Women's reproductive rights under siege

Rev. Vicky Hanjian, Peter Kramer M.D., Mary Ann Sorrentino, Kenneth Edelin, M.D., Jill McLean Taylor Ed.D, and Naomi Arenberg
Five panelists discussed women's reproductive rights from a variety of perspectives. (From left) the Rev. Vicky Hanjian, Peter Kramer M.D., Mary Ann Sorrentino, Kenneth Edelin, M.D., Jill McLean Taylor Ed.D, and moderator Naomi Arenberg (standing). Photos by Danielle Zerbonne

By Pat Waring - August 16, 2007

A distinguished and often outspoken panel gathered at the Whaling Church in Edgartown August 8 to deliver a clear and chilling warning that women's reproductive rights are under siege and could be lost. The discussion, "Reproductive Rights: the Keystone to Women's Freedom," was sponsored by Friends of Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard and the National Organization for Women, which has a new branch on the Island. National Public Radio host Naomi Arenberg moderated the program, which featured a range of speakers from an impassioned author and women's rights advocate, to a physician who was in the forefront of the abortion rights struggle in the 1970s, a psychiatrist, a minister, and a college professor of women's studies.

Though speaking from diverse perspectives and experience, the panelists made it clear that women's freedom to choose how to handle unintended pregnancy is facing many threats, some blatant, some more covert. They urged vigilance and action, calling for audience members to get involved in the issue, especially as elections near.

Mary Ann Sorrentino
Author Mary Ann Sorrentino delivered a clear and impassioned message that a woman's right to abortion should not be questioned or compromised.

Cutting through the arguments

"The whole discussion of abortion has gone from what should be a personal health-related matter to what is being touted as the root of all evil on the planet and in American Society," said Mary Ann Sorrentino, the highlight speaker.

Author of "The A Word: Abortion: Real Women, Tough Choices, Personal Freedom" (Gadd & Co., 2007) Ms. Sorrentino has been active in women's reproductive rights issues since the 1970s when, as director of a Planned Parenthood Clinic in heavily-Catholic Rhode Island, she was excommunicated from the Catholic church. Later reinstated, she went on to become an award-winning talk show host. A feisty and impassioned speaker, Ms. Sorrentino minced no words as she emphasized the importance of reproductive rights to women's freedom, and cut through typical arguments clouding the debate over abortion.

She asked audience members to think about women they know who have struggled with what to do about an unintended pregnancy, and urged them to keep one of these women's faces in their mind.

Kenneth Edelin, M.D.
Kenneth Edelin, M.D., recalled his unjust indictment for performing an abortion in the early 1970s, and warned that without immediate action women's freedom to choose can be lost.

"I want you to understand how personal this is," she said. "These are people you know; they may be your own children, grandchildren, neighbors, mothers, sisters, wives. They need the ability to weigh all the options."

Ms. Sorrentino said that the issue is traditionally discussed by politicians, physicians, most of whom are men. "It's never talked about as a life and death issue affecting women and their survival."

"Women are still dying, emotionally and physically," she said. "They're still not free in this personal area of their lives that is nobody else's business."

Ms. Sorrentino decried the fact that women's right to choose has become a political campaign issue when the real issues are war, economy, or the health-care crisis. She said that without being in control of their reproductive lives women face great handicaps in many other areas of life, and are not really free.

"We need to get involved now because we have elections coming," said Ms. Sorrentino, and urged the audience to demand a pro-choice stance from candidates.

A matter of control

"Wrongful prosecution can happen anywhere in the United States," declared Kenneth Edelin, M.D. recalling his indictment on a charge of manslaughter in Boston in 1974 for performing an abortion on a 17-year old woman. The alleged victim was the fetus. The young African American doctor was three months away from completing his residency. He details the controversial case in his new book, "Broken Justice" (PondView Press, 2007).

Dr. Edelin went on to have a distinguished career in which he was the first African American Chief Resident in the history of Boston City Hospital. Now retired, he was chair of the Dept. of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine for many years and was Chairman of the Board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1989 to 1992.

"They are my enemies," he said of those who oppose women's right to choose. "They want to control your body, they want to control our lives, your sexuality. They want to control you. We must never let anyone in this country be enslaved."

Dr. Edelin said that many of those who tried him and who were called on for testimony were prejudiced by their own personal opinions. He also charged that the proponents of the law banning partial birth abortion passed in 2003 used inaccurate and distorted facts to influence lawmakers and the public.

Warning that the partial birth abortion ban is a beginning to the erosion of women's right to choose, Dr. Edelin said that Roe v. Wade, which guarantees this right, could go down before its 50th anniversary 16 years from now unless supporters act soon to protect it. "It will be up to you to fight for 50 [years] so that those who come behind you have the protection of Roe v. Wade," he concluded.

Distortion and judgment

The other three panelists took a somewhat milder approach in their remarks and focused on ways in which those who oppose reproductive choice are seeking to deny it.

