Thursday, July 9, 2009


Naturally, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it better than I in a recent New York Times interview:

Q: Since we are talking about abortion, I want to ask you about Gonzales v. Carhart, the case in which the court upheld a law banning so-called partial-birth abortion. Justice Kennedy in his opinion for the majority characterized women as regretting the choice to have an abortion, and then talked about how they need to be shielded from knowing the specifics of what they’d done. You wrote, “This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution.” I wondered if this was an example of the court not quite making the turn to seeing women as fully autonomous.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: The poor little woman, to regret the choice that she made. Unfortunately there is something of that in Roe. It’s not about the women alone. It’s the women in consultation with her doctor. So the view you get is the tall doctor and the little woman who needs him.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"A Woman and Her Doctor"

A Woman and her doctor . . .

Sadly, this is not the beginning of a dirty joke. (Actually, it depends on how you look at it).

Instead, it's the refrain from kinda-pro-choice folks when they're kinda standing up for a woman's right to abortion. You've heard it before. Barack Obama has said it. Hillary Clinton has said it. God, every Democrat ever to run for office with a semi-pro-choice record has said it. Here's how it usually comes up:

Interviewer: Do you believe in abortion rights?

Pol: As you know, Lou (it's always Lou or Leslie or Bob or Steve or something appropriately Midwestern), this is a very divisive issue. There are passionate people on both sides of the abortion debate - people who care deeply about their country and their God and protecting freedom-

Interviewer: But do you believe in a woman's right to abortion?

Pol: [after much hemming and hawing]I believe that this decision - the most difficult decision a woman will ever make in her life - ought to be left to the woman and her doctor.

And there it is! The phrase that has twisted up my insides like six sheets in the spin cycle. And I think to understand why, we need to break it down a little.

Let's take "Doctor." What's the first image that springs to your mind? For many people, I'd guess it's a kindly, greying man wearing a white lab coat. Look at popular representations of physicians: they're nearly always male. Listen to the voiceover on any pharmaceutical commercial: "Ask your doctor if he thinks Deherpesol is right for you." Dude again. So I'd argue that when politicians and their ilk say "doctor," they think - they mean to say - man.

In a 2007 primary debate, Barack Obama said, "I think that most Americans recognize that this is a profoundly difficult issue for the women and families who make these decisions. They don’t make them casually. And I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy." Yep, he took it even a step further. He took the doctor and raised it a family and a clergy.

First of all, why is abortion a decision that requires a doctor's consultation (i.e., approval) in a way that other procedures don't? Of course it's a medical procedure, and you need a doctor to perform it. But we rarely hear about the need for women to consult with their doctors before getting pregnant, a condition which puts significantly more strain on a woman's body than an abortion. We never hear women being warned to run it by Mom and Dad and Aunt Mary and her Rabbi before she pops a Benadryl. And there is virtually no discussion about men having a heart-to-heart with Doc - or Father O'Pederast - before having a minor, elective surgery. It's clear that need for professional, male consent to a woman's medical decision is due entirely to the fact that women's capacity to make decisions about their own bodies is not recognized or valued.

While suggesting that a woman flip through her Rolodex to make sure that everyone in her life is on board with her personal medical decision, another thing that everyone, including Obama in the quote above, loves to say about deciding to have an abortion is that it's never casual, that it's always hard, gut-wrenching, a decision that changes a woman's life. Except, of course, that sometimes it isn't. No one likes to talk about the uncomfortable reality that many women have abortions and then do no spend their remaining years castigating themselves or lighting birthday candles on their due date. That's not to say that many women don't struggle with the decision or spend years questioning whether they did the right thing. But the doubt and uncertainty doesn't make that woman better than the woman who doesn't have either.

I'd say it's time for politicians to stop saying they're comfortable with the decisions "women and their doctors" make, or that women need to take a poll and a swig of Holy Water before making a medical choice, or demanding that women have a super, really, no-joke hard time choosing abortion. In fact, I think it's time they shut up altogether, except when they're voting "Aye" to protect women's reproductive freedom.

Next up: How I feel about "Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice"

Here's a hint: It pisses me off.