‘After Tiller’: The Lives of the Last Late-Term Abortion Doctors

After Tiller

On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot to death during a church service in Wichita, Kansas.  Dr. Tiller was one of only five doctors in the United States who performed abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.  Now, there are four, and the documentary After Tiller examines their lives and livelihoods in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s death.

These four doctors are regularly harassed by people who proclaim themselves “pro-life,” yet have no qualms about killing – or celebrating those who do the killing – of abortion providers.  The film asks them why they choose to put themselves in harm’s way, why they choose to make themselves social pariahs.  Over the course of the 85-minute run-time, we learn about how these doctors’ lives have been threatened (death threats are a regular part of their daily life), how their livelihoods are impacted (one doctor was forced to relocate after his state outlawed late-term abortions, and he had an extremely difficult time finding a landlord who would rent to him), and how their personal lives suffer as a result of the trials they endure.  That they choose to stand up for their belief that they are providing a needed service and continue their practice in the face of such overwhelming opposition is nothing short of miraculous.

The film uses interviews and footage from consultations with patients to provide a look into the lives of the four doctors.  It’s no secret that abortion is a politically charged topic, but many people, including the doctors who perform them, treat late-term abortions as much more serious than abortions conducted at the beginning of a pregnancy.  As is detailed in the film, the late-term abortion procedure is fundamentally different from the procedure done earlier in a pregnancy, and the line between “life” and “not life” becomes extremely hazy.  But the facts remain that pregnancy is still a function of a woman’s body, and there are numerous reasons why women choose to get abortions, even at such a late stage of the pregnancy.  In one of the most emotionally powerful interviews in the film, one of the doctors states that she believes that she is working with babies, not fetuses, but that the physical and mental health of the mother outweighs the viability of the baby.

Because that is why these doctors do what they do: the health of the mother.  As the anti-choice crowd so often forgets, the health of the mother, both physical and mental, often hangs in the balance when deciding whether or not to get an abortion.  After Tiller’s use of footage from patient consultations proves again and again that abortion is one of the hardest choices women will ever make.  The film shows women who are torn apart by the decision.  The stigma placed upon the procedure by our society certainly doesn’t help with the decision.  These consultation scenes hammer home the importance of the doctors’ work; although the doctors are the subject of the documentary, the most emotionally powerful scenes are the consultations, highlighting why the doctors have made their decisions to continue their work.

After Tiller certainly won’t change any minds about the morality of abortion.  But it is a powerful piece of filmmaking, reminding those of us who support a woman’s right to choose why that right is so important, and how fragile that right is.  Four doctors in the entire country have the necessary training to perform a procedure that is necessary, if not desired, by some women.  And there are many out there working to change that number to zero.


Charity Cases

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To be charitable is to give without an expectation of something in return.  While giving to charitable organizations in exchange for nothing more than the warm feeling you get when you’ve helped others is something everyone should do at least once in their life, that is not to say that it is wrong to give to charitable organizations in exchange for some kind of reward.  Charity auctions are great ways to entice people who might not otherwise donate, and many charities give small goods as incentives for people to donate (tote bags being the product that jumps to my mind, having grown up watching PBS).  But sometimes we forget that the purpose of charity is to help others, not satisfy our own desires.  For example, look no further than to this new story about a group of pickup artists promising to donate money to breast cancer charities in exchange for women allowing these boys to “motorboat” them.

The group, known as Simple Pickup, creates videos “explaining” how to “pick up” women (there aren’t enough sarcastic quotation marks in the world for that clause).  The videos are full of examples of battery, including kissing, touching, and, yes, even motorboating women without asking permission.  In a video released this week, supposedly in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the boys go up to various women and tell them that they will donate $20 to a breast cancer charity in exchange for the privilege of shoving their faces in the women’s cleavage and making a revving sound.

