Crow After Roe: How ‘Separate But Equal’ Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That
By Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo. (IG Publishing, 2013)

Available for purchase from the Prochoice Highway for NZ$25 including shipping. (Donations welcome!) You can also visit  IG Publishing’s site for an excerpt. This is cross-posted at the Prochoice Highway

Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

(See below for Q&A with one of the authors)

If you follow the reproductive rights debate in the United States even a little bit, you’ll be familiar with the relentless tide of legislation aimed at cracking down not just on access to abortion, but contraception, sex education and the rights of those who are pregnant.

The website RH Reality Check is one of the best sites around for keeping up to date with the bad news, and it can get a bit depressing. Two names you’ll see frequently there are those of Robin Marty, the site’s senior political reporter, and Jessica Mason Pieklo, RHRC’s senior legal analyst, writer and adjunct law professor in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Marty and Pieklo are also the authors of a new book that collects and analyses all that bad news titled Crow After Roe: How ‘Separate but Equal’ Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That.

Cover Crow after RoeI must confess to at first being a little unnerved at the reference to Jim Crow in the title: isn’t it dangerous, I thought, to even hint at likening what’s going on with women’s health to the pernicious racism of the Jim Crow era? Well, yes it is dangerous, but likening or even comparing is not really what the authors are doing. Rather, they are pointing out the ways in which the law is being subverted, and targeted at a particular group of people – that is, those who can get pregnant – to achieve a particular ideological end. (See Q & A with Marty below.)

Put another way, justice here is not blind – new laws and the subversion of old laws are not being applied in anything remotely resembling an even-handed fashion, and this, in turn, is leading to huge inequities in reproductive health-care access and outcomes. As was the case in the Jim Crow era, those who are being hurt the most are already marginalised groups, particularly women of colour and poorer women. It has always been true – and always will be – that those with means have access to the full range of reproductive health-care options, including prenatal care, birthing care as well as access to contraception, abortion and voluntary sterilisation.

And this is a consequence decades of attacks that began not long after Roe v Wade was decided early in 1973.  The first major assault was the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prevents the spending of public money on abortion in the U.S.: The author of that piece of legislation, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, visited New Zealand in 1978 as a guest of our very own Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (the forerunner to Voice for Life), and while he was here, he made it clear he knew just who his law would impact the most: “If we can save the child of a ghetto mother then we have achieved something,” he told the New Zealand Herald. (He also praised New Zealand’s recently passed abortion legislation.)

The authors, left, Jessica Mason Pieklo and Robin Marty. (Source: Crow After Roe Facebook page)

The authors, left, Jessica Mason Pieklo and Robin Marty. (Source: Crow After Roe Facebook page)

Crow After Roe is made up 12 chapters and a conclusion, with each chapter focusing on a particular state, and how it is choosing to inflict unnecessary harm and distress on women who already have more than enough of that to deal with. The authors also show how these crackdowns on reproductive rights are picked up and spread from one state to the next – something those of us not U.S.-based know is also happening beyond America’s shores.

(The issue of just how much the talking points and campaigns of the American moral right are being exported is important and fascinating. In the recent interview with the Hawke’s Bay-based conservative political consultant Simon Lusk, reporter Andrea Vance wrote that Lusk spends “ ‘two to three hours’ a day reading political literature from the U.S. ‘looking for knowledge that can be applied here.’” The same certainly goes for reproductive justice issues, as a glance at local anti-abortion Web sites quickly shows; it’s something Alranz has also covered, for example in 2009 — links are to ALRANZ’s old blog — here and here.)

But back to the book at hand. Chapter 5 is titled “Indiana: When suicide becomes murder”, and it tells a particularly harrowing story, and one that is not over yet. Its focus is a young woman named Bei Bei Shuai who, at eight months’ pregnant, attempted suicide by taking rat poison after her boyfriend told her he “wasn’t actually planning to get a divorce and marry her as he had promised, but was instead returning to his wife”. Friends found Shuai, and her life was saved. At 33-weeks pregnant, however, the fetus was delivered, and died two days later.

Bei Bei Shuai. (Photo courtesty of Shuai's defence team.)

Bei Bei Shuai. (Photo courtesty of Shuai’s defence team.)

