Wednesday 26 January 2005

Will we only pretend to protect "the sanctity of human life" ??

The following paragraphs are excerpts from an article researched and written by Sharon Lerner, a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University. It was posted on the internet (at AlterNet) Jan. 22, 2005.

These harsh realities must be acknowledged and grappled with by those of us opposed to abortion (myself included.) It is a severe injustice to merely stand idly by, or to try to avoid these dramatic effects of misguided policies, especially when we enter into discussions (whether it be at the national, state-by-state, or local efforts) regarding overturning Roe vs. Wade. Otherwise, I fear the current Mississippi experience will get repeated all over the country -- and how can we possibly claim that such a reality represents moral or spiritual progress? -Clair


Thirty-two years ago the right to have an abortion was affirmed by the Supreme Court. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with an official proclamation declaring the seven days leading up to the anniversary "a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life." Barbour also authorized the placement of tiny white crosses on the lawn of the state Capitol "in memory of the unborn children who die each day in America," according to the decree. The crosses have been planted for the past three years... Barbour is a Republican, but it should be noted that the tradition of transforming the Capitol lawn into a symbolic mini-graveyard was begun by the previous governor of Mississippi, who was a Democrat.


With the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, Mississippi's low number of abortions is not an illustration of the "safe, legal and rare" ideal that many talk about, in which a decline in unwanted pregnancies creates a corresponding drop in abortions. Rather, it is the direct consequence of concerted opposition to abortion from the grassroots to all levels of government. Such concern for the rights of fetuses does not appear to translate into a commitment to promoting the well-being of the children they may become. The uncomfortable irony for an opposition movement purportedly concerned with saving "innocent babies" is that restrictions on abortion are associated with worse outcomes for actual babies. Indeed, children fare terribly in Mississippi.

The state with arguably the least access to abortion also has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the country, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Mississippi's infant mortality rate - a good indication of the health of both women and children - is the highest in the country. For every 1,000 live births, 10.5 infants under age 1 die in Mississippi. In parts of the impoverished Delta region, that number ranges up to 18. (The national infant mortality rate, by comparison, is 6.8.) Interestingly, a post-election comparison found that "red" states had higher infant mortality rates than "blue" ones. In general, states that restrict abortion spend far less money per child than pro-choice states on services such as foster care, education, welfare and the adoption of children who have physical and mental disabilities, according to a 2000 book by political scientist Jean Reith Schroedel.

Schroedel also found that women in anti-abortion states are worse off than their counterparts in pro-choice states. They suffer from lower levels of education, higher levels of poverty and a larger gender gap in earnings. They are also less likely to enjoy mandated insurance coverage for minimum hospital stays after childbirth. Together, the conditions make for an abysmal reality for women in Mississippi, which came in 51st in a 2004 ranking of the status of women in the 50 states and Washington, DC, published by the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The poverty of women in Mississippi both increases their need for abortions and their difficulty in obtaining them. In the poorest state in the country, where more than one in five women lack health insurance and live below the poverty line, girls and women are often unable to get birth control. Only about two in five women and teens in Mississippi who need publicly financed contraception receive it, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which does research on reproductive issues. Though the inability to prevent unwanted pregnancies makes women only more likely to want abortions, many of the forces behind the anti-abortion movement here also oppose contraception. Pro-Life Mississippi, for instance, regularly protests the only Planned Parenthood office in Mississippi, which is in Hattiesburg, even though it provides only birth control, not abortion.


Mississippi forbids facilities that receive public money from performing abortions and bans Medicaid funding for them. Though the law officially makes exceptions for cases of rape, incest, fetal anomaly and danger to the woman's life, clinic staff say they have not once succeeded in collecting Medicaid reimbursement in these cases. "We've filed for it and we've never been paid for them, and so we don't even file anymore," says Susan Hill, the Jackson Women's Health Organization's president. Hill, who was a social worker before Roe, says, "Mississippi is like the rest of the country was before 1973." Women who arrive at her clinic "have that same look in the eye now," she explains. "They have to go through the same kind of struggles."


Virtually every possible restriction on the procedure exists here, from a mandatory 24-hour waiting period after counseling, to a requirement that minors obtain the consent of both parents to have an abortion, to 35 pages of regulations dealing with such physical characteristics as the width of a clinic's hallways and the size of its parking lot. The mounting restrictions (Mississippi passed six anti-abortion laws last year alone) have delighted anti-abortion activists all over the country, who have hailed - and copied - the state's innovations.

Meanwhile, pro-choice activists see Mississippi as a glimpse of what might become the norm in a possible post-Roe future. "It's the canary dying in the mine," says Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. If the Supreme Court were to reverse the decision, abortion would likely become illegal in 30 states, including Mississippi, according to a 2004 report by the center. Across what can seem like a great divide, the 20 other states have laws, constitutions or court decisions that would protect the basic right to abortion even if Roe falls. While some of these, including New York and Washington State, which both decriminalized abortion before 1973, will likely remain strongly pro-choice, others may pass restrictive laws like Mississippi's.

(end of excerpts)

We too easily write people off who don't agree with our personal position on this divisive subject of abortion. In my own experience, ameliorated over the years by direct, mutually-respectful discussions with a number of pro-choice friends and acquaintances, I have found most of them to be very thoughtful people exercising great conscience. (All will say they are pro-choice and NOT pro-abortion.) And to my recollection they all -- virtually without exception -- have been concerned precisely about the important moral and spiritual issues I've highlighted above.

The challenge is before us -- we have got to work together to find a better way...

Are there any readers here from Mississippi who might care to comment? Or who could verify the realities depicted above?

Chaplain Clair Hochstetler, Goshen, IN


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Jane here:

    At the risk of repeating myself, nobody is pro-abortion.

