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Posts filed under Roe v. Wade

Over My Shoulder #44: on Roe v. Wade, governmental “victories,” and the ennervation of the Women’s Liberation Movement. From Sonia Johnson, Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution

Here’s the rules. Except, note that I have changed them significantly, and plan to keep this new version from here on out. Check it:

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

Here’s the quote. This is taken from Chapter 1, Who’s Afraid of the Supreme Court? from Sonia Johnson’s Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution.

Often when I say that laws are not worth warm spit in patriarchy, those women who are frightened by the revolutionary implications of that statement often counter with the argument that Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence that women can go through men and their system to win freedom. I reply that, unfortunately, Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence not of freedom but instead of one of the most blatant co-optations, or re-enslavements, of women by patriarchy in history. I go on to tell them how I think Roe v. Wade saved and continues to serve patriarchy.

I wasn’t a feminist at the beginning of the second wave of feminism in this country in the late 60s and early 70s, but I have talked with hundreds of women who were. From them and from the literature written then, I can almost feel the incredible excitement of the Movement in those days. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, very legitimate and healthful anger, women were fairly bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Euphoria and elation might best describe the general atmosphere. It was a very heady time. Every woman I have spoken to who was an active feminist then looks back at that time with nostalgia: Those were the halcyon days, the Golden Age.

There were many reasons for that feeling, but chief among them, it seems to me, was that liberation seemed not only possible, but imminent. In addition, many feminists had a basic understanding of women’s enslavement that has since been lost in a general way: that women are men’s colonized lands; that just as the English colonized — a racist euphemism for conquered — Nigeria and India, for instance, men have colonized women. The English declared themselves owners of these countries, and their people, made all the laws that governed them, and pocketed the profits themselves. Britannia ruled by plundering and raping the colonials and their lands.

The Indians, the Nigerians, the other colonized peoples of the world (and colonization takes firmest hold in the feelings and perceptions of a people) tried to make the usurpers’ system work for them. They struggled to get laws passed that would give them more leeway, and they managed in some instances to infiltrate low- and even middle-level government echelons and to attain a few managerial and supervisory jobs in the industrial/corporate world. A token handful got into the educational institutions reserved for the masters. Some of them regarded these inroads as progress.

But enough of them eventually realized that it did not matter what else they seemed to achieve, if they did not have home rule, they could never be free. They came to the understanding that freedom was simply not possible for them–ever–in the colonial system. Freedom means owning themselves, owning their own lands, using their resources for their own enrichment, making their own laws. The revolution began with their feelings and perceptions of themselves as people who not only should but could govern themselves.

Women were the first owned, the first ruled people in every race and class and nation, the first slaves, the first colonized people, the first occupied countries. Many thousands of years ago men took our bodies as their lands as they felt befitted their naturally superior, god-like selves and our lowly, animalistic natures. Since this takeover, they have made all the laws that governed our lands, and have harvested us–our labor, our children, our sexuality, our emotional, spiritual, and cultural richness, our resources of intelligence, passion, devotion–for their own purposes and aggrandizement. These have been men’s most profitable cash crops.

. . . The burgeoning women’s health movement of the early 70s was evidence of women’s awareness of our physical colonization and of our realization that no matter what else we did, no matter how many laws we got men to pass, no matter how many low-echelon government and corporate positions we won, like the Nigerians and the Indians and all other colonized peoples, unless we had home rule, everything else we did to try to free ourselves was meaningless.

So we were saying howdy to our cervixes for the first time in our lives, our own and our friends’. We may have been the 17th person to see them and the first 16 may have been men, but finally we were meeting them face to face. In doing so, we realized that it didn’t take a man’s eye to see a woman’s cervix, it didn’t take an American-Medical-Association, male-trained mind to diagnose the health of our reproductive organs or to treat them. We were shocked to remember how natural it had seemed to go to male gynecologists, and realized that, in fact, men’s being gynecologists was perverted, gross, and sick and that our accepting them as experts on our bodies–when they had never had so much as one period in their lives, never experienced one moment of pre-menstrual psychic clarity, never had one birth pain, never suckled one child — was evidence of our ferocious internalized colonization. It began to appear as obscene to us as it truly is.

As obvious as this may seem now, it hadn’t been obvious for a very long time.

So in learning to examine our own sexual organs, to diagnose and treat our own cervical and vaginal ailments, to do simple abortions, to deliver babies, and in beginning to think seriously about developing our own safe, effective, natural contraceptives and getting the word out, women were moving out of colonization, out of slavery. We were taking back and learning to govern our own countries.

In those days, the movement was called The Women’s Liberation Movement, and that, in fact, was what it was. Women were breaking the contract that exists between all oppressed people and their oppressors, in our case our agreement to allow men to own us and to exploit us as their resources. Though we agreed to it under the severest duress imaginable, in order, we thought, to survive, we nevertheless agreed.

