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Dr. Jen Gunter has done it again. We get so caught up in the philosophical and ethical discussion of abortion (we’re guilty too), that sometimes it helps to remember that at the end of the day, this is a medical procedure and we need physicians with strong voices like Dr. Jen’s to break it down for us in terms of the real world implications of our philosophical musings.

Dr. Jen Gunter

The Irish Catholic Bishops have seen fit to clarify the church’s view on gynecology given Savita Halappanavar’s death from sepsis at 17 weeks in her pregnancy and the concern that evacuating her uterus was delayed because the fetus still had a heart beat. The full statement is here, but this is the excerpt I find most troubling:

– Whereas abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances, this is different from medical treatments which do not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby. Current law and medical guidelines in Ireland allow nurses and doctors in Irish hospitals to apply this vital distinction in practice while upholding the equal right to life of both a mother and her unborn baby.

I spent quite sometime trying to understand how one could possibly translate this statement into…

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Protests in Galway (photo courtesy of the Guardian)

There are multiple investigations going on in the case  of Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old Indian dentist who died in the hospital in Ireland, following a miscarriage.  At first glance, it appears that she should have been granted the termination she requested immediately and that her death is a direct, painful result of failure on the part of the hospital to understand Irish law (at best), or ideologically-motivated malpractice at worst.  While we await the results of this investigation, protests have been going on outside the hospital where it occurred and in many other cities across the country, demanding a change to the law.

This case matters because there are states in our own country whose laws aim to be as restrictive as Ireland’s.  There is a tendency lately from proponents of criminalizing abortions to simply claim that the cases which would demand reasonable people to make exceptions simply don’t exist;  nobody really gets pregnant from rape, and nobody really dies from pregnancy complications.  Savita’s case is a tragic reminder that they do.

To the best of our understanding of Irish law, there is an exception provided for termination in the case of saving the woman’s life, however a European court two years ago demanded clarification of that law and it doesn’t appear that that has been given.  How imminent does the danger have to be?  It’s a question some women are finding themselves wrestling with here in America, as OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter has written about so maddeningly and so well.  Apparently in Savita’s case, someone decided that her septicemia was not imminent enough danger; since there was still a fetal heartbeat, even though it was clearly established that the fetus was not viable and Savita was suffering a life-threatening infection, termination was refused.  But while we await the results of the ongoing investigations as to who made the call to refuse termination and why, it’s worth talking about a few things.

If you talk to most proponents of criminalizing abortion, the argument about a woman’s right to control her own body is piffle, because the entire issue centers around whether life begins at conception; maybe life does begin at conception, but maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.  The question of whether life begins at conception or not contains an implicit assumption that if the answer is yes, that the value of that life is greater than that of the vessel carrying it (in other words, the woman).  Evangelicals and others basing their anti-abortion positions on similar religious convictions, when pressed on this question, will admit that they share this viewpoint – it’s a theological conviction.  So, it’s getting distracted with so much hokum to get trapped into arguing whether life begins at conception or not, because that’s not really what it’s about.

The real question is whether a zygote, or a fetus, has the same rights as a fully grown adult woman with a life and responsibilities.  When abortion becomes an option, the tension arises between a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life vs. the right of a non-developed person to exist.  If you’re in the “woman is just a vessel and the vessel cannot possibly have more value than the zygote/fetus she carries” camp, it’s no great stretch to decide that once she is impregnated, her desires and indeed even her life become rather beside the point.  It requires little imagination to see how this viewpoint brings waves of personhood bills washing through our Congress and state houses.  From there it’s a very small step to, “Sorry you’re going to die, Mrs. Halappanavar, but this is a Catholic country.  You’re screwed.”

So yes, I’m saying it.  Maybe life begins at conception, but maybe that isn’t really the question.  It’s not a technical argument about when life begins, it’s argument about whether that life has rights that supersede those of the woman carrying it.  Now before anyone starts pointing a finger and howling “eugenicist!” or whatever you like, please consider that we as a society make lots of determinations about what rights a person has based on where they are, developmentally.  It’s why four year olds aren’t allowed to hit the sauce and eight year olds can’t drive cars.  It’s also why a physician might decline to treat an ailment in a very elderly patient, or why a paramedic in an emergency situation might choose to save one life over another.  We recoil as a society from the idea that we might place unequal weight or value on different human lives, but we do it.  We do it all the time, in ways that we don’t even think about.  The abortion argument simply forces that question front and center where people have to deal with what’s uncomfortable about that.

