Today is the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling that gives people in the United States the right to legal, safe abortions. I’ve had abortion on my mind a lot the past couple days. More than usual, which is saying something, because I work at a sexual health hotline where I talk about abortion pretty much all day long. The hotline I work at offers general information on sexual and reproductive health, but the majority of callers I talk to are young, poor, Black women who are seeking abortions. I have worked there for six months, and in that time I’ve talked to a lot of women in desperate, sad situations. Situations that most people don’t want to think about. Situations that people like Sarah Palin don’t want to acknowledge when they make their self-righteous, moral declarations that abortion is wrong, and/or that women who choose to have an abortion are bad women.
As I was saying, I’ve had abortion on my mind more than usual the past couple days, and that’s because of the breaking story in Philadelphia (where I live and work) about Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a man who ran an abortion clinic in West Philadelphia (my neighborhood) for 30 years. At his clinic, Dr.Gosnell performed illegal, unsanitary procedures. I’m not going to go into all of the horror stories that are emerging, but the report released by a grand jury investigation on Wed states that Dr.Gosnell and his staff used unsanitary equipment, had animals and litter boxes in procedure rooms, performed abortions far past the national legal limit of 24 weeks and 6 days, over-drugged women, restrained women who had changed their minds about the procedure and held them down while they were drugged, and aborted viable fetuses which he would murder if they appeared to be breathing by cutting their spinal chords with a pair of scissors.
Dr. Gosnell’s practices confirm what a lot of anti-choice people think about abortion. And there is no doubt in my mind that they are going to be using this case to push for stricter and stronger legislation restricting women’s right to abortion in Pennsylvania and other states. Pennsylvania already restricts access by requiring people seeking an abortion to go to a 1 hour infosession at least 24 hours before having a procedure. At this infosession, they are read their legal rights about having an abortion, and offered information on alternatives to abortion. PA also restricts access by requiring parental consent or a judicial bypass (where a teenager meets with a judge who determines if they are mature enough to make the decision for themselves) for people under age 18. And they restrict access to their poorest residents by not covering abortion in the state health insurance plans. Abortion is the only routine procedure not covered by the state insurance plans.
It is easy to point a finger at this man and his clinic and say that abortion is bad. It’s easy because it doesn’t require looking at the big picture, at the structural inequalities of our capitalist society that lead people to seek abortion procedures at clinics like this. After reading about the conditions of the clinic, those of us who have never been to a health office like that may be asking ourselves why anyone would go there, would stay there for their procedure. I think I have some insight into why, because I talk to women like them every day.
Getting a legal, safe procedure at a reputable clinic in Philadelphia in the first trimester costs between $350-$450, and that’s at the least expensive clinics. For someone who is in high school, someone who already has 1,2,3,4,8 kids, someone who is working a minimum wage job or who is surviving on welfare, someone who had to move in with their mom cause they couldn’t afford the rent, because their partner was abusing them, because their partner was incarcerated, $350 is a DAMN lot of money. I work a full time job where I make a decent salary, and $350 is a lot of money to me. And let’s not forget that when you go in for that infosession and the procedure itself, you need to take time off of work and/or find someone to watch your kids. The majority of women I speak with already have at least one child, and abortion statistics nationally show that about 60 percent of American women who get an abortion have already given birth to at least one child.
Dr.Gosnell’s clinic was an attractive option to poor, of-color and/or immigrant people because he could set up an informal payment plan (something that, sadly, most reputable clinics cannot offer because they need to be paid upfront to continue to offer the high-quality care that they do), because he would perform abortions after business hours, in the middle of the night, even. And sadly, because abortion is such a taboo topic, many women didn’t know that the conditions of a clinic weren’t supposed to be like that. They didn’t know what a procedure was supposed to be like (i.e. not being so drugged that you wake up hours later, that they’re not supposed to be performed past 24.6 weeks, that a medical procedure (also known as RU-486) consists of two sets a pills asministered over 3-7 days, not a whole handful taken at once.)
The non-profit I work for also offers community education workshops of healthy sexuality. Apparently, we used to offer a lot of them in Philadelphia public schools and in community centers around the city. However, due to the impacts of the financial crisis of the past two years, the school district has cut the funding for programs like ours, and we no longer offer them. In the six months I have worked there, I have done two workshops. Both at these workshops as well as when I speak with teens on our hotline, I am appalled at how little they know about their bodies and their options to prevent pregnancy. Most of them don’t know what ovulation is, much less how to track it. They don’t know that they can get birth control for free and without a parent. Many young women think it is normal to have sex when their partner wants to and they do not. How else will they “keep” him*?
Patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy and poverty all deeply affect the way the young women I talk to move through the world, the kind of relationships they partake in, the sexual choices they make, and the options they see available to them as far as preventing pregnancy. The fact that so many young women have unplanned pregnancies is not their fault, so let’s stop blaming them. I am certainly not trying to deny their agency to make decisions for themselves, but I do think that we need to acknowledge how centuries of structural oppression affects their lives.
The organization I work for and many others throughout the city reported Dr.Gosnell’s clinic to the city and state government many times. Women whom he had given bad procedures successfully sued him. His clinic was inspected in the 80s and 90s. The government knew what was going on, and they let it happen. They did this because in our capitalist society, poor women of color are not valued. If they were, maybe the funding would be there to teach them about safer sex so they wouldn’t be turning to a place like Dr.Gosnell’s clinic later down the road.
Please check out some great analysis by other bloggers:
On second thought about Kermit Gosnell
Abortion clinic horror in Philly highlights need for more access
NARAL Pro-Choice’s twitter feed has more:
*Just want to acknowlege the heteronormativity in my use of “him”, however most of the young women I talk to are dating and having sex with men, and I think it is important to highlight how patriarchy affects their relationships.