Everyone agrees there’s a gap between the information a woman needs before getting an abortion and the information she gets, but all sides don’t agree what that information should be, when it should be presented, where the gap is or how to fill it. My mother was a devoted Catholic who lived the juxtaposition of her belief in the right to life and the right to live life as one sees fit. Her decisions best illustrate how one side of the information gap is, well, just a position.
In 1970, my mother was 32 years old. She survived an extended radical mastectomy to rid her of breast cancer. Common through the 1970s, this draconian approach to breast cancer was followed up with radiation treatments. (She died of liver cancer in 1999.) In 1971, two years before abortion would become legal in the United States, her periods stopped. Treatment was initiated under the assumption the cancer had spread. A teenaged hospital volunteer suggested to my mother she might be pregnant. The teenager was right.
My mother’s physicians encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy even though it didn’t put her life at risk. Because of the radiation treatments, they were sure she’d miscarry or give birth to a child with severe problems. Before pro-choice became a common term in the American vernacular, my mother chose to carry the child to term. Her child was born healthy the following year and is now a well-respected teacher.
Six years later, in 1978, I was 16. Unlike her peers, my mother began telling me how my body worked at age eight. Like her peers, she forbade premarital sex and opposed abortion. She reluctantly advised condoms if I “acted against God.” When a condom failed, her adherence to Catholic doctrine and opposition to abortion screeched to a halt.
Seven days after telling her I was pregnant, she directed me to my seat in the abortion clinic. Her speed was suspicious. How did a financially strapped Catholic mother know the cost of an abortion, where to get one and have the money to pay for it; all in a timely manner? Legal abortion was only five years old, but the information network among women of all political and religious stripes was well-established and older than any law.
My mother’s hypocrisy aside, my issue is that the decision to terminate my pregnancy was made for me, not by me. (Anyone who thinks I should’ve defied her wasn’t raised in a strict Catholic home or has forgotten what it was like.) I don’t regret the procedure and wasn’t scarred by it. I was scared of having a child so young and had already been told by the young man who got me pregnant that I was on my own. Whether or not my mother exploited my fear by confirming it is relative, but not irrelevant. She used my fear to play fast and loose with my reproductive rights. This game is still being played today, which brings me to the “Woman’s Right to Know” act.
The act’s requirements go above and beyond the law of informed consent. These are not just a couple of pretty words. By law, informed consent provides the patient with the nature of the procedure; alternatives (and risks, benefits, and uncertainties of each alternative); an assessment of understanding; and the right to proceed or refuse the procedure. Its criteria is drawn from the 1947 Nuremberg Code; it is the internationally recognized standard; and it applies to every medical procedure and treatment plan.
The “Woman’s Right to Know” act varies from state to state. It does not apply to any treatment plan and applies to only one procedure: abortion. Depending on the state, the patient has no right to opt out of requirements such as waiting 24 hours or more before having an abortion; having to view a sonogram while the physician describes the image in detail; having to hear a heartbeat; and being told things that aren’t scientifically proven. An uninsured patient must pay for these additional requirements even if she chooses not to have an abortion.
While advocates of the “Woman’s Right to Know” act might have a problem with what my mother did, they’re cut from the same cloth. At least the overbearing control freak in my life was my mom. These people are not my mother. I was not, as the right to know advocates would have asserted, without information in the clinic that day. My mother had long before provided me with reproductive education and the clinic staff met every criterion of informed consent. I saw a sonogram, but I wasn’t made to see it. And the only thing I heard after that was my mother telling me how my discomfort with her decision was not as important as her discomfort with my decision to have sex in the first place.
She was not an exception. A widespread, unwritten rule was at play. There were girls I knew sitting with me in the clinic, all from religious backgrounds and most of them with their mothers – on just that one day. This was standard practice among the maternal self-righteous, and it wasn’t just back then. In 2008, 65 percent of women between the ages of 15-44 who had an abortion identified themselves as Protestant or Catholic. The majority of women having abortions come from groups of people who publicly oppose it and have insisted their opposition into legislation. This vicious cycle of hypocrisy is best explained by my grandmother having once said, “That dog doesn’t just chase his tail; he bites down.”
Some of the girls in the clinic with me might’ve had babies if they’d been allowed to make their own decision. But their mothers, while preaching the opposite to everyone else, wouldn’t hear of it. The shame of an unwed mother in the family far outweighed the religious implications of an abortion. Abortion became the new “send her away.”