The boys argue that they’re doing good works, but their comprehension of what constitutes good works leaves much to be desired.  (Same goes for their concept of comedy, which I will get to soon.)  As evidenced by the very first lines of the video (“Do you love boobs?  We sure do!”), the people they truly care about helping are themselves.  They are doing this to satisfy their puerile desire to touch what is, in their eyes, the only part of a woman worth touching.  Raising money is just the avenue through which they fulfill their desire.  The boys also get the added bonus of feeling like they are “sav[ing] some boobs.”  Once again, their own statements belie their intent.  They aren’t here to help women afflicted by a deadly disease, their goal is to ensure their favorite body part remains intact.  (They also pledge to donate money for every 100,000 views on their YouTube page.  “Charity” becomes a vehicle for promoting themselves and their disgusting methods.)

Now, before moving on, I have two things I would like to address.  First, I would love to see the footage of the women who declined their offer.  Second, in a response to charges of sexism and sexual assault, the boys counter that their videos are meant to be funny, and that they “don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”  As I said above, their understanding of comedy seems to be lacking.  The art of humor is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; humor is derived from showing the powerful in an absurdist, humorous light.  So who is the joke on in these videos?  Clearly, it’s on the women, who find themselves touched, groped, and kissed without their consent.  In the motorboating for charity video (I dislike the term motorboating, but am at a loss for one to describe the specific act they are doing), look at how many of the women hide their faces or show expressions of pure annoyance.  These boys put them in the position of either agreeing to let a couple cretins grope them in public or denying money to a “good cause.”  The boys are the ones with the power.  They are the ones who can dictate that random women make their bodies available for the boys’ pleasure by offering a meager benefit in return.

 tatas

These boys aren’t the only ones who put the emphasis on breasts rather than women in raising awareness about breast cancer.  “Save The Tatas” and other campaigns that sexualize breast cancer suggest that it’s the breasts worth saving rather than the women.  This again feeds back into the skewed power dynamic, in that it shows just how much value our society places on one part of the female body, rather than on women.  But I would argue that Simple Pickup’s activities trump other sexist campaigns in awfulness, because buying a “Save The Tatas” shirt doesn’t involve hesitantly agreeing to let yourself be groped.

(Also, before you accuse me of being sex-negative, arguing that some women like getting motorboated, let me stop you.  I don’t doubt that some women enjoy it.  To each his or her own, and I would be happy to hear all of the women depicted in the ads enjoyed themselves.  But this wasn’t about them.  The boys wanted to satisfy their own urges.  They said at the top that they were doing this because they loved breasts.  As long as they got what they wanted, that was all that mattered.)

And Simple Pickup isn’t the only group that objectifies women to turn them into the reward for being charitable.  Many organizations use sexualization and objectification of women to entice potential donors.  PETA often uses ads that replace animals with women.  They are also responsible for this unbelievably sexually violent ad.  In this 2008 Guardian article, Julie Bindel lists various events at which famous women have bared all in support of their causes, the most disturbing of which the example of the former Spice Girl posing naked to raise awareness of sex slavery.  I’m not sure whose idea it was to use nudity to denounce sexual slavery, but whoever it was must be missing part of the logic center of his or her brain.  That one of the directors of the charity explained the move by saying that the woman was “exercising her freedom of choice” to go naked, unlike the enslaved women they work with only further underlines the disconnect.  The Spice Girl may not be a sex slave, but her “choice” to go naked is the result of a society placing value on her body rather than her whole self.  The reason her nudity helps “support the cause” is because those with money have demanded it.

Many people who donate money to charity require some kind of value in return.  We as a society have determined that exchangeable value includes women’s bodies.  Charitable organizations are well aware that people will pay money to see naked women, and they have used that knowledge to entice donations.  After all, who wants a crappy tote bag when you could look at naked famous women?


