From "Why Abortion? The Myth of Choice For Women Who Are Poor" by Anne Nicol Gaylor
Who Are the Women?
(All names are fictitious)
"My five-year-old was suspended from kindergarten," 31-year-old Shelley Wood said, explaining the presence of her noisy child at home on a school day "He throws chairs around and hits the teacher and pushes the other children."
Shelley Wood is an alcoholic. She can't hold a job. In the past she has worked as a cleaning woman, a laundress and an unskilled worker on an assembly line in a shirt factory She would like to be a nursing assistant, but has lived the past few years on public assistance. Her children, all of whom have different fathers, are 9, 5, and 1.
Her current pregnancy is by a married man who has beaten her "three or four times."
The father of her year-old child was on drugs and supporting his cocaine habit by stealingstrongarm theft and burglary. He is now in prison, a 13-year sentence. The whereabouts of the fathers of the two older children are unknown; Shelley has never received any child support or moral support from the men who impregnated her.
Shelley was arrested recently. She described it: "Me and a friend were sitting around drinking beer, and my friend said she'd like some more, and I said I would pay for it if she would go and get it. So I gave her $20 and told her to bring me the change. Well, she went to get the beer, but she didn't come back. She spent my money on crack. And when I went to ask her where my money was, she pulled a knife and I got cut. I hit her two or three times. I was charged with battery, but they changed it to disorderly conduct."
The "friend" also is an alcoholic, as well as a hard drug user. She is 28 with three children, who are being taken care of by their grandmother.
Originally, Shelley's sister was going to help her pay for an abortion, but she had not paid a utility bill and "her lights were turned off and she had to use her money for that."
Shelley's abortion cost $250. Shelley found $50 and the Women's Medical Fund paid $200.
And the suspended kindergartner? He probably was damaged by his mother's alcoholism, to say nothing of his family's way of life. Shelley's year-old baby, as the offspring of an alcoholic mother and a cocaine addicted father, also is damaged.
Unlike many of the women helped by the Women's Medical Fund, Shelley has a high school education. She says she does not use drugs. If she could control her drinking and her fertility, her life probably is salvageable.
But what of the children?
And suppose Shelley had had to carry this pregnancy to term. What of the terrible costsocial and economicto her, to the children she has, to society?
'Take it away, I don't want it, I don't want no baby!"
Vicki Clark, 15, is one of seven children, the "baby" of her family. As a seventh grader, she had a baby at age 13.
That baby came as "something of a surprise," according to Vicki's mother.
"We knew Vicki had been raped," her mother said, "but the test was negative. A couple of boys followed her and a classmate home from school. But the girls told me about the rape, and we reported it to the police and took her to the sexual assault clinic and to the doctor. She was terribly upset, but she had all the tests and they were negative."
Vicki is no stranger to doctors. Born with a bone displacement, she has had six painful surgeries over the years, with accompanying skin grafts, starting at age 4. But despite her office visits, no one picked up on the pregnancy.
"She was so young," her mother explained.
Vicki was afraid after the rape.
"She was afraid to go to school, so I walked with her every day, all the time. She would never go by herself. Then one day my daughter at home called me and said, 'Mama, Vicki is in a lot of pain.' So we took her to the hospital thinking maybe it was an infection, and they said, 'She's in labor!'"
Vicki scarcely realized what was happening, her mother said. After the birth all she would do was cry.
"When they showed her the baby she cried, 'take it away, I don't want it, I don't want no baby!'"
Vicki and her mother would have preferred that the baby be released for adoption, but Vicki's maternal grandmother persuaded them to take it home. As a baby of color as well as the product of rape, its chances for adoption were negligible. The grandmother thought it would be doomed to institutional care or a series of foster homes. Vicki accepted that the baby would be around, but has shown no attachment to it. Her mother is its caregiver.
Two years after the birth of her "rape-baby," Vicki, now a 15-year-old ninth grader, got pregnant again. The boy, also a student, was using a condom, Vicki said, and she told her mother immediately after her missed period, asking for an abortion.
"I just didn't know what we would ever do," her mother said. "I didn't know where to turn." Public medical assistance, which pays for medical care for the needy, including delivery, does not cover abortion in Wisconsin, as is true in three-fourths of our states. There was no help to be had from the boy involved, or from his family.