Those who do not understand how the thirst for home rule among women at the beginning of the second wave of our Movement in this century rocked the foundations of patriarchy worldwide simply do not understand the necessity of women’s slavery to every level of men’s global system. Perhaps even many of the women at that time did not fully understand the revolutionary nature of what they were about. But in establishing a new order in which women owned our own bodies and were not men’s property, they were destroying the very foundation of patriarchy. Since any power-over paradigm is totally dependent upon those on the bottom agreeing to stay there, men’s world organization was in grave peril. If women would not be slaves, men could not be masters.

The men who control the world are not intelligent, as is evident to even the most casual observer, but they are crafty, particularly about maintaining privilege through control. Over their thousands of years of tyranny, they have acquired a near-perfect understanding of the psychology of the oppressed–if not consciously, then viscerally. They knew precisely what to do when women began refusing to honor the old contract, and I am absolutely convinced that their move was conscious, plotted, and deliberate.

They sent an emissary after the women as they were moving out of the old mind into a free world. Hurrying after us, he shouted, Hey, girls! Wait up a minute! Listen! You don’t need to go to all this trouble. We already know how to do all the things you’re having to learn. We know your bodies and what is good for you better than you do. Trying to learn what we already know will take too much of your time and energy away from all your other important issues.

Then he used men’s most successful lie, the hook we had always taken in the past because men are our children, and we need to believe they value us, that we can trust them. You know we love you and want your movement to succeed, he crooned. So do you know what we’re prepared to do for you? If you’ll come back, we’ll let you have legalized abortion!

How could we refuse such a generous, loving offer? We had listened to men’s voices and trusted them for so long–in the face of massive evidence that they had never been trustworthy, had had so little practice in hearing and trusting our own, that we lost our tenuous bearings in the new world and turned around and walked right back into our jail cell. We allowed them to reduce liberation to an issue. We forgot that anybody that can let you, owns you.

So the men let us have legalized abortion. Some women protest that women won the right to it, forgetting that the legal system is set up to keep patriarchy intact, which means to keep women enslaved, and that men own the law. They will never use it to free us. As Audre Lorde states clearly, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. [Audre Lorde, essay by that name in Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA 1984, p. 110.]

You know how pityingly we have looked at the benighted woman who says, I don’t need the Women’s Movement. My husband lets me do anything I want. But our pity has been hypocritical: Roe v. Wade, the glory of the movement, is exactly the same sad phenomenon — our husband the state letting us, and our feeling grateful for it. But, of course, like a husband the men let us not because it is good for us but because it is necessary for them. It keeps us colonized, our bodies state property and our destinies in their hands, and it rivets our attention on them.

So the men let us have legalized abortion, and almost instantly the energy drained from the movement, like air from a punctured balloon. Instead of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we became simply the Women’s Movement, because liberation is antithetical to letting men, depending upon men to, make the laws that govern our lands. For the last 15 years we have been nailed to the system by Roe v. Wade, our mighty energy and hope and love channeled into begging men in dozens of state and national bodies not to pare away cent by cent the truly miserable allowance they promised us for abortions for poor women.

If we hadn’t trusted them again, if we had kept on going in the direction we were headed, with the same time and money and energy we have since expended on groveling, we could by this time have had a woman on every block in every city and town who is an expert on contraceptives, women’s health, birthing, and abortion. We could have educated the women of this country in countless creative ways about their bodies and their right to rule them. We would have learned how to govern ourselves, discovering a whole new way for women–and therefore everyone–to be human.

And, significantly, a Bork could have been appointed to every seat of the Supreme Court, men could have been spewing laws aimed at controlling our bodies out of every legal orifice, and all their flailing and sputtering would simply be irrelevant. Having removed ourselves from their jurisdiction, we would have settled the question of abortion and birth control, of women’s individual freedom, blessedly and for ages to come. When the Nigerians and Indians got ready to rule themselves, the English had no choice but to go home. Tyranny is a contract. Both parties have to stick to it.

But in the early 70s women hadn’t had time to complete the necessary internal revolution in how we thought and felt about ourselves that was necessary for us to be free. Evidence of this is that we took as models for our movement the movements that had preceded ours, all of which were reformist because they involved men. Since our own internal, authentic women’s voices were still very weak and difficult to hear and when heard still without sufficient authority, we didn’t take seriously enough the fact that women and men are in wildly different relationships to the system. We didn’t realize that since the entire global system of laws and governments is set up with the primary purpose of keeping women of every color and class enslaved by men of their own color and class, and often by other men as well, talking about civil rights for women was oxymoronic. We had still to learn how colossally brainwashed we are by patriarchy to do in the name of freedom precisely those things that will further enslave us.

Roe v. Wade was very smart politics for the men; now, regardless of what party is in power or who is on the Supreme Court, the groundwork has been laid. The hopes of thousands of dedicated feminists are bound firmly once more to the husband-state. And we are all a dozen years further away from trusting women and finding a lasting non-male-approval-based solution to the problem of our physical and emotional colonization.

