Abor- wait, I can’t say that anymore?

Feministing has an article about google dropping ads for abortion services in some countries. While I’ve said many times I’d like to see less abortions, somehow I think this is more of an attempt to silence discussion of reproductive rights for women. Given some of the other ethically controversial stuff served by AdWords, I can’t really see them justifying this move. Google’s being mum about why it’s done this, so let the speculations begin. =/

Speech is action

I’m torn between being sad1 and angry1 about the news I’ve been catching up on since yesterday.

In case anyone thought we needed reminding, the death of one George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions in cases of clear need, will serve as a tragic marker for the connection between speech and action.

Scott Roeder, the lead suspect, was a fringe follower with links deep into self-described “pro-life” groups. Roeder was present for the acquittal when Tiller was accused of violating state abortion laws. (Tiller was harassed with lawsuits by pro-life groups) He followed websites that tracked Dr. Tiller, listed his home address, place of work, church address, businesses he frequented, and more. He, like many of his friends at his pro-life website, even compared Dr. Tiller to Mengele.

Combine this stalking behaviour with speech from all sorts of prominent anti-abortion campaigners comparing doctors performing abortions not only to murderers, but also to famous genocides, and the outcry from some groups that they don’t condone violence rings hollow- not necessarily because they do condone violence, but because their “strong peaceful protest” has likely enabled not just this killing, but also previous attempts (both successful and not) on the lives of doctors around the U.S.A., and even previous attempts on the life of Doctor Tiller.

Now we see the sad justification for the U.S. government watching for terror threats from extreme right-wing groups. If pro-choice groups attempted to capture and/or enslave men, or rape women with the aim to forcibly impregnate them, we’d be entering the same realm as we have now for conservative anti-abortion groups in the U.S.A. Here’s what the founder of the site Roeder followed had to say on this incident:

George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name: murder.

Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.

If yelling “fire” in a crowded room is incitement to disturbing the peace, what is yelling “genocide!” to an inflamed mob? I wish he had more to be worried about than just his crocodile tears over not being able to use “effective2 rhetoric” against abortion.

Comments like this go beyond the point where anyone can be expected to agree to disagree, as much as I am a fan of that policy. This is advocating domestic terrorism and political violence, and is never appropriate. In an ideal world these groups that advocate extreme violence would be treated like the terrorists they are wherever on the political spectrum they fell, but the political double-standard for American conservatives is apparently still in full force.

Still, at least I can credit the social conservatives in our own fair country with not being murdering crazies3.

1 Read: “crying” and “cursing”. ๐Ÿ˜‰
2 I.e.: dangerous and irresponsible.
3Except of course the “Sensible Sentencing Trust”, who think it is appropriate to murder taggers. Damn. Guess that bit of patriotism backfired ๐Ÿ˜›

Third Trimester (aka. really controversial) Abortions

Bitch Ph.D.’s (another excellent Shakesville contributor) blog has some statistics about Third Trimester Abortions in the USA- basically that they’re extremely rare.

Interestingly, the Abortion debate in the USA has taken a turn to mimic our own scuffle recently, with Barack Obama claiming he doesn’t think mental distress is a valid reason to allow abortions in the third trimester.

This comment is generally a sexist anti-abortion dogwhistle- it implies that because apparently because it can be faked, real, genuine mental illness doesn’t exist among women wanting third trimester abortions, especially in stressful events like an unwanted pregnancy. While perhaps that is justification to actually, I don’t know, look for symptoms of mental illness first, I don’t think it’s justification for ruling out mental health as a reason for a third-trimester abortion. We don’t have the right to force the mother to accept the mental health consequences of carrying the baby to term, or giving it up for adoption.

She also links to a pro-life doctor citing some really persuasive reasons for allowing third trimester abortions, including explaining that “pediatric reasons” don’t always just apply to the fetus. Worth checking out.

A classic link

I’m probably not going to finish a post today, (Spent too much time on three different ones and got caught commenting elsewhere) but to tide you over to the weekend, take a read of this classic link to stories of pro-life or anti-abortion women… getting abortions, and the heartwarming (well, at least to me) tales of how pro-choice doctors, nurses, and other staff dealt with them professionally and empathically.

