Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Women Must Be Informed, Political Collaborators in Their Own Care

Dr. Tiller's clinic in Witchita, KS, one of the few in the country that provides late-term abortions, is closing. With his murder, in addition to wiping out the life of a husband and father, the anti-choice movement has taken away women's access to critical, necessary services. And while the current political make-up shows that the anti-choice movement cannot overturn Roe v. Wade, Dr. Tiller's death is a reminder that all it takes is a sniper to reduce our choices even further. And since OB-GYN's aren't racing to provide abortion services at the risk of their own lives, Dr. Tiller's practice may not ever be replaced.

When I'm not a doula, I work as an abortion counselor. Although most of the women I meet with are between 4 and 7 weeks pregnant, the clinic where I work provides abortion services up until the 23rd week of pregnancy, which is the legal limit of abortion care in the state of Massachusetts.

Your reaction may be visceral, no doubt. At 23 weeks, abortion can be extremely difficult to understand or justify, and it is not uncommon to shake your head and say "I have a real problem with that," even if you are pro-choice. It is tempting, if not comforting, to separate yourself from a woman who would make this choice by assuming that she must be a monster. And I'll be honest and say that once I sat down with a woman who seemingly had no feelings about having an abortion in her 23rd week of pregnancy. It chilled me, her apparent lack of feeling. But many more times than just once, I have sat down with couples who are heartbroken: a routine ultrasound in the 20th week discovers massive deformities; an amniocentesis details profound genetic abnormalities that at are incompatible with all but the briefest of life, and suffering is certain; a doppler at 22 weeks returns no heartbeat, reducing a wanted and cherished baby into a diagnosis of fetal demise. And sometimes, due to the time it takes to run tests, or to the human inconsistencies of those who administer those tests, or the varying reliability of technology, a pregnant woman in those situations can be beyond 23 weeks. And so what do we do in the state of Massachusetts? We tell her she can deliver her dead, deformed, or doomed baby in a labor and delivery unit of a hospital -- which is as monstrous as it sounds -- or we recommend she travel immediately to one of the few clinics in the United States that can terminate her pregnancy. And with the death of Dr. Tiller and the closing of his clinic, there is now one less place where a woman in this delicate and devastating situation can go for care that is humane and treats her with dignity.

And on the other end of pregnancy, women are also losing choices in childbirth. In my line of work, I hear many birth stories from women, and the majority of them have the same eerie arc: first, induction; second, confinement to a bed; third, bone-crushing pain; finally, forced pushing while lying on their backs. Statistically, more than 30% of those stories end in c-section, and these are in pregnancies that had been normal, low-risk, and healthy. It's also the basic formula for reality birth shows on cable TV, where birth is boiled down to a medical event that skirts death practically every time.

VBACs are becoming harder to access, despite evidence that indicates that VBAC is lower risk than repeat C-section. Providers, among both OB's and L&D nurses, have attended fewer and fewer low-risk, healthy childbirths that are purposefully unmedicated and without interventions. What results over time is that if a laboring woman wants a natural birth, she could go to a hospital and have no medical professionals with the experience or willingness to support her desires. Birth centers are losing funding, and homebirth is either criminalized or unregulated in half of the US. In the other half of the country, the standards of care that do govern it are so limiting that its practice is nearly impossible but for a few renegade midwives who are essentially providing care without the benefit of professional support in case of a true obstetric emergency. Healthy women who could experience the normal physiological process of birth are beholden to the artificial constructs of time, liability, and television drama. The art of childbirth, and the choices that encourage birth as a safe, non-medical event, are being lost.

Unless we have a vision that is greater than the arguments of pro-life vs. pro-choice, homebirth vs. hospital, natural birth vs. epidural, we will lose what is truly at stake at the heart of these issues: choices. The quality of women's health care is dependent upon choices and access to qualified care providers, and women must expect no less than to be informed, political collaborators in their own care.



Kate Zondervan said...

Maria, THANK YOU for your this eloquent post connecting Tillers work to birth choices. I'm always amazed about how desperate the birth and abortion movements are. This is really important stuff-- keep up the good work!

Birth Junky said...

Sorry it took me so long to get over to your site (thanks for the link with your comment)! What a great post about Dr. Tiller's work. I have worked as a counselor at Planned Parenthood in the past and feel that caring for women who choose to terminate their pregnancies is vitally important. Thanks for speaking up about such a tragic act. I will certainly add A Mom is Born to my blog list.
~Birth Junky