The modern scarlet “A”

BY MELINDA MCLELLAN

Last Wednesday after-noon I spent two hours on the phone trying to find out where I could get an abortion in Western Massachusetts.

I’m not pregnant, nor have I ever been, nor do I know anyone currently dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. Rather, as part of a larger research project, I was calling hospitals to see how they handle a pregnant woman’s request for information about abortion. The answer? Poorly.

As a general rule, the people I spoke to were abrupt and awkward. Some hung up on me before I could finish my questions. I was often transferred from department to department, from person to person who didn’t want to deal with my problem. And when I finally got in touch with a woman who was willing to provide me with information, after incredulously asking why I didn’t just look in the Yellow Pages, she told me to call Planned Parenthood. In most cases I was not given a referral number unless I explicitly requested one.

Unfortunately, the attitudes I encountered are only reflections of the increasing hostility to women’s reproductive rights in this country. In an 11th-hour stunt less than two weeks ago, Republican legislators appended an anti-abortion rider to the omnibus spending bill just before it had to be passed to prevent a partial government shutdown. This provision would allow any health care provider to refuse to offer abortion, or even counseling or referral services, regardless of federal, state, or local health care access laws to the contrary.

Less than a week before that, GOP lawmakers announced their intention to reintroduce a bill to suspend the sale of RU-486, the “abortion pill” which eliminates the need for surgical abortion by inducing miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. Accusing the FDA of having approved the drug for political reasons, Representative Jim DeMint (R-SC) stated, “[i]f airplanes were as dangerous as RU-486 no reasonable woman would ever fly.”

It seems more likely, however, that Republican legislators have political motivations of their own for sounding such a harsh alarm in response to the three American deaths allegedly linked to RU-486. If Mr. DeMint is genuinely concerned about women’s health, maybe he should direct his attention to the fact that homicide is a leading cause of death among pregnant women in this country. As it stands, pregnancy is far more threatening to the lives of American women than is RU-486.

Recent moves toward more severely restricting access to abortion have been accompanied by a disturbing, growing judgmental stigma associated with abortion, as demonstrated by the responses to my phone inquiries last week. Increasingly the only people willing to stand up and shout about abortion rights are those who seek to eliminate them. And even when a million people gathered in D.C. last April to march in support of the right to choose, the very sparse media coverage of the event focused primarily on the presence of anti-choice protestors.

Those of us who do not want the government to control our decisions regarding parenthood need to realize what is at stake – abortion is already functionally illegal for many American women, and the situation stands to worsen dramatically during the next four years.

The insidious stigmatization of abortion in this country was well illustrated by the vague terminology the hospital workers used during my calls. No one I spoke to would say the word “abortion.” The preferred term was “that.” “We don’t do that here.” “I can’t tell you anything about that.” “You’ll have to go somewhere else for that.” “I’ll transfer you to someone who might have information about that.” “Are you sure you want to actually go through with that?” “The hospital doesn’t like to get involved with. . . that.”

Abortion is not a dirty word. It is a legal medical procedure. When seeking medical help, women and girls in the extremely stressful situation of coping with an unwanted pregnancy should not be treated like pariahs by the health care professionals they turn to for assistance. Whatever religious or personal views a person may have on the subject, there is no excuse for alienating or humiliating a woman who is going through what is likely to be the most difficult moment of her life. At a bare minimum it’s unprofessional, and in my opinion it’s unethical. I can’t imagine that any other medical problem or illness would be handled so callously.

I am not a shy or timid person. I have no compunction about standing up for myself, speaking my mind, or asserting my rights. I am 26 years old, highly educated, deeply committed to advocating reproductive choice, and I am NOT EVEN pregnant. Yet during the course of these phone calls I became so uncomfortable that I truly did not want to finish my list of hospitals. I can only imagine how intimidating such interactions would be for a scared teenager, a traumatized rape survivor, or a nervous domestic abuse victim who knew no better than to call a local hospital for help.

Women who have abortions are not some discrete group of strangers we will never meet, or evil people who “deserve” to be scorned or judged or denigrated. Women who have abortions are not categorically irresponsible, or sexually indiscriminate, or morally bankrupt. They are our mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, aunts, wives, girlfriends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. Whether aware of it or not, virtually everyone has a woman in his or her life who has had an abortion, or at the very least has been faced with that painful decision.

Americans who think that attacks on abortion rights don’t much affect them, who have a laundry list of political issues which take precedence over the right to choose, or who believe they are immune because they’re vigilant about birth control, should recognize the significance of what is taking place in our country right now. If we fail to protest vigorously in response to the threat posed by this rising tide of anti-choice conservativism, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when women suffer and die because “that” is no longer an option.

Melinda McLellan is a 3L. She welcomes commentary at mmclella@law.harvard.edu.

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