Addressing Family First

Whoops! Apparently I saved this when I meant to publish it, and was thinking all night I had left you with something to read. Apologies if anyone missed it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Firstly, a little background. Family First is a well-funded lobby group that is not declaring itself political for EFA purposes this election, and is focusing on issues-based campaigns. It takes a traditionalist judeo-christian outlook on family life and lobbies for legal concerns to do with that. The two recent examples have been its campaign opposing Green MP Sue Bradford’s member’s bill to repeal §59 of the Crimes Act, which had been used to successfully defend extraordinary cases of child abuse involving beating kids with hose piping.

Family First has stepped into the new abortion debate as well, with a press release criticising the Abortion Supervisory Committee. We should note that until this week’s ruling by Justice Miller, the Committee had every reason to believe it did not have the authority to act on these subtle breaches of the word of the law.

As a result, approximately 18,000 abortions are performed every year

First, a word of clarification- medically speaking, “abortion” refers to any fetus delivered while not viable, regardless of whether it is deliberately done so or not, which can be confusing as the term used casually is actually a lot more specific. In looking for statistics of what we mean when we usually debate abortion, we want to look for induced abortions, which refer to abortions that have been deliberately performed with the consent of the mother, and not through injury, sickness, or just natural miscarriage.

In 2006 we were just about a hundred short of the 18 thousand mark mentioned, according to Statistics NZ, and this was the figure for induced abortions, and I’ll freely concede that it’s likely we’ve passed that amount by a little in 2008. I’m happy to be able to congratulate Family First on using the appropriate figure, and hopefully anyone else joining the debate will show the appropriate level of care on this, too.

and since 1991, the number of 11-14 year olds having an abortion has increased by 144%

Their statistics detailing percentage increases are also mathematically correct, although spun for impact. If I were to tell you that 52 more girls aged 11-14 had abortions in 2006 compared to 1991, you’d react with slightly less alarm. Overall, only .09% of 11-14 year-old girls have an induced abortion. (That’s about a .03% rise since 1991) That’s nine in every ten thousand girls. In a culture where many girls that age are increasingly sexualised by media and society, don’t know or may not care about sexual education1, birth control, sexual consent, or sexual independence, and certainly have not had enough time to really absorb the lessons that may have come their way already, that is still remarkably low, even though it has increased significantly.

That’s even ignoring the fact that most women getting abortions are in their mid-twenties. Family first is ignoring the forest for the trees quite deliberately.

โ€œAbortions being performed at greater than 12 weeks has increased by 220%, despite all the pictures and scans we are seeing showing the fetal development of the unborn child,โ€ says Mr McCoskrie. โ€œThese images are obviously being kept hidden from some of the women seeking an abortion.โ€

Yes, “obviously” the best conclusion is that the ultrasounds are being kept from women in some sort of conspiracy, because all women apparently want ultrasounds, and apparently any woman that can recognise a fetus will be compelled by motherly love to carry it to term. The attempts at emotional manipulation here are shockingly transparent. When you make conclusions from statistics, you need sound and direct evidence, even for a theory. This isn’t even a theory- this is pure speculation. We can only hope that paragon of journalism, the Herald, doesn’t pick this line up, too. If you want to prove these images aren’t being shown, you need testimonies from people who have expressed interest in such images but haven’t been allowed to see them.

On that topic… I’m even more amused that it’s a man making this press release. While I accept that men have a place discussing gender issues, especially where it impacts us directly, I accept that women need to be the drivers of issues that primarily effect them, and that it’s their opinions that matter where their bodies and rights are on the line. It took me quite some time to get completely sold on the whole pro-choice thing- partially because abortion is an issue with so many unknown and complicated factors. Given that, I want to hear from women who have had abortions who think our laws and policies need to be enforced more rigidly, and why they think that. How many members or supporters of Family First actually have personal experience in the matter? If you’re going to interfere with that type of policy, it’s generally wise to have people with practical experience in an influential position to look over your ideas. How much impact do women who have had abortions have on Family First’s abortion stance?