So, we make determinations, based in large part on development.  Even a very pro-choice person is not going to support terminating a pregnancy at 32 weeks.  There is argument up and down the line on this, but in general, the arc of most people’s reasoning on this is that the more developed the life, the more extreme your reason needs to be for terminating.  Again, it’s something that we do instinctively.  Nobody wants an abortion, but in weighing the consequences of a pregnancy that threatens your life, health, or perhaps simply your pursuit of happiness, the central argument of competing rights is one that lives on a sliding scale.  The absolutist notion that the moment you become impregnated, your life ceases to matter is problematic for every one of us.

Savita Halappanavar

And that’s a good part of what lingers over the case of Savita, whose life, it appears, was deemed worth risking for the sake of the life of a non-viable fetus.  Does a 17-week fetus’s life have more value than the woman carrying it, or less?  Does it have the same rights as, say, its mother who would leave behind a grieving spouse and perhaps other children if she died?  Would its right to exist supersede the rights of a young teenager whose life is perhaps not threatened, but who knows that her future will be destroyed and she’ll be cast out of her home with few prospects and no skills or money if her unplanned pregnancy is discovered?  We spend so much time arguing the exceptions –rape, incest, life of the mother- that we lose sight of the real question about why we hold the larger positions we hold on abortion and reproductive choice.  Determining the point at which a fetus becomes enough of a baby that we no longer feel comfortable overriding its rights is a process akin to nailing mercury to a wall.  But it’s a process we must participate in.  Until this becomes the world that the pro-criminalization crowd would like to pretend it is, in which no abortion is ever needed for any reason, we need to fully appreciate what the argument really is, to effectively defend that right.

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Happy Thanksgiving from W:RUN!

It’s Thanksgiving!  It’s time for turkey and cranberry sauce and warm feelings, followed (for some of you) by inadvisable amount of wine and an argument with your mother-in-law that ends in embracing and weeping like characters from a deleted scene from the Joy Luck Club.

In all seriousness, though… We at WRUN have so much to be thankful for, it’s hard to know where to start.  Your faithful admins first of all want to thank their spouses for their emotional and intellectual support and for tolerating us night after night during the election season hauling our sleep deprived selves to bed far too late.  We want to thank Rush Limbaugh for pushing us over the edge and making us mad enough to start this thing.  We want to thank some of our wonderful guest contributors like Siobhan Carroll, Jamie Utitus, Deliciously Geek, Dave Thomer, and Jen Chapin, who liven up our blog from time to time and made our RNC week coverage such a hit. We want to thank Simmie Knox, the gifted painter whose official SCOTUS portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the defining element of our most popular meme ever, shared over 11,000 times off of our page alone.  We want to thank our new friends, admins of pages like The Everlasting GOPStoppers, Whiskey and the Morning After, Glittersnipe, Anti-Republican Crusaders, Miss R*Evolutionaries, We Are Woman, and MOMocrats, and so many other pages in our network of friends, for helping us increase our audience and put us in touch with so many of you.

And last but certainly not least, we are thankful for all of you, dear readers.  All of you, some who have been with us from the very beginning, this past spring, when we were excited to hit 100 likes on our Facebook page.  All of you, who have shared our artworks and blog entries (remember when we didn’t have a blog?), have picked up the phone and taken to email when we’ve raised a charge against a legislator who was behaving badly.  This entire effort would be pretty meaningless if you weren’t here to spread our messages and reach out to our policy makers when we needed you.  Here we are now, with 6,300 of you hand in hand with us.  It’s humbling, to say the least.

We’re not going to talk much about politics here.  Suffice it to say that we are grateful for the way you came out in force for the election, and for the way you voted.  We’re fortunate to have the government we have, and a president who has made it clear that not only our rights but the rights of everyone in America to be happy and free, are a priority for him.  We’re fortunate to have the brave soldiers and diplomats working for those rights overseas.  We spend so much time focusing on improving the situation for women in America, it can be easy to forget what an incredible place of opportunity it is.  With all its issues, with all of the ideological battles we find ourselves enmeshed in, at the end of the day, we do still have choices, we do still have freedoms, and we do still have opportunities.  Now more than ever, these are things that we cherish and protect, and we hope you join us in that continued effort.

So go.  Enjoy your turkey.  Enjoy your family.  Enjoy your wine (but not too much).  We’ll see you on the other side, ready for the next round.

In friendship and gratitude,

Jen & Pattie, Your W:RUN Admins

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What Now?

