"abortion saved my life" and other tales of human rights

What does abortion access look like to women who don't have any? What does it mean to be unable to obtain an abortion when you need one?

The anti-choice movement in the US has succeeded beyond most of our worst nightmares. Although early abortion is still technically legal, many necessary later procedures are not. And crucially, it's almost impossible to obtain any abortion - not in "a few backwaters," as some would have us believe, but everywhere. This means that if a woman doesn't have the resources or ability to travel, she is either forced to carry her unwanted pregnancy to term or find an illegal abortion provider.

Abortion access isn't about convenience. It's about human dignity, self-determination, and the basic human right to control our own bodies. It's about punishing women for having sex. And it's often about life and death. From Salon, here's a harrowing personal story that illustrates the horror of the current reality, and the life-saving potential of safe, legal abortion.
I'm a mom, and I love my sons more than anything. And it is because I love them that I had an abortion at 20 weeks. It was my fifth pregnancy (I'd had two earlier miscarriages), and, as it turned out, my last. There was trouble from the beginning; I didn't experience any of the normal indicators of pregnancy, so I was already ten weeks along when I found out. I hadn't so much as missed a period; in fact, I was seeing an OB/GYN because of the increased heaviness in my cycle. When we found out, I talked it over with my husband and we debated an abortion before deciding we'd try to make it work. My doctor told me that my pregnancy was very high risk and that she wasn't sure of a good outcome. Per her instructions, I took it very easy because I wanted to give the baby the best possible chance. But I kept having intermittent bleeding and I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't be able to carry to term.

I was taking an afternoon nap when the hemorrhaging started while my toddler napped in his room when I woke up to find blood gushing upward from my body. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was experiencing a placental abruption, a complication my doctor had told me was a possibility. My husband was at work, so I had to do my best to take care of me and my toddler on my own. I managed to get to the phone and make arrangements for both of my children before going to a Chicago hospital.

Everyone knew the pregnancy wasn't viable, that it couldn't be viable given the amount of blood I was losing, but it still took hours for anyone at the hospital to do anything. The doctor on call didn't do abortions. At all. Ever. In fact, no one on call that night did. Meanwhile, an ignorant batch of medical students had gathered to study me -- one actually showed me the ultrasound of our dying child while asking me if it was a planned pregnancy. Several wanted to examine me while I lay there bleeding and in pain. No one gave me anything for the pain or even respected my request to close the door even though I was on the labor and delivery floor listening to other women have healthy babies as the baby I had been trying to save died in my womb.

A very kind nurse risked her job to call a doctor from the Reproductive Health Clinic who was not on call, and asked her to come in to save my life. Fortunately she was home, and got there relatively quickly. By the time she arrived, I was in bad shape. The blood loss had rendered me nearly incoherent, but she still moved me to a different wing and got me the painkillers no one else had during the screaming hours I'd spent in the hospital. After she checked my lab tests, she told us I would need two bags of blood before she could perform the procedure. Her team (a cadre of wonderful students who should all go on to run their own clinics) took turns checking on me and my husband. They all kept assuring me that soon it would be over, and I would feel much better. My husband had to sign the consent for surgery (I was clearly not competent enough to make decisions), and they took me away along with a third bag of blood to be administered during the procedure.

Later I found out that the doctor had taken my husband aside as they brought me into surgery. She promised him she would do her best to save me, but she warned him there was a distinct possibility that she would fail. The doctor who didn't do abortions was supposed to have contacted her (or someone else who would perform the procedure) immediately. He didn't. Neither did his students. Supposedly there was a communication breakdown and they thought she had been notified, but I doubt it. I don't know if his objections were religious or not; all I know is that when a bleeding woman was brought to him for treatment he refused to do the only thing that could stop the bleeding. Because he didn't do abortions. Ever.

My two kids at home almost lost their mother because someone decided that my life was worth less than that of a fetus that was going to die anyway.
Pharygula notes:
The story also highlights the subversive strategy the right wing has followed: there is now a serious dearth of doctors trained to do abortions, so when a necessary abortion case shows up in an emergency, you've got a muddle of the self-righteous and the ignorant, all incompetent to do anything, milling about with their thumbs up their asses. She might as well have stumbled bleeding into a church and asked for help . . . which is exactly what the Coathanger Coalition wants them to do.