It is time for us to remember that no one can free us but ourselves. Time not to try to get the men to do it for us — which reinforces their illusion of godhood and ours of wormhood and perpetuates the deadly power-over model of reality–but to do it ourselves. Time for thousands of us to learn to perform abortions and to do all that needs to be done for one another in so many neighborhoods throughout the country that our liberation cannot be stopped. Time to manage our own bodies, heal our own bodies, own our own bodies. It is time for home rule.

This is how I want women to spend our prodigious intelligence and energy.

Obviously, Roe v. Wade doesn’t stand alone; it simply models patriarchy’s subversive tactics most clearly. Almost all segments of our Movement have suffered such co-optation. Many women who have been active in the shelter movement for years, for instance, have pointed out to me the similarities in strategy and effect between Roe v. Wade and government funding for shelters.

To obtain funding for shelters in the first place, women must tone down their feminism and conform to male officials’ standards and expectations. To keep the money, the women who work in the shelters as well as those who come there for help are required to do masses of paper work, the purpose of which seems to be to keep women from helping and receiving help. In some areas, when women are in crisis and call a shelter, before their feelings and needs can even be addressed they must be asked a dozen questions and informed at length about the conditions under which the shelter will accept them (they can have no weapons, for instance). Many women simply hang up in total frustration and anger. In other instances, funders won’t allow discussions of racism or homophobia or of battering among Lesbians. They also often control who is hired. Funders regularly split women’s organizations apart by clouding the issues of who is going to define the group, what their work is, what their analysis is, and even what the issue is.

In addition, nearly every funder’s prerequisites are designed to keep women powerless, thinking and behaving as victims. One state, for example, requires shelters to use only professional counselors, specifically prohibiting peer counseling. Peer counseling, I am told by women with much experience, is the only counseling that has yet been seen to have any significant effect upon battered women.

Because of the scope and depth of the subversion of our purposes by funders, local and national, many shelter workers agree with Suzanne Pharr who concluded her brave speech at the 1987 National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in Los Angeles with these words: From my experience, my strongest urge is to say, DO ANYTHING–BEG, BORROW, STEAL–BUT DON’T TAKE GOVERNMENT FUNDING!

–Sonia Johnson (1989). Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution. Albuquerque: Wildfire Books. 19–31.

See also:

Roe v. Wade Day #36

Blog for Choice Day * January 22, 2009

The most important thing feminists have done and have to keep doing is to insist that the basic reason for repealing the laws and making abortions available is justice: women’s right to abortion.

… There are many reasons why a woman might seek a late abortion, and she should be able to find one legally if she wants it. She may suddenly discover that she had German measles in early pregnancy and that her fetus is deformed; she may have had a sudden mental breakdown; or some calamity may have changed the circumstances of her life: whatever her reasons, she belongs to herself and not to the state.

— Lucinda Cisler (1969): Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women

To-day is the 36th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade on 22 January 1973 — the day when abortion laws were repealed in every state of the United States, and the United States judiciary finally took formal notice, even if in a limited and limiting sort of way, of every woman’s fundamental human right to decide what to do with the walls of her own damn uterus. To-day marks the end of the hundred years’ war that American state governments waged for forced pregnancy, and the recognition that every woman’s reproductive organs are her own, and that she has every right, if she sees fit, to give what she will of herself, or to refuse the use of her body to Man, Fetus, and State alike.

There’s a lot not to like about the specifics of the reasoning in Roe, and it’s often frustrating that Roe is the ruling that we’ve got to celebrate, or at least defend. But if nothing else, it is worth taking a day to celebrate the pro-choice feminist movement that made Roe inevitable, and the remarkable struggle, over the course of just 4 years (from February 1969 to January 1973), pushed forward by an abolitionist movement which exploded seemingly out of nowhere, drew in and radicalized millions of women to fight for their own freedom, challenged a century and more of anti-abortion laws, defied and ridiculed all the grey eminences of Church and State, and then, amazingly, won victory after victory, with Roe as the final capstone.

The movement was new; it was led, and fought for by women; in particular, it was organized, led, and fought for by radical feminists. There had been a small, barely effectual abortion law reform movement for years before 1969, mostly led by men (mostly doctors), which argued for small reforms to existing laws (exceptions of the rape / incest / health-of-the-mother variety), and based its arguments mostly on pity for the suffering of victimized women, or else on unrelated policy outcomes, like social uplift or population control. They had made no progress to speak of after decades of activism; draconian abortion laws still stood in every state in the U.S., as they had for about a century.