We’re all feeling pretty good right about now, having elected a record number of women to the House and Senate, and of course,  having re-elected Barack Obama. And we should be. It was a tough season but we all got out there and pushed and made our voices heard. But now’s a perfectly good time remind ourselves not to repeat our recent mistakes.

You know what I mean. In 2008, you elected Obama, got your “I Voted” sticker and wore it till the glue gummed up, and figured you’d done your job. The economy was going to be fixed, and everyone was going to get healthcare, and birds were going to come in the springtime and fly in a synchronized circle around your head while singing “Brindisi” from La Traviata.

And then came the 2010 Tea Party.

We’d seen the polls about the healthcare issue, it seemed clear that a majority of Americans wanted it, and that was that. So, yes… while you were sleeping and/or waiting for your opera birds to show up, these Tea Party folks organized foaming-at-the-mouth town hall meetings, intimidated their legislators, and then, impossibly, stormed Congress and got themselves elected, where they proceeded to put peanut butter in the gears, sugar in the gas tank, and kick holes in the hull of the ship of state. They blocked the debt ceiling negotiations and caused damage to America’s credit rating. They sat on jobs bill after jobs bill. They were curiously, creepily obsessed with regulating women’s lady parts. It was not a good time. By the time we stopped seeing stars and got ourselves together to mobilize against all this, a lot of damage had been done.

Now, in this election the Tea Party cost the Republicans a total of five Senate seats that were supposed to have been easy pickups, thanks in large part to their bewildering, seemingly pathological need to re-define and minimize rape.  So, everyone, send your local Tea Party chapter a cheese wheel. They’ve earned it. But –and this is important– many of the most extreme incumbents kept their seats.  Michelle Bachmann clung on by her fingernails.  So did Steve “I’ve Never Heard of Anyone Getting Pregnant From Rape” King. These people are still loose in our Congress, and  continuing to put their grubby paw-prints all over laws that affect you and me and everyone we know.

It’s crucial to note a couple of things here. One is that the demographics in the 2008 and indeed, the 2012 presidential races were quite different from the infamous 2010 March of the Angry White People. Minority voters turned out in greater numbers in the 2008 election than they had before; in 2010, without Obama on the ballot, a lot of them stayed home. Can you imagine if those voters had remained engaged and active in supporting the president that they had elected by turning up to vote and making sure he still had a Congress that would work with him? Active involvement when it mattered, in 2010, might have rendered this election year’s insurgency of minority and women voters far less urgent.

The other thing that’s worth noting about this election is the gender gap, and how big it wasn’t.  In the end, Romney’s gender gap is being estimated at somewhere between 9% and 11%.  While surely signficant, by itself, it wouldn’t have been enough to tip the election, and it absolutely should have been.

It’s difficult to imagine that any woman who was paying attention during this seemingly endless election cycle could have come out for Mitt Romney.  Leaving aside his ever-shifting positions on reproductive issues, this was the man whose campaign, back in the spring, couldn’t answer a simple question like, “does he support fair pay for women.”  And then whose idea of damage control was to dispatch Reps. Mary Bono Mack and Cathy McMorris Rodgers to vouch for him — two women who had voted against the Ledbetter Act. But again, the key part of that sentence is “paying attention.”

Don’t mistake my intent here, ladies, I am not yelling at you. We’re glad that you’re here.   We are constantly blown away by the support and enthusiasm in this community. And now we need you to stay engaged, and you need to get your friends, your sisters, your mothers, your daughters engaged in the process too. Know your representatives and their policies. Know what they’re saying, and what they’re doing.  And if necessary, call ’em up and give ’em the business.

Fortunately, we and a whole host of other groups, big and small, are here to help with that. We do that by watching and keeping you updated on what our government is up to, and talking with you about what matters. In the coming months, we’re going to be looking at ways to foster and maintain that engagement, to do our part to make civic involvement a force of habit instead of an eat-your-peas drudgery, or a once-every-four-years exam where you drink a bunch of coffee and cram the night before the election so that you have some clue of what’s going on.

We need an America that shows up for the less sexy, less exciting midterm elections to vote for dog-catcher, because they know it matters just as much. We need, desperately, an electorate that isn’t basing their decisions on one debate performance, or a couple of sound bites, or a political ad bought with dark money and so densely packed with lies that if you pried one out, it would cause a second Big Bang. Come to think of it, maybe that explains that parallel universe that the Tea Party lives in.

This is your country.  Stake your claim.  Revel in it.  Enjoy it.  Or else you may be waiting an awfully long time for those opera birds.