โ€œThe high numbers of abortions (despite all the supposed safe sex messages and availability of contraception), and now this ruling, confirms that the Abortion Supervisory Committee continues to fail both women and the unborn child.โ€

Firstly, their figures only confirm that the Committee is failing to prevent unlawful abortion.2 It does not confirm that the abortions that happen are wrong, only that they do not unambiguously meet the word of the law. A law can still be bad, (for instance, this one is very unclear, and talks about “serious” danger to mental or physical health. Try to define “serious” for me unambiguously and without border cases or matters of perspective influencing the decision) and this law is a social law that has not been updated for about thirty years. If we were in a similar situation for gay rights, we’d still be imprisoning people for daring to have sex with people they’re attracted to for another eight years or so. There has essentially been a sort of unspoken cease-fire going on here, in that on the one hand, people advocating choice in these matters largely haven’t spoken out during that time, and on the other hand, people advocating further restriction haven’t tried to influence the legal process.

Apparently our cease-fire is over, especially given that recent comments in the Herald from Right to Life are implying that any reduction in the number of abortions is necessarily a good thing, despite the continually growing population and consumption pressure on the planet, the increased prices of basic goods, and the treatment of women like objects, and the possibility that these women had legitimate mental or physical health reasons to abort is sad. It would be nice if Right to Life would acknowledge that now and then there might be an abortion that’s justified.

As for their insinuation that safe sex and contraception are failing to reduce these figures, perhaps they might then join us advocates of contraception and sexual education in trying to make multiple types of birth control more universally available and adopted, encourage further development of birth control methods, and generally try reducing the factors driving abortion rates in the first place rather than restricting availability? I feel the failure is not contraception itself, but the fact that it’s not being used universally or often enough, and that it’s not being used redundantly. I’ve blogged before that comprehensive sex education, even without easy access to contraceptives, reduces incidence of teenage pregnancy significantly, and actually decreases incidence of teenage sex, too. I would like to know why they seem to think it is a hopeless cause for significantly reducing teen abortion rates.

Family First NZ is calling for a law which requires informed consent (including ultrasound) for all potential abortions

An ultrasound is only required for informed consent in cases where a woman doesn’t actually know or comprehend what a fetus is and that it is reasonably close to a baby in physical form. Educating both women and men on this in the first place would be a better option, and any qualified doctor approached about abortion is going to try to make sure their patient has all the facts. If our goal is to reduce unnecessary abortions, we should not wait until women are pregnant, and we should start by giving her the tools and knowledge she needs to avoid pregnancy in the first place. Even then, many abortions are completely unrelated to development of or attachment to the fetus and have to do with mental health issues, and I think this is much more likely to be driving the figures FF is protesting- mainly, that there are some women who literally would not be able to cope as a parent and see no way out. Supporting these women and giving them options is the answer, not pidgeonholing them with restrictive legislation.

and counselling to be provided only by non-providers of abortion services.

If we are to insist that, we should just generally insist on all abortion counselling being non-partisan. Which is basically mandating good counselling practice in the first place, which is why all counsellors have supervisors. I’d like to see some good evidence this is needed. Family First seem to be strong on emotive statistics at the front of their press releases, but weak on justifications for their extended policies. Show me the bad counselling. Give us testimonies from women who are upset with the fact that they were counselled by someone who provided an abortion service.

Parental notification of teenage pregnancy and abortion should happen automatically except in exceptional circumstances approved by the court.

There are huge issues with this. Firstly, there are teenagers that have trouble telling their parents that they had a party without them knowing. How is a young woman who is panicing about being pregnant and sees abortion as her only way out going to react knowing that she has to tell her parents to go forward? Why is it not parents’ jobs in the first place to encourage this kind of trust themselves? If you want an environment where you can help your daughters through difficult decisions like this, you need to demonstrate to them that you’ll advise them on their decisions, not try to make them by proxy, which is exactly what mandatory notification encourages. I see no effort to cultivate this type of parenting from Family First.

Secondly, what about abuse cases? It’s scary enough coming forward as a young girl or teenage woman as a rape victim, but to have to worry about your parents thinking you’ve consented to unprotected sex? What if it was her father who abused her? This will merely stop teens from getting the help they need to deal with their pregnancies- and sometimes, yes, that is an abortion. Rape and abuse leave a woman or girl under no obligation to continue their pregancy.

Thirdly, exceptions to be approved by the court? That’s even worse than telling their parents. Even if such a process were to work under the condition of anonymity- how many teenagers would really understand that? How many of them would just hear “court” and think they were being judged like criminals? How many would need the assistance of the counsellors Family First seems skeptical of in order to get over that initial reaction? Why should we even put teenaged girls and women through that in the first place?