But then, in February and March of 1969, while the reformists hemmed and hawed and accomplished nothing, and while liberal feminist groups like NOW mostly avoided such a divisive issue, a loose-knit group of radical Women’s Liberationists — women like Kathie Sarachild, Carol Hanisch, Susan Brownmiller, and Flo Kennedy — organized and led a series of unprecedented speak-outs and organizing efforts, concentrated in New York City and Chicago, which marked the definite beginning of a new movement, calling for the immediate and complete repeal of all abortion laws. And, just as importantly, they recognized and insisted that abortion is not just a medical issue (although it is that), or sexual privacy (although it is that, too) or an issue of the socio-economic uplift of the female sex. It is, they insisted, an issue of choice, and of freedom from the State’s invasive violence. The point is not to wring our hands and try to do right by the poor dears; the point is that each and every woman has an unconditional right to individually decide how her own body will or will not be used.

The sparks lit a fire. The fire spread. Thousands of women from across the country, many of whom had never been involved in political activism, threw themselves in with a loose-knit coalition of WL activists and radicalized women. The new pro-choice movement quickly shoved aside the male experts, both reactionary and reformist, who had dominated the discourse for decades beforehand. They insisted on their right to be heard; they insisted on their right to control their own bodies; and they argued that, because abortion is a human right, the government’s prohibition of abortion, and the back-alley butchery that went on underground because of it, was nothing more and nothing less than State violence against women. They made the urgency and the justice of the movement palpable by abandoning apologetic reformist, and by using consciousness-raising, speeches, demonstrations, and — especially — speak-outs, direct action, and public confrontations with the men who claimed power over them.

February 1969 was an important month in the abortion struggle. Larry Lader, a biographer of Margaret Sanger, summoned a handful of professionals in law and medicine to the Drake Hotel in Chicago for the organizing conference of NARAL, the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. (NARAL became the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1974.) The conferees targeted specific states where they believed the repressive codes could be knocked down. New York, with its liberal constituency, was a top priority. Bills ranging from modest reforms (in cases of rape and incest) to outright repeal of all criminal penalties were already in the legislative hopper.

Betty Friedan, one of the main speakers at the Chicago NARAL meeting, reflected the changing political climate. At NOW’s founding convention in 1966, she had bowed to a clique that insisted that abortion rights were too divisive, too sexual, and too controversial for the fledgling organization, but since then a groundswell of younger members had stiffened her spine. NOW was being inundated by kids, one member observed. The kids from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere pushed through an abortion plank at NOW’s 1967 convention.

And the kids were forging ahead with their own tactics. On the same wintry day in mid-February when NARAL’s founders were traveling to Chicago for their first conference six state legislators held a public hearing in Manhattan on some proposed liberalizing amendments to the New York law. Typical of the times, the six legislators were men, and the spekaers invited to present expert testimony were fourteen men and a Catholic nun.

On the morning of the February 13 hearing, a dozen infiltrators camouflaged in dresses and stockings entered the hearing room and spaced themselves around the chamber. Some called themselves Redstockings, and some, like Joyce Ravitz, were free-floating radicals who were practiced hands at political disruptions. Ravitz, in fact, had been on her way to another demonstration when she’d run into the Redstockings women, who convinced her to join them.

As a retired judge opined that abortion might be countenanced as a remedy after a woman had fulfilled her biological service to the community by bearing four children, Kathie Amatniek leaped to her feet and shouted, Let’s hear from the real experts–women! Taking her cue, Joyce Ravitz began to declaim an impassioned oration. Ellen Willis jumped in. More women rose to their feet.

Men don’t get pregnant, men don’t bear children. Men just make laws, a demonstrator bellowed.

Why are you refusing to admit we exist? cried another.

Girls, girls, you’ve made your point. Sit down. I’m on your side, a legislator urged, raising the temperature a notch higher.

Don’t call us girls, came the unified response. We are women!

The hearing dissolved in confusion. When the chairman attempted to reconvene it behind closed doors, the women sat down in the corridor, refusing to budge.

Stories appeared the next day in the Times (Women Break Up Abortion Hearing), the New York Post (Abortion Law Protesters Disrupt Panel), and the Daily News. Ellen Willis slipped out of her activist guise to do a report for Talk of the Town in The New Yorker. Nanette Rainone filed for WBAI radio and the Pacfica network. Barely a month old, Redstockings, with an assist from the radical floaters, had successfully dramatized the need for woman as expert in the abortion debate.

Five weeks later, on March 21, 1969, Redstockings staged a public speak-out, Abortion: Tell It Like It Is, at the Washington Square Methodist Church, a hub of antiwar activism in Greenwich Village. For some Women’s Liberation founders, the speak-out was the movement’s finest hour. Astounding, is the way Irene Peslikis puts it. It showed the power of consciousness-raising, how theory comes from deep inside a person’s life, and how it leads directly to action.

Peslikis had organized the panel and coached the women who were willing to speak. The idea, she says, was to get examples of different kinds of experiences–women who’d had the babies that were taken away, women who went to the hospital for a therapeutic abortion, women who’d gone the illegal route, the different kinds of illegal routes.

