totally disconnected from the larger political movement that made abortions legal for these women in the first place. The authors have conducted a few interviews (16, I think) with women seeking abortions and found that most of them feel shame and isolation from others. More importantly, they believe that they are the only ones with good reasons for getting the abortions, while the other women in the waiting rooms are immoral. I am not surprised to hear this sort of judgmental accusations uttered by many abortion seekers. What they are voicing, ultimately, is their own shame and projecting it onto the other women in the waiting room. Rather than see solidarity with these other women, as the authors note that women in the 7os did, they have nothing but contempt.

Given how successful the anti-choice movement has been in the last few years, chipping away at Roe, co-opting the churches that many of these lower income women attend, and infiltrating and sabotaging the public information on abortions (i.e. spreading lies such as abortions cause breast cancer), it is not surprising that many women seeking abortions are full of self-loathing that they project onto others. It is a powerful coping strategy.

What I found interesting in this article, which identifies a wealth gap in the same way that the marriage article from the Economist does, is how the authors interpret that the best way to help these women who seem so isolated and ashamed is to connect more explicitly and regularly the movement for reproductive rights with a movement to fight poverty.

Yet a clear gap -- of class, income, and education -- exists between those who work in this increasingly professionalized reproductive justice movement and those women who now form the majority of abortion patients. A recent study from the Guttmacher Institute, the leading research organization on reproductive health issues, paints a dramatic picture of the divide between nonpoor and poor women: "The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women living above 300% of the poverty level." Not surprisingly, there is a similar gap in access to contraception, leading the Institute to speak of "Two Americas" for American women with respect to the ability to control their reproductive lives.

The women we encountered in the waiting rooms of three abortion clinics, located in the South and Midwest, have little experience with the contemporary reproductive justice movement, or indeed of politics in general. But they are highly aware of the shame and stigma surrounding abortion. Some spoke of their fears of being recognized in the waiting room by acquaintances. Others, when asked if they would have preferred to have their abortions performed by their own doctors, in their home towns- rather than undertaking a drive of several hours to a clinic- recoiled at the thought. "I don't think that I would be comfortable going to my OB-GYN for an abortion, knowing that's the same man that delivered my children. ... I would think he would think of me differently. ... I mean he sees me in one light and that's the way I want him to see me."

None of the women interviewed said they thought abortion should be illegal. But many expressed ambivalence about their decision to have one. An unmistakable sense of sadness hovered around our conversations. Ultimately, these women made the decision to have an abortion for the same reasons women always have: their recognition that they could not adequately care for a child at this moment in their lives. This seemed especially true for the more than half of our interviewees who already have children.

Most of all, the abortions sought by our interviewees seemed to symbolize for them their personal failures to achieve the lives they wish they had. As Linda [who already had two children] said wistfully, when asked if there were circumstances under which she would not have had the abortion, "If my old boyfriend would still be with me, not caring I was pregnant ... or, if I had the money and my own house, my own car, maybe I wouldn't care about having a man beside me, and I could just move on with my kids."

The stories of the women we met in the clinics are so grim -- with tales of unreliable male partners, minimum wage jobs that don't allow them to properly care for the children they already have, broken down cars, and inadequate social support -- that it becomes clearer than ever that "reproductive justice" means far more than accessible contraception and abortion. Affordable housing, living wages, better child care, intimate partner violence programs and universal health care are things the movement must fight for in order to give these women and their children a shot at a decent life. And if that weren't enough, a challenge of a different nature is to make the lonely women in the waiting rooms feel part of that struggle.

I highlighted the above paragraph because I think here we really see how effectively anti-choice folks have contributed to the low self-esteem of the women seeking abortions. They are making thoughtful, difficult moral choices and yet none of them believe that they are justified in making these decisions. Instead, they have been bulldozed by the black/white absolutist rhetoric of the anti-choice movement--pronouncements, by the way, that are often made by people who have never been in their circumstances and thereby forced to make these hard decisions. These women need to be connected to a community that reinforces their moral agency, i.e. their right to make these difficult moral decisions and rely on themselves that they have made the right choice, regardless of the condemnation of others who foolishly believe they have the only truth.