Fourthly, “teenaged” includes women who are legally sexually independent of their parents. The age of sexual consent in New Zealand is sixteen. Why should parents have a right to interfere in their child’s sexual sovereignty after they are considered legally sexually independent? Unless the meaning of the word “teenage” has suddenly morphed overnight, Family First has three years of independent female sexuality that it is trying to put into the hands of parents, and I think that’s fundamentally wrong from a human rights perspective, regardless of any practical issues it might also bring up. Once a child is recognised as having the ability to manage their own affairs, there is no justification for a parent to be notified about them.

Ironically for an organisation called “Family First”, they don’t seem to grasp the fact that the teenage years are when children need independence from their parents in order to discover and develop themselves. Children aren’t beautiful because they’re untarnished nostalgic innocents, and abortion isn’t some moral crime that sullies them forever. It’s their independence as adults that makes children so beatiful and worthwhile in the first place- the yearning for that independence is the passion and joy that lies underneath every smile, every milestone as they grow up. It’s why they laugh so much when they discover how to walk, it’s why they cry and throw fits when they’re punished, it’s why healthy children celebrate their bodies, and it’s even why teenagers have sex, whether we like it or not.

1That’s even assuming they’ve not had their right to sexual education vetoed by their parents.
2I’ll freely admit that there are likely a significant number of abortions going on that Justice Miller will regard as unlawful, especially as only about 20% of abortions could be accounted for as rape even compensating for notorious under-reporting of rape by assuming every reported crime resulted in an abortion, it seems unlikely that other serious mental and physical health issues could fully account for the other 80%. Of course, I think the wording of our abortion laws restrict abortions that could protect the mother’s health, or be socially beneficial, and they foster an attitude to women and mothers that reduces them to objects, who lose their say in pregnancy once it is started, so maybe that accounts for the fact that I’m willing to be honest with the fact that I’m quite happy for people to flout the word of the law with tacit permission from doctors and counsellors.

Coathanger versus pill (in which we quickly debate the rights of a fetus)

I’ve often been caught saying that there are two types of people- those who believe in false dicotomies, and those that do not. This is how I feel about the debate on abortion, which as the Hand Mirror points out looks very likely to resurface. (original story via the Herald1)

What most anti-abortion campaigners don’t want to know is that legalising abortion is not about allowing women to abort at all. It’s about allowing them to do it safely, with quality-checked drugs, and avoiding desperate measures. Feministe has a great post to catch you up: The Bad Old Days, in which Jill discusses why the framing on the whole abortion debate is being badly skewed in favour of anti-abortion groups.2

Mainly, she argues that we don’t have a choice between no abortions and some abortions. On the one hand, we could choose to have a lot more abortions becoming very unsafe, but there being less abortions. On the other hand, we could choose for there to be slightly more abortions overall, but ensure all of them are very safe. It’s a showdown of the coathanger versus the pill. As I generally assume my visitors to this blog are ignorant of any feminist background I haven’t given them- coathangers are a powerful symbol of do-it-yourself abortions, and I suggest you skip the following sentence if you’re weak of stomach: Coathangers and similar objects are used to reach into the uterus and kill the fetus in a much more gruesome and dangerous way than medical abortion, which generally just delivers the fetus before it’s old enough to survive outside the uterus, and allows it to die naturally in a way not dissimilar to turning off life support for a terminal patient.

I think if we were given a choice between offering a desperate woman who could not cope with having a baby either a coathanger or a pill, we’d choose the pill. That, to my mind, is the best thing about New Zealand’s current abortion laws. They are, of course, still lacking. As Justice Miller rightly points out, more counselling for mothers aborting for mental health issues is a very good idea. (so long as it’s real counselling where her issues are actually explored, rather than just a shallow attempt to get her to deliver the baby at all costs)

Justice Miller argues a very dangerous line- that we should apply the Bill of Rights to fetuses, despite it being completely inappropriate to them. I do agree that morally speaking, the fetus has rights. It may not be a full member of our community, but it is vulnerable and how we treat it defines us. (morally speaking, it’s an object) But what rights does it have, and how do we best legally protect those rights? The fetus is not an independent human being- it’s quite clearly stuck in the womb for quite some time if it is to survive. Its mother is acting as life support- essentially she is giving it first aid automatically. Thus it can’t be said to have any “positive rights” at that stage, where it is guarenteed the ability to act or compel others to act for it. We can only talk of children with the ability to listen and read having a right to education, for instance. The only rights it can have while it is still in the womb are “negative rights”, to non-interference. The fetus, I would say, primarily has a right not to be killed violently- and killing fetuses violently is exactly what limiting the availability of medical abortions will encourage.

