“There is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong … You can’t repent depressive symptoms ... You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.” So concludes Emily Bazelon’s article “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?” in the January 21, 2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine.
In her piece, Bazelon traces the emergence of “abortion recovery” activism back to the early 1980s through fundamentalist Christian and conservative Catholic organizations. Despite highly emotional and graphic assertions by this small yet growing sect of anti-choice activists that abortion causes mental health problems, Bazelon finds that “the idea that abortion is at the root of women’s psychological ills is not supported by the bulk of the research. Instead, the scientific evidence strongly shows that abortion does not increase the risk of depression, drug abuse or any other psychological problem any more than having an unwanted pregnancy or giving birth.”
Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin Lisa Subeck made the same point during a public hearing of the Senate Health Committee as she testified against SB 306. Subeck was challenging Senator Leah Vukmir’s contention that “abortion trauma” is a medical diagnosis. Citing reports from the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association, Subeck countered, “There are negative and positive consequences to every decision we make. The same is true for having an unintended pregnancy as for having an abortion. You’re attributing negative factors that the research does not support.”
Authored by Republican Senator Mary Lazich, SB 306 requires a physician who performs or induces abortions to determine whether the woman requesting these services has given her consent to do so voluntarily. It also requires medical care providers to give all women information about “services in the state that are available for victims or individuals at risk of domestic abuse” and outlaws the non-existent practice of “telemed” consulting services. Practically speaking, the bill increases already lengthy pre-abortion counseling requirements, promotes state-funded advertising for religious anti-abortion organizations, and increases legal liability for physicians who provide abortions.
On her legislative website, Lazich dubs SB 306 the “Coercive Abortion Bill.” That appears above two other entries that could have come straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth: “School Districts Healthy Under Balanced Budget” and “Budget Strengthens Medical Assistance Safety Net.” Are those really the effects of billions of dollars in budget cuts to schools and medical assistance programs? Perhaps in Waukesha, the region from whence Mary Lazich hails, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, too.
Subeck was the only person testifying in person against the bill, although seven other people registered their written opposition. She said, “This is not about patient safety and it only serves to diminish women’s access to their constitutionally protected right to choose safe and legal abortion when facing an unintended pregnancy.” Subeck added, “It is unnecessary intrusion by government into the doctor-patient relationship.”
But government isn’t the only entity intruding on the doctor-patient relationship. Trish Kagerbauer from A Place of Refuge Ministries of South Wisconsin, Inc. described a situation in which her organization engaged in some ethically questionable actions of this nature.
Kagerbauer related the story of a teenager who made contact with APORM, claiming her mother was forcing her to have an abortion on pain of banishment from her immediate family. According to Kagerbauer, a member of the APORM’s board of directors called the four local abortion clinics (three of which were “unreceptive, to say the least”) to alert the physician who would perform the abortion to the fact that this woman was being coerced. This board member lucked out with the fourth and apparently “used personal ties to speak with the doctor,” asking that the doctor talk to the patient alone without her mother present. According to Kagerbauer’s testimony, the doctor agreed and managed to talk the patient out of the procedure. She also claimed that the mother disowned the teenager and APORM found foster care for her.
Sue Thayer, a former employee of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa (the state, not the WI county), came all the way to Madison to testify against a non-existent practice in our state. She described the “telemed” practice of physicians consulting over videophone with patients being served in remote clinics, and denounced the practice as medically unsafe and “a huge money maker for Planned Parenthood.”
Eight other women testified in person supporting the bill, and an additional fifteen wrote in their support. Among the eight were the Legislative Director of Wisconsin Right to Life and three women who work for Catholic organizations, one representing “the public policy voice of Wisconsin Bishops.”
Four other women related personal stories of pain, suffering, and redemption in which abortions played a role. One talked about being an active alcoholic and not even remembering two of the three abortions she chose to have, while another confessed her regret that she trusted her sister’s advice to have an abortion. She further blamed her medical care providers for not second-guessing her stated desire to have an abortion. Two other women spoke about abusive home lives and peppered their narratives with so much talk about Jesus and God that it was difficult to follow their arguments supporting the legislation.
Throughout the hearing there was a subtle yet powerful undercurrent of misogyny, made all the more poignant by the fact that all who spoke were women. The basic premise of SB 306 is that women can’t be trusted to think and choose for themselves, and that even when they do choose abortion for themselves, the presumption is that they are being coerced into that choice by a more powerful person.
Domestic and sexual violence toward women is a serious issue, and access to a safe, legal abortion is a critical component of a woman’s ability to maintain or regain control of her own life. I kept wondering why nobody appeared to testify about the detrimental medical and psychological affects on women being coerced into carrying a pregnancy against her will by religious organizations and coercive parents and partners. I wondered who was going to point out that access to actual domestic abuse services, as opposed to religious indoctrination services, is being undermined by lack of funding and support.
My heart went out to the women who related their personal traumas. In the end, I found myself wondering how much of the damage they sustained was due to relationship abuse and religious indoctrination and how much was the result of a medical procedure. All four of them spoke of looking forward to post-mortem reunions with their children in heaven. What that has to do with the role of the state legislature in protecting the reproductive health of women in the state of Wisconsin is anybody’s guess.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.