Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Backup Plan.

This past weekend I went to see the movie Vera Drake. For those who aren't familiar, this movie tells the tale of one Vera Drake, a working class married woman and mother in 1950's Britain. She is known for her charming family, hard work, and generosity to others. She is so generous, in fact, that when she isn't working as a maid for various wealthy families, she's moving around London helping out other, less fortunate families. There's something else Vera does, however. Something that's also quite helpful, but perhaps not something you would brag about at church. To wit, she's an abortionist.

Well, to be precise, as she puts it, she, "Helps out girls in trouble," by inducing miscarriages, but the thrust is the same. Using a length of rubber tubing with a hand-pump, a bowl of warm soappy water, and some disinfectant, she can abort an early-term pregnancy with little risk to the patient. She does not accept money for this service, seeing it only as being helpful to women who have nowhere else to go. Needless to say, she is eventually found out and is sucked into the clutches of a legal system that disapproves of her behavior. (Specifically, she's violated the Offenses Against Persons Act of 1861. No, I don't know that because I did well in European History, I know that because they repeat it roughly a thousand times during the last half of the movie.) So, the meat of this film is largely about how Vera's family deals with their discovery of her... um... hobby.

Now, as a movie, Vera Drake has some pluses and minuses. On one hand, it's a good attempt to bring the reality of a time when abortion was illegal to vivid life. The variety of women who need Vera's services is bewildering, as is the difference between the predominantly lower-class women who use Vera and the lone upper-class woman who obtains an abortion through more conventional, though no more pleasant means. It also serves as a fairly interesting attempt at pro-choice propaganda, as driven home by Vera's son-in-law to be, Rich, whose approval of her efforts is summed up by his statement: "If you can't feed 'em, you can't love 'em." On the other hand, the movie is slow. I mean, really slow. This movie is so slow that if it were any slower, the film would start running backwards. It also suffers somewhat from the thickness of the English accents involved. My brother-in-law to be is English, and so I've been practicing my British slang, and yet I was utterly lost from time to time. So, on the balance, this movie is worth seeing if you have two hours and a fairly strong cup of coffee. I would not, however, recommend it for undergrads given both the length and its understated drama.

What made this movie particularly interesting to me, however, was that I had recently read Nancy Howell Lee's (Referred to from here on in as "Howell" since that's the name she seems to be going by these days) excellent book The Search for an Abortionist. Now, you should already be impressed at this point since Howell's book is exceptionally difficult to get a copy of. The copy I read had to be purchased from a used-book shop in Connecticut, and came with a stamp indicating that it had once been the property of a library system. I'm forced to wonder, given the content, if libraries are reluctant to purchase Howell's book or, even worse, if existing copies have a tendency to disappear. But I digress... the point is that Howell did a study in the United States in the hopes of determining how women obtained abortions. This included the legal abortions that could be had for medical reasons, but primarily focussed on the illegal abortions that were the only option for many women during the period before Roe v. Wade. Her findings were quite interesting.

In the first place, Howell found that most women found their abortionist through short chains of acquaintences. Sometimes these acquaintences were close, and sometimes not, but the path length was seldom very long. Secondly, most women had little, if any, choice as to which abortionist they would patronize. Since the practitioner had to be reached within the immediate social network, it was unlikely that any given woman would have access to more than one abortionist and, even if she did, would have a hard time getting accurate information about their services. Third, class seemed to make little difference. Women of relatively high social class were not more likely to have access to the medically skilled abortionists, and women of low social class were not more likely to be limited to medically unskilled abortionists. Fourth, professional abortions involving anesthesia were not more expensive than other types- in several cases they were less expensive than abortions practiced by unskilled amateurs using more primitive techniques.