“Legal Limbo”

gavelIn The Trial, Franz Kafka satirizes the labyrinthine, backwards, and maddening court system by telling the story of a trial in which is utterly lacking in logic, empathy, and concern for the rights of the people.  Last week, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a decision for which the adjective “Kafkaesque” isn’t nearly strong enough.

Last year, the Nebraska legislature enacted a parental consent law, requiring unemancipated women under the age of 18 to acquire the notarized written consent from the woman’s parent or guardian.  There are many reasons why laws like this are troubling, and those reasons will be addressed below, but what would happen if an unemancipated, under-18 woman did not have a parent or guardian?  The Nebraska legislature did not contemplate such a scenario, most likely because being unemancipated usually means that there is a parent or guardian in the picture.  But, in the case of In re Petition of Anonymous 5, the Nebraska Supreme Court had to address just such an issue.

A sixteen-year-old woman, known only as “Anonymous 5,” petitioned a Nebraska trial court to grant her an exception to the consent law (often known as a “judicial bypass”) and allow her to obtain an abortion.  The trial court denied her request, and she appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  After Anonymous 5 argued that the trial judge was biased, that she was the victim of abuse and neglect at the hands of her parents (an express exception in the law), that she was emotionally mature enough to make the decision to have an abortion, and that she had no one to provide consent for her, because she was living with foster parents who were not legally her guardians, the Nebraska Supreme Court declined to give her a judicial bypass.

At every turn, the court’s ruling relied on twisted logic and blindness to the realities of life.  For example, Anonymous 5 argued that the trial judge was biased, and she pointed to the fact that he said, on the record that “when you have the abortion, it’s going to kill the child inside of you.”  The trial judge also sat on the committee for an anti-abortion group in the 1980s.  The supreme court declined to consider the bias argument, holding that, because she did not raise the bias issue at the trial level, she could not raise it for the first time before a reviewing court.  Now, normally, a party before a reviewing court cannot raise an argument for the first time on appeal.  However, when the argument is trial court bias, if it would be an “exercise in futility” to argue that the very court you are arguing in front of is biased, the party need not raise it before the trial court.  Personally, I would think that arguing bias about abortion to a man who sat on the board of an anti-abortion group and made such a blatantly anti-choice comment would be an exercise in futility, but I’m not a justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, so what do I know?

Next, the court examined Anonymous 5’s “maturity.”  Testimony before the trial court revealed that Anonymous 5 did much to raise her younger siblings because their parents were never around.  (The reason she and her siblings were in foster care was because her biological parents had been adjudged abusive and neglectful.)  She attended counseling regarding the decision to get an abortion and was apprised of the potential side effects of the abortion procedure.  She testified that she was not financially ready to support a baby, nor was she ready to be the mom she wanted to be.  She wanted to move out of her foster parents’ home and had saved up some money to support herself after leaving.  She testified that had never lived on her own.  She did not testify about work experience (as opposed to testifying that she had no work experience), and she testified that she was planning on graduating high school early, but did not testify as to her grades.  Without knowing much else about her, both the trial court and the supreme court determined that she was not “mature” enough to make a decision about her own body.  Implicit in this ruling was the determination that she was mature enough to carry a baby to term as a 16-year-old girl, and thus deal with the social stigma of being a pregnant teenager.  Furthermore, compare this to the story about the Montana judge who gave a horrifically light sentence to a 54-year-old teacher who had sex with his 14-year-old student, finding that the girl was “older than her chronological age.”  And consider this: the consent law applies to unemancipated women under the age of 18.  But the age of consent in Nebraska is 17.  That means that 17-year-old women in Nebraska are in some weird transition stage in which, in the eyes of the law, they are old enough to make the decision to have sex, but are not old enough to make the decision to deal with the consequences of having sex.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the decision dealt with Anonymous 5’s status as an unemancipated minor.  In Nebraska, after a minor is placed with a foster family, the foster parents must file paperwork and be appointed as legal guardian by a court.  Anonymous 5 argued that her foster parents never did this, and thus could not give the consent required under the law.  The Nebraska Supreme Court refused to even consider the issue, holding that it was outside the scope of the proceeding.  The absurdity of the situation was not lost on the entire court.  Two justices filed a dissenting opinion, and found that Anonymous 5 was in “a legal limbo” as a result of the legislature’s failure to foresee the situation.