After the baby’s death, early in 2011, Shuai was moved to a mental health ward where she stayed for several months. On her release, she was arrested, charged with murder and put in jail. (The infant died of a brain bleed, which Marty and Pieklo note is not uncommon among premature infants.) The prosecution was in part the result of the state having strengthened its feticide laws, but the case raised myriad problems. Among them, the question of whether Shuai was “being held to a different standard by virtue of being pregnant”. “After all,” the authors write, “if she had not been pregnant, the state would not have charged her with attempted murder for trying to kill herself, as suicide is not a crime in Indiana.”

What’s more, if the fetus had died in utero, Shuai also would not likely have faced a murder charge. “Shuai’s lawyer, Linda Pence, has accused Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry of attempting to enforce his own version of the feticide law in order to criminalize the failure to protect a fetus while pregnant.” Marty and Pieklo write:

What the state of Indiana was saying with the Shuai prosecution was that women with histories of mental health issues, addictions and other health conditions that might prevent them from being able to ensure a healthy birth outcome, as well as women who could not afford comprehensive prenatal care, drug treatment and mental health services, could now face prison time if they experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death.

Shuai is to go on trial for murder in September and if convicted faces 45 to 65 years in prison. (Her lawyer has set up a site and defence fund here.)

Besides the individual cases like this one, Marty and Pieklo also chronicle the myriad legal and administrative obstacles to abortion access that have been erected, most of them behind dishonest justifications like “informed consent”, “conscience rights”, patient safety, states’ rights and more. “Informed consent” has led to laws mandating things like ultrasounds, state-written scripts that must be read out by doctors, women being forced to listen to fetal heartbeats or visit anti-abortion run “crisis pregnancy centers”.

I was especially interested in Marty and Pieklo’s conclusion, the “how we can change that” part of their book’s subtitle. (The chapter is actually titled “Taking Back Control”.) For those steeped in the world of politics, particularly political activism, I’m afraid there’s no magic bullet here, but the good old tried-and-true advice of organise, organise, organise. In the U.S. context, it’s getting more pro-choicers elected to Congress (that’s going to be tricky given the latest round of redistricting that went on under mostly Republican state leaderships), and more liberal judges appointed to the bench, which in turn will help both roll back the tide of anti-woman, anti-reproductive rights legislation as well as prevent more of it being passed. But getting more pro-choicers elected needs – you guessed it – an organised, activist base:

According to Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood, what is needed is a strong, energetic core, not unlike a feminist version of the “personhood movement” that has been popping up in a variety of states. “Just as the personhood efforts are not coming from the mainstream anti-choice groups,” she says, “I’d love to see a band of feisty young feminists out there leading the charge on this, saying, ‘Excuse me, we are persons and we want our personhood guaranteed.’”

In the end, “Taking Back Control” is as much about problems that need solutions as it is about solutions themselves, which can be a little dispiriting. But there are some good ideas in there: if anti-choice activists can ship model legislation to different states, why can’t pro-choicers?; how about focusing on the anti-abortion movement’s opposition to birth control, given strong public support for contraception and contraceptive access; let’s try harder to reframe some of the issues – mandatory ultrasounds aren’t part of “informed consent” but, in the case that made headlines last year in Virginia involving trans-vaginal ultrasounds with a probe, are more like “state-sanctioned rape”.

As I concluded in my own book on abortion rights, the struggle for reproductive justice is one that will never end, and those involved need stamina. They also need to know what they’re up against: It’s not much help if each skirmish in the war is fought in ignorance and isolation. Reading this book is sobering, but not paralyzing; it’s also essential for activists and supporters of reproductive justice everywhere, not only in the U.S. If the attacks described here haven’t already arrived wherever you live, count yourself lucky. But be prepared, because, as Marty points out in the interview below, you can be certain someone somewhere is working hard to make that happen. 

Q & A With Robin Marty

Q. I was particularly interested in the “how we can change that” part of your book/title. You talk about the need to elect more pro-choice politicians which, in turn, requires a strong activist base. Do you see this base emerging? Do you see signs of hope in this struggle and if so what signs?

I do see a new base emerging, and it has been for the last few years. The problem for the pro-choice activist base as I see it is that it’s so fractioned off into other issue bases, too. So many activists and candidates are “pro-choice and…” so, “pro-choice and immigration rights” “pro-choice and LGBT” “Pro-choice and anti-war”. So they tend to end up working for progress in the other half of the issue, fracturing up the reproductive rights base. An optimist would say “well, we’re gaining so much in these areas, so maybe they’ll come back and focus their efforts on the second issue”. But the idea that first we have to have all of these other wins in place before we can regain reproductive rights is frustrating. I do think that if all of the assaults on the Affordable Care Act really come to fruition and birth control goes back to being something that requires co-pay, especially as they shut down the ability for it to be obtained in places where it is subsidized, there will be an amazing blow back that will finally bring the activists out to the floor and onto tickets, too. Birth control is in its essence a young activist issue, simply because so many young women and men are both sexually active and, thanks to a still reeling economy, saddled in debt and without well paying jobs. That’s why we saw the furor that we saw in the 2012 election, where nearly every candidate who had to appeal beyond a small, heavily gerrymandered district and was openly anti-choice either lost or came very close to losing their races.