Vicki's exhausted mother, a single parent, was "at my wit's end." An older sister of Vicki's, who had lived away from home for several years, had become "strung out on drugs" and her three children had nowhere to go except to their grandmother.
When Vicki's mother phoned the Women's Medical Fund for help, she summarized her family's situation: "I have Vicki who is pregnant, and I have Vicki's baby, just two years old. And I am taking care of another grandchild who is handicappedkind of like retarded. Then there is my daughter on drugsher children are with me and they are 9, 6 and 5. I just can't take any more children."
So Vicki had her early abortion for $220, a reduced rate. Her mother paid $100; the Women's Medical Fund paid $120.
It was discovered that Vicki had syphilis for which she is being treated. She also is scheduled for Norplant, which, if tolerable, should give her protection against pregnancy for four or five years. Her tests for HIV are negative.
Vicki is relieved that the pregnancy is over, her mother reported. "She had really gotten very low before the abortion. She was sick from being pregnant and more out of school than in school. Things are better now."
"The children are not thriving."
Twenty-year-old Dorothy Miller came to Wisconsin from somewhere in the south. She brought her four children. Intellectually slow, she is tiny and thin. She has only an eighth grade education and became pregnant at age 15. She had two children by the same man, a girl and a boy.
Then she married, and two more children followed quickly, just a year apart. That man deserted her and the children, so she came to Wisconsin where a brother lived.
She was enrolled for public assistance, and in a short time two of the children were taken from her and placed in foster care. The youngest weighed the same at four months as it had at birth. "The children are not thriving," her social worker said. When the Women's Medical Fund was contacted on Dorothy's behalf, her children were 4, 3, 21 months and 11 months and Dorothy was pregnant again.
What will happen to Dorothy? She was able to get an abortion with the help of the Women's Medical Fund, but what does her future hold? Probably she will get pregnant again. She would consider a tubal ligation, but there is no way to pay for one. Public medical assistance, which pays for childbirth, will not cover a tubal until the woman is 21. Then, frequently there is little support for her decision; often there is active opposition. And there are delays in scheduling. Over and over again women get pregnant while waiting for their tubal appointment.
What will happen to Dorothy's children? Probably they will spend some more time in foster care, and then go back to their mother who can not really care for herself. Then it will be back to different foster homes. The script is written. And how will children, who have so many strikes against them, be able to develop, to learn, to compete. They are society's throwaway children, who do not even have the questionable stability of an extended family.
"They told me I wouldn't get pregnant"
Debbie Moore, 22, has a deformed uterus. "They told me I wouldn't get pregnant," she said. But Debby, a high school dropout who is unemployed, did conceive. On a prenatal visit she discovered that the fetus she was carrying was not developing normally.
The medical scan showed a grossly abnormal fetus with a body wall defect, a mass on the abdomen, and defective bone structure including a badly arched spine.
Although Debby was enrolled for public medical assistance which covered her prenatal care and would have covered a delivery, by legislative fiat it would not cover an abortion, even for this tragic, genetic problem.
The Women's Medical Fund paid a $250 down payment to get Debby admitted to a hospital where the second trimester abortion was performed. Debby will be responsible for the remainder of her $2,000 hospital bill.
"I was trying to get a relationship"
Rita Werner came from Mississippi to Wisconsin nine years ago to help her sick "auntie" with her huge family. Her aunt died of a heart attack at age 37, leaving 14 children. Rita stayed on in Wisconsin, had two children, got her high school diploma and was studying accounting when she became pregnant again. "I knowed this man for like six months," she said. "I was trying to get a relationship. But when I told him I was pregnant he jumped on me and beat me. I was bleeding pretty bad, and they took me to the hospital and put eight stitches in my head." There is a restraining order out on Rita's batterer. She got her abortion with the help of the Women's Medical Fund.
A problem with religion
Marie Douglas is the 26-year-old mother of five children. They are 11, 8, 5, 2 and 7 months old. All were born by Caesarean section. There are three different fathers, none of whom helps with the children.
Marie wanted a tubal ligation at the time of the birth of her last child, but she was in the clutches of a Catholic hospital and Catholic physician. The Women's Medical Fund paid the full cost of her abortion and has encouraged her to change her medical providersnot necessarily simple to doso that she can get the tubal she wants and desperately needs.
