Roe v. Wade debate about more than abortion

Reproductive health advocate Lynn Paltrow argues all pregnant women’s rights are at stake in abortion discussion

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: Lynn Paltrow, a self-proclaimed reproductive health advocate, spoke at Ferris State University on Wednesday as part of a lecture series reflecting on Roe v. Wade 40 years after the decision. Paltrow is the founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

BIG RAPIDS – Abortion should not be the only issue discussed when debating the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion, according to Lynn Paltrow, a reproductive justice advocate who spoke at Ferris State University on Wednesday.

“We tend to have the debate of Roe v. Wade and abortion thinking the only issue is abortion,” said Paltrow, who is the founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “I’m here to tell you that’s not true.”

Also at stake in the debate surrounding Roe v. Wade is women’s right to legal due process, their right to personal liberty, basic civil and constitutional rights and their right to reproductive health and making decisions about their bodies, she said. Paltrow offered numerous examples of cases where courts had ruled that a fetus’ rights eclipse all of that.

Paltrow was invited to campus as part of the Political Engagement Project’s look at Roe v. Wade 40 years later. She has served as a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, as director of special litigation at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and as vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of New York City. PEP invited pro-life speaker Rebecca Kiessling to campus on Jan. 30.

Hesitant to call herself pro-choice, Paltrow said she is more comfortable being labeled a reproductive justice advocate or “pro-lives” advocate – referring to the life of the mother and the unborn child – because those terms include the broader women’s rights at stake.

“Pro-choice is a term that’s very limiting, and one that doesn’t necessarily describe all that’s at issue,” Paltrow said. “Reproductive justice is a term that was developed by women of color leaders (in the 1970s) who realized that … having to continue a pregnancy to term might be the thing that kept you from being a full and equal participant of society. Having that child could end your education, could end your possibility of different jobs. Abortion was very essential to your possibility of full participation in society and became very symbolic of women’s full equality.”

(Pioneer photos/Lauren Fitch)

In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, the discussion surrounding abortion has become very charged, Paltrow said, using examples of pro-life campaigns with phrases that refer to abortion as “killing children,” “murder” and “holocaust.”

Those types of phrases call into question how society thinks women should be treated, she said, if people really believe abortion can be equated to a holocaust. While those in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal say it is the abortionist who would be prosecuted for the act, Paltrow noted many instances that already have occurred where women are prosecuted for their decision to terminate a pregnancy.

Especially in cases where mothers are using drugs, women can be prosecuted for charges related to child abuse or drug delivery to a minor via the umbilical chord. Some pregnant women have been held in jail after other charges were dropped because the judge found out she had a history of drug use and thought jail would be the best form of health care for the woman’s unborn child.

In reality, studies have shown drug use during pregnancy is no more harmful to the fetus than smoking cigarettes during pregnancy, Paltrow said. The precedent is that any woman who can’t guarantee a healthy birth of her child is in danger of prosecution, Paltrow said, but women should not have to forfeit their constitutional rights by becoming pregnant.

“The good news is now women are eventually able to get the charges dropped or dismissed – if they have good lawyers,” she said. “The fact that we continue to see these cases should be very concerning to people.”

The abortion debate also tends to divide women into two different types: those who would have an abortion and those who would not. Paltrow pointed out that 61 percent of women who have abortions already are mothers and 84 percent will be mothers by the time they are in their 40s, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, among other sources.

During a question and answer session after the presentation, many audience members voiced their appreciation for the fact that Paltrow provided sources for the statements she made and facts she quoted during the discussion.

One case Paltrow used as an example was Angela Carder. In 1987, at the age of 27, Carder was court-ordered to have a Caesarean section in the hopes of saving the life of her unborn child. Ultimately, the baby and Carder both died, and the operation was cited as a factor in Carder’s death.

Carder battled a fatal form of cancer since age 13. It was three years into her remission when she married and became pregnant, but in her 25th week of the pregnancy, a large tumor was found in her lung. Carder was treated at George Washington University Medical Center and agreed to undergo chemotherapy and radiation in an attempt to eliminate the tumor and spare her life. The treatment would harm her unborn child, but doctors told her the baby would not have a good chance of survival if they intervened before the 28th week of pregnancy anyway. A premature delivery would risk Carder’s life as well.

However, hospital administrators heard of the decision not to attempt delivering the baby and petitioned for a court hearing. The hospital’s legal counsel ordered Carder undergo a Caesarean section, with the reasoning that Carder’s life was in danger either way so it was worth it to attempt to deliver the baby.

Paltrow offered Carder’s case as an example of the constitutional rights to a fetus canceling out the rights of a woman.

“Those who support treating fetuses, eggs and embryos as if they’re legally separate argue this is part of the American tradition,” she said. “We keep adding people to the community of ‘constitutional persons.’ We added African Americans who had been slaves. We added women of all races. … There is no way to add fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses to the constitution without subtracting pregnant women. … What I hope we can work on together is a true culture of life – one that includes and values the women who give that life.”

 

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