Abortions, arguing about abortion and strategies to forever end abortion show no signs of stopping on Roe v. Wade’s 35th anniversary
The four figurines were pinkish-brown, curled up with tiny, delicate limbs and nestled into a black velvet box of the type used to store a piece of jewelry with more sentimental than cash value. The hands that held the box were also small and delicate. Wynette Sills, dark-haired, soft-spoken and petite, brushed her fingers over them gently.
“Katharyn [McLearan], the Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, probably told you about this little velvet box,” she said. “It shows a baby at seven, eight, nine and 10 weeks.” She touched each figurine tenderly. “This is when about 80 percent of the abortions take place. And granted, it’s small, but it’s got arms and legs, eyes, ears, head. Undeniably a human life.”
Sills was one of the organizers with 40 Days for Life, a special anti-abortion event last fall that called on volunteers to pray and fast outside health clinics that provide abortions. I spoke to her on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood Mar Monte’s Midtown clinic, a site where she usually spends two days a week protesting the pregnancy terminations provided as part of Planned Parenthood’s reproductive-health services.
She’s intense, one of those women who remembers to use your name when she’s talking to you. And there’s no doubt she believes what she’s saying.
But those figurines—those dolls—don’t tell the whole story. Those arms and legs? On a six- to 10-week-old embryo, they’re fleshy stubs with cartilage instead of bone where arms and legs have the potential to grow.
Those embryonic eyes? Not the delicate, perfect lids on Sills’ models. Instead, they’re translucent; skin hasn’t developed enough to block light as fully developed eyelids do, and the cells that have the potential to differentiate into eyes have clustered in one spot, but have not yet become the organ we know as eyes—no retinas, no irises, no lenses yet.
The brain is actually a neural tube from which a brain, spinal cord and nervous system have the potential to develop. It doesn’t become what doctors and scientists call a fetus until week 10; before that, it’s still an embryo that resembles the figurines in Sills’ velvet box only in general shape. At 10 weeks, the now officially-a-fetus is usually between one-and-a-quarter and one-and-three-quarters inches long. It does have the potential to become a baby, if gestation proceeds normally.
Despite their lack of realism, those figurines in Sills’ velvet box are capable of making the most emotion-laden argument against terminating a pregnancy that can be made, and she considers it her duty to use whatever tools are at her disposal to discourage abortion.
This month marks the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. While abortions were legal in some states, including California, prior to Roe v. Wade, the legality of the procedures was determined on a state-by-state basis, often with restrictive laws (such as only in cases of rape or incest) about when the termination of a pregnancy was allowed.
In the intervening years, the controversy surrounding legal abortion has intensified rather than diminished. A number of states have enacted legislation that places limits on abortions, including banning specific procedures, requiring waiting periods, mandating pre-abortion counseling that stresses negative side effects, and adding parental notification laws for minors seeking abortions.
The addition of new members to the U.S. Supreme Court—universally conservative and, when they’ll admit it, opponents of abortion rights—under the Bush administration has increased the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be, if not overturned completely, further restricted.
Protests at clinics have reached such disruptive levels that some providers have been forced to seek injunctions to keep abortion opponents at safe distances. (At Planned Parenthood’s B Street clinic, a privacy fence went up halfway through the 40 Days for Life protest, which will help keep protesters separated from clients.) Three-fourths of U.S. clinics have reported harassment of patients, workers or both. Most clinics have volunteers who escort clients—often under the shelter of umbrellas or blankets to protect their privacy—past protesters. In some areas, protesters have identified clinic patrons by the license numbers on their cars, then sent letters or called to urge them not to terminate their pregnancies.
And there has been violence: bombed clinics, murdered doctors.
The lines seem clearly drawn. On one side, earnest and principled health-care providers who believe that the termination of a pregnancy should be accessible, safe and left to the discretion of the woman and her doctor. On the other, equally earnest and principled opponents who believe that life begins at conception and abortion is the equivalent of murder. Neither seem prepared to compromise.