Wisconsin has always taken better care of its cows than its women. Can you imagine a farmer forcing a cow to have repeated surgeries! Lack of access to sterilization is a real problem in rural and small town communities where the only hospital is controlled by Catholics.
A doomed woman
At age 30 Meg Martin is the mother of four children, 13, 12, 9 and 5. She receives public assistance due to mental illness. She is of low intelligence and was a drug user. In 1989 she was diagnosed as HIV positive. Her children have been taken from her. Three are in foster care, and the fourth, her little boy, is institutionalized. He was badly beaten by his father and is blind and deaf as a result, essentially a vegetable.
Who, possessing a modicum of good will or common sense, would want this doomed woman to be forced to reproduce?
"He came in through the window"
Celia Johnston is 18 years old. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Her children are three and nine months of age. Her three-year-old's father left when his daughter was born. The father of the nine-month-old has become violent, and she has asked that he stay away. He recently beat her outside her home and left her with face and arm bruises.
Two months before she contacted the Women's Medical Fund, the violent boy friend appeared again, breaking into her apartment at night and raping her.
"I had a first floor apartment, and he came in through the bathroom window. I couldn't get him to leave. He said he was staying for good. My son was there and scared and crying, and I told him to go back to bed. And then I was raped."
Celia went to a battered woman's shelter, where she reported the rape. The major cost of her abortion was paid by the Women's Medical Fund.
"I don't need no more kids"
Vera Lacey is 31 with four living children, 5, 3, 2 and 2 months of age. The children have two fathers, neither of whom is around any more. Vera was using a low estrogen content birth control pill and got pregnant anyway. This is her seventh pregnancy. All of her pregnancies have been difficult because she suffers from gestational hypertension requiring medication.
Her first two pregnancies ended in stillbirths with malformed infants. One living daughter has Urb's Palsy"She got stuck on the pelvic bone," Vera said. It is a permanent injury with one arm longer than the other. Another child has a shoulder problem and her two-month-old was born with a fractured chest. Vera recognizes she should not be pregnant again. She is eager to have a tubal and protests the waits, interviews and red tape. "Whatever I have to do, I'll do it," she said. "I can't count on the pill working for me, and I probably shouldn't be taking it anyway I don't need no more kids."
The Women's Medical Fund was able to help Vera, but her medical problem is an example of the kind of condition one would assume would be covered for therapeutic abortion under a public medical assistance program, but is not. Multiply her plight by the hundreds, if not thousands, to get an idea of what is going on in medical care for the pregnant poor in most of our states.
All health insurance should cover abortion
Shirley Kemp is a 24-year-old housewife with children 5 and 3. Her unplanned pregnancy was financially troubling, but with her husband's steady, blue-collar job, they thought they could manage. Then, in her fifth month of pregnancy, she was informed of a neuro-tube defect, a diagnosis of fetal spina bifida.
The insurance her husband's company provided would cover delivery, but not a therapeutic abortion, even in this instance of a grossly abnormal fetus.
Like most young couples, the Kemps live from paycheck to paycheck. Medical emergencies, they had assumed, would be covered by insurance. Nowhere could they find the $1,000 for a late clinic abortion to say nothing of the $2,500 a hospital was quoting.
With a gift of $300 from the Women's Medical Fund as a down payment, they agreed to make monthly payments to the physician who performed the 19-week abortion.
Here again, insurers and government agencies failed the needs of women and their families. All health insurance should cover abortions, elective or therapeutic. But the fiscal folly of refusing to pay for an abortion when delivery will result in a grossly abnormal infant and much higher hospital costs simply must be recognized. Pregnancy is difficult enough when a woman is carrying a healthy fetus and can expect a normal outcome. The psychological and physical damage to a woman who is forced to complete a doomed pregnancy is immeasureable.
Ann Fischer, a sweet-voiced welfare mother of two children, contracted syphilis from her boyfriend. In a visit to a clinic to be treated for the disease, she learned she also had contracted the HIV virus. She was not aware of her partner's drug use, and only since their breakup knew that he was "messing around."
Now in her second trimester of pregnancy, she has developed anemia. But her abortion can not be paid for with public funds because the male bureaucrats who administer the programs for the poor have decided that only those who are "AIDS-symptomatic" may have an abortion paid for.
