Chelian is now 64 and has two grown daughters. She’s the founder and CEO of Northland Family Planning Center, a group of three clinics that perform abortions in the Detroit suburbs. A petite woman with a blunt haircut and a round face, Chelian is matter-of-fact and seemingly unflappable. But when we talk about her clinics, her tone intensifies. Her business is under constant threat of closure from the conservative Michigan Legislature, which has spent the past four years churning out a string of arbitrary new abortion restrictions designed to shut clinics like Northland down. One proposal required Northland to have one bathroom for every six patients.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’ve gone back 40-some years,” she says. “And I can hardly believe that.” Women trek hundreds of miles north from Dayton, Ohio, or east from South Bend, Indiana, for an abortion at one of her centers. Some are already miscarrying—probably after taking pills or herbal concoctions they got from the internet. A few have tried to open their cervix by digging into it with a sharp object.
This is what 2015 looks like: Abortion providers struggle against overwhelming odds to stay open, while women “turn themselves into pretzels” to get to them, as one researcher put it. Activists have been calling it the “war on women.” But the onslaught of new abortion restrictions has been so successful, so strategically designed, and so well coordinated that the war in many places has essentially been lost.
Most abortions today involve some combination of endless wait, interminable journey, military-level coordination, and lots of money. Roe v. Wade was supposed to put an end to women crossing state lines for their abortions. But while reporting this story, I learned of women who drove from Kentucky to New Jersey, or flew from Texas to Washington, DC, because it was the only way they could have the procedure. Even where laws can’t quite make it impossible for abortion clinics to stay open—they are closing down at a rate of 1.5 every single week—they can make it exhausting to operate one. In every corner of America, four years of unrelenting assaults on reproductive rights have transformed all facets of giving an abortion or getting one—possibly for good.
“Every day is just frightening,” Chelian said. “I think things are bad, and then they get worse somewhere else. And you go, ‘Oh my God, it could be worse.’ And I go to sleep with that. I wake up with that.”
NEWSFLASH: You can be pro-choice and be a mother. You can be pro-choice and support adoption. You can be pro-choice and never get an abortion/be against abortion for yourself. You can be pro-choice and think abortions are gross and scary. Pro-choice does not automatically mean you have to love abortions and treat it as your only option. That’s why it’s called pro-CHOICE. YOU ARE PRO PEOPLE GETTING TO CHOOSE WHAT THE FUCK THEY WANNA DO WITH THEIR OWN FUCKING BODIES.
I’M TIRED OF PEOPLE GOING ON AND ON ABOUT HOW TEEN MOMS ARE “WHY AMERICA IS FUCKED UP” are you kidding me? i’ve been told by TOO many people to have an abortion. so, i’m a bad person and a fuck up because i’m fighting to take responsibilities for my actions ? i’m NOT KILLING MY BABY. i’m raising it. going to be a good mom. i’m very happy i’m pregnant. get THE FUCK over it. it isn’t your life. it’s mine, don’t like how i run it? okay, you don’t have to deal with it. leave me alone and stop judging me and telling me to kill my baby. at least i’m not going to be a murderer . do what you want . but stay out of my fucking life and choices.
I think there’s this weird undercurrent with the stigma against abortion involving the idea that society assumes women are naturally meant to be mothers.
No one would ever let someone drop a baby in a man’s lap—let alone expect him to sacrifice his life for a baby—but there’s a presupposition that women “can handle it,” that “it’s natural,” and “no big deal.”
The anti-woman sentiment of being “against abortion” is partially linked to an idea that pregnancy doesn’t harm women, babies and women go together, and a desire for motherhood exists in all people with uteruses.
This is why pro-life arguments bubble out of a festering, internalized mass of sexism that doesn’t correlate to the protection of life, but to the denial of life. When women’s lives are stereotypically linked to motherhood as a source of natural fulfillment, we deny personhood.
I want to delve into a dangerous topic. I want to talk about abortion and eugenics.
Even when abortion was illegal, it was sometimes performed legally in hospitals if the pregnant person was at risk of death, or if they were disabled. People with Down Syndrome sometimes found themselves forced into hospitals to have their pregnancies terminated, often against their will. Then abortion was legalized and I will say, flat-out that this was a good thing.