Again, enshrining certain people’s morals in legislation and denying people’s choice has created an impossible situation for people who are in a traumatic and stressful situation.  This case has the insulting paternalistic issues inherent in most anti-choice legislation – the government would assume it can determine who is mature and who is not via hearings and testimony – but also has the added twist of an absurd result, a “legal limbo,” in which this young woman has no way to satisfy the letter of the law and yet is denied an exemption because she could not satisfy the exceptions to the law.


Clinical Irony: Obamacare vs. Abortion Rights

Watch the above video with the sound muted.  Until the second title card comes up, what point of view do you think it is advocating?  With elements like the Big Brother-like surveillance of the women’s clinic and the supremely creepy Uncle Sam menacingly approaching the woman waiting for a gynecological appointment, it’s easy to believe that the ad is about the recent inundation of state laws that regulate women’s clinics.  Even the first title card, which reads “Don’t Let The Government Play Doctor” supports this thesis.  Despite state legislators’ statements that the laws are attempts to make clinics and procedures safer for women, studies have shown that not only is there little evidence of the purported dangers, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures available.  Compare this to childbirth, which, despite being natural and vital to the continuation of the human race, remains extremely dangerous (maybe we should try to make contraceptive methods readily available to ensure that women who are not physically or emotionally ready for pregnancy need not get pregnant).  If these are the laws the government chooses to enact, I too would be wary of the government “playing doctor.”

But no.  This ad encourages people to opt out of the Affordable Care Act, which conservatives still feel compelled to call Obamacare (possibly the least effective derogatory nickname ever conceived).  In other words, it’s fine for the government to select what procedures a woman must endure before maybe being allowed to have an abortion; it’s fine for the government to decide that these procedures may be excluded from insurance plans; it’s fine for the government to require doctors suggest one course of action (carrying the pregnancy to term) over another (abortion).  But for the government to insert its own bureaucracy in place of private insurance bureaucracy is not fine.  The “Don’t Let The Government Play Doctor” statement becomes almost comical.  Almost.  Because many people who are proposing and voting on these laws are blind to this irony.


‘Why Don’t You Just Give the Vagina You Have a Better Life?’

This and other important questions are raised by this 8-minute film we just discovered, Goodnight, Vagina, starring Cheryl Hines and Gary Cole. Reasons you should watch include the following lines: “I have a Bentley, so you know I’ve done this dozens of times.” And: “Your vagina died on the table.” Yep, there’s also a vagina funeral with a tiny coffin. We have a clip here; you can watch the whole thing here.


Choice Redefined

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It has been a bad couple of weeks for women’s right to choose. In spite of Texas state Senator Wendy Davis’ incredible filibuster of a draconian anti-abortion bill, the Texas legislature reconvened and passed the bill. And within the past month, three other states have made attempts at passing harsh anti-choice legislation. These bills contain provisions used in other recent anti-choice bills that have been appearing in more and more states’ bills and laws: the requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals, mandatory sonograms, and requirements for abortion clinics similar to those placed on ambulatory surgery centers. Conditions like these have often been criticized as unnecessary, and nothing more than pretenses meant to shut down clinics. But there was something in the Ohio restrictions, which were incorporated into the state budget and signed into law by Governor John Kasich, that really stood out to me: the Ohio restrictions redefine “fetus” and “pregnancy.”

[Read more...]


The Pressure to ‘Recover’ from Anorexia

witw-logoEmma Woolf, author of the memoir An Apple a Day, writes about her journey back from weighing a mere 70 pounds at the height of her eating disorder. Will she ever be recovered? That’s a complicated question, she says. Read more at The Daily Beast‘s Women in the World.