Three hundred women and a few men filled the church that evening as Helen Kritzler, Barbara Kaminsky, Rosalyn Baxandall, Anne Forer, and a few other brave souls passed a small microphone back and forth. Baxandall broke the ice with a touch of humor. I thought I was sophisticated, she joked into the mike. My boyfriend told me if he came a second time, the sperm would wash away, and I believed him.

Another woman recounted, So there I was in West New York, New Jersey, and the doctor had these crucifixes and holy pictures on the wall, and all he wanted was nine hundred dollars. I took out a vacation loan and I’m still paying it off.

Judy Gabree hurtled forward. I went to eleven hospitals searching for a therapeutic abortion. At the tenth, they offered me a deal. They’d do it if I agreed to get sterilized. I was twenty years old. I had to pretend I was crazy and suicidal, but having the abortion was the sanest thing I’d done.

More women added their personal testimony. I was one of those who kept quiet. Irene Peslikis had asked me to be one of the speakers, but I chose an easier path and played Village Voice reporter. My front-page story, Everywoman’s Abortions: The Oppressor Is Man, was the only substantive coverage the landmark speak-out received. Some retyped it in Chicago for the newsletter, which carried the news to activists around the country.

Another journalist, in aviator glasses and a miniskirt, was taking notes in the church that evening. She hovered near Jane Everhart, a NOW member, and whispered What’s going on?

Everhart whispered back, Sit down and listen!

Gloria Steinem was a friend of Women’s Liberation in 1969, but she had not yet thrown in her lot with the movement. Her plate was already overflowing with causes. Gloria spoke out against the war in Vietnam on late-night talk shows, raised money for liberal Democrats and Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers, and wrote earnest pieces on all of her issues for the popular magazines. Genetically endowed with the rangy limbs and sculpted features of a fashion model, Steinem glided through the rarefied world of radical chic expertly building her political connections. Beneath the exterior of the celebrity journalist was a woman who yearned to save the world.

Steinem received a shock of recognition when a Redstocking quipped, I bet every woman here has had an abortion. Hers had been done by a Harley Street practitioner in London during the late fifties after she’d graduated from Smith. Later she would say that the speak-out was her feminist revelation, the moment that redirected her public path. That night, however, she was working on a tight deadline. She threw together a hasty paragraph for the political diary she wrote for New York magazine. Nobody wants to reform the abortion laws, she explained in print. They want to repeal them. Completely.

The Redstockings abortion speak-out was an emblematic event for Women’s Liberation. Speak-outs based on the New York women’s model were organized in other cities within the year, and subsequent campaigns to change public opinion in the following decade would utilize first-person testimony in a full range of issues from rape and battery to child abuse and sexual harassment. The importance of personal testimony in a public setting, which overthrew the received wisdom of the experts, cannot be overestimated. It was an original technique and a powerful ideological tool. Ultimately, of course, first-person discourse on a dizzying variety of intimate subjects would become a gimmicky staple of the afternoon television talk shows, where the confessional style was utilized for its voyeuristic shock value. Back then, personal testimony was a political act of great courage.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 106–109

By 1969, thousands of women in Chicago could find safe, affordable abortions through Jane, an underground, woman-run abortion service organized by members of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. In 1971, the movement won its first major aboveground political victory, with the repeal of state abortion laws in New York. And then, only two years later, they won the nation-wide repeal in January 1973. That’s something to remember, and to celebrate.

To-day, as part of Blog for Choice Day, NARAL would like bloggers to write about your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress. But, as much as I might like for the now-ruling Democrats to roll back the past 8 years of new restrictions on abortion rights, I think the most important lesson to remember on this day is not to put your hope in the politicians and their power-plays. As noxious as Bush Jr.’s regime may have been, we can’t afford to forget that it was not George W. Bush, but pro-choice Bill Clinton who spent eight years presiding over the most intense and coordinated legal assaults on abortion rights in the post-Roe era — the emergence and proliferation of TRAP laws and procedure bans from 1992 to 2000. Politicians make political decisions, and even the most principled are subject to political forces beyond their personal control, and when we put our hope for social change in their hands, whatever convictions they confess and whatever parties they swear to, they will throw it away as soon as it suits them, again, and again, and again.

If not politicians, then who should we put our hopes in? But the answer should be obvious: we must put our hope in ourselves, in our own power, and our foremothers’ power, and our sisters’ and brothers’ power, to come together and change the world.

Like all anniversaries, this is a good day for remembering, and for honoring. One of the things I think it is most important to remember on this day, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the way in which the occasion is attached to a legal ruling handed down by nine men in black robes, is a matter of strategy. It is all too easy to make the latest political cockfight out as the be-all and end-all of pro-choice activism; to realize, correctly, that the legal position of abortion rights is really precarious and to leap, incorrectly, to the conclusion that if Roe falls, that will be the end of it. No it won’t. The pro-life State had its guns trained on us before, and we beat it. If it turns its guns on us again, that will be terrible, but we will beat it again nevertheless. Perhaps by once again forcing the hand of state legislators or the courts. Or perhaps not. There are other ways to get it done. Here is how a group of women in Chicago took matters into their own hands, years before Roe, without the blessing of the male experts and in defiance of the man-made Law, in order to make justice for their sisters a reality.

