A few weeks ago, a group of pro-choice women got together at the Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe to talk about, among other things, the state of abortion rights in America.
“Somebody thought to ask the women who were there how many of us had had abortions, and it was eight out of 10,” Janet Gotkin, a petite woman with close-cropped hair and bright, greenish-brown eyes, says. Gotkin is a member of NOW, the National Organization for Women, a group whose Santa Fe chapter wasn’t all that mobilized, she says, until an amendment to the US House of Representatives’ health care reform bill shocked them into action.
“Thank you, Bart Stupak!” Gotkin says wryly, invoking the Michigan Democrat whose eponymous amendment to the House health care bill passed on Nov. 7 and calls for a ban on federal funding for not only abortions themselves, but also health care plans that include abortion coverage.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but we’re probably on the road to [outlawing abortion] if we keep this health care bill,” Gotkin says. “I think women feel that they’ve been thrown under the bus here.”
Gotkin and fellow NOW member Dana Middleton, a middle-aged blonde with two daughters in their 30s, channeled their outrage into a pro-choice rally scheduled for this Thursday, Jan. 21 (the day before the 37th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision, which gave women the right to abortion) at the east end of the Roundhouse. The point, Gotkin says, is to “de-stigmatize abortion and put it back where it belongs, as part of the spectrum of women’s health options.”
At 11:30 am on Thursday, they’ll don lavender T-shirts aimed at doing just that. The T-shirts, which read, “I’m grateful my abortion was safe and legal,” with little labels to insert for “my mother’s abortion,” “my friend’s abortion,” and so on, definitely reveal just how much of a stigma abortion still carries.
“It’s like the scarlet ‘A,’” Gotkin says. “Every time we show this shirt to people, they go, ‘Agh! You’re going to wear those?!’ We’re holding this rally to reaffirm that abortion is a safe medical procedure in the mainstream of medical practice, and that we need to start talking about reproductive health for women.”
Both Gotkin and Middleton have compelling stories of their own. Gotkin, who had an abortion after having two children and a procedure to “tie her tubes,” says her unexpected pregnancy “radicalized me for the rest of my life.” Middleton also had one after having a child; at the time, she was on the contraceptive sponge, which she says “didn’t work at all.”
Gotkin, hearing this, gleefully recounts the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine stockpiles all the contraceptive sponges in New York before they’re taken off the market—but then she quickly gets serious again.
“The whole pro-choice movement, the movement for the full spectrum of reproductive health services for women, has really been dealt a huge blow,” she says. “Do you think our government should be forcing women to have children?”
In spite of a bleak national outlook, New Mexico is a relatively good place to be pro-choice.
In 1998, the New Mexico Supreme Court voted unanimously to uphold an equal-rights amendment to the state constitution that allows women to pay for abortions with Medicaid. And the types of obstacles to abortion—parental notification and consent, mandatory waiting periods between when women first visit an abortion clinic and when they can actually have the procedure—that have proliferated in states such as Kentucky have made little headway in New Mexico.
“[Requiring a waiting period] assumes that women have not thought this through prayerfully and carefully before [their] decision,” Joan LaMunyon-Sanford, the director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, says.
“Women are fully capable of making those hard moral decisions.”
But LaMunyon-Sanford, who is partnering with NOW in the rally and the ensuing movement to de-stigmatize abortion, says access is already limited. New Mexico has only three abortion providers, she says—one in Santa Fe and two in Albuquerque.
“If a woman has to come from Farmington or Hobbs or Las Cruces, to require that extra day of travel, that extra day to find a hotel in Albuquerque simply to wait, would be a hardship economically,” LaMunyon-Sanford says. Mandatory waiting periods “may have an effect in some states of reducing abortions—not because women cannot think these things through carefully, but because they simply cannot afford to lose an additional day of work.”
LaMunyon-Sanford’s organization eases that burden by connecting women having abortions with volunteers who help them with money for bus tickets and meals or even with stays in their homes. But her mandate is political, too.
“Our big responsibility is to counter the voice of the religious minority that characterizes itself as the majority: the fundamentalists who have claimed the moral ground on the abortion debate,” LaMunyon-Sanford says. “Most religious people are pro-choice, and they are pro-choice because of their faith, not in spite of it.”
(The NM Conference of Catholic Bishops and other “pro-life” groups are holding a rally and conference on Jan. 22, the actual anniversary of Roe v. Wade.)
In New Mexico and nationally, outlets of what LaMunyon-Sanford calls the “anti-choice” movement don’t always seem fundamentalist. Take Care Net, a faith-based nonprofit with 1,180 “pregnancy centers” across the US—including one that opened just over a year ago in Santa Fe.
“Our goal is that women are informed on the choices they’re making,” Roberta Cheek, the Santa Fe center director, says. But a video that opens automatically on the center’s website lists as abortion possibilities such rare procedures as intact dilation and extraction, and partial birth. The Supreme Court upheld a 2003 national ban on partial birth abortions in 2007, but Cheek claims it’s still legal in some states and couldn’t say whether New Mexico is one of them.
“I know it has changed recently, and it’s still unclear about what’s going on specifically in New Mexico in that category,” Cheek says.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization focused on reproductive health, not much is unclear: New Mexico has a ban on partial birth abortions after viability (the point at which a fetus can live outside of the womb), with a relatively narrow set of health exceptions. No new legislation related to abortion or reproductive rights was enacted in 2009, and LaMunyon-Sanford says none is likely in 2010, either.
Even so, Gotkin and Middleton are interested in starting a whole new conversation. Beginning with the rally, they hope to host discussion groups, screen films about abortion and pregnancy, and generally get people talking about an issue Gotkin says she thought was settled back in 1973.
“We’re hoping this will be the first of many events this year around choice, de-stigmatizing abortion [and] starting to have a conversation in a different way,” Gotkin says.
To LaMunyon-Sanford, that’s essential.
“This affects how people feel about women’s role in society, as sexual beings and as full, autonomous human beings,” she says.