What the Democrats Should Do

January 12, 2006

By: Lynn M. Paltrow, Executive Director, National Advocates for Pregnant Women

The Democratic National Party is reevaluating its position on abortion. Some members are suggesting that democrats should move away from pro-choice positions while others, including Hillary Clinton, continue to defend abortion but in seemingly more muted and apologetic terms. Instead of abandoning abortion rights and the millions of women who have had abortions, Democrats must make clear that efforts to outlaw abortion and expand the legal rights of fetuses are being used to hurt and dishonor pregnant women, mothers and families.

Howard Dean is not wrong to say that his party ought to make a home for pro-life democrats. People committed to a country that truly honors women, mothers and families can and will disagree about abortion. But Democrats must make clear that outlawing abortion and expanding fetal rights pose significant threats not just to women who want to end their pregnancies but also to pregnant women and expectant fathers who hope to become parents. Increasingly, pregnant women who have no intention of ending their pregnancies face arrest, forced surgery, and punitive child welfare interventions based on anti-abortion claims of fetal rights.

While abortion issues are used to divide the electorate, women, pro and anti choice, whether living in blue or red states, are united by health, economic, criminal justice and environmental polices that are undermining the ability of mothers and fathers to provide, protect, and care for their families. The overwhelming majority of women who have abortions also have children who they will spend a lifetime caring for and worrying about. Democrats should expose how the abortion debate has been used to distract attention from Bush administration assaults on pregnant women, mothers and families.

In short, the Democrats must start defending pregnant women and families rather than abortion.

Democrats Should Explain How Anti-Abortion, Fetal Rights Legislation Hurts Women Who Want to Carry Their Pregnancies To Term:

We live in a country in which people, including pregnant women, have no legal right to food, shelter, or healthcare. Nevertheless, anti-abortion laws and rhetoric increasingly makes it seem reasonable to hold pregnant women criminally liable if they fail to provide such things to their unborn children. Hundreds of women nationwide have been arrested or lost custody of their children based on claims that something they did or did not do during pregnancy risked harm to their unborn children. One prosecutor argued that the low birth weight of the child "indicated a failure of the pregnant woman to properly care for herself and her unborn child during pregnancy." Other state¹s attorneys are blaming women for experiencing stillbirths.

Many of the proposed anti-abortion and fetal rights laws that some Democrats are thinking of supporting will result in further criminalization and dehumanization of pregnant women and new mothers. Democrats must oppose these laws for what they are: policies that deprive pregnant women of the right to informed consent, bodily integrity, and in some cases, life itself.

Fetal Rights, C-sections, and the Raw Power of the State:

At 27 years old and 25 weeks pregnant Angela Carder became critically ill. She, her family and her attending physicians all agreed on treatment designed to keep her alive for as long as possible. Nevertheless, based on anti-abortion, fetal rights claims a court ordered Ms. Carder to undergo a c-section, knowing the surgery could kill her. The surgery was performed. Ms. Carder not only lost her right to informed consent and bodily integrity, she lost her right to life. The surgery resulted in the death of both Ms Carder and her fetus.

Democrats need to stop talking only about the right to end a pregnancy and start talking about the right to continue pregnancies to term without abusive state interventions disguised as fetal rights. In other words, anti-abortion ideology hurts both those for and against abortion. Amber and John Marlowe, a deeply religious couple who profoundly oppose abortion, found this out when Ms. Marlowe went into labor with their 7th wanted child. Ms. Marlowe did not believe she needed a c-section and did not want to subject herself or her unborn child to unnecessary surgery. The hospital disagreed with both mother and father, and using anti-abortion arguments developed over the last 30 years, got a court order giving it custody of the fetus before, during, and after delivery, and the right to force Ms. Marlowe to undergo invasive surgery.

Before the order came down, the Marlowe¹s fled to another hospital. There, Amber Marlowe delivered a healthy baby naturally, demonstrating that "fetal rights" principles can be used to force pregnant women and their babies to undergo needless, costly, and dangerous surgery.

In yet another case, Washington, DC doctors sought a court order to force Ayahs Mayan to have a C-section. The doctors asserted that the fetus faced a 50-75 percent chance of infection if not delivered surgically. A judge, relying again on anti-abortion fetal rights arguments, said, "all that stood between the Mayan fetus and its independent existence, separate from its mother, was put simply, a doctor's scalpel." Apparently viewing this mother as having no more significance than a slab of meet, the court granted the order and the scalpel sliced through Ms. Mayan¹s flesh, the muscles of her abdominal wall, and her uterus. When the procedure was done, there was no evidence of infection.

These cases are not about the right to terminate a pregnancy; they are about the sanctity of pregnant women and motherhood. Democrats must talk about how neither women nor children are protected by the anti-abortion movement¹s legal theories that empower courts to order needless surgery, and cause pregnant women to flee hospital care that can help them and their children.

Stillbirth as Murder-Prosecuting Grieving Mothers:

As a result of increasingly vitriolic anti-abortion rhetoric, prosecutors and legislators seem increasingly willing to view pregnant women as perpetrators, whether or not they have any intention of ending a pregnancy. Today, Theresa Hernandez sits in an Oklahoma City jail awaiting trial. She suffered a stillbirth at 33-35 weeks gestation. The state claims that because fetuses are persons with separate legal rights, a pregnant woman who has no intention of ending her pregnancy but who suffers a stillbirth can be tried for murder.

