Using a tragedy to attack our rights
The opponents of the right to choose will stop at nothing to go after abortion providers and the women who seek abortions, asexplains.
TRAGEDY STRUCK the family of a young woman who died seeking a late-term abortion in February--and now the assault on a woman's right to the full range of reproductive health care has reached a fever pitch outside a small clinic in Germantown, Md.
The 29-year-old, married elementary school teacher traveled from New York state to the Maryland clinic to obtain the services of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of only four doctors in the country who publicly offers late-term abortions.
She was 33 weeks along in her wanted pregnancy. She had a name picked out, which was listed in the obituary that was written both for her and her daughter to be. She had a Pinterest page full of nursery ideas and a half-filled baby registry.
Speculation about her personal life and decision to have an abortion should never have been the topic of public conversation, but it was clear that a late-term abortion was an unexpected turn of events for her, and that likely something had gone horribly wrong.
After the procedure, in the hotel where she was staying with her husband, sister and parents, she started experiencing chest pains and other symptoms. She went to a nearby emergency room, where her life ended on February 7.
It's difficult to imagine the pain her family must be experiencing. If we imagine anything about this death, that should be all. Unfortunately, we know far more.
Almost immediately following her death, some of the most prominent and dangerous anti-choice extremists latched onto this story and thrust it into the public view. Anti-choice darling and blogger Jill Stanek, who has connections to Operation Rescue, an organization with some of the best-known and most threatening clinic harassers in the country, "broke" the story of a "botched" abortion.
She used information she attributed to Cheryl Sullenger, a senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, and other sources she described as "impeccable," but who were likely other members of Sullenger's organization, to harass Dr. Carhart and his clients. Sullenger is a convicted federal felon who served jail time for conspiring to blow up an abortion clinic with her husband. Her name is also connected to the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider who was shot and killed in Wichita, Kan.--she gave Tiller's murderer constant updates about the doctor's location before he was killed.
It's difficult to reconcile Sullenger's history with the term "impeccable source." And yet Stanek used Sullenger's information to create a daily assault on both Dr. Carhart and his patient's family, with other anti-choice news sources and individuals circulating the barrage as much as possible.
Photographs of the dead woman on her wedding day plaster Stanek's blog, along with alleged information about the circumstances surrounding her death, which were likely obtained illegally by Operation Rescue. Additionally, quotes from the funeral service are twisted to implicate the family in this woman's death, and links to her personal information are prominently featured, followed by screen shots of them after the family took the links down.
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JUST DAYS after the death, a huge crowd of anti-choice protesters held a "memorial service" for the dead woman, holding a field of signs featuring her smiling in her wedding veil. Operation Rescue has filed a request with the Maryland Board of Physicians to revoke Dr. Carhart's license.
Heartbreaking pleas from the family requesting that anti-choice forces stop politicizing their daughter, wife and friend have gone ignored. Dr. Carhart has made no comment, but is understandably devastated by the death of his patient, according to statements by those close to him.
On February 20, the Washington Post reported the preliminary results of the autopsyon Jennifer Morbelli, Dr. Carhart's patient. "Natural causes" is the box checked off on the form, as opposed to the other choices of accidental death, suicide or homicide.
The specific reasons listed, according to the Post, were "'amniotic fluid embolism following a medical termination of pregnancy,' the complication involving amniotic fluid in the woman's blood. Another was 'disseminated intravascular coagulation,' a complication in which the body starts producing thousands of tiny blood clots, which have the counterintuitive effect of hampering the body's ability to clot blood elsewhere. A third was 'fetal abnormalities.'"
Prior to this report, no speculation or information regarding the woman's death had any place in public discourse, and it is unfortunate that the political climate surrounding abortion gives it a platform even now. Although the report firmly dismisses the anti-choice claims of "botched" abortion as cause of death, anti-choice headlines already claimed "Medical Examiner Confirms 33-Week Abortion Killed Young Woman."
An amniotic fluid embolism is a calculated risk factor in late-term abortions, C-sections, and natural childbirth--and is often a cause of disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). DIC is so incredibly rare as a result of late-term abortion that, aside from Morbelli's death, a search of medical literature yielded information on only one other case, in 1983. This is in sharp contrast to its rate during childbirth, with an occurrence of 1 in every 8,000 to 30,000 births, depending on the country. DIC has a mortality rate of 80 percent in the U.S.
The final cause listed, fetal abnormalities, is the most telling. While a more detailed report is not expected for about three months, the natural conclusion from the current information is that Morbelli was experiencing a life-threatening pregnancy.
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ANTI-CHOICE ideology rejects the fact that pregnancy can be life-threatening, and celebrates the death of women for the sake of the fetus, even if the fetus is not viable. Their "reports" on her death refuse to place the life of a pregnant woman on equal footing with a fetus or even a zygote. Instead, they claim that Morbelli made her choice without a thought, interpreting the woman's determination to seek an end to her pregnancy as some kind of whim.
The anti-choice movement's hand-wringing over why she didn't carry the pregnancy to term and then give it up for adoption illustrates its stubborn disregard for facts and its astounding lack of compassion.
Late-term abortions make up about 1 percent of all abortions, and are almost always a result of danger to the health of the fetus, the pregnant woman or both. In a cruel twist, women who don't seek late-term procedures for those reasons generally seek them due to the lack of access created by anti-choice laws and restrictions, which force women to wait far longer than they otherwise would have to obtain the procedure.
Brave individuals like Dr. LeRoy Carhart face the kind of harassment surrounding this case on a year-round basis. He and those around him are regularly the victims of violence and violations of personal privacy. Dr. Carhart has been the victim of arson at his home, where a fire was set to his house and stables, killing two family pets and 17 horses.
Todd Stave, the landlord who owns the Maryland building where Dr. Carhart practices, created a nonviolent protest campaign called Voice of Choice after anti-choice protesters targeted his children at their school, holding giant images of dismembered supposed fetuses. Volunteers directly contact the bigots who engage in this kind of harassment, politely tell them that their bullying behavior is unacceptable, and ask them to stop.
When confronted one on one, anti-choice protesters are rarely able to justify their behavior, and many have agreed to stop. The weeklong Summer of Choice in 2011 also provided "a peaceful pro-choice presence and a show of community support for Dr. Carhart, his staff and his patients."
Jennifer Morbelli's death simultaneously provides a profound example of why women need to have access to late-term abortions; shines a spotlight on the shameless, cruel and deceptive tactics of organizations like Operation Rescue; and demonstrates why a woman's choice to obtain an abortion should be none of our business.
The only respectful response to Morbelli's tragic death is to honor the request of privacy from her family, but also to seize the opportunity to counter the anti-choice bigots who have harassed the Germantown clinic for so long. Activists and allies on the East Coast and across the country should use their numbers, knowledge and experience to create and support direct action and education geared toward protecting Dr. Carhart, his staff and patients from the nonstop anti-choice assault they've faced since their doors opened.
The group I belong to in Washington state, Seattle Clinic Defense, offers some helpful resources in formulating a defense of the Germantown clinic. Individuals seeking services from Dr. Carhart deserve unconditional safety and privacy. We have a unique and much-needed opportunity to provide a space of shelter, support and unflinching defiance of anti-choice harassment--in honor of Morbelli and all women who seek the necessary services from this brave doctor.