Today's post is from Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us (forthcoming in early 2010). Joffe is professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis and a researcher at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California-San Francisco, and she contributes to the blog at RHrealitycheck.org.
Taking stock of where the abortion issue stands at this, the 37th anniversary of Roe v Wade, its hard not to conclude that the present moment is one largely of disappointment and concern for abortion rights supporters. This disappointment is especially poignant, given the exhilaration that many felt a year ago, when Barack Obama took office. After eight long years of George W. Bush, a presidency whose record on abortion and other reproductive matters was so egregious, it is truly hard to parody (remember the proposal to provide health care for fetuses, not the pregnant women carrying those fetuses, or abstinence programs aimed at 18-29 year olds?), there were high expectations, perhaps unrealistically so, for the Obama presidency.
To be sure, some good things in the reproductive realm have happened in this new administration, particularly with respect to international matters. The notorious global "gag rule," which prevented U.S. funding for family planning services in countries or agencies that used their own funds for abortion-related activities, was quickly overturned. The State Department, under the leadership of Hillary Clinton, made clear that abstinence promotion would no longer be a centerpiece of this administration's HIV-AIDS policy. Clinton herself recently gave a powerhouse of a speech, in commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the landmark UN Conferences in Cairo and Beijing in the mid-1990s, reaffirming the administration's commitment to the empowerment of women globally, and the crucial role that reproductive health services play in this.
Domestically, however, there is much less to cheer about. Positions in the federal bureaucracy that may be obscure, but which are central to delivering good reproductive health care (and undoing the damage of the Bush years), such as the deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, the official in charge of all federally funded contraceptive services, remain unfilled while the administration has focused laser-like on health reform.
And health reform, which hangs by a thread as I write these words immediately after the Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote, has been a debacle as far as abortion is concerned. The still- unresolved fights over the Stupak amendment, which would require women wishing coverage for this procedure to purchase a separate rider, and the Nelson "compromise" (unacceptable to hard core abortion opponents, including the Democratic Congressman Stupak himself), which would allow abortion coverage by insurance plans, but only if women write two separate checks for their insurance–one for abortion, and one for everything else–have made emphatically clear the cultural marginality of abortion from the rest of health care.
But it is the rise of violence since the inauguration of Barack Obama that is most upsetting to the abortion rights world. On Sunday May 31, 2009, just weeks after the new president went to Notre Dame University to plead for "common ground" on the abortion issue, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, was brutally assassinated in the lobby of his church.
Since Tiller's murder, a number of abortion-providing clinics across the country have reported an upsurge in violence and harassment. Most ominously perhaps, in Charlotte, North Carolina, "wanted posters" have appeared outside a clinic, bearing the pictures, names and work addresses of two of the physicians that work there. In a celebrated case in the 1990s, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that similar (though not identically worded) posters constituted a "threat of force" designed to intimidate abortion providers and thus were not protected free speech. Patients and staff at this clinic and others are subjected to protestors swarming over their cars as they drive onto clinic grounds, and verbal abuse– for example, "Satan will drink the blood of your babies" – delivered through microphones at deafening tones.
Meanwhile, on a listserv that I frequent, composed mainly of abortion providers, participants are having a lively conversation about. . . blanket warmers!
This conversation was initiated by a provider from the South who has been battling cancer. As she recently communicated to her colleagues, during a recent chemotherapy session she was given a warm blanket, found that it "felt great" and now is exploring the best way to offer this to her abortion patients.
To be sure, blanket warmers and the most cost effective way to introduce them into the clinic are hardly the only topics being discussed by this group. There are the usual threads of messages pertaining to interesting and challenging cases, security concerns (typically heightened around January 22), contemporary political developments and so on. But as one who has watched with dismay the unending controversies surrounding abortion, I find it deeply reassuring–and moving–that in midst of this very volatile environment, the health professionals on this list are staying the course, sharing with each other ideas to improve the abortion experience for the women who come to them, even warm blankets.