In today’s binary political system, however, abortion has become oversimplified. Although fraught with social, economic, cultural, and political meaning, abortion has been reduced to a singular and isolated issue in the political arena. And yet, just below the surface of political silencing, those of us whose experiences with abortion do not fit neatly into didactic sound-bites and talking points for pundits and policymakers in their public debates about our bodies, the waters of human experience still run deep.
As a full-spectrum doula, I work with people across the spectrum of pregnancy, from abortion to birth, which can include stillbirth inductions and people who are considering adoption. I hold hands, wipe tears, massage shoulders, fetch snacks, calm nerves, make small talk, comfort, inform, listen, and remind folks to breathe.
Some patients hold their breath—sometimes because the decision to have an abortion is made reluctantly. Their circumstances can feel coercive: a lost job, limited income, negotiating rent and bills with potential expenses of a baby, or having parents who refuse to support their young daughter’s pregnancy because it sets a “bad example” for their other children. Others hold their breath waiting for a change in their heart or mind that may never come, deciding finally, despite the discomfort, that an abortion is what they want to do, or what they feel they should do.
Want, desire, and “choice” become murky concepts in a tangled web of social and economic inequality.
Some patients talk in circles:
I’m not one of those women who get an abortion.
I’m different than the other patients—I never planned to be here.
I’m not a statistic.
These examples show how women talk their way out of (or into) their internalization of public shaming and blaming, as if a certain kind of woman gets an abortion and other women do not. This circular thinking is another byproduct of the oversimplified binary of mainstream abortion politics, represented in policy and the media. But what gets lost in the respectability politics of abortion is how common an abortion procedure is: nearly 1 in 3 women have one in their lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong; there are people who are crystal clear that they don’t ever want to have children, or they don’t want a particular person to father their child, or they’re simply not ready for parenthood. But as a full-spectrum doula who has worked with patients who are primarily low-income women and women of color, I can’t help but notice that all too often the experiences of many women reside in the murky waters that become silenced, erased, or forgotten in mainstream abortion politics.
As a Mississippian, I have watched government officials, church leaders, anti-choice activists, and citizens fight tirelessly to criminalize abortion in my home state. Though I am grateful for the positive impact Roe v. Wade has had for women across the nation, I can’t help but find celebrating its 40th anniversary bittersweet. In Mississippi, we sorely lack meaningful and sustainable help in the fight for full reproductive justice for poor families and women of color. To add insult to injury, while Mississippi continues to be a battleground over women’s rights, pro-choice discourse and activism surrounding the state too often implies that we are “backwards.”
Mississippians can no longer afford to have these conversations continue in isolation. As out-of-towners come into Mississippi this weekend to protest the closing of our sole abortion clinic, I want them to understand the complexities of the reproductive issues in this state and remember that white, middle class women are not the only ones impacted.
In observance of this day and in solidarity with my people in Mississippi, I have compiled a list of issues that demonstrate the intentional undermining of Roe v. Wade in the state—by making abortion inaccessible, and creating stigma around women’s sexual and reproductive choices.
I’m not sure how many people know about Julie Dash’s experience. Her book is the only reason I knew about her experiences. I don’t think most people (who aren’t in her personal circle) who don’t own or haven’t read the book know about it. What’s fascinating for me is that I couldn’t wait to delve deep with the book because of my desire to read anything and everything about Black women filmmakers’ journeys in their own words. Dash sharing about her abortion was an unexpected gift for me on multiple levels as I embarked on my own emerging cinematic journey, which focused on Black lesbian identity and heterosexual rape. It was a very bold and courageous move on her part. Afterall, it was 1992, and not 2012. Julie Dash is definitely one of my sheroes.
What I love about our sharing, Monica, is that we clearly have very different life experiences in a myriad of ways and yet there are some similarities. We made very different choices as a result or our abortions and yet our paths have intersected/connected in this profound way. Your testimony is very powerful and I believe an important one of choice, exploration, empowerment, and motherhood.
I’m very close with my divorced parents who are also my comrades and friends. Things were very strained between my mother and me during my pregnancy and subsequent abortion. My father was out of the country working in Eastern Europe during most of the ordeal. He actually returned home on the day of my abortion. After the abortion, he was a lifesaver, including taking me to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain to attend a nuclear disarmament conference with him. I stayed after the conference, to backpack alone for five weeks throughout the country. It was in Grenada, Spain while looking at the Alhambra that I wrote in my journal in 1989, “I want to make films that affirm the lives of Black women. If I have to go in debt, it will be over a film and not a degree.”