Sexy Feminism Excerpt: Lessons Learned from Dieting

To celebrate the publication of our book, Sexy Feminism, we’ll be sharing some short excerpts of it with you, the readers who helped make this book possible! 

My dieting history is totally cliché and utterly unfeminist. I was a teenage dancer-cum-anorexic. I tried half a dozen fad diets and as many cleanses, and I regularly embarked on extreme workout regimens to prep for things like the beginning of a school year or a wedding. I actually can’t remember a time after adolescence when I wasn’t on some form of diet or weight-loss mission. I know; this all sucks for my feminist cred. So I was shocked when the one event in my life that I expected would throw my body image into disarray turned out to be the thing that made me chill out and stop dieting altogether. I got pregnant, gained forty pounds, and stopped obsessing.

To be truthful, it took some time and serious hard work to get my mental health in check. When I first stopped fitting in my regular clothes, I freaked out. I knew that was coming, but it happened at around four months, when I didn’t really have a baby bump yet; I was just a little bigger everywhere. I remember envying women clearly in their third trimesters—it’s impossible not to look adorable with a baby bump, no matter what you wear. I wanted that key accessory instead of just bigger thighs and boobs. When my bump finally came, I embraced it. I wore form-fitting dresses, leggings with slender tunics, and bikinis. I felt beautiful, mostly because I was so proud of the little life, now clearly showcased, causing all these changes. And dieting? Obviously: no. Not just because it’s unhealthy to restrict your food intake too much while pregnant (deadly, even), but also because I wanted to eat better than I ever had before—healthy, wholesome, delicious food—and as much of it as I needed.

[Read more...]


EAT, People (Not a Zombie Blog)

This is a guest post from the awesomely talented and funny and feminist Katie Goodman. Check out her comedy and other stuff here.
I’ve never written about this before, but when I was in high school and college I had a mild eating disorder. Nothing extreme, but a basic binge/purge cycle, although the purge was through excessive exercise. I would have been bulimic except that I couldn’t make myself throw up. And I tried. Believe me. Thank you, strong Russian stomach. But it was fairly pervasive and took up a ton of my attention and energy.  I’m writing about this now because as an adult I have no obsession with food and body image whatsoever and as a feminist I think we really need to see this oppressive, anti-woman dilemma for what it is: um, an oppressive anti-woman dilemma.
It’s the holidays and invariable friends have started to bemoan – along with the anxiety about the anticipated home-for-the-holidays political fights and child-rearing-criticism to come –the expected weight gain. Here’s what I know. And I had to learn it, so I am writing this because I hope it helps others. Eating and being healthy and fit are completely natural. Babies know it and if we don’t screw up our kids too much, they know it. Beauty magazines don’t. Your best friend probably doesn’t. And your parents are your parents, so whatever you learned there, therapy was invented to undo.  (Across the board probably.) But this is about eating.

Latest Anti-Choice Loophole Puts Virginia Women At Risk

On Friday, the Virginia State Board of Health reversed an earlier decision to exempt existing abortion clinics from a 2011 bill which enforces the same building requirements on these clinics as on hospitals. The 15-member board voted 13-2 in favor of reversing a “grandfather clause” approved in a 7-4 vote in June which would have exempted existing clinics from new and costly renovations in order to comply with the bill. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had refused to certify the June approved exemption, and had warned board members regarding their legal liabilities if the exemption remained. As a result of the decision reversal, existing abortion clinics will be responsible for physical plant requirements such as hands-free faucets and corridor dimensions. Such regulations could put some clinics in danger of closing their doors, according to operators.

While the Attorney General’s engagement with the State Board of Health in the decision process clearly merits attention, the decision reversal should also serve as an opportunity to consider whether it is necessary for abortion clinics to meet new building requirements designed for hospitals. [Read more...]


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