Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Politics of Abortion

            As Congressional abortion critics focus their relentless assault on a woman’s right to choose, one consequence of the 2010 elections has been coordinated attacks on Planned Parenthood at both the State and Federal level.  Up-close observers know the debate to be more than just a divinely-inspired reverence for life. With House control firmly in Republican hands and a narrow, unreliable Democratic margin in the Senate, Planned Parenthood funding is at its most vulnerable to a testosterone-laden Congress than ever.  

            My interest is more than passive since many years ago, my sixteen year old sister gave birth to Brian, a beautiful baby boy born ‘out of wedlock’

            Not unlike today’s self-proclaimed pro-lifers who attempt to legislate morality via the budget process, the Comstock laws of 1870 targeted “lewd and lascivious” literature through the mail including educational information about abortion, contraception, family planning and sexually transmitted disease with twenty four States adopting similar laws.           

            Having seen her own mother struggle with 18 pregnancies and 11 children and die at 40 years of age, Margaret Sanger opened the country’s first clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 dedicated to reproductive health services for women and men including contraception and family planning. A nurse who founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 and organized a World Population Conference in 1927, Sanger was arrested in a police raid for disseminating birth control information and arrested a second time for violating the Comstock laws.  By 1937, a New York State Court lifted the Comstock ban and Planned Parenthood was on its way to becoming a respected and steadfast voice on behalf of women’s reproductive health .                     

            It is no accident that Congressional Republicans, devoid of intellectual purpose and lacking anything remotely resembling a domestic policy, have found it politically advantageous to stir the anti-abortion-Planned Parenthood pot with vigor.  As the Republican’s routinely whip their base to a fine froth of distraction to cover the absence of policy ideas, the Beltway media remain oblivious to the charade.   Having found a vocal if irrational element in American society who become easily aroused at the mention of public employees, National Public Radio and climate change, Planned Parenthood finds itself in the eye of a perpetual storm that promises to not go away anytime soon.    

            Democrats, however, are not relieved of their role to defend a woman’s constitutionally protected right to make her own health choices and to keep her patient-doctor relationship private.  Even as Democrats were protecting Planned Parenthood during the recent threat of a government shutdown in early April, Congress and the President agreed to ban the use of local government funds to pay for abortions in the District of Columbia.  In a protest the next day, DC’s Mayor Vincent Gray and six City Councilors were arrested in front of the Capitol.

         Too often, Congressional Democrats have provided the margin of victory for the Hyde Amendment which was adopted in1976 as a rider to the Appropriations bill funding the Department of Health and Human Services.  The lack of Democratic leadership on a wider variety of issues is a larger systemic problem which has allowed the Hyde amendment to survive annual authorizations for the last 30 years - even when Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress.  Denying all Federal funds for abortion, the Hyde amendment makes its way each year through the legislative labyrinth to passage without benefit of  Congressional committee public hearings, without witnesses or medical testimony as well as too little factual evidence.   

            Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the dangers of a strong Church and religious influence on public policy thereby setting the stage for the First Amendment which guarantees the separation of Church and State. In 1776, both the States of Virginia and Pennsylvania identified freedom of religion (including freedom from religion) as a personal choice directed only by reason, conviction and conscience without Government or Church intervention.  

In 1973, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourteenth Amendment ruling in Roe v. Wade that the Constitutional guarantee of the right to privacy extended to reproductive choice.  By 1975, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops established the Catholic Conference to lobby for the overturn of Roe as it collaborated with other conservative and evangelical organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee and the Moral Majority.  

With an unbelievably long and violent history, the Catholic Church has always been more than a little apprehensive about sex and politics.  In flagrant disregard for the Constitutionally protected separation of Church and State, the Bishops issued a Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities which called for all church related organizations to pursue a "pro-life legislative plan" including support for criminalization   As the Catholic Conference continues to openly influence public policy at both the State and Federal level, the Plan’s apparent success has seen many Catholic elected public officials, some threatened with excommunication,  cross the ‘separation of powers’ line in acquiescence to the Church.
Any Church foray into partisan politics while conducting a massive pr campaign to influence public policy oversteps itself as it attempts to have religious dogma accepted as government policy obligating all citizens to subscribe to beliefs against their own conscience.  Use of the pulpit on behalf of public policy is exactly what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were worried about.   Abortion is particularly unique in this regard as divorce is considered a private matter of personal choice. 

