Book Club: Her Body, Our Laws

By 2014, law professor Michelle Oberman was no stranger to El Salvador. She had already spent four years making research trips to the Central American country, but that June she would need a local guide during her travels. An activist had volunteered to accompany her on the interview she needed to conduct, a task that required a two-and-a-half-hour trip outside the city to an area that is not well mapped — in fact, to a village where there are “no signs or numbers” to help visitors find their way among the cinder-block houses and the patchwork of land where the clucks and lowing of livestock punctuate the silence.

Paid maternity leave, monthly child allowances, and affordable day care and health care decrease demand for abortion.

Once in the village, it took Oberman and her guide an additional 45 minutes to find the house they needed to visit. Inside, a curtain was all that separated the main room from a small bedroom in the back. A bucket and outdoor basin served as a shower, and an outhouse completed the bathroom facilities. The living conditions there were not uncommon — not in a country where roughly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

That poverty was both the cause and consequence of a conflict between left-wing rebels and government forces that lasted from 1979 to 1992. In many ways, that conflict set the stage for the abortion war in El Salvador, the subject of Oberman’s recently published book, Her Body, Our Laws: On the Frontlines of the Abortion War from El Salvador to Oklahoma (Beacon Press, 2018).

From Civil War to Abortion War

In the early 1980s, the small republic of El Salvador was in the grip of civil war, while in the U.S., debates raged over the emerging Sanctuary Movement that was aiding Salvadoran and other Central American refugees. The movement began in 1981, when Quaker activist Jim Corbett and Presbyterian Pastor John Fife, both of Tucson, pledged to “protect, defend, and advocate for” the many people fleeing warfare and political turmoil in El Salvador and neighboring countries. Tucson was at the forefront of the movement as refugees crossed through Mexico and arrived at the Arizona border. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.

Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.

For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading

In the Wake of Roe v. Wade: The Helms Amendment

USAID is essential in reducing infant and maternal mortality in the developing world.

This Sunday, December 17, is the 44th anniversary of the Helms Amendment.

What is the Helms Amendment and why should we care about it?

The simple answer to the first part of that question is that it is language added to the 1973 foreign aid bill. It reads:

No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.

The Helms Amendment was the first federal legislative attack on abortion rights in the post-Roe era.

But of course nothing to do with abortion is ever simple. Think of the Senate in December 1973, just 11 months after the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. In the intervening months the war in Vietnam ended; Henry Kissinger visited China; the Watergate hearings and the first trials of the conspirators began; Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being convicted of accepting bribes; President Nixon named Gerald Ford to replace Agnew; there were bloody coups in Greece and Chile; the Yom Kippur War was fought in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia led the oil embargo against the United States, raising gasoline prices from 25 cents per gallon to more than a dollar; Nixon tried to stop the Watergate investigation by firing the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox; the top two people in the Justice Department resigned rather than do so, leaving Robert Bork to carry out that order, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre; eventually Nixon was compelled to turn over his tapes after fighting the order in court.

In other words, 1973 was a turbulent year, a time of great change and political turmoil in Washington. Continue reading

AIDS at 35: The Anniversary of the First Report on a Mysterious New Disease

mmwrOn June 5, 1981 — 35 years ago this Sunday — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report with an inauspicious title: “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles.” Nestled between pieces on dengue and measles, the article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report briefly described five patients, all young men from Los Angeles with cases of life-threatening pneumonia. While it didn’t immediately grab headlines, its publication represented a turning point in public health: the beginning of the AIDS era.

In another 35 years, will AIDS be a fading memory?

These patients’ pneumonia had been caused by a particular species of fungus, which back then was responsible for fewer than 100 pneumonia cases annually. Young, healthy people weren’t supposed to be vulnerable to this fungal infection, and the fact that men with no known risk factors were suddenly falling victim to it was a huge red flag that something strange was afoot.

The patients shared other characteristics as well, and at that point, scientists could only speculate what, if any, of these traits were associated with the strange new disease. All five patients were “active homosexuals,” were positive for cytomegalovirus (CMV), had yeast infections, ranged in age from 29 to 36, and used inhalant drugs (aka “poppers”). The CDC knew right away that this mysterious cluster of illnesses must have been caused by “a common exposure that predisposes individuals to opportunistic infections” — an observation that, in hindsight, was incredibly accurate, as HIV destroys the immune system and opens its host to normally rare infections. The editors posited that “some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle” might increase risk for this type of pneumonia — perhaps a sexually transmitted disease that somehow caused pneumonia. Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ve shared her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this final installment, we look at her thoughts about her time at PPFA and her life after leaving Planned Parenthood.