Radical women in Chicago poured their energy into Jane, an abortion referral service initiated by Heather Booth, who had been a one-woman grapevine for her college classmates. In 1971, after Booth’s departure, some of the women took matters into their own hands and secretly began to perform the abortions themselves. Safe, compassionate terminations for a modest fee became their high calling–a model, as they saw it, for women’s empowerment after the revolution.

Leaflets appeared in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the University of Chicago bearing a simple message: Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane at 643-3844. The number rang at the home of one of the activists who volunteered to be Jane. As word spread and the volume of calls increased, the service acquired its own phone line and an answering machine, a cumbersome reel-to-reel device that was one of the first on the market. Volunteers, known inside the service as call-back Janes, visited the abortion seekers to elicit crucial medical details (most important was lmp, the number of weeks since the last menstrual period), then another level of volunteers scheduled an appointment with one of the abortionists on the group’s list.

At first the service relied on Mike in Cicero, who was fast, efficient, and willing to lower his price to five hundred dollars as the volume increased. Mike gradually let down his guard with Jody Parsons, his principal Jane contact, an artisan who sold her beaded jewelry and ceramics at street fairs and was a survivor of Hodgkin’s disease. The clandestine abortionist and the hippy artisan struck up a bond. When Mike confessed that he was not in fact a real doctor but merely a trained technician, she cajoled him into teaching her his skills. Jody’s rapid success in learning to maneuver the dilating clamps, curettes, and forceps demystified the forbidden procedures for another half dozen women in Jane. If he can do it, then we can do it became their motto.

Madeline Schwenk, a banker’s daughter who had married at twenty, six months pregnant with no clue whatsoever about how to get an abortion, moved from counseling to vacuum aspiration after Harvey Karman, the controversial director of a California clinic, came to Chicago to demonstrate his technique. Madeline was one of the few women in Jane who was active in NOW, and who stayed affiliated with the Chicago chapter during the year she wielded her cannula and curette for the service. I’d get up in the morning, make breakfast for my three kids, go off to do the abortions, then go home to make dinner, she reminisces. Pretty ourageous behavior when you think about it. But exciting.

Jane’s abortion practitioners and their assistants were able to handle a total of thirty cases a day at affordable fees–under one hundred dollars. A doctor and a pharmacist among the women’s contacts kept them supplied with antibiotics.

Fear of police surveillance in radical circles had its match among clandestine abortionists who relied on a complicated rigamarole of blindfolds and middlemen. Jane straddled both worlds. Abortion seekers gathered every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at a front apartment, usually the home of a Jane member or friend, and were escorted by Jane drivers to the Place, a rented apartment where the abortions were performed. The fronts and the Place changed on a regular basis. New volunteers, brought into the group by counselors and drivers, went through a probation period before they were told that women in Jane were doing the abortions. The news did not sit well with everyone. Turnover was high, from fear and from burnout, although the service usually maintained its regular complement of thirty members.

Jane lost most of its middle-class clientele after the New York law [repealing the state’s abortion ban] went into effect. Increasingly it began to service South Side women, poor and black, who did not have the money to travel out of state, and whose health problems, from high blood pressure to obesity, were daunting. Pressure on the providers intensified. Audaciously they added second-trimester abortionsby induced miscarriage to their skills.

On May 3, 1972, near the conclusion of a busy work day in an eleventh-floor apartment on South Shore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan, Jane got busted. Seven women, including Madeline Schwenk, were arrested and bailed out the following day. The Chicago Daily News blared Women Seized in Cut-Rate Clinic in a front-page banner. The Tribune buried Lib Groups Linked to Abortions on an inside page. Six weeks later the service was back in buinsess. Wisely, the women facing criminal charges selected a defense attorney who was clued in to and optimistic about the national picture. She advised them to hang tight–some interesting developments were taking place in Washington that could help their case. (After the January 1973 Roe decision, all outstanding charges against the seven were dropped.)

The activists of Jane believe they performed more than ten thousand abortions. It’s a ballpark figure based on the number of procedures they remember doing in a given week. For security reasons they did not keep records.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 123–125

The repeal of the abortion laws in the United States wasn’t a gift handed down out of benevolence by a gang of old men in robes. It was struggled for, and won, by women in our own times. It didn’t take ballot boxes; it didn’t take political parties; it didn’t take clever legal briefs. It took radical women who stood up for themselves, who challenged the authority of self-appointed male experts and law-makers, who spoke truth to power, who took things into their own hands and helped their sisters, in defiance of the law, because they knew that they had a right to do it, and to hell with any law and any government that said otherwise. Radical feminists who built a movement for their own freedom over a matter of months and decisively changed the world in less than five years. It’s not just that we owe the Redstockings, Cindy Cisler, Heather Booth, Jody Parsons, Madeline Schwenk, and so many others our praise. They do deserve our cheers, but they also deserve our study and our emulation. They did amazing things, and we — feminists, leftists, anti-statists — owe it not only to them, but to ourselves, to honor them by trying to learn from their example.