It does not have a right to its potential as a person- such arguments lead not just to a banning of all birth control, but to a duty to uplift other species as close to personhood as we possibly can. There’s even an excellent philosophical argument along those lines that talks about what would happen if we invented an injection which could make cats sentient- pro-life people would be stuck injecting cats all day, from the position Family First seems to be taking. The right to refuse treatment would have to be struck. Full-blown socialism would need to be mandated. Arguing a wide right to potential, rather than narrow rights derived from potential, has enormous consequences.

Likewise, the fetus does not have the right to be treated like a fully-formed child. If it did, many people would have “brothers” or “sisters” that they never even knew about who had been routinely miscarried before their mothers had even known they were pregnant. We would talk about age relative to conception, (which we still can’t pinpoint) rather than relative to birth. We would mourn miscarriages like infant deaths, and we would be worrying about a lot more than just baby names and clothes shopping during pregnancy.

Finally- and the most controversially- the fetus has no right to compel or endanger the mother. This is why the Bill of Rights is completely ill-suited to deal with the rights of fetuses. If the mother’s health is at risk and she is capable of making decisions independently, (which almost all women are ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) she has every right to abort the fetus. The Bill of Rights does not compel someone to gamble their own life to save their children, and as such any weakening of a mother’s right to give her own health primacy is at best misguided. If the fetus itself is a great source of mental harm, such as if it is a result of a rape- we can also make a strong argument that the mother has no duty to keep it alive against her will, and certainly no duty to care for the child herself if she does deliver it.

In arguing about abortion, we can’t forget that we’re talking about two lives, not just one, and treating women like children while treating fetuses like adults is definitely the wrong way around. Any law on abortion has to start by treating the mother like she has the rights and responsibilities to make her own choices, and then setting the framework so that those choices uphold the health and any rights of the fetus afterwards. It also has to avoid trivialising the decisions of the mother by slowing them down “in case she changes her mind”. In normal circumstances, it is her responsibility to take the decisions at an appropriate pace, not the legislative framework’s.

1I’m annoyed, although not surprised, that Jackie Edmond from Family Planning has her take on this treated like an afterthought. Family Planning is a respected social service agency, and appropriate coverage would dictate that she gets front-billing, not an advocacy group for a vocal minority that wants to infringe on other people’s reproductive decisions.
2I’m sure someone is just waiting to take me to task for this, but people who campaign against abortion are most certainly not “pro-life”, although that is their justifcation. The movement as a whole opposes numerous sexual health campaigns that do nothing but improve quality of life, and this “pro-life” stance doesn’t seem to extend to using their clout on this issue for good works that improve life expectancy for children or families. Unless of course, we’re talking pro-life in terms of opposing birth control. In that sense, they do qualify. I think broadly speaking, anyone interested in the abortion debate can agree that life is good, babies should be carried to term all other things neutral, and fetuses have some moral value of their own. Reducing such a complicated series of variables to “pro-choice” and “pro-life” without considering the kinds of situations mothers might be in is insulting at best, moronic at worst, and causes reactionary nonsense like the stuff I just linked.

Note: While I use the word fetus here, it’s important to note I’m not being entirely scientific. Fetus (or fœtus) is but one of the stages that pregnancy takes before birth, and each of those stages have different circumstances which should effect any decisions regarding aborting it. I use the term “fetus” loosely to generally talk about the most contentious times a mother could abort, especially as it still implies human-like characteristics and a relatively advanced state of pregnancy, but doesn’t imply advanced charactistics like detailed perception or talking in the way that “baby” or “child” does. I’ve also deliberately ignored speculating on the point at which an embryo gains rights, or whether a fetus can dream/think/hope/etc…, as they’re very difficult questions to answer for a very inconsequential impact on the debate.