Women on the Chopping Block | A Speech on Abortion

Below is the speech Sally Donlon (The president of the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women) gave at the Governors mansion on Wednesday May 22nd.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion and the Second AnnualLouisiana Women in Blue Day, an event organized by the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women.We are all guests this year of Governor John Bel Edwards and his gracious First Lady, Donna, who have opened their lovely home to us. Governor and Mrs. Edwards, we sincerely thank you!

I would also like to thank the board of the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women: Betty Cooper, Theresa Rohloff, Kassie Ford, Peggy Sabatier, Angelina Iles, Mozella Bell, and Alicia Calvin. Especially Alicia Calvin, who chairs the Women in Blue Committee and who has worked closely with the Governor’s staff on this event. 

The Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women is 18 months old. The Federation exists to help strengthen the Democratic Party in Louisiana, to provide opportunities and support for Democratic women to participate in the political process, and — quite simply — to identify and elect more Democrats to public office. And we need to keep Democrats in office, including our sitting governor, John Bel Edwards.

Since taking office in 2016, Governor Edwards has—for the most part—prioritized programs and policies aimed at supporting the citizens of Louisiana, rather than corporations. He has expanded Medicaid, bringing health care to almost half a million working adults. He has championed equal pay for women, and a state minimum wage. He has stabilized the budget, protected critical social services, prevented Louisiana from falling off the fiscal cliff, fully funded TOPS, and FINALLY increased funding for higher education. John Bel led the bipartisan charge for criminal justice reform, and effectively eliminated the waiting list for services for people with developmental disabilities. He has also championed teachers and support staff by insisting on a long overdue pay raise—which will be those folks’ first pay raise in 10 years. Last on my incomplete litany of the Governor’s accomplishments is the record number of adoptions through his Department of Children and Family Services. 

But, as responsible members of the electorate and good Democrats, we must also confront the elephant in the room over which all other social justice issues must stumble. I speak of the imminent passage, and potential signage into law, of the so-called “heartbeat” bill that effectively ends the autonomy of women over their own bodies. We honor this opportunity to share with you some of your constituents’ concerns in this regard. I do not purport to speak for everyone in this room, but social media and the phone lines have exploded with concerns over your next actions, Governor. A debate currently rages among Democratic women, torn between wanting to support your mostly positive agenda and speaking out in the name of human rights. A great many have indicated they will assuage their consciences by leaving unchecked any Governor’s slot on the ballot, which we know will be a grave error. Many have chosen to forgo this invitation to the Mansion. Many, many women have asked me to present an alternative perspective on this issue, and with your forbearance, I will respectfully do so. I beginwith the official statement from Susannah French, president of the National Federation of Democratic Women, whom you met at this event last year:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion and the Second AnnualLouisiana Women in Blue Day, an event organized by the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women.We are all guests this year of Governor John Bel Edwards and his gracious First Lady, Donna, who have opened their lovely home to us. Governor and Mrs. Edwards, we sincerely thank you!

I would also like to thank the board of the Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women: Betty Cooper, Theresa Rohloff, Kassie Ford, Peggy Sabatier, Angelina Iles, Mozella Bell, and Alicia Calvin. Especially Alicia Calvin, who chairs the Women in Blue Committee and who has worked closely with the Governor’s staff on this event. 

The Louisiana Federation of Democratic Women is 18 months old. The Federation exists to help strengthen the Democratic Party in Louisiana, to provide opportunities and support for Democratic women to participate in the political process, and — quite simply — to identify and elect more Democrats to public office. And we need to keep Democrats in office, including our sitting governor, John Bel Edwards.

Since taking office in 2016, Governor Edwards has—for the most part—prioritized programs and policies aimed at supporting the citizens of Louisiana, rather than corporations. He has expanded Medicaid, bringing health care to almost half a million working adults. He has championed equal pay for women, and a state minimum wage. He has stabilized the budget, protected critical social services, prevented Louisiana from falling off the fiscal cliff, fully funded TOPS, and FINALLY increased funding for higher education. John Bel led the bipartisan charge for criminal justice reform, and effectively eliminated the waiting list for services for people with developmental disabilities. He has also championed teachers and support staff by insisting on a long overdue pay raise—which will be those folks’ first pay raise in 10 years. Last on my incomplete litany of the Governor’s accomplishments is the record number of adoptions through his Department of Children and Family Services. 