Q. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, U.S. political tactics and attitudes (and, one suspects, money) are very influential. Do you have any comment on the exporting of U.S. anti-choice activism.

Sadly, wherever you have a highly influential Catholic church, you are going to get American style anti-choice activism. Most of it is a direct import, such as the news we learned about Pro-Life Action League doing anti-abortion campaigning in Ireland after the Savita case, or the expanding of the “40 Days” campaign into Canada and England. But it’s not just a symptom of the reach of the church itself, by which it often seems to be the Catholic church, but the fact that so many factions of religion consider the missionary aspect of their faith one of the most important factors of their relationship with God. So groups like Human Life International will continue to see seeding the world with their rules of faith – rules that specifically include a unique individual life with a soul being created at conception – but so also will Evangelical Christian groups who are as dedicated to preparing the world for the end times.

Q. Do you think international solidarity can help in the struggle for reproductive justice? If so, do you see signs of that happening in a way that helps you in the U.S.?

I think international solidarity is extremely important and influential, which is why so many anti-choice (and usually church based) organizations are rabidly attacking groups that work at an international level for any type of reproductive health access, even if it’s just as simple as dispensing condoms. An international coalition is terrifying, which is why any attempts are attacked as promoting abortion or genocide, nefarious population control or undermining families, communities, and society. Which really translates into undermining the church and its authority.

Q. Did you have any concerns (and did you get any pushback) to your use of “Crow” in the title and words like “segregation” in the text?

Yes. Immediately. And to be fair, it was expected. The term itself has a lot of charged history behind it, and the biggest pushback that we received was that it implied that somehow segregation and separate care for women of color was a new thing. As we explained in the book, that is by no means true. It was a part of abortion care pre-Roe and post Roe, and the experimentation of new gynecological techniques or the sterilization of women without consent has always been a shameful part of our medical past. But as we have tried to note, this book looks specifically at laws that have passed just in the last three years, at a time when this has allegedly all been resolved. The book is about how these laws are now being created to make a government standard of care that reintroduces institutional racism into the healthcare system simply by denying any alternatives.

Q. How has the book promotion/reception been going so far? 

Everyone told us writing books is the easy part, and promotion is the hard part. They were right. But where we have been able to get the word out, it has been very well received. Because it was printed on a rush schedule in order to be as up to date as possible on laws, it didn’t get the chance to go through a traditional review process, but those that are starting to filter out have been very positive. Even better for us though has been the messages we get from people who not only read the book and liked it, but have used it to try and start a conversation with someone who has opposing views that they’ve been looking for a way to open a conversation about reproductive rights with.

People tell me about family members who oppose abortion that they ask them just to read the chapter on Bei Bei Shuai, or just the D.C. abortion ban funding chapter, or just what could happen to a woman in South Dakota if she would have to go to a crisis pregnancy center for “counseling” before hand, and they will finally get that moment of “Well, of course THIS isn’t ok.” That gives the start to say, “But this is what these laws mean, and this is why it inherently isn’t fair for the government to make the decisions.” I’ll take an email from a woman saying she finally had a conversation with her mother about why she’s an activist and why it matters over a magazine review any day.

Q. Anything else you’d like to say….

Although this is a book about U.S. abortion laws and the cases that were used to introduce these bills, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that just as the U.S. has exported its anti-choice fervor and tactics (especially when it comes to so called “Sidewalk counseling” at clinics, and graphic, highly magnified gory “fetus” posters), it will continue to push its different fights to ban access to abortion and birth control. Even England is seeing “fetal pain” proposals despite the fact that their own Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that there is no evidence of fetuses feeling any pain at 20 weeks. It doesn’t matter what set of laws currently govern abortion rights in whatever country you live in – it is not an exaggeration to say that there is a group within your country who wants abortion eliminated in all cases, with no exceptions, and that they are currently drafting a plan to make that happen.

 UPDATE 11 June 2013: The authors have posted an update on what’s happened since the book came out.