Ann's abortion was paid for in part by the Women's Medical Fund. In a case such as hers where the pregnant woman tests positive for HIV but has a normal T-cell count, the callous bureaucrats defend their refusal to help by quoting the statistic that there is "only a 30% chance" of the fetus being infected. Thirty per cent may not be high odds in some frivolous undertaking, but it is rather awe-inspiring when we are talking about AIDS. Even if a future AIDS-doomed child is not created, what is created is an orphan, and it is done at the expense of the health of the woman whose AIDS-onset may well be accelerated because of the physical stress of pregnancy.
Wouldn't you think it would occur to the bureaucrats that you are not going to contain an epidemic by creating new victims?
"I would have no place to go"
The antiabortionists are pushing for parental consent in all our states, because of the chilling effect. The teenager on bad terms with her parents is simply not going to take them on.
Andrea, 14: "My mom had me when she was 15. She is always telling me not to make her mistake. She told me if I did she would kick me out. I would have to leave home, and I would have no place to go. My stepfather has lived with us for eight years, but he only married my mother a year ago. We don't get along. This would make things worse in every way."
Tara, 16: "What would happen if I told my parents. I would get in a lot of trouble. I'm not sure what would happen, and I don't want to find out. I was told last summer that I would get put out in the street if I got pregnant."
Tanya, 14: "What would my mother say? She'd whup my little black ass. There are five of us kids at home, and I already have a seven-month-old baby."
Very Bad Soap Opera
Irene Sorensen's life story reads like a very bad soap opera. At 31, she has had two husbands and a live-in partner. They have left her with seven children.
Irene only completed ninth grade. "I got in with the wrong crowd," she explained. "The first time I got pregnant I wasn't living at home, but staying at a friend's house. I was just 16. We got married, but he was an alcoholic, very abusive. My second husband turned out to be a drug dealerhe was a big hood in this area. His visiting rights were taken away when he hurt the kids, swinging a baseball bat, and slamming our son in the car door."
The live-in partner, responsible for her currrent pregnancy, was also violent. "I finally got a restraining order and he was arrested. He was doing things like breaking windows trying to get in the house, and once he threw a knife into the front door. He even wrote in blood on the porch."
Think of the terror children of these alliances must experience with abuse, alcohol, drugs and violence a part of their daily lives. How do you wipe out memories of a father swinging a baseball bat at you or shutting you in a car door, or breaking windows to get into your house?
Antiabortionists and bureaucrats would deny abortion to a woman like Irene who is making a decision moral for her, moral for the family she has, moral for society. Her seven children are 14, 12, 11, 8, 6, 5 and 3 months. Clearly she does not need any more children!
A very large share of the blame for social problems in the United States rests with our federal and state governments which literally force the pregnant poor to remain pregnant. Irene said she was using a spermicide; obviously, like so many contraceptives, it failed. All methods do fail; the backup of abortion to prevent unwanted births is critical.
Right now, all over the land, poor women in urban slums, in small towns, in rural areas are carrying through pregnancies they do not want, that they cannot cope with, that they would have ended had medical assistance been available to them. What is the harvest of this blind, pro-natalist government policy? It means, in the cases of drug and alcohol abuse, that babies will be born damaged. Others will be born to neglect and abuse, unable to compete in school and in life. How can such children not feel hopelessness and rage? All children need someone to love and respect them.
The Women's Medical Fund paid for $120 of the cost of Irene's abortion. She borrowed $55 with the total cost reduced to $175. All of us can be glad that Irene did not have to have unwanted child number eight.
The stories of women in these pages are not "worst case scenarios." They are typical; they are women recently helped by the Women's Medical Fund. They are not even the most poignant stories. For me, the saddest recent case was that of the pregnant 13-year-old girl, "a good student," who was living in a crack house with her drug addict mother and her baby sister. Stories of the worn-out mothers of huge families could fill pagesa recent example is the 35-year-old mother of ten children: 18, 16, 14, 11, 9, 6, 5, 3, 2 and 10 months. And then there is the pregnant woman whose address is the county jail.
Compassion demands that these women be helped, that our antiabortion policies be changed for the good of women, of their families and of us all.
"Why Abortion? The Myth of Choice For Women Who Are Poor" can be purchased online here.