Imagine if someone showed up in an emergency room having a heart attack, and for religious reasons, no one had any training in using a defibrillator, and the only one available was in an underfunded clinic across town. That's the direction we're going, only we're suppressing information and skills that would help just women's lives. Which makes it OK, I guess. No men will die of a placental abruption, so it's a low priority.
A paper in the McGill Journal of Medicine looked at the need for increased abortion training in medical schools. [Emphasis mine.]
One organization, Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), is currently surveying medical schools in the U.S. and Canada about their individual curricula. The preliminary results of MSFC's study of the reproductive health content of preclinical medical education found that nearly 40% of the more than 50 schools surveyed do not teach any aspect of abortion in the preclinical years. Indeed, the study found that, on average, more class time is dedicated to Viagra than to abortion procedures, pregnancy options counseling, or abortion law and policy. This glimpse into U.S. and Canadian medical curricula reveals that abortion is not a standard component of preclinical education.
There is a movement among many future and current doctors to specifically train abortion providers; many men and women are attending medical school expressly for this purpose. But how will that movement fare if the US Congress de-funds medical schools that teach abortion?

Right now, individual activists and privately funded organizations scramble to fill the ever-widening gap. Abortion Support Network helps women in Ireland obtain abortion services. I wrote about ASN and my connection to it here. This is from ASN's June bulletin:
Women we’ve helped

May was an exceptionally busy month for ASN. We heard from 26 women, many of whom had situations even more difficult and complex than the “norm”. We are incredibly grateful to our funders, who provide us with the means to help these women when they call, and to our phone coordinators, who deal with each of these women with compassion and care. Women we heard from this month included:

A woman who had funds but no passport. We were able to advise her on getting to England without one.

A single mother who spent weeks struggling with misinformation on the internet before finding ASN. After booking flights she only had £120 for the procedure, and we gave her a grant for the balance. She sent this email upon returning home: “Hi there, i just wanted to say thank you for all your help and support for last week. Right up until last wednesday i could [barely] eat, or sleep, but now thanks to you i can move on and continue making a better life for my kids, i wanted you to know how grateful i really am for all your help, many thanks”

A mother of a young baby, who became pregnant both times despite taking birth control pills. By the time she was able to confirm the pregnancy and get a scan she was 22 weeks pregnant. We were able to pay the balance of her procedure as well as provide two nights’ accommodation.

A woman whose abusive husband prevented her from getting an abortion, and was only able to could come to England for the procedure after leaving him. We bought her flights and negotiated a reduced fee at the clinic.

A single mother of three who accidentally called an anti-choice crisis pregnancy agency and had one of their “counsellors” calling her several times a day telling her that abortion is murder and that the doctors in England are all butchers who would leave her permanently damaged. We were able to help her pay for the procedure and provided two days accommodation – as well as much needed reassurance and unbiased support.

A teenage girl living with her parents but unable to tell them about the pregnancy. We were able to help her make an appointment at a local family planning clinic for support as well as provide her with info on clinics in England and supporter with a grant towards her abortion.

The mother of a pregnant teen. We were able to give them information about Women on Web, saving them the cost of travelling to England and paying privately for an abortion.

A mother of two living in a refugee camp in Ireland. She had no money and no visa. We were able to put her in touch with an organisation that helped her with her visa and to find a clinic that would provide her with a free procedure.

A woman in a relationship with a man who is against abortion and who threatened her when she said she was considering a termination – including a threat that he would paint “murderer” on her house if she didn’t carry the pregnancy to term. She said, “I always thought I wouldn't do this, but you can't judge anyone, you don't know until you're put in that position."

A woman who only found out she was pregnant after undergoing a major operation. Despite facing serious health problems, numerous complications with this case meant she and her husband had to obtain an abortion in a hospital in England.

ASN thanks these women and men for sharing their stories with us, and for permitting us to share them with you. We also thank the clinics, counsellors and other groups who ensure that these women receive the care they need.

A Woman we Didn’t Help (for all the right reasons!)

We wanted to share with you the story of a woman who, in the end, did not receive a grant from ASN. We were contacted by the mother and sister of a 14 year old girl in the very early stages of pregnancy. Initially, they wanted to fly to England immediately for the termination, but we advised them to wait a week or two in order to see a local family planning clinic (which can save the cost of a consultation fee in England) as well as save them the cost of last minute plane tickets. The girl’s mother had to borrow money to pay for the flights and ASN planned to give a £200 grant towards the procedure.

While she was at the clinic, the girl was quite distraught and kept talking about adoption. The clinic gave her some time to think about her decision, but ultimately decided it best to send her home until she was more secure in her choice. The clinic manager told her to go home and think, but also assured her that if she changed her mind again, the clinic would give her a free procedure, and that ASN would help her pay for her flights.

We wanted to share this story with you because it illustrates exactly what “pro choice” means. Even if women (or a girl in this case) have made multiple phone calls, booked plane tickets, and crossed international borders, the most important thing we can do is to listen to women and allow them to make their own decisions.
ASN, Haven Coalition, NNAF, Women on Web and other, similar groups do amazing, necessary work. But as governments everywhere cut services, and more and more is left to charities, activists and volunteers, more and more women will fall through the cracks.

"Abortion Saved My Life," by Mikki Kendall, on her blog, and on Salon. That page at Salon has lots of links to very good pro-choice reads; see the lower right sidebar.

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