But, as responsible members of the electorate and good Democrats, we must also confront the elephant in the room over which all other social justice issues must stumble. I speak of the imminent passage, and potential signage into law, of the so-called “heartbeat” bill that effectively ends the autonomy of women over their own bodies. We honor this opportunity to share with you some of your constituents’ concerns in this regard. I do not purport to speak for everyone in this room, but social media and the phone lines have exploded with concerns over your next actions, Governor. A debate currently rages among Democratic women, torn between wanting to support your mostly positive agenda and speaking out in the name of human rights. A great many have indicated they will assuage their consciences by leaving unchecked any Governor’s slot on the ballot, which we know will be a grave error. Many have chosen to forgo this invitation to the Mansion. Many, many women have asked me to present an alternative perspective on this issue, and with your forbearance, I will respectfully do so. I beginwith the official statement from Susannah French, president of the National Federation of Democratic Women, whom you met at this event last year:[QUOTE]

It is clear that there is a conservative State-by-State war on women and our human right to have control over our own bodies. No woman wants to have an abortion. However, every woman wants to have control over her own body and her healthcare decisions. Women need affordable and safe access to birth control so that they do not have an unwanted pregnancy. Many of these states now banning abortions, have also made it harder for women to obtain affordable birth control. They are defunding Planned Parenthood Health Clinics. They have undermined the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage policy that ensured birth control would be covered with no copay by enacting laws allowing individuals and companies to refuse to provide or cover contraception. They are stopping women from having control over their reproductive healthcare.

The Republican State legislatures making these restrictive abortion laws state that their main purpose is to force the laws before the Supreme Court of the United States so that Roe v Wade can be overturned. They may just get their way. In this year of 2019, 45 years after Roe v Wade, we as women must join together to stand our ground that every person has a right to make reproduction and health decisions about their own body. We cannotlose this basic human right. Recent polls have indicated the support for Roe v Wade is at an all-time high and that more that 69% of Americans oppose overturning the decision.

 The National Federation of Democratic Women NFDW have been fighting long and hard for our reproductive healthcare rights and we call on our leaders and legislators to stand up against this assault on women. This is not a political issue; it is an issue of human rights.[END QUOTE]

 

That is our organization’s message on the national level; in Louisiana, we can get down to specifics. We are a state that, despite positive reforms in some areas, remains at the top of the list for childhood poverty, low education, deaths associated with reproductive health issues—including pregnancies and their aftermath—and a slew of other poverty-related outcomes. Despite positive movement on adoptions, Louisiana still harbors hundreds of children already in need of safe homes. Not surprisingly, the faces behind these statistics most often belong to poor women and women of color. 

But, let me unpack the issue a little bit. These “heartbeat” bills demand that women carry to term all embryos, despite the fact that the newest research indicates that at least 50% of pregnancies are spontaneously aborted—often without a woman ever knowing she was pregnant. Such is the tenuous nature of a fertilized egg—half of them will be spontaneously aborted by God or nature, whichever you believe to be calling the shots. The embryo in the sixth week of pregnancy is the size of a pomegranate seed. Many, many women have doubtlessly miscarried around this mark without ever knowing it—we simply assumed an unusually heavy period. And on this extremely tenuous proposition hangs the very autonomy, well-being, health, and dignity of every woman. In fact, the very criminalization of women.

The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg has famously said that “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, well-being and dignity. When the government makes that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.” For more than 45 years, women in this country have been afforded the ability—within reason—to make that life-altering decision with the counsel of themselves, their families, and their clergy. 

Now all that is under threat as legislative bodies across the country—mostly dominated by white males with massive incomes and massive insurance policies—have set about with gusto to criminalize women, and to limit our economic and social stability. So far this year, four U.S. states have passed laws banning abortions when they say a fetal heartbeat can be detected; several additional states are also considering these so-called “heartbeat” bills. When passed into law, these bills render women into children, non-agents in the drama of their own and their families’ lives. It would be difficult even to make a galvanizing narrative out of the loss that seeps in slowly, in the course of years and decades, when one’s choices are non-consensually foreclosed. 

But what exactly are lawmakers defending when they legislate protections for the unborn at the moment a so-called "fetal heartbeat" can be perceived? Although tempting to picture a heart-shaped organbeating bravely inside a fetus, this is not the case.Rather, at six weeks’ gestation, an ultrasound can barely detect a little flutter in the area that mightbecome the future heart of a future fetus. It is not a heart at this point; it is not even a fetus at this point. The flutter happens because the group of cells that might become the future "pacemaker" of the heart gains the capacity to fire electrical signals. Meanwhile, as if to consciously, purposefully, and totally revoke the agency of half the human race, the authors and proponents of these bills continue to make it harder and harder for women to access quality, affordable birth control.