Now, there were some methodological problems with Howell's work. For one thing, she was sampling on the dependent variable, so we have no way of knowing what enabled some women to find an abortionist and prevented others from doing so. Secondly, a number of her subjects were recruited through one medical abortionist who charged very little for his services; a factor that likely skewed her results somewhat. Nonetheless, her findings drive home a few points. It is apparent that many types of women will, indeed, seek illegal abortions ranging from married women, to engaged women, to single women. Likewise women in a variety of social classes will avail themselves of an abortionist's services. So, abortion is not a class-limited phenomenon or one that only promiscuous single women make use of. It is further apparent, as Howell points out several times, that the existence of unskilled practitioners is possible only because the practice is illegal. In such a situation, information on abortionist skill is largely unavailable and women may have few alternatives. As a result, a practitioner who might otherwise be shunned as incompetent may remain in circulation. Thus, not only does the abortion "market" function inefficiently, but the value of the "commodity" declines with criminalization, even as the cost may rise. It also appears that the success of a number of women in finding abortionists relied upon the discovery of an "abortion expert" within their network, or someone who maintained up-to-date information on abortionists to provide to women in need on request. Finally, the shortness of the search paths makes it likely that a woman who does not count an abortionist or abortion expert within her second to third order network will likely be unable to find one at all.

Many of Howell's findings are reflected in the movie Vera Drake, which includes both the short social network chains, the abortion expert, one type of at-home abortion, and even a depiction of the "legal" route to abortion, which is made prohibitively difficult by a suspicious and unsympathetic male-dominated medical profession. I cannot say whether the writer and producer of Vera Drake bothered to read Howell's book, but whether they did so or not, they nicely illustrate it.

I have been thinking a great deal about abortion lately. Partly, this is because the recent push against birth control pills (discussed previously on this blog) makes it more likely that women will require the services of an abortionist. If a woman cannot prevent a pregnancy before the fact, then she may be forced to terminate it after the fact. It is also apparent that the "abstinence only" programs advocated by conservatives are not going to do the trick. Information has recently come to light that these programs are full of inaccurate or entirely fallacious information. As reported by the Washington Post:

Many American youngsters participating in federally funded abstinence-only programs have been taught over the past three years that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals "can result in pregnancy," a congressional staff analysis has found.


This is hardly the end of the errors, however:

Among the misconceptions cited by [Henry] Waxman's [(D-California)] investigators:

• A 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person."

• HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears.

• Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.

One curriculum, called "Me, My World, My Future," teaches that women who have an abortion "are more prone to suicide" and that as many as 10 percent of them become sterile. This contradicts the 2001 edition of a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion, the Waxman report said.


I can only assume that these falsehoods are part of an attempt to scare the everliving crap out of teenagers so as to prevent them from having sex. Yet, as the article reports, 61% of graduating high school seniors have already had sex, and 88% of teenagers who take "virginity pledges," eventually have premarital sex. Proponents of abstinence-only programs claim that:

...teaching young people about "safer sex" is an invitation to have sex.


Perhaps so, but the statistics seem to indicate that young people don't really need much in the way of an invitation. So, it seems clear that teaching them how to protect themselves, and others, would be a better use of our tax dollars than abstinence-only programs, which seem to be largely ineffective. Indeed:

Congress first allocated money for abstinence-only programs in 1999, setting aside $80 million in grants, which go to a variety of religious, civic and medical organizations. To be eligible, groups must limit discussion of contraception to failure rates.

President Bush has enthusiastically backed the movement, proposing to spend $270 million on abstinence projects in 2005. Congress reduced that to about $168 million, bringing total abstinence funding to nearly $900 million over five years.


It might just be me, but that $900 million over five years could go a long way towards teaching our children how to avoid contracting aids, and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Yet, more and more, it appears that the religious right is not interested in facts, or in solutions- they are merely interested in cheap gestures. So what if abstinence-only programs don't work? So what if we're lying to our children about life-threatening issues? At least we aren't "inviting" them to have sex- as though hormones don't provide ample invitation all by themselves.