Further reading:

State ownership of the means of reproduction. (#2)

(Via Miriam @ feministing 2008-06-18, via Feminist in Pink 2008-06-22.)

Here is the latest proposal from the American Medical Association, to have the government insist that every birth is properly institutionalized, so that they can make sure every birth leads to a fat and healthy hospital bill, with a proper Birth Guild-certified Expert looking over every midwife’s shoulder and between every expectant mother’s legs. And if the expectant mother doesn’t want that kind of a birth, well, she’d better learn to want it–or else.

  • Whereas, Twenty-one states currently license midwives to attend home births, all using the certified professional midwife (CPM) credential (CPM or lay midwives), not the certified midwives (CM) credential which both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) recognize; and

  • Whereas, There has been much attention in the media by celebrities having home deliveries, with recent Today Show headings such as Ricki Lake takes on baby birthing industry: Actress and former talk show host shares her at-home delivery in new film; and

  • Whereas, An apparently uncomplicated pregnancy or delivery can quickly become very complicated in the setting of maternal hemorrhage, shoulder dystocia, eclampsia or other obstetric emergencies, necessitating the need for rigorous standards, appropriate oversight of obstetric providers, and the availability of emergency care, for the health of both the mother and the baby during a delivery; therefore be it

  • RESOLVED, That our American Medical Association support the recent American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) statement that the safest setting for labor, delivery, and the immediate post-partum period is in the hospital, or a birthing center within a hospital complex, that meets standards jointly outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and ACOG, or in a freestanding birthing center that meets the standards of the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care, The Joint Commission, or the American Association of Birth Centers (New HOD Policy); and be it further

  • RESOLVED, That our AMA develop model legislation in support of the concept that the safest setting for labor, delivery, and the immediate post-partum period is in the hospital, or a birthing center within a hospital complex, … (Directive to Take Action)

— American Medical Association, Resolution 205: Home Deliveries

Note especially the second Whereas; the AMA has, more or less explicitly, called for government force against home-birthing mothers because recent cultural trends suggest that women might be persuaded to choose otherwise if allowed to choose freely. The birth freedom group The Big Push for Midwives has this to say:

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 16, 2008) — Just in time for Father’s Day, at its annual meeting last weekend, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a resolution to introduce legislation outlawing home birth, and potentially making criminals of the mothers who choose home birth with the help of Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) for their families.

It’s unclear what penalties the AMA will seek to impose on women who choose to give birth at home, either for religious, cultural or financial reasons—or just because they didn’t make it to the hospital in time, said Susan Jenkins, Legal Counsel for The Big Push for Midwives 2008 campaign. What we do know, however, is that any state that enacts such a law will immediately find itself in court, since a law dictating where a woman must give birth would be a clear violation of fundamental rights to privacy and other freedoms currently protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Until the AMA proposed Resolution 205 on Home Deliveries, no state had considered legislation forcing women to deliver their babies in the hospital or limiting the choice of birth setting. Instead, states have regulated the types of midwives that may legally provide care. Currently, 22 states already license and regulate CPMs, who specialize in out-of-hospital maternity care and have received extensive training to qualify as experts in the types of risk assessment and preventive care necessary for safe and high-quality care for women who choose give birth at home. Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs), who are trained primarily as hospital-based providers, are licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The resolution did not offer any science-based information for the AMA’s anti-midwife or anti-home birth position.

Maternity care is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, said Steff Hedenkamp, Communications Coordinator for The Big Push for Midwives. So it’s no surprise to see the AMA join the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in its ongoing fight to corner the market and ensure that the only midwives able to practice legally are hospital-based midwives forced to practice under physician control. I will say, though, that I’m shocked to learn that the AMA is taking this turf battle to the next level by setting the stage for outlawing home birth itself—a direct attack on those families who choose home birth, who could be subject to criminal prosecution if the AMA has its way.

— Press release, The Big Push for Midwives (2008-06-16): Father Knows Best Meets Big Brother Is Watching: Physician Group Seeks to Outlaw Home Birth—Is Jail for Moms Next?

For what it’s worth, I suppose it’s true that if the emanations and penumbras of the Bill of Rights provide for a right of privacy from government interference in adult women’s decisions to use contraception or abort a first-trimester pregnancy, they probably also provide for a right of privacy from government interference in where a woman chooses to give birth. And if a state should pass any of the AMA’s contemptible model legislation and somebody takes up the issue in federal court, I hope that they’ll win.

