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In the Waiting Room | The Nation

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In the Waiting Room

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"We are in a funding emergency today," read the e-mail from the New York Abortion Access Fund. Four women, who had come to New York City for second-trimester abortions unavailable in their home states, were about to be sent home because, despite heroic efforts, a clinic social worker had been unable to raise enough money to pay for their procedures, which cost between $1,600 and $2,000. Belinda, from Maryland, needed $750 more. Miranda, from Philadelphia, needed $595 more. Evelynne, from Maryland, needed $445 more. Karina, a 15-year-old rape victim from Massachusetts, needed $1,500 more. The women (these are not their real names) had traveled long distances and had spent the night hoping against hope that the money would be found: At twenty-three weeks, this was their last chance.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Belinda, Miranda, Evelynne and Karina are the human face of the current Congressional debate over "partial-birth abortion," a term invented by anti-choicers that has no precise medical meaning and cannot be found in any medical text. Yet it has obtained wide currency thanks to the media, which, whether out of laziness or ignorance or fear of seeming too liberal, use it far more often than such terms as "dilation and extraction" and "dilation and evacuation," which describe actual methods used in second- and third-term abortions. (A recent Nexis search found that over the past six months, "partial birth" was used 427 times, while "dilation and extraction" was used only 32 times.) The oxymoronic "partial-birth abortion," with accompanying gory description--crushed skull, sucked-out brains, half-delivered fetus--was a stroke of public relations genius; another is the phrase "late term."

When is "late term"? Well, it's when you have a "partial-birth abortion." It is, in other words, a foggy expression that intentionally conflates the second trimester of pregnancy, when according to Roe v. Wade, abortion can be regulated before viability only to safeguard the woman's health, and the third trimester, when abortion can legally be banned except to preserve the woman's life or health. By this sleight of hand, "late term" suggests that most second-trimester fetuses are viable (although they almost never are, except at the very end) and paints "partial-birth abortions" as legal infanticide. Thus the anti-choicers reframe themselves as the commonsensical moderates and pro-choicers as the callous extremists.

Going after "partial-birth abortion" is a brilliant tactic. The phrase doesn't insult the pregnant woman the way "convenience abortion," "abortion as birth control" and "abortion as murder" do, implying that women get pregnant out of laziness and kill on a whim; and a ban appears to affect only the kind of abortion a woman can have, not whether she gets to have one at all. But the smoke and mirrors of "partial-birth abortion" language may be used to limit many common abortion procedures.

Propaganda works: There is some evidence from polls that young women are more likely to oppose legal abortion than comparable women even ten years ago, and, according to an anecdotal but suggestive feature story in the New York Times ("Surprise, Mom, I'm Against Abortion," March 30), the furor over "partial-birth abortion" is one reason. (Abstinence-only sex ed and, paradoxically, the increased use of birth control and emergency contraception are others: The better young women get at controlling their own fertility, the easier it is for them to see women with crisis pregnancies as slatterns and sluts, especially given the greater reliance on abortion by poor women and women of color.)

On March 13, the Senate passed a ban on "partial-birth abortion," which, since it avoids any reference to gestational age, constitutes a flagrant attack on Roe. The House is sure to follow (we'll be watching the vote of new pro-Roe convert Dennis Kucinich), and Bush can hardly wait to sign it. Never mind that, like the Nebraska law struck down by the Supreme Court three years ago in Stenberg v. Carhart, the Senate bill contains no health exception for the woman.

Abortions at twenty weeks and beyond make up less than 2 percent of all abortions. So how does a woman twenty-three weeks pregnant come to be sitting in an abortion clinic waiting room so far from home? According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the three most common reasons are "she didn't realize she was pregnant" (71 percent of women surveyed); "she had difficulty making the arrangements" (including gathering funding, finding a provider in her area or making travel arrangements--48 percent of women gave this response); and "she was afraid to tell her parents or partner" (33 percent). The stories of the four women bear out these findings. Belinda, for example, kept getting her period through the first trimester; Karina, the rape victim, is an immigrant living in a parental-consent state, whose parents still live in South America. Even with help from her boyfriend and his parents, she had only $300 to pay the clinic. Young women, poor women, women in a hundred kinds of trouble--this is the real face of "partial-birth abortion."

The good news is that NYAAF's e-mail appeal was a phenomenal success. Within three hours, a loose network of women offering donations as small as $10 had raised the needed funds with even a little left over to start an emergency fund for the next time. Unfortunately, that next time is sure to come. Legal restrictions, combined with obstacles to public funding, put abortions out of reach for far too many women and, ironically, push more abortions beyond the first trimester. If you would like to help NYAAF make legal abortion a reality for women like Belinda, Miranda, Evelynne and Karina, please send a check, large or small, to NYAAF, FDR Station, Box 7569, New York, NY 10150.

P.S. As an antidote to antichoice propaganda that presents abortion as an inevitable source of shame, sorrow and regret--and pro-choice pablum about what a painful choice it always is--take a look at www.imnotsorry.net, where women are posting positive stories about abortions that left them flooded with relief, eager to move on and more self-reliant. The brainchild of Patricia Beninato of Richmond, Virginia, the site revives the old feminist idea of "Abortion without apology"--and not a moment too soon.

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