    As to the dreadful state of affairs in Mississippi, I refer readers to Anna Quindlen's column on that very subject, published by the Buffalo News on January 23. Here is the link.

    And a quote:

    The Institute for Women's Policy Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group supported by foundation and government grants. In its most recent assessment of the overall condition of American women, it named Mississippi the worst state in the country. It was also named the worst state for women in 1998, 2000 and 2002. It ranked 49th in terms of women in elected office, and at the bottom of the list for health and well-being, including the incidence of diabetes and deaths from cancer and heart disease. The institute ranked Mississippi worst in the nation for reproductive rights. Protesters have vowed to shut down the state's sole remaining abortion clinic, which is in Jackson.

    Sometimes you don't even have to state an opinion. You just have to state the facts.

    Jane Lehman, N. Tonawanda, NY

  3. Bob Zehr wrote:

    I hurriedly read the material about the terrible conditions in Mississippi. The material seems to be implying that all this misery is tied to the fact that Mississippians want to outlaw abortion. Abortion is only a small piece of the pie. Black Mississppi has been the victim of rape for many, many years. It is only in recent years that African Americans in MS are beginning to share in the "good life".

    I am pastor of Open Door Mennonite Church located in the area between Jackson and Clinton, MS . Our church is located just about 7 or 8 miles from the State Capital building. Our racial ratio is 1/3 white, 2/3 black. Our music director is a supporter of the anti abortion group here in Jackson. As I said before, Mississippi's problems far out weigh the abortion issue. Having said that bear in mind that as things improve in Mississippi so do things improve in other states as well. To become number one from the bottom of the pile is tough. And as we work to better the fate of women, men. both Black and white we still may be 51st in the nation. but that does not say by any stretch of the imagination that Mississippi is where it was 40 years ago. Just minutes ago I reread Guy Hershberger's paper, Mennonites and the Current Race Issue, written in 1963. I was researching another topic. If Hershberger were to make his trip through the South in 2005 he would find a far different world. Things aren't like they used to be. Praise God. But they certainly aren't perfect yet.

    I have a deep respect for the Black women of Mississippi and other places in our world. Their struggle for acceptance and respect is real. We talk openly at Open Door about the wrongs inflicted on them and as one 70 year old grandmother said, "It wasn't right then and it ain't right now. But at least we are not hiding it. "

    It doesnt feel good to be constantly reminded that one is 51st on a list. Mississippi may be on the bottom but look out, we're gaining on you all!

    Come visit us. Open Door will be hosting the Spring Inspirational Meeting of Gulf States Mennonite Conference in late April early May. I guarantee that your view of Mississippi will be changed.

    Robert O. Zehr ( Bob)

  4. Clair replying here to Bob Zehr:

    Thanks so much for your heartfelt response, Bob. I'm glad to hear your perspective on this, and was hoping you would be one of the people to respond to my post. I've been assuming all along that the systemic problems of race and poverty, and the prevalence of inappropriate and culturally-entrenched power (often resulting in rape) overshadow and exacerbate everything. And not just in Mississippi. I also recognize that abortion occurs in all strata of society -- not just among the poor -- so it can not be only the direct result of, nor the only indicator or measurement of the level of poverty that exists. But poverty does seem to be a key contributing factor.

    I hope I made it clear, however, that my main concern is to get people thinking about how to best protect the "sanctity of life" in its larger sense; that a challenge needs to be issued to anyone who naively assumes the "other side" is simply evil and "pro-abortion." (That is a misnomer because, as Jane alluded to, you can't find anyone who says they are pro-abortion -- i.e. while being pro-choice, no one seems to be holding forth abortion as the first and only choice.) The biggest challenge is to inspire people to work together, to do the hard work of changing policies and creating practical opportunities -- to help improve the conditions around beleaguered moms and dads in our own communities that engender moral, spiritual, and social progress.

    I believe changing those conditions will certainly help reduce the pressure for oppressed women (for whatver reasons, often economic) to have abortions. To honor all of life as sacred, and for me that includes ruling out warmaking as well, this is all a very tall order, indeed, given our current political climate. Why is it not more apparent that there is a gross ethical inconstency in our society? We'll do anything to protect a baby's rights to life to the nth degree before its born, but not protect his/her right to a decent and safe life after its born!

    So, people from all sides of this question need to be working together to address these entrenched societal (and familial) forces of inequity, distorted power relationships, spiritual poverty, and economic devastation, etc, -- forces which often conspire against families, thus narrowing down awareness of realistic options when a new baby is coming. From what you're saying, Bob, it sounds like good people have been working together, for a while now, to address some of these systemic problems and to improve the quality of life for average Mississippians bit by bit -- all the while recognizing a huge task still lies ahead.

    I think its worth trying to ascertain the truth of the current situation in Ole' Miss from a variety of sources and then to share it -- and it's heartening to gain your perspective on your corner of truth, Bob, which can be added to our overall picture. Matter of fact, I do not doubt the aspects of reality you have indicated. I imagine that since most of the states in the south have offered evidence of improvement along the lines you have lifted up -- everything is relative in terms of progress. So Mississippi stays near the bottom, even though, apparently, strides have been made, especially in terms of race relations.

    I personally will plan to take you up on your offer to visit and gain some first hand exposure to the Mississippi culture, Bob, but it will need to be a few days later than the dates you mention for the Gulf States Spring inspirational conference, since I'm driving down from Indiana to attend my daughter Megan's graduation from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota on May 6. After that, on that weekend and following, Carole Anne and I have been planning for a swing up through your area to visit New Orleans for a few days -- one area of this country that I have never visited before. (And to contact friends in Mississippi along the way -- you among them, I hope!)

    Clair Hochstetler