I shared about the difficult time with my mother to discuss the complexities surrounding my pregnancy and abortion. She was the first self-identified pro-choice, feminist woman that I knew, with my paternal grandmother coming in at a close second. Though Nana didn’t call herself a feminist, she definitely was one and she was pro-choice. In spite of this reality, it was a rocky road with both of them during that time period in my life. I’m honored to be my mother’s daughter and my grandmother’s granddaughter. I would not be the woman I am without both of their and my father’s profound influence on my life. I’m not a parent and I do not want to be one, but I understand what happens when one has dreams and visions for one’s child and those dreams and visions don’t womanifest in the way a parent envisions. I firmly believe this is what happened with both my Mom and my Nana when I came home pregnant and unable to name the biological father…
I often wonder if I did carry my pregnancy to term, would I have come out as a PROUD Black feminist lesbian or would I’ve been afraid and concerned about what that would mean for the unborn? Would I have made NO! The Rape Documentary? …. Who knows? Even if the answers are yes, what I know is that it wouldn’t be what it is today….
These are the stories and dialogues that we don’t get to have because we’re so busy fighting the surge of the Right Wing to take away all of our reproductive rights. We often don’t get to hear the nuances, the complexities, the back stories…For many on the rabid (my words) Right, it’s as if women are incubators for fetuses and receptacle for (unwanted) penises….
PLEASE TAKE ACTION NOW!
CALL VA LEGISLATORS AND TELL THEM TO OPPOSE ANTI-ASIAN ABORTION BILL
We need you to call Virginia legislators NOW to tell them to oppose HB 1316, an anti-Asian abortion ban almost identical to the one we defeated at the federal level.
We just learned that HB 1316, VA Delegate Bob Marshall’s sex selective abortion ban, is moving forward in the VA House of Delegates and will be considered tomorrow in their House Committee on Courts and Justice, Constitutional Law Subcommittee.
A quick summary of the measure: If passed, the ban would criminalize doctors for performing a sex selective abortion. This sounds good, but we know it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It purports to further gender equity when it is really about chipping away at abortion rights. Worse, it exploits stereotypes about the Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) community, who bill proponents say are seeking such abortions. We know that a woman’s choice to have an abortion is a private matter, not a decision for government to interefere in. We know banning abortion is NOT the way to end son preference. The real solution is promoting gender equality so sons and daughters have the same opportunities– with measures like equal pay, leadership development, and access to education. To learn more, read Executive Director Miriam Yeung’s RH Reality Check and Huffington Post articles and her federal congressional testimony.
PLEASE TAKE ACTION NOW!
We’re asking you to call Virginia House Courts Committee legislators TODAY and TOMORROW MORNING to make sure they know this is an attack on women and the API community.
Below are the names and numbers of legislators you should call, along with a suggested script.
Delegate Albo (804) 698-1042
Delegate Kilgore (804) 698-1001
Delegate Loupassi (804) 698-1068
Delegate Villanueva (804) 698-1021
Delegate Habeeb (804) 698-1008
Delegate Morris (804) 698-1064
Delegate Watts (804) 698-1039
Delegate McClellan (804) 698-1071
Delegate Toscano (804) 698-1057
Hi my name is ________________. I am calling to ask you to OPPOSE HB 1316, Delegate Bob Marshall’s Sex Selective Abortion Ban.
This is an anti-woman, and Anti-Asian bill. It criminalizes doctors for performing sex selective abortions. This sounds good, but is really a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It claims to be about gender equity when it’s really an underhanded, discriminatory way to chip away at abortion rights.
If the bill passes, all women will have their reasons for seeking abortion put under scrutiny. Asian American women, or any woman that looks Asian, may be racially profiled by their doctor and have their decisions scrutinized in a way other women would not. Asian American women already face health disparities. We don’t need a bill that makes it harder for us to get quality, non-judgmental health care.
Please oppose this bill.
The NAPAWF Team
While early organizing saw abortion as one of many facets of women’s liberation and reproductive autonomy, in the decades following Roe, this more expansive view has somewhat narrowed. More recently, mainstream feminist organizing around choice has focused predominately on contraceptive services and abortion. In many respects this shift has marginalized the panoply of ways in which reproductive choice and autonomy is constrained in the lives of women of color in a number of discursive spaces and institutional settings.