At Midtown’s Planned Parenthood clinic, the conflict had become so well-choreographed by last fall that it could easily have been a theatrical production. The rules were observed scrupulously—well, almost. The protesters were staying off Planned Parenthood’s private property and on the public thoroughfare. However, the display of baby paraphernalia—a crib, mobile, blanket and other items arranged in a “shower” for the unborn—cluttered the sidewalk in violation of city ordinances, as were the folding lawn chairs used by some protesters. But no one seemed particularly interested in pressing the issue.
Meanwhile, the clinic’s volunteers—and McLearan, Planned Parenthood’s director of public affairs—were stationed in front of the building. When a car pulled in, an escort approached with an umbrella to see if the occupants wanted assistance. Escorts met clients approaching on foot at the property line and inserted themselves between the patrons and “sidewalk counselors,” protesters who were fervently attempting to dissuade people from entering the clinic.
“Please don’t kill your baby,” said a middle-aged white man wearing jeans, a shirt and a baseball cap. “You don’t have to do this. We can help you.” The two women, young Latinas, walked away from him, clinic escorts taking positions on either side. At the same time, another clinic volunteer flipped the switch on a boom-box in the parking lot. Protesters’ chants were drowned out by classic rock: Eddie Money’s “Baby, Hold on to Me.”
It all seemed pretty routine. Except, that is, for the young women walking into the clinic. They looked stressed out and tired.
Kathryn McLearan is not a wild-eyed baby killer, a radical eugenicist or promoter of promiscuity. A self-confessed “dissatisfied Republican,” she’s an attractive, blue-eyed twenty-something with a quick wit, a subdued laugh, and not much patience for misinformation. “Planned Parenthood’s motto is simple,” she said. “Every child should be a wanted child.”
The majority of Planned Parenthood’s services are preventive: education, contraception, STD diagnosis and treatment, reproductive health such as pap smears and breast exams and both pre-natal and well-baby care. “Ninety-seven percent of what we do is preventing unintended pregnancies, so women don’t have to make this hard choice,” McLearan said. She pointed out that when women arrive for regular services such as pap smears or pre-natal visits, they sometimes have small children with them. “When a kid hears someone yelling, ‘Don’t go in! They kill children in there,’ it may really cause them to fear seeing a doctor.”
She noticed the 40 Days for Life push had resulted in a slight increase in demonstrators. “We’ve seen a steady increase of protesters over the last couple of years—Tuesday and Friday mornings, three to five very disruptive people,” she said. “But with this new campaign, they’re encouraging more people to have this as a hobby.” She dryly pointed out that she’d expected the noise level to drop, since the protesters were supposed to be praying, but that they were still doing what the protesters call “sidewalk counseling”: calling out to people on the street and intercepting Planned Parenthood’s clients on public property to try to dissuade them from entering.
“If anything could come out of this,” McLearan said, “I would hope that people would learn that these intimidating protests are not something that happens somewhere else.” She furrowed her brow. “It hasn’t stopped. These extremists out here are intimidating women into not coming in to seek care.” She listed all the reasons, again, that women and men would visit Planned Parenthood. “The main people that we’re seeing here in Sacramento are people in their mid-20s. They’re in between jobs and don’t have insurance, or they’re impoverished and don’t have insurance, or their job is part-time with no insurance. And there are a lot of insurance programs that don’t cover pregnancy, so having a place to go for reduced-fee or free care is important for these people.”
McLearan also thought that SN&R’s readers would be surprised if they really understood what the many of the protesters are opposed to: not simply abortion, but birth control, period.
Sills insisted that if all Planned Parenthood was doing was prevention, the protesters wouldn’t be there. “Tuesdays and Fridays are the killing days,” she said. “The rest of the week is contraception and STDs. And if they’re here for something else today, they know someone who’ll face [abortion], or they’ll face it.”
She and her friends try to divert Planned Parenthood clients to a nearby “life center.” I asked if the life center offered contraception and information about pregnancy prevention. Some of her animation disappeared. Her speech slowed and grew more deliberate. She acknowledged that most people there to protest were not involved in helping to prevent pregnancy.
