The Dignity of Reproductive Choice

On Wednesday, I posted briefly about Jennie Linn McCormack, in a piece I called "What Does An Abortionist Look Like?" It was an intentionally provocative title, which aimed to draw attention to a story that's been ignored: a woman who took RU-486, ordered over the Internet, and was arrested for inducing her own abortion. I was trying to make two points. First, what happens when governments restrict access to abortion? Women start doing it for themselves. Second, do we really want to put desperate women in jail for trying to control their own bodies?

But several things about the piece drew some criticism from a number of reproductive rights advocates, people whose politics and efforts I respect. One critic, Gretchen Sisson, was kind enough to write a thoughtful critique of my piece. With her permission, I am posting that below.

I want to say first that I'm so glad you're writing about the Jennie McCormack case. Not enough people are writing about the Jennie McCormack case. I also understand where you were going using the term "abortionist" in the title, but that word is so alienating to so many supporters that it really set the tone for other aspects of the article. I think that, in order to make the point you were going for, you'd have had to illustrate the contrast very clearly: are you comparing the single mother to a back alley "abortionist" of yesteryear? Or are you comparing her to physicians that perform abortions today? The term "abortionist" is still used pejoratively in many circles, so if you're using it, I think you need to be deliberate about why you're using it. I know that for many choice activists, once they see that word, they're going to be on high alert while reading the rest of the article (with good reason).

Some of the other issues I have are with your tone more broadly.  For example, mifepristone and misoprostol are safe drugs, and I don't believe Jennie was "lucky" to not have had problems.  She was pretty typical.  In countries where abortion is illegal, women use them safely, on their own, in secret, all the time. Saying Jennie was "lucky" make the drugs seem very dangerous.  They aren't; in fact, misoprostol is available over-the-counter in many countries to treat ulcers. Yes, I would have preferred Jennie, and all women, had access to doctors when using these drugs.  But I think the "lucky" terminology implies the drugs are riskier than they are.  This makes it more difficult to increase access. For example, telemedicine programs have been proposed, where doctors prescribe drugs long-distance and then make them available by remotely pressing a button. Imagine the increase in rural access that could be made possible through telemedicine, and imagine the likelihood such programs will be possible if we inaccurately promote the idea that these drugs are more dangerous than they are.

Additionally, I take exception to the line "To put it mildly, Jennie Linn McCormack doesn’t sound like the world’s most responsible person—except that she apparently had the good sense to realize she was not going to be a good parent to another child."  This second part is just so judgmental to me; it seems to be condemning Jennie McCormack in a different court (as well as ignoring the absolute ostracism that she has faced in her community). The country is full of people who say others are unworthy parents: they say it about poor people, about unmarried people, about gay people.  Only Jennie McCormick can decide whether or not she wants another child, and if she doesn't want to continue the pregnancy, then not continuing the pregnancy shows good sense.  If she does want to continue the pregnancy, then taking action to make that happen would have been a sensible choice.  We don't know every part of her life, so I don't think we can say what's "right" or "wrong".  More importantly, I don't think what we have to say matters.

If we want abortion to be a responsible choice, a parenting choice, a safe choice, then our concept of abortion should have nothing to do with whether or not we think any given woman "deserves" access or is making a "correct" choice. Women do not earn the right to abortion because they are good and they make the decisions others think they should. Women have the right to access abortion because they are human beings in control of their own bodies and lives.

Here's why I mentioned the mess that appears to be Ms. McCormack's life: I dislike messaging away reality. My point, as I wrote to Gretchen Sisson, was that everyone has the right to make choices about her body, everyone has the right to the full spectrum of medical care. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to have made smart choices in the past. You don't have to have your life together even in the slightest. The moment of conception should not be the last moment a woman has the right to decide whether or not to give birth. 

Dr. Sisson and I disagree on some points, but on others I will be paying closer attention in the future. 

Speaking of teen pregnancy, you saw that it hit a 30-year low in 2008, yes? Why, you ask? Because of increased use of contraception. Yo, Mr. Santorum!

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