Indeed, feminists of color have long resisted this narrow definition of reproductive choice and autonomy. While emphasizing the central importance of access to contraception and abortion services, women of color activists have also highlighted the ways in which the denial of reproductive capacity and the denigration of their identities as mothers has been central to their subordination in the context of slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow. Women of color also contested the idea that they were unable or incapable of controlling their reproductive destinies. In so doing they mobilized to fight sterilization and other practices that burdened the choice to bear children.
Yet for many poor women of color, full reproductive choice and autonomy has remained elusive. Indeed, the reproductive capacities of women of color are often targeted for suppression or derision within contemporary political discourses and official policymaking within a number of institutional settings including the criminal justice and welfare systems. The injuries suffered by women of color in this context, however, are seldom articulated as part of the broader attacks on reproductive rights of women. This targeting of women of color and their families, and the silences that often accompany this targeting, combine to form what I am calling “reproductive profiling.”
I use the term “reproductive profiling” to draw upon the ways in which people of color are profiled in the policing or law enforcement context. Similar to the failure of the Fourth Amendment’s privacy rationale to fully extend to victims of racial profiling, individuals subject to reproductive profiling are denied the autonomy and privacy interests guaranteed by the Constitution. As Dorothy Roberts and others have noted, the lives of poor women of color are often public due to frequent interactions with government agencies. Consequently, those who choose to become parents do not benefit from the privacy or dignity rationales represented by Roe and its progeny. In various institutional contexts, such as immigration, prisons and social welfare, poor women of color are subjected to behavior policing policies that limit reproductive autonomy or punish the choice to become a parent. As Michele Goodwin has noted, this “brings private, intimate spaces into the public theatre, creating spectacles of poor, pregnant women and their children; and this public humiliation functions to visually inscribe these women’s place in the social hierarchy.”
Moreover, like victims of racial profiling in the policing context, women of color are singled out for suspicion because they are deemed to be in places that they do not belong. Indeed, poor women of color have historically been denied identities as mothers, which are informed by the normative values of the white middle-class. In this way, constraints on their choices to become parents are a reflection of social views that women of color who seek to parent are attempting to access a space that is inappropriate or one that they are not equipped to navigate. The race, gender and class identities of women of color, when attached to their choice to become parents, often raises a suspicion of wrongdoing. Consequently, they confront significant regulation of those choices and are subject to pervasive surveillance.
To show me what rural poverty looks like in Hidalgo County, Planned Parenthood promotora (outreach worker) Dora Alicia Proa takes me to a colonia nearly 15 miles away from McAllen, in San Carlos. Colonias are unincorporated subdivisions founded in the 1950s by predatory developers who sold lots of barren and flood-prone land to poor Latin American migrant workers without installing basic infrastructure. They are synonymous with poverty. Literally. The Texas Secretary of State defines these communities as “residential areas along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.”
Last year, Hidalgo County’s Planned Parenthood offered free birth control, STI testing, Well Woman exams and men’s health screenings at the San Carlos Community Resource Center. Now, to get the same services, patients have to drive up to 20 miles to the Edinburg clinic, where a physical, HIV test and Pap smear costs at least $60 and a monthly supply of birth control pills costs $20 at minimum.
The Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department runs eight clinics where people of all ages can get a range of services, from tuberculosis treatment to newborn screenings. However, wait times are reportedly brutal, and the health department’s STI testing site is located in McAllen. Ostensibly to fill the void created by Planned Parenthood closures, the University of Texas Medical Branch opened a maternal health clinic in Hidalgo. But that site is also in McAllen; it specializes in pregnancy and prenatal care, and it doesn’t have weekend hours.
In one San Carlos household Proa and I visit—a cramped trailer on concrete blocks where the kitchen sink collides with bunk beds—Proa informs two young women that the Edinburg clinic is running a special on annual exams. They shake their heads at the mention of cash, then tsk tsk at six young boys and girls who are smiling shyly, pointing and calling me chocolate.
Next, Proa introduces me to a young woman standing in front of a three-room track house with dirt floors, a chunk of the roof missing and the toilet located in a crumbling shed next door. My Spanish is pitiful and neither Proa nor the homeowner speaks much English. But I can see that four small children and two adults share this space.
Within this context, it’s unclear how defunding conveniently located sources of free birth control, STI testing, Pap smears, clinical breast exams and other women’s health care is a pro-life activity. But this is what counts as logic in today’s abortion wars.