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... And watch the right run

By Nancy Goldstein | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

What would it look like to really turn the abortion debate on its head?

What would it mean to ask “pro-life” and “fetal rights” activists why their alleged concern for the health and well-being of women and children ends at the clinic door? To ask legislators why their focus on women’s health care rarely goes beyond restricting access to abortion services?


The right’s gift for nomenclature as policy (as with “pro-life,” doesn’t calling it a “war on terror” make it so?) has paid off generously from a public relations standpoint, and has been hard to challenge.

This past September, however, Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), had the guts to pose hard questions and clear challenges to the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion (SDTFSA) when she gave testimony before them. In doing so, she silenced the room — and laid out a way to put the right on the run.

Paltrow’s presentation offers a glimpse of a reframed abortion debate in the US — a debate that can be turned into a larger, broader, and farther-reaching discussion about how best to recognize, respect, and meet the needs of all pregnant and parenting women and their families.

The SDTFSA hearings were the doing of anti-choice activists who had convinced the South Dakota legislature to consider the question of whether or not abortion in America today is voluntary and informed. But the activists had not counted on Paltrow, whose numerous commentaries and articles have appeared in medical journals and the popular press, and who is a frequent lecturer to medical and public health organizations and health care providers. Her fans include Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who referred to Paltrow as “brilliant” in a piece earlier this year.

“Of course, abortion is both [voluntary and informed],” Paltrow said firmly. “But by asking such questions, anti-choice proponents create doubt and put pro-choice supporters on the defensive.” She explained that anti-choice activists often use state legislatures as a laboratory for new restrictions on abortion: "The new restrictions — whether on ‘partial birth abortion’ or ‘fetal pain’— also provide vehicles for inflaming and organizing opposition to abortion and support for broader economic and political agendas.”

Paltrow was a South Dakota anti-choice activist’s nightmare — a polished expert witness who has worked on many cases involving women who wanted to continue their pregnancies to term, but were denied the freedom to decide how by “pro-life” policies. So she had quite a bit to say on the topic of what is and is not a voluntary or informed medical procedure.

From these cases, Paltrow offered a grim assessment of the harm that “pro-life” legislation has done in the name of “protecting” the “unborn.” She outlined three actual cases in which hospitals successfully advocated for a cesarean section over the objections of pregnant women and their families by using the anti-abortion argument that fetuses are separate legal persons with independent rights.

The first case ends tragically, with the death of the mother and the fetus; in the second, the forced surgery turns out not to have been necessary; and the couple in the third scenario — devout Christians who are expecting their seventh child — leave the hospital that is trying to force a cesarean section on the mother and successfully have their baby elsewhere, through vaginal delivery.

Having eviscerated the argument that “pro-life” policies support the health, well-being, and autonomy of women who want to carry their pregnancies to term, Paltrow turns to the larger task of outlining genuine protections and supports for pregnant and parenting women.

But there’s just one small problem: the South Dakota legislature, despite its alleged interest in the health and welfare of women and their children, has never convened a task force to explore any of the issues she raises, let alone approved any of the measures she suggests.

This, of course, is Paltrow’s point.

“The leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths in American today is murder,” Paltrow coolly informs the SDTFSA. Perhaps “a Task Force to examine why men commit violence against women…would reflect true valuing of mothers, pregnant women and their families, and life itself.” How about “legislation that might protect the 10 to 20 million women, including those who work part-time or for small companies, who are not protected from discrimination based on pregnancy, but must work in order to feed and house their children”? Or legislation that would “grant new mothers or fathers paid parental leave”?

What might the world look like if our elected officials and “pro-life” activists devoted the time, energy, and funding they currently spend on restricting abortion to helping women to care for their families? Or to ensuring that pregnant women live in a country where they need not worry that their children will survive infancy or go without health care, food, shelter, a good education, and a safe and healthy environment?

If only that were really their agenda.

Nancy Goldstein’s next column will appear on Thursday, December 22nd. She can be reached at [email protected].


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