Despite the torrential rain, heat, and humidity, an enthusiastic audience filled the Whaling Church for “Lifting the Veil: Shame, Secrecy and Abortion on Martha’s Vineyard,” a community panel and forum Saturday on abortion choices and the lack of accessibility on the Island.
The forum was prompted by a Rural Health Scholar study that conducted a needs assessment through the Dukes County Health Council. One of the recommendations was to look into abortion access here. There aren’t abortion services at the Family Planning Clinic because they receive Title X funding, a federal program that doesn’t allow recipients to use the money to provide abortions. And Martha’s Vineyard Hospital no longer provides abortion services, its CEO Denise Schepici telling an audience in June that there is not enough demand on the Island. In their findings, the Rural Health Scholars said, “It would behoove the Island to start a strong conversation about how to access abortions.” And so the board advocacy committee, chaired by Susan Desmarais from the Friends of Family Planning of Martha’s Vineyard, spearheaded the event.
Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, moderated the panel that included Dr. Willie Parker, board-certified ob-gyn specializing in abortions and a leading advocate for reproductive justice; Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health; Amy Brenneman, actress, writer, producer, and leading pro-choice activist; and Elizabeth Barnes, born-and-bred Islander and president of the Women’s Centers.
“You would think that in the so-called liberal North that abortion access is a non-issue,” Parker said. He said it’s “ironic that in Jackson, Miss., a woman could get an abortion, and here in Martha’s Vineyard they could not.”
Miller picked up the theme by saying that despite Roe v. Wade being a federal law, “In reality, abortion has always been regulated at the state level … What people may not realize is that since Roe v. Wade we’ve had more than 1,000 laws passed by state legislatures against abortion … Most of those were about shaming and oppressing woman who decided to have abortions.”
Many of the panelist spoke about barriers to abortion because of having to travel off-Island to Boston, including not being able to afford the expense, ability to take time off from work, having anyone to watch their young children, or necessarily being able to read and/or speak English. And there is the additional challenge of finding a doctor or clinic that accepts your insurance or Medicaid.
Barnes pointed out that it also can be “dangerous for some [undocumented immigrants] to leave the Island right now. So you are taking a basic extremely common healthcare service to a level where you could be prosecuted or lose your family as a result. We talk about our community like we take care of our own, and I would ask that we put abortion on that list, because it’s just as important as when someone’s house burns down or when there is a tragedy in someone’s family or someone is sick.”
The conversation was far-ranging, but toward the end Seagrave asked about practical steps we can take to move the issue forward.
In her introduction, when Desmarais had announced that Schepici, CEO and president of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, would not be attending, she shared that Schepici had said that should the statistics change, the hospital is willing to revisit the issue. In this light, Parker said, “If you apply that if 1 in every 4 women of reproductive age in Martha’s Vineyard had an abortion — I think there are more than 12 women of reproductive age here reported by the clinic — if you simply applied that rate to the Island population … And many women might not have presented to the hospital because if they knew there was no relief for them, then why would they go?” Parker emphasized that it was important to generate the facts, “so we can start with the assumption of the need” for abortion rather than “answering questions that don’t even need to be asked.”
Desmarais also noted the challenges in gathering statistics. “Because of privacy laws, we have no way of knowing how many more Island women chose termination,” she said. “Many women go to their primary care or gynecologist for a pregnancy test, and choose to go off-Island for their abortions. In addition to privacy laws, the secrecy and the shame it can create acts as further challenges to statistics.”
After the panel, Desmarais told The Times it had inspired additional ideas. In terms of lifting the veil of shame, she wants to look into “finding a forum for women to come together to talk about their experiences with one another, to process and find group support, because for many it’s a heart-wrenching experience even when it’s the right choice.”
She also mentioned as important what Parker had shared about 95 percent of abortions happening in clinics. Desmarais suggested that perhaps the committee should find a clinic space, create one as an offshoot of Friends of Family Planning, or have a designated one within the hospital in which rotating providers would visit the Island on a weekly basis. One gynecologist who has a summer place on the Vineyard and lives nearby off-Island has already offered her services.
Desmarais also pointed out that it was important not to demonize the hospital, as it said it was willing to reconsider the issue if the statistics warranted and, likewise, does provide pre- and post-abortion services. “We instead should use our energy and efforts toward what can be done, and soon,” she said. “For those of us who choose to live here, it’s a personal responsibility. And it’s important to try to reduce secrecy and shame around abortion and importance of controlling our choices about each of our own bodies.”