A woman’s right, no matter when or why

June 5, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte dismantles the lies behind the right's assault on late-term abortion.

ACCORDING TO opponents of women's right to choose, Dr. George Tiller--the Wichita, Kan., abortion provider who was murdered as he attended church last Sunday--performed the most despicable of abortion procedures.

To hear them tell it--whether it was a leader of the anti-abortion movement, like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry; or the protesters who regularly gathered at Tiller's clinic in Wichita; or the shooters and bombers who tried to kill him, including the one who succeeded last weekend--what Tiller did was "mass murder," in Terry's words, performed for heartless women who simply didn't want to be inconvenienced.

Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly's wild claim was far from unique: "In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller, who will execute babies for $5,000 if the mother is depressed. And there are rapists impregnating 10-year-olds who are being protected by abortion clinics."

But if you listen to the women who were patients at Women's Health Care Services in Wichita--one of only three clinics in the country that perform therapeutic abortions after 21 weeks--you learn the truth about Dr. Tiller's determination to defy the harassment and violence of the right.

Supporters of a women's right to choose protest an anti-abortion demonstration in San Francisco
Supporters of a women's right to choose protest an anti-abortion demonstration in San Francisco (Jeffrey Boyette | SW)

The stories of these women debunk the lies that the anti-abortion bigots tell about late-term abortion procedures--and the women who have them.

In the days after Tiller's murder, firsthand accounts from patients appeared on the Internet. One woman described visiting Tiller after learning that, even if he survived an early 24-week birth, her son's blood disorder would kill him before he was 9 years old:

While still reeling from the shock, we were told we could take our chances and let the baby be born, but that the state would be forced to intervene if we did not then take every measure to keep our son alive. Or, we could consider two late-term abortion clinics--one in Wichita, Kan., the other in Holland! Our initial thoughts were "how could we be in a major NYC hospital in the United States and be told these are our only choices?"

Here's a contribution from a Texas woman whose child would have died soon after it was born, published on the Heartbreaking Choices Web site:

The reality is that abortion in the late second and third trimesters is extremely rare. The reality is that finding a doctor to do this procedure in the late second or third trimester is almost impossible. For me, the reality was that at the most painful time of my life, I had to travel out of state, stay in a hotel room and face hostile protesters in order to carry out this most personal of choices...

Thankfully, inside, there was compassion, love, understanding and superb medical care. Finally, I met some other people who understood this hell we were in. I said goodbye to my son, and then a few days later, I said goodbye to the doctor who I will always look upon as the one shining light in the worst week of my life...

My only advice is don't let "them" [anti-choice protesters] define this for you. It is still your choice, your child and your life.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Elizabeth Schulte at Socialism 2009 in Chicago, speaking on "How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

LATE-TERM abortion are rare--just 1.1 percent of all abortions happen after 21 weeks of pregnancy. Nine out of 10 abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Fifty-eight percent of abortion patients say they would have liked to have had their abortion earlier. And nearly 60 percent of women who experienced a delay in obtaining an abortion cite the time it took to make arrangements and raise money.

Tiller's patients include a long list of women who planned to carry their pregnancy to term, but learned their child had life-threatening health problems and made the choice to get an abortion. Others were teenaged--and younger--victims of rape or incest. Teenage women and girls are more likely to put off having an abortion, because of lack of information and resources.

Despite these gut-wrenching stories, the anti-choice movement has made these people the focus of its attack--forcing doctors, staff, patients and their families walk to their angry gauntlet in order to provide or obtain the health care they need.

The "pro-life" movement--a term that grows more infuriating every time it's used--often characterizes late-term abortions as "partial birth," in which the baby is "born" and then "killed" by the doctor. The Guttmacher Institute's Heather Boonstra described in 1999 the method the right used to win the argument in Congress:

Pressing the rhetoric considerably, [Republican Sen. Rick] Santorum declared, "This is a rogue procedure that is infanticide...Once the baby is in the process of being born, we have to say: Wait a minute; this baby is now outside the mother, almost outside the mother. This is not about abortion anymore."

The image of the fetus as a "baby in the process of being born" is an effective public relations device that has convinced many members of Congress that "partial-birth" abortion is, as Santorum says, more akin to infanticide than to abortion.

In large part, politicians--Democrats and Republicans alike--have accepted a characterization of late-term abortion as somehow morally unacceptable, and offered up their own judgments to score political points among religious conservatives.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) recently called late-term abortion the "barometer for the soul of our nation."

And Barack Obama, who is by and large considered a friend by pro-choice forces, told the Christian magazine Relevant last year:

I have repeatedly said that I think it's entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that "mental distress" qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

IN A sane world, it wouldn't matter what any politician thought personally about any abortion procedure. What would matter is whether women have access to the health care they need, including abortion. In the case of late-term abortions, women and their health care needs have taken a backseat to the political ambitions of lawmakers, as restriction after restriction have passed in state after state, beginning in the 1990s.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 31 states have enacted bans on "partial-birth" abortions. In 16 of those states, a court has blocked the laws so they are not in effect, but they stand in the remaining 15 states. And because "partial birth" is in no way a medical term, these laws don't actually specify what procedures they do or don't outlaw, or when.

Add this to the threats issued by anti-abortion fanatics like the one who assassinated Tiller, and it's little wonder that there are only three clinics providing late-term abortions. The price is paid by women, who shoulder the financial burden of traveling to Wichita and risking their jobs by missing work.

The heartbreaking stories of Tiller's patients expose the right wing's crusade against late-term abortion for what it is--an attack on real living women and their real living families.

What's clear from many of these stories is that the heartbreaking part isn't the abortion, but knowing they will not have the child they planned for. That the right should target this clinic uncovers the real purpose of its campaign--taking away every woman's right to control her own body.

No woman should ever feel that she can't freely choose whether to terminate her pregnancy--no matter what her reason and no matter when. It is her choice, and her choice alone, whether to have an abortion. It is also up to her, not the ranters of the right, how she should feel about it afterward.

Only when the political climate in this country has shifted toward a confident and outspoken defense of women's right to choose will doctors like Tiller be able treat their patients without fear.

Politicians like Barack Obama aren't ready to stand up and shift the debate; they would rather talk about "finding common ground" with anti-choice forces. It's up to us--women and men organizing together in defense of abortion rights and against the right's attack--to turn the tide.

Dr. Tiller often wore a button that said simply, "Trust Women." Isn't it about time someone listened to him?

Further Reading

From the archives