Roe in Rough Waters | The Nation


Roe in Rough Waters

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Desiree was a high school senior from Buffalo who already had a 1-year-old daughter when she came to spend the night with me. She wore jeans and a huge sweatshirt, but anyone could see she was pregnant. Desiree was at twenty-one weeks and had never been to New York City. In fact, she didn't know one person here, nor did she have money for a hotel, which is why the clinic called me. I picked her up at the end of her first day of the three-day procedure. She had been counseled about the abortion and her options. Laminaria, tubes of sterile seaweed, had been placed in her cervix in order to dilate it overnight. We ate Mexican food and then she fell asleep by the light of MTV. At 7 the next morning, we headed back to the clinic and she continued her abortion. As we entered Parkmed Eastern Women's Center, a scary nun and toothless old man divebombed Desiree, surrounding her like autograph-seekers, begging her not to kill her baby.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

CORRECTION: The number of women who died annually from illegal abortions before passage of Roe v. Wade was not 10,000. Experts put the figure between 1,000 and 5,000 for the postwar period.

About the Author

Jennifer Baumgardner
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author, with Amy Richards, of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and...

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Most women I have hosted are facing situations similar to Desiree's. (I host through Haven, a loose coalition of women who provide a place to stay for people in town for what are always later-term abortions.) The women find out they are pregnant too late to get an abortion in their hometown, or they can't raise the money. The abortion starts out costing $300, but by the time they get through the dangerously sticky red tape of Medicaid (if they are lucky enough to be in a state where Medicaid pays for procedures), it's $500--or $2,000. (The New York Abortion Access Fund--NYAAF, founded by a recent college grad and run by a half-dozen young women--contributed to forty abortions last year, almost all of which cost between $995 and $3,000.) Often the woman herself has almost no money or spent it getting to New York, and the clinician has to call around to various funds that will pick up part of the cost of an abortion. It can take days and a half-dozen calls for the clinician to get the money together. Haven and these funds are a sort of underground railroad for abortions--the irony being that abortion is legal and a woman's right.

This month, abortion has been legal for thirty years. The terrain has become increasingly complex. The same moment the planets aligned so that conservatives had a monopoly on government, the Alan Guttmacher Institute announced that abortion rates had declined--dramatically. In 1992 the AGI predicted that 43 percent of American women would have an abortion before the age of 45. Basically, the abortion rate was pushing 50 percent. A decade later, the number was one in three. Due to population growth, this still means just over 1.3 million abortions per year, but it's the lowest abortion rate in twenty-nine years. Six percent are medical abortions (RU-486); the rest are surgical.

The fact that the abortion rate has dropped is that rare thing: good news for both those who wave gory photos of 21-week-old fetuses and those who wave signs that read George, Get Out of My Bush! After all, pro-choicers want women to have the tools that make the need for abortion minimal. "We'd prefer women have adequate contraception to control reproduction," says Lauren Porsch, a 23-year-old staffer at Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and founder of NYAAF. "It's cheaper, easier on the woman, less painful all around." (Most pro-choicers see abortion ideally as a backup, since 54 percent of women getting abortions report that they were using birth control the month they got pregnant. Desiree was on the pill when she got pregnant.)

The decline coincided with the approval of emergency contraception in 1998 (the AGI estimates that 51,000 abortions were averted by the use of EC in 2000 alone, and Planned Parenthood distributed 459,000 doses to women in 2000) and eight years of President Clinton, who vetoed almost every piece of antichoice legislation that crossed his desk. Ironically, though, the downtrend in unwanted pregnancies is poised to be reversed. If successful, the Republican agenda is sure to pave the way for more late-term abortions like Desiree's.

Until recently, it was more likely the Bush Administration would do something sneaky, like remove crucial information about condoms from the Centers for Disease Control website, rather than launch overt assaults on choice. Meanwhile, it was the Democrats' role, with their slim majority in the Senate, to keep bans and restrictions at bay after they passed the House. And they succeeded. As Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, put it colorfully in the New York Times, the 107th Senate was "a veritable graveyard of pro-life legislation." As of January 7, though, when the 108th Congress convened, the Senate has been primed to become a veritable "pro-life" birthing center.

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