What disturbed me most during my clinic visit was how many girls in the waiting room were ignorant; and vocal about it. One girl genuinely didn’t know how she’d become pregnant; another girl assured her mother she’d douched after “the deed”; another was sure something she drank made the pregnancy test come back positive. I didn’t understand what was wrong with these girls or their mothers. This plague of ignorance and the consequences of it persists to this day.
The other half of these pregnancies (the boys and men) became, and still become, magically invisible, making their lack of reproductive education and their significant contribution to the pool of ignorance even easier to ignore. Boys and men are very specifically left out of the equation of reproductive education and responsibility as if pregnancy is something a woman does to herself rather than the fact of it being a consequence of male/female copulation.
Many parents voluntarily exclude themselves from the equation of education simply by neglecting to educate their child or refusing to allow them to be educated. Societally, we expect parents will educate children adequately about reproductive health even though more parents than not didn’t get an adequate education themselves, or feel so inadequate or uncomfortable that they don’t talk to their children at all.
The policy of separating adequate reproductive health from public schools hasn’t budged and has spilled over into the general population. The United States is downgrading its regard for reproduction to the level of oppressed nations as ever more opportunities for education and affordable access to services for both genders is (in some states; very soon in others) aborted.
Most women who get abortions aren’t well educated and live at or below the poverty line. Conversely, the more education a woman has, the less likely she is to experience an unwanted pregnancy and the more likely she is to postpone having children. These two facts are lost on those using ineffective means by which to eliminate abortion and the legislators they pimp.
Many women who have had abortions and then joined the pro-life movement have forgotten two very important things: 1) They had the freedom to make their choice; a choice they are now working to deny others. 2) How one feels about an experience is not an automatic indictment of that experience. If this were the case, then love would be illegal. Projecting one’s guilt and regret (imposed or real) onto someone else doesn’t help one resolve one’s own feelings about the experience; a process that has nothing to do with anyone else.
There is no difference between what my mother did “on my behalf” and the ongoing abolishment of everyone’s access to reproductive education and services. I at least knew how I became pregnant. Under the guise of promoting knowledge, the “Women’s Right to Know” act contains no provision for reproductive education at all. This act’s advocates insist reproductive education is no one’s business until a woman seeks an abortion, and then they insist what she “knows” is everyone’s business.
“Right to Know” advocates have successfully eliminated reproductive education and access to services for many people who have watched as their only affordable resource is shut down by lack of government funding, one state after another. Government-funded abstinence-only programs, however, are alive and well even as they teach nothing and tell little. These programs do not teach a child what his/her reproductive system looks like, how it operates, or the physical consequences, good and bad, of doing anything with it. They tell children what they should and shouldn’t do without a shred of evidence the children even know what the adults are talking about; and they have failed, at that.
Abstinence advocates tout the growing number of teens delaying sex as proof of their success. This is like a teacher advising an illiterate child how to keep her illiteracy to herself, promoting her to the next grade level and then taking credit for her advances as her illiteracy continues to go undiscovered.
The children left behind don’t know a vulva from a vas deferens, so it’s a good bet they won’t know the “right” in the “Women’s Right to Know” is a required subjugation of informed consent that blatantly attempts to manipulate them out of what really is their right. This is exactly the same as someone inserting their version of morality into legislation to shame you into having an abortion.
“Women’s Right to Know” advocates aren’t interested in anyone’s right to know. If they were, they’d be working just as hard to legally require everyone’s right to know about pap smears, sexually transmitted diseases, the reproductive system of both genders and basic reproductive hygiene (which does not include douching, which in turn is not a form of birth control on any level).
We don’t require a pregnant woman who is about to miscarry to view the sonogram and hear the heartbeat. Doing so would be heartless and irrelevant. If she wants to, it’s up to her, but no one can legally make her do this. There is only one reason for letting one woman decide for herself while requiring it of another: guilt: legally sanctioned, and federally funded, imposed guilt.
“Right to Know” and abstinence advocates and the Pro-life movement expect uneducated children to grow into educated adults, and when they aren’t magically endowed with knowledge and make decisions accordingly, there is much discontent to be heard from those who spawned them. A pro-life woman deciding to have an abortion is hypocritical, but the law provides everyone the right to this juxtaposition. Given the lack of education and the backgrounds of the majority of women who have had abortions, it is prudent to assume there are many uneducated, pro-life women living in just such a position. Denying and/or restricting access to reproductive education and services is the opposite of everyone’s right to know.
And that’s a gap.