Sunday, September 30, 2012

Virginia regulations on abortion clinics

Virginia is on its way to forcing abortion clinics to adhere to difficult-to-meet building requirements (essentially, those of hospitals). These regulations will likely put many abortion clinics in the state out of business temporarily or permanently.

These kinds of regulations are known as "TRAP" laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). The idea is to regulate abortion clinics in a way that looks innocuous but makes continued operation impossible.

What Virginia is doing with building regulations has been in vogue lately with state governments. The asserted reason for adding additional regulations on abortion providers is to ensure the highest standard of safety and care for women who are undergoing a serious medical procedure. The problem is that a) there is little to no evidence that the additional regulations are necessary and will in fact reduce incidents of complications in abortions (the vast majority of which are relatively simple and safe 5-10 minute procedures), and b) similar regulations are not being imposed on other types of comparable medical clinics or facilities. 

This is one of those areas of American politics that is just pure theater: Everyone knows what pro-life government officials are doing, yet those officials keep up the pretense. It baffles me why, under the Casey decision, TRAP laws are not easily found unconstitutional as "undue burdens."  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Canadian vs. American conservatives on abortion

Conservatives are not the same everywhere. In Canada, a Conservative Party backbencher offered a motion "to have a committee examine whether a fetus should be considered a human being before it is born, and at what point exactly that designation should be given" (Globe and Mail). He attempted to paint his motion as not about undermining or changing current abortion rights, but everyone saw through that immediately.

This is the kind of thing that American conservative legislators would propose as a matter of course-- in fact, this is a rather tame version of what pro-life legislators might do, for example offering amendments to the Constitution to give the unborn constitutional rights.

In Canada, however, the political consensus is different. The Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, came out against the motion, essentially asserting that the question of abortion rights is closed.

The motion went forward and was defeated. Opponents of the motion seemed particularly peeved that the Minister on the Status of Women voted for it. Their anger over her vote is an example of the pro-choice axiom that one cannot be a feminist and pro-life (or, as one NDP MP suggested, pro-life and for women's equality) -- a supposition that irritates pro-lifers to no end.

Ultimately, this motion had as much success as its more extreme and direct American variations: None. In recent years, the pro-life movement has found much more success with chipping-away type regulations than the big gesture. Success in the obvious sense may not be the point here, however. As someone noted in the article, this may be about throwing some red meat to base voters, although I think these kinds of motions always have some effect as barrages in the hearts and minds war. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Do abortion regulations lower the number of abortions?


Why do states enact ever more regulations under the conceit that they assist pregnant women in making truly 'informed' decisions about whether to have an abortion? Do they truly wish women to make more informed decisions, or is it something else? 

Scholar and professor Michael New, who generally produced scholarship and writes opinion pieces that favor pro-life views, says that it is something else, and that that is a good thing. 

If a gaffe is telling the truth, then this is a gaffe, except that the professor, at the Values Voter Summit, stated the obvious: Many regulations of the abortion process, ostensibly intended to assist with 'informed consent,' are really procedural obstacles designed to make getting an abortion more difficult. Mother Jones critiques the Professor New's remarks and has streaming audio of him.

Professor New established in a journal article that the number of known/reported abortions seems to go down with additional procedural regulation of abortions. He is, I think, admirably equivocal about whether this actually means the absolute number of abortions go down (or, e.g., women go to other states or obtain unreported abortions).

Elizabeth Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, make a great point

"None of these restrictions reduces the need for abortion," Nash said. "This is all about abortion and has nothing to do with reducing unintended pregnancy."

The revival of abortion services in Wichita

An abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas, that has been closed since the murder of its doctor and owner in 2009 is going to reopen.

This particular clinic, Women's Health Care Services, has been controversial because it was one of the few clinics to perform late-term abortions, which are, relatively speaking, extremely rare. The doctor who ran the clinic, George Tiller, performed late-term abortions as a matter of principle (providing a service he thought necessary for some women). As a result, Dr. Tiller became a kind of highly publicized super-villain of the pro-life movement. One nickname for Dr. Tiller, repeated many times by Bill O'Reilly on his television show, was "Tiller the Baby Killer."

In part because of Dr. Tiller's clinic, Wichita became one of the epicenters of the pro-life 'rescue' and 'blockade' movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Operation Rescue's famous 1991 "Summer of Mercy" action focused on the Dr. Tiller's clinic.

Dr. Tiller was murdered while attending church in 2009 by pro-life militant Scott Roeder. He had previously survived other acts of violence against himself and the clinic; notably, he was shot in both arms in 1993 by another pro-life militant, Shelly Shannon.

