Views in brief

March 7, 2008

Abortion without guilt or apologies

IN RESPONSE to the letter "The experience of abortion" (February 22) by Iris Chamberlain, it is important to put the negative, and sometimes horrifying, experiences women have during abortion into perspective.

It is true that for many women, the medical procedure is not all "rainbows and clouds." A study by the American Psychological Association in 1987 found that 76 percent of women reported feelings of relief after abortion while only 17 percent reporting guilt. Twenty years later, it is safe to say that women experiencing guilt is likely higher.

But the bigger question is what explains the shift from a situation where abortion was once understood as a liberating experience for so many women, to one that we are made to feel guilty and ashamed about.

I work as a counselor in a public high school in Brooklyn doing pregnancy prevention and counseling teen parents. I was initially shocked at how many young girls opposed abortion. Socialist Worker reported a few weeks ago that abortion is at its lowest level since 1974 and that support for abortion has declined, especially among young women.

What my students and I have in common is growing up in the absence of a women's movement that defends abortion with the slogans it was initially won around. And the continuity between the aims of that movement and today have been completely eroded or channeled into the Democratic Party, whose leading feminist frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, took the opportunity to commemorate a recent anniversary of Roe v. Wade by calling abortion "a sad, even tragic, choice."

The only thing that can explain the difference between then and now is that the right wing has been successful at turning the question of abortion into a moral issue--complete with an ideological crusade intended to harass women outside what few abortion clinics we have left, legal victories giving rights to unborn fetuses and state requirements that women must be "counseled" before making the decision.

These lend incredible weight to the idea that fetuses somehow have feelings and that perhaps women aren't quite equipped to make such a "difficult" decision without guidance.

Chamberlain ends her letter by stating that abortion cannot be considered a "good experience right now." Yet even when women don't have "good experiences" at an abortion clinic (a friend of mine likened her experience to feeling herded like cattle through the procedure) it is often still a massive relief for women seeking to regain control over their lives.

The fact that my friend felt like cattle has nothing to do with abortion being inherently unpleasant, but instead speaks to the dire state of health care for women in this country. For those with health care, abortion is often not covered, and the few clinics providing abortion are understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded.

The reality is that women will have abortions. Whether they are free of guilt and shame will be up to whether we can rebuild a movement that defends them, without apology--and hopefully, one day, without cost.
Leia Petty, New York City

Poverty poisons kids' brains

"STUDIES BY several U.S. universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status," according to the Financial Times, reporting on a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on February 15.

That is, "Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain."

Unhealthy levels of stress hormones can disrupt the developing brain, particularly affecting language and memory. And those levels are higher in children living in poverty than in children from middle- or upper-class families.

"In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line," a measure that "probably understates the true depth of many children's misery," writes the New York Times' Paul Krugman.

Furthermore, children born to the poorest parents have only a 50-50 chance of rising out of poverty, and a one-in-three chance if they're Black. And stress levels are only one component in misery's vicious cycle. In Krugman's words, "Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step."

Poor children face hunger and malnutrition, a decrepit public education system, crime and violence, police brutality and incarceration, and a shrinking social safety net.

How can the cycle be reversed? Courtney Stephens of the University of Oregon described to the AAAS meeting an eight-week program for low-income parents of pre-school children in Oregon.

After attending weekly coaching sessions on communication skills and ways to deal with bad behavior, the parents reported significant reductions in family stress.
"Our findings are important because they suggest that kids who are at high risk for school failure can be helped through these interventions," said Dr. Stephens.

But such programs would be a pickax chipping away at a mountain of poverty. The most effective "intervention" would eradicate poverty once and for all by turning the backward priorities of capitalism on their heads and focusing at last on basic human needs.
Chris Yarrison, Washington, D.C.

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