But wouldn’t adequate contraception actually prevent abortions? Sills faltered. “Well, I think they do get the word out,” she said. Planned Parenthood is “in our schools. It’s rampant availability. Any kind of contraception is already readily available.”
Just not at a “life center.” (See “My so-called life.”)
Then Sills got to the point. “And [contraception]’s not something that we would encourage amongst our non-married populace or the group that’s going to be coming here. Or encourage amongst anybody at all. That just wouldn’t be our goal.”
What would be the goal? In a column for the California Catholic Daily, Sills told fellow protesters that she’d see them “at Planned Parenthood until Planned Parenthood is no more!” She promotes abstinence as the answer (“It will keep people 100 percent safe from pregnancy and STDs when it’s practiced!”). And adoption solves the problem of abortion completely, according to her. Never mind that women might not want to bear their rapists’ child, or give up their own life for a high-risk pregnancy.
I tried to point out to Sills that her arguments privileged the potential child’s life over the life of a woman who is already living. But her distinction isn’t between “potential” and “actual” people. It’s between “innocent”—as in her claim that “this is an innocent life we’re talking about”—and what? She never said it, but the only conclusion is “not innocent.” After all, the pregnant woman seeking an abortion didn’t abstain from sex. She’s not innocent.
Sills told me her abortion story. A college friend became pregnant, and Sills went with her to get an abortion, “because that’s what a good friend does.” The aftermath of the abortion was life-changing for them.
“It’s pretty well researched—it’s denied by our culture—but sometime or other when a woman realizes that she’s killed her own child, it hits pretty hard,” she said. “What you saw in the velvet box”—the dolls that represent fetal development—“was on the cover of Time magazine a couple of months ago, and when, as a 45-year-old woman shopping in Safeway, you see that on the cover, all of a sudden it hits you pretty hard that what you did 25 years ago involved your very own little boy or little girl.”
Sills said that her friend has never had children and has suffered from depression and eating disorders. “It was something embarrassing and that we felt that we had to take care of really quickly,” she said. “There was some thought that it was going to be uncomfortable. But we just didn’t know that it would hurt for the rest of our lives.”
Wynette Sills believes it is inconsistent to be opposed to the death penalty and pro-choice. I disagree. The underlying principal is that the government doesn’t get to decide who lives and dies. No death penalty. No restrictions on abortion. No restrictions on individual end-of-life choices, such as assisted suicide.
Yes, I just classified abortion as a “death.” With all the advances in medicine, the extension of viability for premature births, it’s hard to believe that the fetus isn’t alive, even if it hasn’t yet developed beyond potential humanness. But being alive—having the potential to become fully human—doesn’t make it more important than the already-fully-human woman who’s carrying it.
For just so long as we argue about abortion, we don’t discuss empowering women to take control over their own bodies and their own reproductive lives—whether that means saying “yes” or “no.”
We don’t discuss how to prevent rape and sexual assaults of all kinds. We don’t discuss how to provide for the children that are already born. We don’t discuss how to make sure that people who need health care have access to it, and how to make sure that every child is cared for and safe. We aren’t talking about why so many children are stuck in foster care, waiting for adoption, and how that’s tied to issues of poverty and race. And we sure as hell aren’t talking, realistically, about population control—one of the most important things we can do to keep the planet livable and the people who are already on it healthy.
Do all of those things, and no one would need an abortion.
The current debate, cluttered as it is with language about “killing babies” and “extremists,” doesn’t do much to end abortion. It certainly doesn’t address the difficult situations people—mostly young women—find themselves in, whether they made bad decisions or not.
But it sure does get attention, doesn’t it?
One of my colleagues had a figurine like the ones in Sills’ black velvet box. She placed it on the leaf of a plant in her office, where it looked very much like one of those creepily-cute photos by Anne Geddes.
What it didn’t look like was an embryo. Or a fetus.
It looked like a cute little baby. And cute little babies take nine months to develop, not 10 weeks.