In 1970, just a few years after receiving her master’s degree, Faye Wattleton left the Dayton Health Department and the Visiting Nurses Association to serve as executive director for Planned Parenthood of Miami Valley in Ohio. While she was there, the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, and when a local reporter asked for a comment, Ms. Wattleton realized that her affiliate had no prepared statement. As she wrote in her autobiography, “The national offices had communicated no strategy for addressing the implications of such a landmark decision.”

“The exercise of safe reproductive health services and choices for women around the world is vital to the planet.”

At the time, no one had known what to expect from the Supreme Court, and the ruling came as a shock to Wattleton and her colleagues. But the Roe v. Wade decision would eventually thrust Planned Parenthood into the highly politicized abortion debate, despite the fact that their mission was — and is — broader than that, focusing most of their energies on contraception, preventive care, and education.

When Ms. Wattleton became Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president in 1978, the organization had become, according to a 1979 Time Magazine article, “as all-American as the Girl Scouts and debutante parties.” But Ms. Wattleton restructured the national office staff in preparation for increasing political challenges, while continuing to expand medical and education services. During her first year, more than 60 percent of the national managerial staff left the organization.

Reflecting on the restructuring, Ms. Wattleton says that had she known then what she knows now, she would have begun her tenure at PPFA differently. “I had been the executive director of a Planned Parenthood [affiliate] for seven years before I became president [of the national organization]. I felt like I really knew the organization, but what I learned [is that] anyone who has the privilege to ascend to national or international responsibilities can’t quite appreciate what it’s like, until you’re actually in the seat. Perhaps I really overestimated my perspective on some of the nuances of the importance of touching base with a number of the elements within the organization; like any other organization, Planned Parenthood has its factions.” Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 3, Family Planning and Race

Faye Wattleton (left) with Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, 1992

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. This third installment covers questions of racism, especially as aimed at Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Faye Wattleton is clear that women’s autonomy is at the core of the reproductive rights debate. Her philosophy regarding the struggle for reproductive rights, as she said during our interview, “gradually evolved to the conclusion that this is still really about the fundamental right and values that women are held to. That our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.” The question is whether the government will seize the power to make decisions about women’s bodies.

“Racism has a very deep vein in this country and our culture.”

Ms. Wattleton, as the first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was often asked how she could work for an organization founded by Margaret Sanger, a woman who allegedly saw birth control as a tool to eradicate the Negro race, to use the language of Sanger’s time. For example, when Ms. Wattleton debated Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, on the Phil Donahue Show in 1991, he accused her of being a traitor to her race by working for Planned Parenthood: “Margaret Sanger … wanted to eliminate the black community,” Terry said to Ms. Wattleton. “You have been bought.”

Ms. Wattleton responded, “I do not need you to tell me what my choices are about my life and my body because I am a black person. I can make that choice for myself, just as every black woman can make that choice for herself.” Reflecting further on Margaret Sanger during our conversation, Ms. Wattleton added, “I could never understand why Margaret Sanger was hauled out. Maybe she was racist. George Washington had slaves. What am I supposed to do? Give up my American citizenship for that?” Continue reading

A Conversation with Faye Wattleton: Part 1, Historical Perspectives

Faye Wattleton reflects on her career in the family-planning movement. Image: Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, 1981

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. At 34 years old, she was not only the youngest and the first African American to head PPFA, but was also the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold that position. She had already been executive director of the affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, for seven years, and is still PPFA’s longest-serving president.

Ms. Wattleton received her nursing degree from Ohio State University in 1964, and a master’s degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Working in obstetrics, she saw a wider world than she had known and was exposed to the choices women in other circumstances needed to make. She saw the results of illegal abortions when women were desperate to end unwanted pregnancies, and saw the judgmental attitudes of many of the doctors and nurses who treated them. These experiences, along with her religious upbringing by a strong mother who was a preacher in the Church of God, led her to a career in the movement for reproductive rights.

“What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle” for abortion rights.

Ms. Wattleton was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this first installment, she speaks about the battle for women’s reproductive rights as it has evolved over time.

In the years since Roe, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws, such as Arizona’s strict 20-week cutoff for abortions, and mischaracterizing some birth control methods as abortifacients. I asked if it had been difficult to watch the worsening attacks against reproductive rights since she left Planned Parenthood — and was surprised when Ms. Wattleton said she does not think the struggle for reproductive rights has gotten more difficult. In some ways, she said, things have gotten better. Continue reading