This clinic symbolically represents the extremes of both the pro-life and the pro-choice movement, so the reopening of the clinic will, I think, be seen by activists as important or provocative, depending on one's point of view. The reopened clinic will not perform late-term abortions. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The 40 Days Vigil Season Begins

The pro-life organization 40 Days for Life kicked off their fall campaign this week. The group organizes prayer vigils around abortion clinics, to dissuade pregnant women from going through with abortions and to convince employees and volunteers at the clinics to change their minds and abandon their work.

They organize their vigils around 40-day blocks (hence the name). It is a smart strategy in terms of recruitment and publicity because it gives each prayer event a sense of occasion and also provides participants a definite starting and ending point-- a concrete project with a beginning and end.

Does it "work"? It depends on how one conceptualizes victory-- shutting down a clinic, convincing women to not go through with an abortion, convincing clinic workers to abandon their posts, or, in a more general and long-term way, changing the culture through a hearts/minds/spirits campaign. They will claim that they are doing good work and "winning" in some of the ways just mentioned. Pro-choice people and organizations would disagree, naturally! Even some pro-life activists that use different general methods (e.g., political lobbying and legislative work) might say that their energy is rather misplaced and that they are, at best, using a spoon to bail out the boat.

Note that pro-life activists having a presence at clinics is nothing new; this has been going on since the late 1970s. What is different about the 40 Days for Life concept is its contrast with the ultimately counterproductive (I would argue) clinic blockades and confrontational tactics of groups like Operation Rescue in the 1980s and 1990s. The 40 Days for Life concept is much more PR-friendly and (so they would say) emphasizes positive methods of persuasion-- no angry shouting about 'baby killers,' for example.

If you want to read a sympathetic account of 40 Days for Life and its effect on one clinic worker, read Unplanned, by Abby Johnson. If you want to read a critical account of their activities, see this article, published in RH Reality Check.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Abortion allowed in Uruguay?

Uruguay may legalize abortion generally within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with a general ban thereafter with exceptions (like rape within 14 weeks, fetal deformity, or threat to the life of the pregnant woman). It also requires a five-day 'reflection' period, after an interview with a panel of three people (social worker, gynecologist, and a psychologist). The law also allows health care institutions to decline to perform abortions. The Boston Herald provides a good overview.

The reactions from pro-choice and pro-life forces in Uruguay are what one would expect, with pro-life forces concerned about giving any ground to abortion and pro-choice forces worried about the procedural barriers in the law and access issues.

I don't know much of anything about Uruguay, but I wonder about whether this will reduce the number of illegal abortions (and, by extension, unsafe abortions) taking place. This is one of the stated motivations for enacting the law. The Herald notes that most major health institutions in the country are Catholic-run. Therefore, if one legalizes abortion yet most of the institutions in which legal abortions could take place refuse to perform them, then very little will change. It is not unprecedented for a country to have laws that permit abortions under certain conditions while, in practice, many or most women continue to receive abortions outside of those legal limits.

Also, while this law (as reported) appears closer to European-style abortion laws (rather than the abortion-for-any-reason-up-to-viability law of the United States), European countries tend to blend limits on legal abortion with better access to the procedure itself (the UK, for example) and a social welfare state that provides support for women who take their pregnancies to term. If Uruguay does not provide decent access to the abortion procedure and does not have a robust social welfare state to help new mothers, then abortion policy in practice may not change much.

At the same time, the law may be one of those 'foot in the door' type laws, which, by its passage, publicly legitimizes some abortions, which could lead to a shift in public opinion and modification of the law after its flaws become apparent in practice.

UPDATE: The law passed the lower chamber of parliament, as predicted, by a 50-49 margin. This should be the last major obstacle for the law, as the Senate and President are predicted to approve. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Pregnant at 49"

On The New York Times web site, Erin Kelly tells the story of how she considered having an abortion after becoming unexpectedly pregnant at the age of 49.

As with the Sherri Chessen/Finkbine story (see earlier post), the Kelly story presents the choice of whether to have an abortion as not reducible to the easy application of an clear-cut moral principle. In the end, Ms. Kelly miscarried, but expressed appreciation that the possibility of having an abortion was available to her if she had needed/chosen to go that route.

The Sherri Finkbine effect

Linda Greenhouse (of The New York Times) tells the story of Sherri Chessen/Finkbine, who, in 1962, wanted to have an abortion and became national news. This is one of those 'forgotten' events in the history of abortion rights in America.

The purpose of relating personal stories like this is to frame the question of abortion as one of difficult and context-specific personal choices for women and their families. Where the basic pro-life narrative focuses primarily (though not exclusively) on the moral status of the unborn, stories like this attempt to complicate things for the reader, especially because most readers can identify with the pregnant protagonist and all of the things weighing on her mind.

This was, I think, the effect of the Sherri Chessen story: It introduced, into mainstream public discussion, the idea that 'regular' and 'good' women might want an abortion for reasons that are too complicated to dismiss easily.