Thursday, January 6, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: Reproductive Justice

I knew I had to blog about this, but it's hard starting out. This is going to include some depressing and upsetting stuff--just a warning.

This morning we split up into six small groups to visit different reproductive health organizations around New York. Some people went to abortion clinics and women's health centers, others to adoption agencies.

I went with Lela, Naomi, and Mackenzie to Choices Women's Medical Center in Queens. Choices, founded by activist Merle Hoffman (pictured above), provides gynecological and prenatal care to women, often with the help of Medicaid. Their services include care by a midwife, gynecological exams, birth control and emergency contraceptives, sterilization (Essure), pregnancy testing, Gardasil, and abortions up to 24 weeks. Their staff speak many languages, though the languages most in demand in the area are Spanish, Bengali, and Creole French.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I came to Choices. We first met one protester outside, an older woman who handed us some "pro-life" pamphlets. Earlier in the week we'd seen Jennifer's film "I Had An Abortion" which included footage of huge protests outside clinics, complete with protesters holding up pictures of babies and screaming at women entering Planned Parenthoods and other providers. I didn't expect to see a crowd of people, but I wasn't exactly surprised when the single protester (who Merle later identified as Dorothy) handed me the pamphlet. She wasn't shouting or holding up signs, just wordlessly handing these out.

Most of the people inside Choices were minorities, and most of them looked sad. Which isn't a surprise...yet it is very stunning to look at the people in the waiting room and realize that many of them were about to have an abortion. You can usually walk into any other medical waiting room and not know what people are there for--it could be a checkup or a big procedure. Choices does offer a lot of other services, but they also perform 40-60 abortions each know that's what some of the women in the waiting room are waiting for. It feels incredibly intrusive and humbling to be there not as a fellow patient, but as an observer.

We've discussed abortion a lot this week, and one point that keeps coming up is that an aborted fetus is not really just a bunch of cells. It's easy for pro-choice activists to make this argument to counter the anti-choice argument that a fetus is a life or a human being. But our discussions this week have illuminated, at least for me, that it's not so easy to distinguish. When we met with Merle, she emphasized that if a pregnant individual chooses not to terminate a does become a life. A baby. "This is the only area where women make the decision of life and death," she told us, "And that's why it's so opposed." She was not afraid to say that abortion is killing.

At first, that seems like a harsh way to think about it. No one wants to kill. As a feminist who supports abortion because I believe that a woman should have autonomy over her own body, it's hard (but not impossible) to reconcile that with the reality of taking a life, even if it exists within that body. But, as Merle said, "You can't put a diaphragm on your brain or your heart." You have to consider all this, thoughtfully and carefully and lovingly.

Abortion isn't supposed to be an easy choice. It is a maternal one, and it may be an obvious choice, or a necessary one, and for most women it is a choice without regret, but one thing we have learned is that it is difficult. Merle noted that a pregnancy is a possibility...terminating a pregnancy, even if it's the right thing to do, is the end of a possibility.

We spoke to a doctor who has worked at Choices for decades. The story he shared with us was, I think, the hardest for us to hear, and the hardest for me to share here. He told us that second-trimester pregnancies involve a fetus with recognizable body parts, though they are not yet fully formed or connected. Doctors have to extract all of these parts from the uterus, and ensure that they are all extracted. He told us that many women want to see what has been taken out of them. He told us that one patient, even though he told her that the body parts were disconnected, wanted some piece of her aborted fetus to hold. He--a doctor who has done thousands of abortions--began to cry (and so did we) as he told us that he placed a hand in hers.

That's an image you don't soon forget.

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