But setting aside the politico-legal maneuvering for the moment, should anyone really even care what the Constitution says about it? If the Constitution does authorize this kind of tyrannical state intervention in women’s reproductive choices, then to hell with the Constitution. The important argument here is the moral one, about what simple justice demands. And taken from the standpoint of simple justice for women, it is absurd that I should even have to sit here and type out, in so many words, that a birth experience rightly belongs to the woman who labors on it–not to the AMA, not to a hospital, and not to the State.

Of course it does. Christ. To hell with any know-it-all blowhard busybody, with any association of know-it-all blowhard busybodies, or with any document that says otherwise.

See also:

Abortion on demand and without apology (Kiwi edition)

(Via The Hand Mirror 2008-06-11, via The Hand Mirror 2008-06-17, via comments on feministe 2008-06-16.)

New Zealand’s abortion law, unlike, for example, the United States’s existing case law, does not recognize a basic privacy right to abort a pregnancy without government interference. The law is restrictive in theory, but applied fairly liberally in practice; like many abortion law reform proposals that were entertained in the United States in the years shortly before Roe v. Wade, it requires a woman to get permission from institutionally-privileged consultants before she can get an abortion, but the criteria for permitting a therapeutic abortion are broad enough (especially under the heading of the pregnant woman’s mental health) that they can be, and are, handed out pretty liberally. But as Cindy Cisler pointed out in 1969, no matter how superficially liberal an abortion law regime may be, these kind of requirements for mediating reproductive choice through politically-anointed medical experts are really a dangerous trap, just waiting to be sprung. Thus, witness Justice Forrest Miller’s recent ruling on the workings of the Kiwi Abortion Supervisory Committee:

In a review of the workings of the Abortion Supervisory Committee, initiated by Right To Life New Zealand, Justice Forrest Miller said there was a reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions.

Jusice Miller was delivering his judgment following a hearing at the High Court at Wellington in April.

Right to Life had claimed the Abortion Supervisory Committee had failed to properly interpret the Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act, so full regard is given to the rights of unborn children.

It sought to find the committee had failed its statutory duty to review the procedure for abortions and enquire into the circumstances in which consultants authorised abortions on mental health grounds.

It said the committee had failed to seek proper information on the mental health grounds from consultants.

It also sought to find the committee had failed in its duty to ensure adequate counselling facilities were available.

A registered practitioner can only lawfully carry out an abortion if they act under a certificate issued by two certifying consultants.

The Abortion Supervisory Committee said it had no power to review or oversee the clinical decision-making process.

It denied New Zealand had abortion on request, and said there was no evidence of this.

In his judgment Justice Miller found the Abortion Supervisory Committee had applied the abortion law more liberally than Parliament had intended.

There is reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions authorised by certifying consultants, he said.

Justice Miller said the abortion law neither confers or recognises a legal right to life of the unborn child.

However, he said the Bill of Rights, through the abortion law, had recognised the unborn child had a claim on the conscience of the community, and not merely that of the mother.

— stuff.co.nz (2008-06-10): Abortion law being used too liberally

Give me a call when the fetus has a claim on the bodies of the community, and not merely that of the mother.

Then maybe they can have something to say about it. In the meantime, though, as long as it’s just weighing on their consciences and not on their abdomens, it really is merely the mother, not the rest of the community, whose conscientious deliberation ought to matter when it comes to continuing the pregnancy. Of course, the bellowing busybody blowhard brigade has every right to be just as loudmouthed as they want to be, on their own time, in their own space, and on their own nickel, about what their consciences tell them ought to happen in other people’s wombs. But certainly neither they, nor the government, has any right to commandeer another woman’s reproductive system against her will, or to coerce her into even one more day of pregnancy or forced labor for the sake of satisfying their own qualms.

Abortion on demand and without apology.

See also:

Who usurps the usurpers?

I celebrated Roe v. Wade Day today by recalling the radical, anti-statist heritage of the pro-choice feminist movement. Lew Rockwell, on the other hand, celebrated it by reporting an anti-choice campaign endorsement for Chairman Ron’s Great Libertarian Electoral Revolution:

Today – the 35th anniversary of the Supremes’ Roe v. Wade usurpation – Norma McCorvey (Roe) has endorsed Ron Paul for president.

In passing, Rockwell describes the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade as a usurpation. But a usurpation against whom?

The only thing that Roe does, legally speaking, is restrain the action of state governments, by forbidding them from passing certain kinds of abortion laws, on the claim that any such law conflicts with the requirements imposed on the several states by the United States Constitution. But depriving someone of a legal power can only count as usurpation if the person or people you’re depriving had some kind of legitimate authority for you to usurp. And since when do anti-war, anti-state pro-secession anarchists believe that state governments have any kind of legitimate authority at all?

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