It is apparent to me, as I am sure it is apparent to others, that the need for contraceptives will not disappear. It is equally apparent that the right is uninterested in taking responsible steps to ensure that the population has access to contraceptives, and knowledge on how to use them properly. It is also obvious to me that if the right succeeds in overturning Roe v. Wade we will not witness an end to abortion, we will merely witness an end to safe, legal abortion. Abortion will still continue, but it will once more be practiced by unskilled amateurs with dirty fingernails who are patronized by women with no other choices. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

The question is, what we do about it? Do we place all of our eggs in one legislative basket, relying on our political power to defend a woman's right-to-choose? I wouldn't advise that: we couldn't stop the Iraq war, we haven't been able to stop the torture of POWs and it is increasingly apparent that we haven't been able to stop things as insane as the napalming of Fallujah. All that in mind, I wouldn't bet a bucket of warm spit on our ability to defend abortion (God, don't you just love Southern expressions?). We need a backup plan.

It is apparent from Howell's work that the primary difficulty in obtaining the services of an abortionist is the difficulty in finding someone who can perform a safe and affordable procedure. So, we need to grapple with this issue. We need to be thinking about training amateurs to safely perform abortions, we need to be thinking about ways to structure underground networks so as to enable women to find practitioners, and yet still defend members from law enforcement. In short, we need to prepare ourselves for a time when the practice of abortion may be outlawed.

This need not be a complicated endeavour. The so-called "Anarchist's Cookbook," a document that provides instructions on the making of explosives and phonetaps, was able to spread quite effectively through the old pre-internet BBS systems. Now, with the internet so widely available, can we overestimate the value of a website that provides practical, safe, instructions on how to perform home abortions? So long as the site was hosted on a foreign server, preferrably in a country that wouldn't bow to U.S. pressure, there would be virtually no way to prevent this knowledge from reaching American audiences. If it's possible for millions of men and women to become abortionists, we may need never return to a time when coathangers and incompetence were common problems. By making this information widely available we will have the ability to scatter abortionists liberally throughout the population- using a sort of "Abortionist's Cookbook," that provides useful medical information instead of folk wisdom and myth. With such democracy of knowledge, many women will find that abortionists appear within those critical second and third-order networks.

For the time being I am not suggesting that amateurs actually perform abortions. For now abortion is legal in this country and should only be practiced by trained and licensed professionals. I am, however, saying this: if abortion is outlawed the practice of abortion will not stop. As such, the only way to minimize the death and the pain is to somehow make sure that the illegal abortions that do occur are as safe as possible. Am I suggesting that we should violate the law? No. Am I saying that we should be prepared to violate the law? Unfortunately, yes, I am. Right now we have an opportunity to get ready, to gather information, and to prepare our networks before abortion once more becomes illegal. We can make use of this time, or we can squander it in the misguided belief that abortion will not be outlawed. I fervently hope that it will not be, but fervent hope and $6.00 will buy you a cup of coffee (F-ing Starbucks).

Since the election I have seen many people saying that they're prepared to fight. That's good. Elections and politics are our first line of defense. The courts and the legal system? Our second. This plan, or others like it, form our third, and final, line of defense. If the time comes, we will find out if we truly have the courage of our convictions. If the time comes, we may have no choice but to man that final barricade in the defense of the rights of women.

I don't know about you, but I'll be there with bells on.

You know, it's a shame there isn't some sort of Blogospheric prize for melodramatic hyperbole because, man, would that closing bit have been a shoe-in. Seriously, you'd think I was in a Ridley Scott epic.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really Heather should be commenting on this because she is a wealth of knowledge - but in lieu of her, I'll do it.

1)Women really had recipes for abortions (pre-legal abortions), they passed around in cookbooks. Of course, it was coded. Perhaps, these need to be dug up. 2) A professor's (at UIUC) best friend as a teenager was date raped, became pregnant, and used a coke bottle to perform her own abortion; she bled to death - true story (once again before legal abortions). 3) In high school some classmates of mine took vows of premarital chastity (through crusade for christ or something like that and wore chastity rings (rather than belts - they were all girls). After that they lasted about a year. hilarious. And of course we were all waiting for them to break it.

I still haven't seen Vera Drake, but I want to. I'd like to respond to more, but I have to work. On the whole, we can't let this happen again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004 9:26:00 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

whoops that was, me, didn't mean to be anonymous

Wednesday, December 08, 2004 9:27:00 AM  

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