Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992
WOMEN’S RIGHT TO abortion is under attack—on the streets and in the courts. To defend ourselves and to take back the initiative from the right wing, the women’s movement has to rethink both our strategy and our premises.
This past summer, as the national media informed us, women seeking abortions and routine gynecological care were harassed by the zealous fundamentalists of Operation Rescue, who were determined to halt godlessness in Wichita. According to Operation Rescue member David Buck, who left his home in St Paul, Minnesota in order to blockade Dr. George Tiller’s clink in Wichita, this summer police arrested 2600 Operation Rescue members, while the organization “saved” thirty “babies.”(1)
Randall Terry, the leader of Operation Rescue, says the organization engages in peaceful civil disobedience, upholding God’s law at the same time that they uphold the promise in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that we, including all fetuses, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Operation Rescue chose to bring their godly patriotism to Kansas because it is the home of Tiller’s clinic, one of only about ten in the nation that perform third-trimester abortions.(2) While Roe v. Wade gives states the authority to regulate second-trimester abortions in order to protect “maternal health,” and those in the third trimester to protect the life of the fetus, Kansas has no such laws.
Often overlooked by both the media and Operation Rescue is that while Tiller performs elective abortions through the second trimester, he performs third-trimester abortions only if tests show the fetus is abnormal. About 100 third-trimester abortions are performed each year in the United States, some ten of them by Tiller.(3)
Operation Rescue’s focus on a clinic performing this type of abortion indicates their willingness to play on the emotions of an uninformed public while, of course, making no effort to clarify the facts of the case. Operation Rescue labels Tiller a murderer and accuses him of “Nazi” atrocities.
But Operation Rescue’s agenda goes beyond opposition to abortion. Its agenda is typified by Terry, who opposes “hard-core feminism,” by which he means feminism which goes beyond his support for “equal pay for equal work.”
“True hard-core feminism is godless,” he said, referring to the “lesbian, no-fault divorce, multiple sex partner, mockery of the biblical family pattern and the mockery of the woman who wants to be a biblical wife… if at all possible, I believe that small children should be home with their mother… .What bothers me is the yuppie mentality of, rather than dad work and mom being with the little ones, dad and mom both work so that they can drive BMWs.”(4)
Terry—and presumably a good many of his followers—oppose abortion in part out of fear of uncontrolled female sexuality, lesbian and heterosexual, which logically leads them to oppose birth control, which severs the link between reproduction and sexuality: “I do not believe that people who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ should use birth control … Birth control is anti-child. As Christians, we should love children.”(5)
But as repressive toward women as Terry’s ideological position is, it’s important to realize that he manages to tap into some oppositional values. While his criticisms of two-worker families overlooks the real economic necessity that drives most of us to work, it does offer an anti-yuppie, pro-family agenda and an illusory vision of “the good life” to a great many people.
Significantly, Operation Rescue has recently begun to focus their activities in primarily rural states, like Kansas, Iowa, and now perhaps South Dakota, where this appeal is greatest and where reproductive rights activists may not be as heavily concentrated as in more densely populated areas.(6)
The Stakes In Fighting Back
Terry’s challenge to women’s control of their own reproduction and sexuality may soon be backed up by the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade may soon be overturned, and has in effect already been overturned for most poor women by the lack of public funding and counseling. Given this situation, we must continue to fight for legal abortion, to rally, and to lobby legislators.
However, women cannot rely upon the state to insure their ability to control their own reproduction, a message not clearly communicated at the pro-choice rally held this August in Wichita Only Eleanor Smeal, director of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, suggested that whether or not the state stood behind women’s reproductive freedom, women must and will insure that we can obtain safe abortions.
While Smeal allowed that we were glad that federal marshals and police were at the clinics, she also shouted that we refuse to depend upon them: “if there were no judges and no marshals, we would stand.”(7)
In contrast to Smeal’s militant message, Peggy Jarman of the local Wichita Pro-Choice Action League announced that activists should not go to the clinic “with the expectation that your presence is necessary to keep the clinic open, because the police and marshals can handle that job.”(8)
By focusing on the illegality of Operation Rescue’s tactics, and by announcing that “Randall Terry is a criminal” Jarman risks the chance that her rhetoric of criminality may come back to haunt her if we end up on the other side of the law.
In fact, the time may have come for us to begin to think about illegal and extralegal tactics to insure that control over our own reproduction is not denied to us. From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement, edited by Marlene Fried, author of an Against the Current article (ATC 23) on post-Webster reproductive strategies, suggests a few possibilities.(9)
Like the women discussed in “Just Call Jane,” we may soon need to provide ourselves and other women with illegal abortions. “Jane” was a group of women in Chicago who arranged and performed over 11,000 safe, low-cost illegal abortions from 1969 to 1973.(10) At first, the group relied upon a single doctor to perform abortions, but when they learned their doctor was not licensed, they realized that they could perform abortions.
