Late-Term Abortion: In Silence No Longer

Why did we have to wait until a heroic doctor was murdered before people began to question the outrageous claims made against him and against women who have late term abortions?

One small ray of hope emerged in the aftermath of the horrific anti-choice assassination of Dr. George Tiller. Former patients of Dr. Tiller’s—or those who have had similar experiences with late term abortions—came out of the woodwork to testify to the necessity of their abortions, the painfulness of their decisions, and the goodness of Dr. Tiller, who was willing to brave harassment, arson, and attempted murder to make sure that women in dire need received the care they deserved. And for once, you saw more mainstream news outlets like the New York Times giving space to women to talk about the horror of a pregnancy gone wrong, and the need to terminate.

And it’s working. People like Andrew Sullivan and Steve Waldman, who bought the misogynist claim that women wake up one day at 30 weeks and decide they can’t fit a baby in between their yoga classes and mani-pedis, are being rudely awakened by the truth about late-term abortion. And while they’re still not completely sold on the idea that women have a right to determine if they should be mutilated, traumatized, or killed by a pregnancy gone wrong, they at least are beginning to realize that perhaps their cold assessment of the cold hearts of women was completely off-base.

All this leaves us with an uncomfortable question: Why did we have to wait until a heroic doctor was murdered before people began to question the outrageous claims made against him and against women who have late term abortions? Why does a good man have to be dead before people start to think maybe, just maybe, women aren’t that wicked? Bitch PhD asks this question poignantly:

And finally, all of a sudden people are linking to or telling stories about the kind of abortions Tiller performed. Which is awesome. But those stories have been there all along, both on the feminist blogs and on memorial sites…. Instead we get stories, week after week, about Modern Love or what’s happening "On the Runway" or new trends like teenagers hugging or expensive remodelling projects.

I’m serious about this. "Style" sections are supposed to be soft news, for women, right? Why the hell *aren’t* columns like "Modern Love" sometimes about late-term abortions? That’s a women’s issue.

Why indeed? Well, as a feminist and as someone who writes about reproductive justice extensively, I have to confess that part of the blame falls on the shoulders of those of use who struggle for reproductive justice. These stories aren’t being pushed, because we haven’t been pushing them. We’ve shied away from talking about late term abortion in specific terms, and in the process, we’ve allowed the anti-choice movement and their hysterical fantasies about people who murder babies for fun to frame the discourse. And there’s a number of reasons why.

First of all, we’re beset by a combination of fear and the natural human desire not to be endlessly annoyed. When your opposition is relentless and has no moral qualms about harassment and deceit, it’s exhausting to keep pushing. I know that every time I wrote about the heroic Dr. Tiller, I was absolutely besieged by anti-choice fanatics who have no life outside of their obsession, never seem to sleep, and are absolutely, 100% impervious to reason or reality. Arguing with them was pointless, and even bringing up the subject, especially online, meant an avalanche of abuse from people who function like tanks of hatred, just rolling over everything in sight. Pushing these stories in the media meant asking mainstream media outlets to invite this misery into their lives. Dr. Tiller and other providers who offer late term abortions are the victims of the witch hunt psychology. The hunters don’t care about the truth, just what they want to believe, and if you defend the person they’ve determined is a witch, you’re the next target. Who wants to invite that?

Of course, we should do it anyway, because if you don’t fight back, they win.

The other reason, and this is even more distressing to me, is we were afraid. Anti-choicers’ best weapon is exploiting the disgustingness of surgery, any surgery. (If you described root canals like they do early term abortions, and put up doctored photographs of the results, you could get half of American to freak out and agree to be “pro-tooth”, or whatever misleading phrase you want to use.) But late term abortion is by far the grossest, most distressing of abortion procedures. They really do remove fetuses that are very close to the baby stage. It’s not like early term abortions at all, and even many women who get late term abortions don’t use the word “abortion”, because there really isn’t much feeling that they chose it. The fear is that the public at large will be too disturbed by this fact to actually listen to the reasons why anyone would do such a thing.

It was easy to rationalize avoiding the subject. Third trimester abortions are about 1% of all abortions performed, and frankly, the anti-choice movement only focuses on them because they are especially disgusting, and therefore make a good cudgel to attack all abortion rights. And since they are so emotionally fraught, they have a great deal of appeal to the ghouls that populate the anti-choice movement, the ones who spend obscene percentages of their lives dwellling on graphic pictures of dead fetuses. We feared the topic gave the ghouls more opportunities to scare people and shut down rational thought.

We were wrong to be afraid. We have the moral high ground on late term abortion, and that should be obvious now. No one wants to see their wives, daughters, friends, or colleagues suffer the trauma of fatal birth defects or health hazards that kill or maim them. Few of us are sadistic enough to be party to laws that would force 10-year-olds to give birth to the babies of rapists.

The final reason that many of us in the reproductive rights movement were antsy about pushing the stories of women who have late term abortions is respect. For most women who have late term abortions, the politics of it only comes up insofar as they have to climb over the protesters in order to get the procedure and start the grieving process. Pro-choicers understandably don’t want to add to their burden by asking them to speak out about their experiences. We want to let people grieve in peace. The reason that we want to win this political battle conclusively is so that people can make their most personal choices without the whole world thinking they have a piece of it.

Unfortunately, as these days past have shown, the luxury of having the personal be completely personal and not political will only come when we beat back those who cannot stand that they don’t have completely ownership over women’s bodies. These stories help, and I hope going forward we do not live in fear any longer of telling them.