I believe in free, unlimited access to legal, safe abortion. Whether you believe life begins at conception or at birth, you still have no say over somebody else’s bodily autonomy. It is abhorrent to force somebody to carry a pregnancy to term if they don’t want it. Especially considering what a toll pregnancy has on a body. Also, legislating abortion only increases the number of unsafe, back alley abortions, with more and more people becoming injured or dying by coat hangers and knitting needles. Abortion needs to be safe and legal and accessible, full stop.
Over the last few decades there has been a rise in availability of pre-natal testing. Sonograms and amniocentesis leads to pregnant people finding out sooner and more frequently if their fetus has an impairment or a genetic disorder. Since genetic testing has become more available, the number of abortions due to “defect” are on the rise. Fetuses that are screened and found to have Down Syndrome or spina bifida are being aborted more and more, with promises from doctors and nurses that the parents can always “try again.”
Over the past few decades more and more money is going into genetic autism research, in the effort to create a test to reveal whether or not a fetus will become an autistic person.
Aborting a fetus simply because of impairment or disease is eugenics.
Pro-choice advocates often say things like “forcing a woman to carry a disabled fetus to term is abuse,” with emphasis placed on the idea that disabled children are burdens on their parents and society. They talk about “quality of life” of both the parents and the potential child, but usually weighted more to the parents. This is all ableist rhetoric. To be entirely honest, all children are “burdens” in that they need to be taken care of and protected and housed and fed and clothed without being able to contribute to society. But we don’t usually tell parents that all their healthy, able-bodied kids are burdens, do we? We call children “gifts” and “treasures.”
Anti-choice advocates often say things like “Disabled children are a gift from God! They’re a blessing!” But this is ableist rhetoric too. It dehumanizes disabled children, turns them into objects and life lessons. Disabled children are human beings just like everyone else, with gifts and faults.
When a pregnant person is told by the doctors that their fetus is disabled or has a genetic disorder, they hear a lot of ableist rhetoric. They’re told by doctors that their future child will have no quality of life. That they’ll be a burden. That they’ll suffer. That their life is basically worthless. Doctors often urge and wheedle and even bully pregnant patients into terminating disabled fetuses. They are told that even if they follow through with the pregnancy but give the baby up for adoption–because they can’t afford to take care of a special needs child–the child will likely not be adopted because “nobody wants a broken child.”
So where do we draw the line? Do we make it illegal to terminate a disabled fetus? No. That sets us down a slippery slope and then it’s only a short trip from “some fetuses can’t be terminated” to “no abortion for anyone,” which leads us right back to back-alley knitting needle abortions.
Do we limit access to pregnancy screenings? Maybe. In India, when more and more couples were aborting fetuses determined to be female due to institutionalized sexism and misogyny, they made it illegal, as of 1994, to find out the sex of your child during pregnancy. But that could also lead us down a slippery slope. After all, parents are entitled to be prepared for what’s coming next right? And especially in regards to genetic diseases like Tay-Sach’s, where the child will be in excruciating pain and suffering, and then die by age four, isn’t it sometimes kinder to know? I’m not sure, this is an ethical discussion that I’m not sure I’m qualified to make a definitive ruling on.
Here’s what I think should happen. I think that when a pregnant person discovers their child has an impairment or genetic disorder, they need to be immediately educated. They should be given research into the condition, and introduced to living adults who have the condition in question. Not just parents who believe their disabled child is a burden, but living adults who can tell their own stories about growing up with the condition in question, and give voice to their own quality of life. Pregnant people should be encouraged to make informed, educated decisions, not just jump at their doctors suggestions uninformed.
Also, we need increased access to support systems and services. It should be a lot easier than it is to take care of a “special needs” child and raise them to be an independent adult.
We need to destroy the systemic ableism that tells us disabled people are burdens, disabled people are pitiable, disabled people suffer, disabled people can never be healthy and happy and live long successful lives. We also need to destroy the idea that quality of life is determined by accomplishment and productivity.
Also, please remember that doctors are not the be-all, end-all definitive voice of what is. A doctor’s opinion is an educated OPINION. Feel encouraged to get a second opinion and to do your own research.
Our enemy is not disability. Our enemy is not abortion. Our enemy is ignorance and oppression and a society that benefits from racist, sexist, ableist exploitation and oppression.
