Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Lost History of Providers' Abortion Rights


Abortion law is made in clinics, as I suggested in a recent post. At the same time, abortion laws have dramatically changed how clinics do business. As Johanna Schoen studies in a forthcoming book Abortion After Legalization, 1970-2000 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2013), law has remade abortion practice. Since at least the 1990s, the vast majority of abortions take place in independent clinics, allowing many physicians and hospitals to distance themselves from the abortion struggle. At the same time, in the 1970s, providers’ place in abortion politics changed. In the lead-up to Roe, physicians played a visible role in the movement to legalize abortion. For organizations like NARAL, the involvement of physicians like Ed Keemer or Milan Vuitch made legal abortion appear to be more mainstream and respectable. In the decade after Roe, by contrast, the abortion-rights movement highlighted the importance of women to the cause and the value of the cause to women. NARAL Executive Director Karen Mulhauser highlighted her own experiences with rape in explaining the importance of access to abortion. Other movement members invoked the death of Rosie Jimenez, a woman who could not afford a legal abortion and who died after a botched illegal procedure.

As providers became less central to movement rhetoric, abortion opponents created powerful narratives about the nature of abortion and abortion providers. Organizations like the National Right to Life Committee argued that providers misinformed women and exploited them for money. In well-publicized slide shows, abortion opponents brought into the open a particular, morally charged, and violent image of abortion.

In the 1970s, the providers’ wing of the abortion movement had just started to mobilize, and after 1976, the mainstream movement generally presented legal abortion as something to be prevented. Providers, in this account, facilitated a necessary evil. The movement offered no direct answer to claims about what the abortion procedure involved or about how providers behaved.

The providers movement organized gradually, with the formation of the National Abortion Federation in the late 1970s and the founding of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers in the 1990s. These organizations at times offered a more nuanced narrative about the abortion experience. Highlighting prayers and burial ceremonies preferred by some patients, providers emphasized that some women grieved the loss of a fetus while having no regret about an abortion decision. Citing the stories of actual patients, providers called for a change in the abortion-rights movement’s argumentative strategy, urging activists to acknowledge that abortion involved killing while maintaining that society should trust the moral agency of women. The advocacy of these organizations has at times pointed to mostly unexplored new directions in the law and policy of abortion rights.

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