The human costs of these new laws can scarcely be overstated. If these lawmakers do not want to consider science, we can point them toward sociology. Laws have never stopped women from getting abortions; indeed, the abortion rate in countries that ban the procedure is about the same as it is in countries that allow it. But, by driving the practice underground, the new laws will only increase the danger to women’s health. How will this happen? 

First, some doctors will refuse to treat cancers found in pregnant women with chemotherapy or other potent medications because they will worry that thefetus will be harmed. Second, some doctors will allow ectopic pregnancies to continue until the woman’s fallopian tube explodes, resulting in deadly sepsis, because they fear that eggs in even ectopic pregnancies will be considered living beings under the law. And third, teenage girls may end their own lives. In Ohio, an eleven-year-old, who is carrying her rapist’s child, is no longer eligible for an abortion, according to the letter of the new law. Can we really, in good faith, tell this child that her life will get better?

Several states have already prosecuted women for doing drugs or drinking excessively while pregnant or for otherwise allegedly harming their fetuses. Overwhelmingly, those punished tend to be poor women and women of color. If abortion is secretive and illegal, who will be left out? Not the daughters and wives of powerful men . . . Those moral arbiters will simply ship their womenfolk off to whatever pocket of freedom exists somewhere in the world, or pay a private physician. Who will suffer the social,economic, and health repercussions? The poorest and most vulnerable women, as it has always been.

Much of this recent legislation has been written in such a way that women who seek abortions after six weeks could be prosecuted; people who miscarry—with God or nature’s intent—could be investigated for attempted second-degree murder. This feels dystopic, but it is what the doctrine of fetal personhood demands. If the fetus is a person, it is a person who possesses, as Sally Rooney put it in the London Review of Books, “a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen” — the right to “make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.” In the relationship between woman and fetus, she wrote, the woman is “granted fewer rights than a corpse.”

For the women so reduced to mere chattel of the state, there is simply no getting around the phenomenal messiness of reproduction—the incredible violence of pregnancy, even in the best-case scenario; the fact that women are asked to leach their own bones and blood for it; the awesome and terrible ability of the body to create life as well as destroy it. The recent wave of legislation also depends on the ability of its proponents to ignore the actual ramifications of these laws. Who will advocate for the rights of the unborn when their mothers are incarcerated? How will the law deal with a pea-sized “citizen” contained within an undocumented woman’s body? 

Governor, we understand that the bill or bills that reach your desk will be “veto-proof,” and many have taken that as an excuse for you to act on your religious convictions. We also understand that you believe your constituents to be firmly anti-choice, which—if true—would provide some political cover. But we are here to tell you that many of us across the state—and across the country—feel differently. And many of us are outraged. Many of us do not cotton to abortion, but a great many of us support a woman’s right to autonomy in reproductive health, regardless of our personal beliefs. A great many are also uncomfortable, as Americans and Democrats, with the idea of legislating by religious conviction. As a child growing up in a Catholic state, I knew several motherless children. Faced with a choice, the Church had said, save the child. These laws designed to suppress women’s autonomy will likely yield many outcomes that will be only marginally different.

Thank you, Governor, for your willingness to hearfrom your constituents and fellow Democrats on an issue of dire importance, especially to poor women and women of color. And we implore you to consider carefully your actions in this regard. Thank you, again,for your otherwise positive leadership, and for your gracious hospitality!

 

That is our organization’s message on the national level; in Louisiana, we can get down to specifics. We are a state that, despite positive reforms in some areas, remains at the top of the list for childhood poverty, low education, deaths associated with reproductive health issues—including pregnancies and their aftermath—and a slew of other poverty-related outcomes. Despite positive movement on adoptions, Louisiana still harbors hundreds of children already in need of safe homes. Not surprisingly, the faces behind these statistics most often belong to poor women and women of color. 

But, let me unpack the issue a little bit. These “heartbeat” bills demand that women carry to term all embryos, despite the fact that the newest research indicates that at least 50% of pregnancies are spontaneously aborted—often without a woman ever knowing she was pregnant. Such is the tenuous nature of a fertilized egg—half of them will be spontaneously aborted by God or nature, whichever you believe to be calling the shots. The embryo in the sixth week of pregnancy is the size of a pomegranate seed. Many, many women have doubtlessly miscarried around this mark without ever knowing it—we simply assumed an unusually heavy period. And on this extremely tenuous proposition hangs the very autonomy, well-being, health, and dignity of every woman. In fact, the very criminalization of women.

The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg has famously said that “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, well-being and dignity. When the government makes that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.” For more than 45 years, women in this country have been afforded the ability—within reason—to make that life-altering decision with the counsel of themselves, their families, and their clergy. 

