Towards a Real Culture of Life


Lynn Paltrow is the Founder and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW).

Many people in the U.S. work to protect the rights of pregnant women and to ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect. But as a result of the divisive abortion debate, many of those advocates typically do not work together—or even speak to one another.

The anti-abortion movement has successfully used the abortion issue to divide the electorate, and a key part of their strategy has been creating the illusion that there are two kinds of women: those who have abortions and those who have babies. The truth is that 61 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, and another 24 percent will go on to become mothers. Over the course of their lives, 85 percent of all women bring life into this world and provide the vast majority of care for the lives of those around them—without compensation.

This means that whether someone is an abortion provider or pro-choice advocate defending the right to choose abortion—or a midwife, doula, or birthing rights advocate seeking to ensure that women have access to health care providers that listen to and support them—they are advocating for the same women, regardless of their position on abortion.

Members of both groups struggle with U.S. policies that run counter to women's health and well being. Both know that many pregnant women are not receiving the information or support they need. Both represent pregnant women who lack protection from workplace discrimination—and lack supports available to women in virtually every other western industrialized country, like a national health care system and paid maternity leave.

Both groups are hurt by state legislative agendas that focus on restricting abortion to the exclusion of virtually every other health issue concerning pregnant women and mothers. (In the 2005 legislative session, over 650 bills were introduced that would directly or indirectly restrict access to abortion and contraception or advance the legal status of the fetus as if it were separate from the pregnant woman.)

Despite these shared challenges and their shared commitment to the health and rights of pregnant women—whether or not there is agreement on abortion—pro-choice and birthing rights advocates have only recently begun to talk, organize, or advocate based on their shared interests.

Finding common ground among these two groups, and beginning to build a broad-based coalition of activists were two of the primary goals of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women when we sponsored the 2007 Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women earlier this year in Atlanta.

The summit brought together over 300 maternal, birthing and reproductive rights/justice activists along with social justice activists, legal and policy experts and healthcare providers from 37 states, the District of Columbia, Mexico and Canada. It was co-sponsored by more than 60 organizations ranging from advocates for mother-friendly childbirth to those that advocate for the right to choose an abortion.

Participants moved beyond the divisive abortion debate to find common ground in the experiences of pregnancy and the increasing limitations to care and support that all pregnant and birthing women face.

For pro-choice advocates these barriers include laws that mislead or misinform women about abortion. Twenty-eight states currently mandate that women seeking abortion receive an approved set of materials that often contain misleading information (for example, raising expectations for benefits or child support if she continues to term that she may very well be unable to collect). Millions of government dollars are being spent on medically inaccurate abstinence-only education. Millions more in state and federal funding goes to pregnancy crisis centers whose staff have been caught red-handed providing false information to pregnant women about abortion.

But not only women seeking to end a pregnancy are being deprived of information. Today, caesarian sections account for nearly one in three births in the U.S., a statistic that far exceeds international recommendations. Even though c-sections constitute significant invasive surgery with a considerable recovery period, only two states, New York and Massachusetts, mandate that their hospitals provide women who are going to term with specific information regarding their birth-related practices.

Both pro-choice advocates and birthing rights advocates are challenged by decreasing access to services: the former struggles with the fact that 87 percent of all U.S. counties have no abortion providers; the latter struggles against policies at over 300 hospitals around the country that deny women who have previously had c-sections the right to even try delivering vaginally.

And both have been negatively affected by growing claims of "fetal rights." While these are advanced as part of the campaign to outlaw abortion, they have begun to effect the lives of women who personally identify as "pro-life." Christian fundamentalists have been told that they must have unnecessary c-sections to protect the rights of the fetus; pregnant women opposed to abortions have been arrested as child abusers in the name of fetal rights for things they did or did not do during pregnancy.

We saw at the summit that pro-choice advocates and birthing rights advocates can work together, whether they are identifying civil and human rights violations or formulating an agenda that genuinely values pregnant women, maternal health and motherhood.

The time has come to move away from divisive (and inaccurate) "pro-life" and "pro-choice" categorizations and stand together. We need broad based support for laws and policies that genuinely promote a culture of life—one that includes and values the women who give that life.

Republished with permission from TomPaine.com.

Editor's note: For more on the connections between the reproductive rights and maternal health communities, check out Jessica Aron's "The Pro-Choice Continuum."

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  • loren

    What an amazing, smart, clear voice of reason. We need more voices like Ms. Paltrow's in this movement (and in the world), voices willing to cut past entrenched rhetoric and move issues like women's health straight on to solutions.

    Nice job, RHRealityCHeck.