Regina McKnight is serving time on a 20-year sentence for homicide by child abuse in South Carolina. It is clear that her stillbirth was a result of an infection some women get during pregnancy. Nevertheless the state blamed the stillbirth on something she did, and convinced the jury that she deserved jail time rather than health care and grief counseling, which is what she very desperately needed.

Nearly one million women suffer stillbirths and miscarriages each year. Instead of accepting the anti-abortion, fetal rights legislation that turns expectant mothers into criminal suspects, Democrats should sponsor legislation that protects and guarantees supportive health care to women who suffer pregnancy losses.

Expose How the Abortion Issue is Being Used As a Weapon of Distraction and Family Destruction:

While President Bush was signing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act into law and declaring his commitment to a culture of life, he was also deregulating coal burning power plants. These plants release significant amounts of mercury into the environment, which is especially poisonous to fetuses and children. The administration uses fetal rights, anti-abortion legislation to distract us from these attacks on family health. The Democrats, instead of talking about how the latest cleverly worded anti-abortion bill threatens "choice" they should address the Bush administration¹s threat to the born and unborn through his appalling deregulation of polluters.

While President Bush was making it a federal crime to attack the fetus, federal funding for the Violence Against Women Act was being reduced for programs designed to protect women, including pregnant women, from the extraordinary violence they experience across race, class and state lines. Indeed, it has now been documented that the leading cause of maternal death in America is murder of pregnant women. Democrats should be talking about the new federal protections for unborn children and the more than thirty state laws that similarly protect fetuses but not the pregnant woman herself - have failed to address the pervasive violence that stalks the pregnant women who carry those babies.

While President Bush was reinterpreting the State¹s Child Health Insurance Program to allow states to cover unborn children, 43 million Americans, including eight and a half million children, were without health care coverage and nearly 20 percent of children were living in poverty. Instead of considering compromising on abortion, Democrats should be uncompromising in their attacks of new anti-abortion laws that keep us divided and unable to see how many families ­ regardless of their views on abortion can no longer ensure their children¹s health and well-being.

While abortion issues are used to create a political wedge between women, women are in fact united by the fact that America is one of only three industrialized nations that does not require any paid parental leave. Similarly, millions of pregnant women, especially those who work part-time or for small companies -- regardless of their views on abortion -- lack legal protection from workplace discrimination based on pregnancy. Democrats should talk about ending this discrimination not ending their support for access to safe and legal abortions.

Women, regardless of their views on abortion or if they have ever had one, are likely to spend significant time working as mothers and homemakers. This labor makes up a huge part of our gross domestic product, yet it is ignored or trivialized. A recent New York Times story, "Survey Confirms It: Women Outjuggle Men," reported that the average working woman spends about twice as much time as the average working man on household chores and child-care. According to this headline and the political culture it represents, childcare and homemaking are what clowns do, requiring some skill at balancing but no real work. Democrats should prove their commitment to the value of motherhood and life by honoring the people who provide that care, and ensuring that families are not left impoverished as the result of divorce, death or economic conditions that make it impossible to earn a living wage and provide the care and attention that children need.

Democrats Must Value the Women Having Abortions, Not the Right To Choose Abortion:

Each year 6.3 million women become pregnant. The vast majority continues those pregnancies to term. These women are neither celebrated nor supported by our government. From employment discrimination, to lack of paid parental leave, to state scrutiny and possible punishment, pregnant women and mothers face a wide array of state policies that undermine them and their families.

In both the federal and state legislatures virtually the only women's health legislation discussed concerns further limits on access to abortion or enhancing the legal status of the fetus at the expense of both maternal and fetal health. Women¹s health indicators on breast cancer, cervical cancer and heart disease, for example, are extremely poor in many parts of this country, yet the only legislative action is on abortion. Similarly the US falls behind 41 other countries including Cuba on infant mortality rates. This isn't because we are a country filled with bad women but rather one ruled by bad health policies that focus on limiting access to care and increasing punishment rather than treatment. Instead of accepting new restrictions on access to abortion Democrats must demand an increase in access to women and children's health care.

Democrats can and should acknowledge real disagreement about abortion, but they must take the lead in expressing the values that are at stake. Leading Pro-choice groups have instructed the field to oppose restrictions on abortion as a threat to "choice," Roe or the ability to "decide." But none of these catch phrases articulate the deeply held values influencing the women who at some point in their lives sometimes choose abortion. Few women articulate their decision to have an abortion in terms of rights or choice. Instead, they explain their decisions in terms of deeply held American values regarding personal and family responsibility and as well as religious faith and obligation. Democrats must listen to the pregnant women and talk about their values.

Democrats also need to take the lead in describing what the country will become if abortion opponents win. We know from past experience that anti-abortion laws will not stop abortions just the safe ones. We know too, that it will place extraordinary pressure on an already highly stressed public health system. People waiting for emergency health care will be forced to wait even longer behind the women who have had botched illegal abortions. Women who are not seeking abortions but need treatment for stillbirth or an ectopic pregnancy will be turned away by doctors afraid they will be arrested for performing procedures that look like outlawed abortions. Women recovering from miscarriages and stillbirths will awake to police interrogations. Some, like Regina McKnight already have.

Democrats must become the party that in fact honors pregnant women and mothers, protects families, and recognizes that unstinting support for reproductive rights need not mean denying the value and importance of potential life as matter of religious belief, emotional conviction, or personal experience. Democrats should acknowledge that as a people we will continue to disagree about abortion, but Democrats can lead us in acknowledging that anti-abortion laws are being used to hurt women who want to continue their pregnancies to term and unite us by working to change US policy that demeans pregnant women and mothers and that undermines children and families.