…I’m your baby. You don’t know me yet, I’m only a few weeks old. You’re going to find out about me soon, though, I promise. Let me tell you some things about me. My name is John, and I’ve got beautiful brown eyes and black hair. Well, I don’t have it yet, but I will when I’m born. I’m going to be your only child, and you’ll call me your one and only. I’m going to grow up without a daddy mostly, but we have each other. We’ll help each other, and love each other. I want to be a doctor when I grow up.
You found out about me today, Mommy! You were so excited, you couldn’t wait to tell everyone. All you could do all day was smile, and life was perfect. You have a beautiful smile, Mommy. It will be the first face I will see in my life, and it will be the best thing I see in my life. I know it already.
Today was the day you told Daddy. You were so excited to tell him about me! …He wasn’t happy, Mommy. He kind of got angry. I don’t think that you noticed, but he did. He started to talk about something called wedlock, and money, and bills, and stuff I don’t think I understand yet. You were still happy, though, so it was okay. Then he did something scary, Mommy. He hit you. I could feel you fall backward, and your hands flying up to protect me. I was okay… but I was very sad for you. You were crying then, Mommy. That’s a sound I don’t like. It doesn’t make me feel good. It made me cry, too. He said sorry after, and he hugged you again. You forgave him, Mommy, but I’m not sure if I do. It wasn’t right. You say he loves you… why would he hurt you? I don’t like it, Mommy.
Finally, you can see me! Your stomach is a little bit bigger, and you’re so proud of me! You went out with your mommy to buy new clothes, and you were so so so happy. You sing to me, too. You have the most beautiful voice in the whole wide world. When you sing is when I’m happiest. And you talk to me, and I feel safe. So safe. You just wait and see, Mommy. When I am born I will be perfect just for you. I will make you proud, and I will love you with all of my heart.
I can move my hands and feet now, Mommy. I do it because you put your hands on your belly to feel me, and I giggle. You giggle, too. I love you, Mommy.
Daddy came to see you today, Mommy. I got really scared. He was acting funny and he wasn’t talking right. He said he didn’t want you. I don’t know why, but that’s what he said. And he hit you again. I got angry, Mommy. When I grow up I promise I won’t let you get hurt! I promise to protect you. Daddy is bad. I don’t care if you think that he is a good person, I think he’s bad. But he hit you, and he said he didn’t want us. He doesn’t like me. Why doesn’t he like me, Mommy?
You didn’t talk to me tonight, Mommy. Is everything okay?
It’s been three days since you saw Daddy. You haven’t talked to me or touched me or anything since that. Don’t you still love me, Mommy? I still love you. I think you feel sad. The only time I feel you is when you sleep. You sleep funny, kind of curled up on your side. And you hug me with your arms, and I feel safe and warm again. Why don’t you do that when you’re awake, any more?
I’m 21 weeks old today, Mommy. Aren’t you proud of me? We’re going somewhere today, and it’s somewhere new. I’m excited. It looks like a hospital, too. I want to be a doctor when I grow up, Mommy. Did I tell you that? I hope you’re as excited as I am. I can’t wait.
…Mommy, I’m getting scared. Your heart is still beating, but I don’t know what you are thinking. The doctor is talking to you. I think something’s going to happen soon. I’m really, really, really scared, Mommy. Please tell me you love me. Then I will feel safe again. I love you!
Mommy, what are they doing to me!? It hurts! Please make them stop! It feels bad! Please, Mommy, please please help me! Make them stop!
Don’t worry Mommy, I’m safe. I’m in heaven with the angels now. They told me what you did, and they said it’s called an abortion.
Why, Mommy? Why did you do it? Don’t you love me any more? Why did you get rid of me? I’m really, really, really sorry if I did something wrong, Mommy. I love you, Mommy! I love you with all of my heart. Why don’t you love me? What did I do to deserve what they did to me? I want to live, Mommy! Please! It really, really hurts to see you not care about me, and not talk to me. Didn’t I love you enough? Please say you’ll keep me, Mommy! I want to live smile and watch the clouds and see your face and grow up and be a doctor. I don’t want to be here, I want you to love me again! I’m really really really sorry if I did something wrong. I love you!