The Rev. Vicky Hanjian admitted that her awareness of women's reproductive rights issues "became dulled," after she left her nursing career in the 1980s to become a minister. But she said that reading "The A Word" newly heightened her concerns.

As a minister, Ms. Hanjian is troubled as she listens to scripture-based arguments against women's right to choose an abortion. "Is there another Bible I don't know about?" she asked, adding that scripture can be interpreted in many different ways.

"There is a danger when scripture is read and interpreted literally...superficially," she said. "It can be used to judge negatively, to oppress, or exclude, or to marginalize, or perhaps to kill."

Peter Kramer, M.D., a psychiatrist, professor at Brown University, and author (including "Listening to Prozac" and the new "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind") disputed the concept of "post-abortion syndrome," sometimes used as an argument against terminating pregnancy. According to Dr. Kramer, there is nothing in medical science to substantiate that women suffer psychologically and emotionally from having abortion. He said that only a small number have emotional issues following the procedure, and often these are women who had pre-existing mental health issues. In fact, he said, frequently women are relieved after the procedure.

Dr. Kramer said that abortion does not lead to the post-partum depression often found after a woman gives birth. And he said that carrying an unintended pregnancy to term, giving the child up for adoption or struggling to raise it can cause more psychological problems for a woman than abortion.

In her extensive work with young women as a college professor, Jill McLean Taylor, Ed.D. said she is constantly surprised by the judgmental attitude of students about unintended pregnancy and abortion.

"How do we get young women to understand how the culture is controlling women's sexuality," she asked, "and to get them to understand the need to work to make sure that rights are not further eroded?"

Ms. Taylor is associate professor in Women's Studies and Education and chair of Women's Studies at Simmons College, and co-author with Carol Gilligan and Amy Sullivan of "Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship," among other publications. She also reported finding that in certain situations women who choose to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term have a positive outcome, presumably because by deciding, they take control of rather than be victimized by their situation.

Questions from the audience later in the program raised more thought-provoking issues for the panelists to address.

"What about the other entity? Is viability an issue?" asked one audience member about abortion. "How do I rationalize the potential for human life?"

"The farther into the pregnancy we go, the more difficult the discussion becomes," said Ms. Sorrentino. She said that the fact of technology's ability to both end and sustain life adds to the complexity of the issue.

"We need laws that make the question of terminating a pregnancy a question of a woman's personal choice and a physician's responsibility," Ms. Sorrentino said, not a debate about viability, when life begins, or other arguments.

"It's not a request, it's a right," she declared. "In the same way no one wants to deny prenatal care, they should not deny this."

"We're terminating the life of the embryo," stated Dr. Edelin. "They [women] weigh the choices. We [physicians] weigh the choices. Roe v. Wade said that once a woman makes this choice she has the right to have that choice carried out safely, legally, and with dignity."

"A right all the time"

Directing her question to Dr. Kramer, another listener asked about the emotional impact on women in cases of rape or abuse, where traumatized women do not decide to abort until late in pregnancy.

The psychiatrist observed that these questions and others surrounding abortion are complex but the crux of the issue is control, women's power, and who has power in this culture.

"There are compelling reasons for having the ability to choose go quite far into the pregnancy," he commented, referring to the fact that some women may not be able to make the choice promptly.

Ms. Sorrentino noted that rape and incest, although sometimes cited as reasons that abortion should be available, account for "a tiny percentage" of unwanted pregnancies.

"We cannot base the need for this right on those cases," declared Ms. Sorrentino, unequivocally. "If this is right, it's right all the time and the woman shouldn't have to make a case about why it is right!"

And what about supporting political candidates, the panelists were asked; several had advice to share.

"Hold their feet to the fire," urged Ms. Hanjian, as she suggested that liberal-minded candidates should learn to "use the God language" to better counter arguments of more right wing politicians.

"If God talks to George W. Bush, I hope he doesn't talk to me," said Ms. Sorrentino, drawing a laugh from the audience as she called for less, not more, religion in politics. "Let's not talk about God, but talk about women, and Hillary's the one to do it." She said that Ms. Clinton has the ability to carry the women's reproductive rights message and must be pressed to do so.

"A candidate should say simply 'I trust my constituents to make these decisions," said Dr. Edelin.

The evening closed with a reception in the Baylies Room where audience members met with the speakers, browsed through Family Planning and NOW literature, and purchased signed copies of Ms. Sorrentino's book, which Gadd Publishing had made available allowing the proceeds to benefit Friends of Family Planning. Dr. Edelin will speak next Tuesday, Aug. 21, 5 pm at the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs (for reservations call 800-466-7762).

Copies of "The A-Word" are still available for $17.50. All proceeds go to Friends of Family Planning. To purchase books, call Jen at 508-221-2615.

Dr. Edelin will speak next Tuesday, Aug. 21, 5 pm at the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs (for reservations call 800-466-7762).

MV NOW, 95 West Tisbury-Edgartown Rd., Edgartown. For more information, visit mv_now@yahoo.com.

Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard, 92 State Rd., Vineyard Haven. For more information on services offered, call 508-693-1208.