By Beth U.

Reading Ellen Willis and watching VESSEL in light of a proposed 20-week abortion ban

When Congress reconvened a few weeks ago, two Republican Representatives introduced a bill called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (HR 36) that aims to ban abortion after 20 weeks. Today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, House Republicans planned to vote on this legislation but changed course at the last minute.  Members of their own party objected to a provision that would require rape victims to report to law enforcement before they qualify for an exception under the bill.

What we need is a Pain-Capable Woman Protection Act. In an essay published in 1979, Abortion: Is a Woman a Person, Ellen Willis states: “the ‘pro-life’ position is based on a crucial fallacy—that the question of fetal rights can be isolated from the question of women’s rights” (89).

abortionIn this essay, Willis dissects the anti-choice stance that fetal life should take precedence over women’s welfare. More to the point, she argues that to approach the “moral position” of abortion from the question of “Is abortion murder?” or “Is the fetus a person?” circumvents “the concrete, human reality of the pregnant woman’s dilemma” (90). When we lose women in the murk of philosophizing, we lose an “essential ingredient of the moral question.” In other words, it makes “no sense to discuss whether abortion is murder without considering why women have abortions and what it means to force women to bear children that they don’t want” (91).

Willis’ point seems self-evident now; the fact that we are revisiting it yet again is revelatory. The current moral debate—whether a fetus is “capable” of pain—is yet another tautological moment in the obstruction of women’s access to health and autonomy. It is yet another barrage of context-free, moral-high-ground material that sweeps the expressions and needs of women, and sex-having humans more generally, under the proverbial carpet.

As Willis asserts, “the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex” (91). Which means the nitty-gritty issue continues to be social, political, and legal bodily autonomy for women and anyone capable of becoming pregnant. “In 1979,” Willis continues, “it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men” (91). No less for anyone, I might amend.

If insisting sex is a choice was depressing in 1979, what does it make it now, in 2015?

Another of Willis’ points bears repeating: “surely it is obvious that restrictive laws do not keep women from seeking abortion; they just create an illicit, dangerous industry” (93). This “illicit, dangerous” industry is unnecessary and only exists because women do not have access to reliable contraceptives (including health insurance coverage) and safe avenues of recourse if these methods fail or are unavailable. The WHO calls this a preventable pandemic: more than 21 million women have unsafe abortion worldwide every year, accounting for nearly 13 percent of all maternal deaths.

130121141336-backstreet-abortion-protestors-1980-story-topWhich is why activists work to make access to sexual health care, even if it is illicit, less dangerous. At times, only activist efforts (and this includes underground activities) save women’s lives because time and time again women will choose (and here is the need for the context that gets blasted from moral arguments) to abort by any means rather than bring to term a fetus they cannot have.

Go see the documentary VESSEL for a dose of “evidence” that women need access to health choices, including abortion, to lead lives of autonomy and integrity. I saw VESSEL premiere in New York City (the director, Diane Whitten is a friend of a good friend). The film follows abortion rights activist Rebecca Gomperts and the pro-choice activist group Women on Waves. In 1999, as a way to circumvent national restrictions on access to abortion, Women on Waves rented a boat to provide women abortion pills while floating in international waters. Over time, the group refined its approach and now provides information and pills for self-induced abortions through Women on Web.

imagesWomen on Web collaborates with local advocacy groups to educate women on how to obtain misoprostol, a pharmaceutical for ulcer prevention that is available over-the-counter in many countries. When paired with mifepristone, misoprostol produces a “medical abortion.” In the US this combo is known as RU-486, and can be legally prescribed, but only in very early pregnancy. However, according to the WHO, misoprostol can be a highly effective abortion method when used alone and within the first nine weeks of gestation. Read WHO instructions for how to induce an abortion using misoprostol.

In recent years, Women on Web has received an increasing number of inquires from women in the United States as laws chisel away access to comprehensive health care. State restrictions to abortion include barring Medicaid funding for low-income women seeking to terminate pregnancies, and requiring women to undergo counseling, an ultrasound, and a 24-hour waiting period. Since HB-2, the Texas anti-abortion law, forced 80 percent of abortion clinics in the state to close, women have been crossing the border to Mexico to obtain misoprostol. The drug is also finding its way into Texas flea markets.

Women have self-aborted since time immemorial. VESSEL is breathtaking in that it reveals a contemporary iteration of women circumventing legal or other restrictions to abortion. Yet in some US states such as Idaho and Massachusetts women who self-induce abortion as well as those who assist them are subject to criminal liability. Which is why US health care providers may not be able to provide women information on how to accurately take misoprostol to self-induce abortion. The organization Women on Web provides this information, and also provides the drug itself. Please also read this document which outlines responses and strategies to combat criminalization of self-induced abortion using misoprostol.

As policy-makers and politicians whittle away at Roe v Wade and propose acts such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, women are taking matters into their own hands. This DIY approach, however, is not a replacement for safe, affordable, and humane access to sexual health care facilities and choices.  While Roe v Wade still upholds a woman’s legal right to choose abortion, choice is, of course, circumscribed by many factors including geographic access and financial access to the option of clinical assistance. Pregnancy does not happen in a vacuum, divorced from the social, financial, familial, and personal factors that bear on a women’s decision to bring a fetus to term. As Ellen Willis declares at the end of her essay, “Anyone who is truly committed to fostering life should be fighting for women’s liberation instead of harassing and disrupting abortion clinics” (93).

Diane Derzis, the owner of Mississippi's only remaining abortion clinic--the Jackson Women's Health Organization--places a sign outside the clinic on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22, 2013.
Diane Derzis, the owner of Mississippi’s only remaining abortion clinic–the Jackson Women’s Health Organization–places a sign outside the clinic on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22, 2013.