At the same time that Jane “breathed a collective sigh of relief” when abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court” they also knew that abortion would become a very different experience than the one they had been able to provide: “The medical model, with its powerful mystique which had made us ignorant of our own bodies, would be unlikely to offer women the information, control, and support we so desperately needed.”(11)
Women’s Bodies, Women’s Control
The woman-controlled model established by “Jane” is important as well in new groups forming around the practice of menstrual extraction. Menstrual extraction is normally performed in the context of the largely underground women’s self-help movement, begun to enable women to take control of their own bodies.
From sharing information, groups may move on to “examine their breasts and cervixes together…. some groups treat infections with home remedies and use herbs that induce abortion. Experienced groups then may take this challenge one fear further with menstrual extraction.”(12) Menstrual extraction removes a woman’s uterine contents using a Del-Em, a flexible “plastic cannula similar to a straw … attached to a hand-operated syringe with a one way value.(13) It may be done in order “to eliminate the general nuisance of menstrual flow and to relieve menstrual pain.”(14)
If performed regularly, the practice can also reduce the need for abortions, and functions, for many women, as an ideal method of birth control or back-up method. The Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers [6221 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 419-A, Los Angeles, CA. 90048] distributes, a video introducing the concept and technique of menstrual extraction.
What “Jane” and menstrual extraction technique both point toward is the notion that women can surpass the narrowly legalistic model around which so much of the debate over abortion revolves. Rhonda Copelan’s contribution to Fried’s collection suggests that the model of autonomy informing both “Jane” and the women’s self-help groups might allow the reproductive rights movement to surmount some of the problems imposed by the legal reliance on the concept of privacy.
This issue is a particularly difficult one. At the same time that women should not concede private control over their bodies to the state, it should be recognized that the notion of privacy is an extremely limited one that cannot be used to ground the full meaning of reproductive freedom—of which the right to abortion is only a part.
Most significantly, the focus on privacy is essentially a negative one, defined in terms of state non-interference in marriage and the family.(15) Clearly, such a principle is questionable—perhaps self-defeating—for a movement that is concerned with women’s liberation as a whole.
Copelan’s discussion of recent Supreme Court cases points out the limitations inherent in the focus on privacy. In 1986, the Supreme Court refused to interpret privacy such that it would overturn Georgia’s sodomy law, “which punished sodomy with a potential 20 years in prison.”(16) In this case, the justices’ homophobic fear and hostility to sexual freedom resulted in their refusal to recognize “gay sexual intimacy… as an essential part of the familial relations of lesbians and gay men.”(17)
Copelan suggests an alternative to privacy, the concept of autonomy, which maintains the focus on self-determination, but goes beyond it to insist that this right must be positively affirmed by an enabling “equality and social responsibility.”(18) Unlike the negative right of privacy, which implies no obligation on the part of the state to facilitate choice, autonomy implies that the state must contribute “to the material conditions and social relations that facilitate autonomous decision makdng.”(19)
Such autonomy also requires fundamental and widespread social changes that transcend demands that the state keep out of women’s private affairs, sentiments expressed in buttons and posters demanding “Get Your Laws off my Body” and “U.S. out of my Uterus,” to articulate the connections between women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, civil rights, demand for universal health care and other social issues.
The single-issue-focused reactions to the antics of Operation Rescue have not always succeeded in articulating these connections. Only by doing so can the reproductive rights movement project a positive vision to counter the radically reactionary future projected by Operation Rescue.
1. David Buck, “Bible, Law Motivate Pro-Lifer,” Wichita Eagle, 9/9, 1.
2. Michael Martinez, “Second-Trimester Abortions put Doctor at Heart of Controversy,” Kansas City Times, A7, 8/21/89.
4. Judy Thomas, “Terry and his Cause Allow No Neutrality,” Wichita Eagle, IA, 8/2.5/91.
6. When Terry and his followers decided to move their campaign to New York City, their numbers fell far short of their predictions and far short of the thousands of abortion rights supporters who loudly proclaimed “New York is pro-choice,” and other more militant slogans like “They say ‘don’t fuck,’ we say ‘fuck you.’”
7. Mathew Schofield and Scott Canon, “Rally in Wichita takes Abortion-rights Stand,” Kansas City Star, 8/28/91, Al.
8. “Rally,” AZ3.
9. From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom. Transforming a Movement, ed. Marlene Fried, South End Press, Boston, MA, 1990.
10. “Jane,” “Just Call Jane” in Marlene Fried ed., o p. cit.
11. “Jane,” 93.
12. Beth Reinhard, “Resurgence of Self-Help Programs,” Ms., July/August 1991, 94.
14. Laura Punnet, “The Politics of Menstrual Extraction,” in Marlene Fried ed., op. cit.
15. Rhonda Copelan, “From Privacy to Autonomy. The Conditions for Sexual and Reproductive Freedom,” in Marlene Fried ed., op. cit., 33.
16. Copelan, 29.
18. Copelan, 28.
19. Copelan, 38.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1992, ATC 36