During Congressional consideration of health care reform in 2009, it was reported that Church representatives who openly lobbied both sides of the aisle threatened to kill the entire bill if offending abortion language were not removed.
            With legal abortions available in predominately Catholic Germany, France and Italy since the mid-1970s, it is curious that abortion in the U.S. remains such a politically hot-button – even after Roe v. Wade presumably settled the issue.  Such is a commentary on Congressional willingness to protect the Constitution against all threats – foreign or domestic.               

At the center of the anti-choice movement is an irrational male-dominated opposition    who will never find themselves pregnant.  Exploitation of abortion has become the showpiece for a patriarchal agenda that encourages an open disdain for women; - hectoring men and, in some cases, psychologically disturbed men, who believe they are imbued with a God-given right to impose their beliefs on a woman’s intimate life choices. While honest differences of opinion may exist, if those differences are dictated by religion or superstition purporting to be science, those opinions lose all credibility.  Such institutions of chaste malehood, all of which receive generous Federal tax exemptions worth billions of dollars, have no authority to dictate others’ moral behavior.

            While opposition to abortion is defined as a traditional conservative value, the Roe decision was based on protecting each individuals’ right to privacy, a Constitutionally protected right to be free from unwarranted government intrusion.  Yet abortion opponents remain blind to their own hypocrisy as they argue against Obama’s health care mandate as an unprecedented expansion of government sovereignty into the private lives of Americans dictating citizen choices.

            There are, of course, abortion opponents with intelligence and sensitivity just as there are good men of conscience who care about women, all are a distinct minority and drowned out by the shrill of the politically inspired.         

            After her delivery, my sister was taken to a Home of a particular theologic persuasion for unwed mothers.   Her son, a perfect baby unlike many newborns who resemble a wee version of Winston Churchill, with a small angelic face framed by his parent’s dark hair, captured our hearts immediately.   Brian’s father, still a high school student, as was my sister, came from a ‘good’ family with adequate financial resources, wanted to marry but the idea was rejected as impractical. 

            The Home required that, after birth, the new mother and her baby remain for two weeks during which  time, the baby slept in a small crib next to his mother’s bed where she would assume all the 24-7 duties of a new mother.  During that time, Brian’s father visited and helped with his son’s care.  For two weeks she nursed her baby, changed his diapers, bathed him and bonded with her child as any new Mother would.   At the end of those two weeks, the mother would hand over her child for adoption.   

            That morning, we waited, as my sister, grim and in shock, appeared to have stopped breathing, numb with the horror of  what was about to take place.  We were aware that Brian’s new parents were waiting in the next room when suddenly the door opened.   A woman, quiet and confident, entered, walked to my sister, wordlessly took Brian from her arms, and walked back out the door.  The psychic pain at that moment, physical and emotional, was indescribably crushing.  We watched helplessly as her child left her life.  No one cried, no words were spoken, we were left with the agonizing finality and a wound that has never healed.   We would never see Brian again.

            In the eyes of the Church, the rationale for the two-week residency was necessary to reinforce the consequences of the evil deed that these wild, bad girls had committed, young women with no life experience to understand the possible life-long impacts to their young lives, to drum home the message that pre-marital sex and pregnancy must not happen again – ever.

            Such pregnancy homes may provide an important support network for those young women who lack the maturity or resources to assume an adult responsibility but the haunting  dilemma of whether sacrificing her child to strangers was the ‘best’ solution for my sister, Brian’s father or their son has not dimmed over the years.   The immeasurable tragedy for my sister, her lost boy and perhaps millions of other women who relinquished their babies, did not end the day their children were taken.  In those days, the Church was omnipresent and teenage girls were not well enough informed to know the benefit of  Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive and sex education counseling beforehand.

            Today, America has the least generous maternity leave in the industrialized world , a WIC (women, infant and child) program that is inadequately funded and as Save the Children statistics show, American women are at-risk to death from pregnancy related causes.    Planned Parenthood can count on continued challenges to its existence by an obsessed right-wing and religious establishment not easily deterred. 

            Today, Brian would be an adult man perhaps with a family of his own and we pray he knows that somewhere there is a Mother and an Auntie who think of him often with great love. 

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