Now all that is under threat as legislative bodies across the country—mostly dominated by white males with massive incomes and massive insurance policies—have set about with gusto to criminalize women, and to limit our economic and social stability. So far this year, four U.S. states have passed laws banning abortions when they say a fetal heartbeat can be detected; several additional states are also considering these so-called “heartbeat” bills. When passed into law, these bills render women into children, non-agents in the drama of their own and their families’ lives. It would be difficult even to make a galvanizing narrative out of the loss that seeps in slowly, in the course of years and decades, when one’s choices are non-consensually foreclosed. 

But what exactly are lawmakers defending when they legislate protections for the unborn at the moment a so-called "fetal heartbeat" can be perceived? Although tempting to picture a heart-shaped organbeating bravely inside a fetus, this is not the case.Rather, at six weeks’ gestation, an ultrasound can barely detect a little flutter in the area that mightbecome the future heart of a future fetus. It is not a heart at this point; it is not even a fetus at this point. The flutter happens because the group of cells that might become the future "pacemaker" of the heart gains the capacity to fire electrical signals. Meanwhile, as if to consciously, purposefully, and totally revoke the agency of half the human race, the authors and proponents of these bills continue to make it harder and harder for women to access quality, affordable birth control.

The human costs of these new laws can scarcely be overstated. If these lawmakers do not want to consider science, we can point them toward sociology. Laws have never stopped women from getting abortions; indeed, the abortion rate in countries that ban the procedure is about the same as it is in countries that allow it. But, by driving the practice underground, the new laws will only increase the danger to women’s health. How will this happen? 

First, some doctors will refuse to treat cancers found in pregnant women with chemotherapy or other potent medications because they will worry that thefetus will be harmed. Second, some doctors will allow ectopic pregnancies to continue until the woman’s fallopian tube explodes, resulting in deadly sepsis, because they fear that eggs in even ectopic pregnancies will be considered living beings under the law. And third, teenage girls may end their own lives. In Ohio, an eleven-year-old, who is carrying her rapist’s child, is no longer eligible for an abortion, according to the letter of the new law. Can we really, in good faith, tell this child that her life will get better?

Several states have already prosecuted women for doing drugs or drinking excessively while pregnant or for otherwise allegedly harming their fetuses. Overwhelmingly, those punished tend to be poor women and women of color. If abortion is secretive and illegal, who will be left out? Not the daughters and wives of powerful men . . . Those moral arbiters will simply ship their womenfolk off to whatever pocket of freedom exists somewhere in the world, or pay a private physician. Who will suffer the social,economic, and health repercussions? The poorest and most vulnerable women, as it has always been.

Much of this recent legislation has been written in such a way that women who seek abortions after six weeks could be prosecuted; people who miscarry—with God or nature’s intent—could be investigated for attempted second-degree murder. This feels dystopic, but it is what the doctrine of fetal personhood demands. If the fetus is a person, it is a person who possesses, as Sally Rooney put it in the London Review of Books, “a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen” — the right to “make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.” In the relationship between woman and fetus, she wrote, the woman is “granted fewer rights than a corpse.”

For the women so reduced to mere chattel of the state, there is simply no getting around the phenomenal messiness of reproduction—the incredible violence of pregnancy, even in the best-case scenario; the fact that women are asked to leach their own bones and blood for it; the awesome and terrible ability of the body to create life as well as destroy it. The recent wave of legislation also depends on the ability of its proponents to ignore the actual ramifications of these laws. Who will advocate for the rights of the unborn when their mothers are incarcerated? How will the law deal with a pea-sized “citizen” contained within an undocumented woman’s body? 

Governor, we understand that the bill or bills that reach your desk will be “veto-proof,” and many have taken that as an excuse for you to act on your religious convictions. We also understand that you believe your constituents to be firmly anti-choice, which—if true—would provide some political cover. But we are here to tell you that many of us across the state—and across the country—feel differently. And many of us are outraged. Many of us do not cotton to abortion, but a great many of us support a woman’s right to autonomy in reproductive health, regardless of our personal beliefs. A great many are also uncomfortable, as Americans and Democrats, with the idea of legislating by religious conviction. As a child growing up in a Catholic state, I knew several motherless children. Faced with a choice, the Church had said, save the child. These laws designed to suppress women’s autonomy will likely yield many outcomes that will be only marginally different.

Thank you, Governor, for your willingness to hearfrom your constituents and fellow Democrats on an issue of dire importance, especially to poor women and women of color. And we implore you to consider carefully your actions in this regard. Thank you, again,for your otherwise positive leadership, and for your gracious hospitality!