Episode 49: Shifting Media Representations of Abortion (Part II)

Citations Needed | September 12, 2018 | Transcript

Surrounded by all male lawmakers, George W. Bush signs legislation banning so-called “partial birth” abortions on November 5, 2003.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for listening everyone. This is episode two of our second season. Thank you for joining us. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, like and share through Facebook Citations Needed, subscribe through iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, wherever you get your premium podcast content. Do that, that is always wonderfully helpful. Leave reviews. Say nice things. And you can certainly support the show, keep it going, keep it independent through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, that’s with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. It’s a black and gold logo. All your help is so much appreciated. We are now into season two and, uh, we’re gonna keep it going with this Part II on media representations and discussion around abortion.

Adam: Yeah. So we discussed the pop culture narratives in the last episode. Now we’re going to shift gears to how abortion is discussed in the political landscape and the ways in which Republicans have found creative ways of reframing abortion as infanticide and as a kind of cruel and torturous procedure, winning over even some credulous liberals as well as the Democrats broader forfeiting of the framing and then how that kind of broader shift and how those terms end up trickling down to people’s perceptions of abortion on the ground. And how abortion care providers on a day-to-day basis are confronted with these narratives that don’t just of course stop in The Washington Post or stop on CNN they they end up having a tremendous influence on how the average woman or trans man views their perception of abortion.

Nima: Later in the show, we’ll hear from Cait Vaughan, a community organizer with Maine Family Planning, an independent abortion provider. She’ll join us on the phone from Portland, Maine.

[Begin Clip]

Cait Vaughan: The safe, legal and rare rhetoric really kind of made it seem like those people have abortions and that it’s a small group of people and that it’s very tragic and unfortunate. When the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute tells us that one in four women in this country will have an abortion by the age of 45, at least one abortion. And so you can’t, if you really look at how common it is, it becomes a lot harder to say, oh, well, that doesn’t matter to me.

[End Clip]

Adam: So last episode we discussed how film and Television represents abortion. Uh, and today we’re going to get into the weeds on how the messaging in the nineties and up to the two thousands really tried to reframe abortion away from an issue of a women’s health and a women’s choice into a more moralistic and more sort of seedy type of language, specifically around how the term partial birth abortion became popularized.

Nima: Yeah. So one of the first real challenges to the historic 1973 Roe decision came in 1989. The Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone law, but in so doing really wound up narrowing the scope of Roe v. Wade leaving then more decisions up to individual states. So this began to hack away piecemeal at the protection that Roe provided nationally for legalized abortions. A few years later, the Supreme Court ruled on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which Casey actually referred to the Democratic Pennsylvania Governor, Robert Casey. Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, who had challenged the provisions in the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982. So Planned Parenthood basically took him to trial it got all the way to the Supreme Court. And this is really viewed as being the first real opportunity where the Supreme Court could actually overturn Roe completely. They didn’t, they upheld it. But in so doing, again, reaffirmed the idea that there are ways to challenge this and to hack away. And you saw at this time, this is now early nineties, the both sides of the debate, the notion that, you know, we’re going to bring all these people together on panels from Oprah to PBS and we’re going to talk about abortion and that’s the way to talk this through that there’s a debate to be had where both sides are going to be heard. So here’s a perfect example of how the press frame this issue, uh, the terms will be familiar to everyone listening as they’re still widely used today. There’s “choice” on one side and “life” on the other. So this is from PBS’ Washington Week In Review from July 3, 1989.

[Begin Clip]

Narrator: They’re marching for choice. They’re praying for life. They represent both sides in the divisive abortion debate today, the Supreme Court ruled on the abortion case, what it means for them and the country.

Paul Duke: Good evening, I’m Paul Duke and on this special headline addition of Washington Week In Review we’ll review and analyze today’s important court decision, a decision that basically give states more power to regulate and restrict abortions.

[End Clip]

Adam: The framing is so gross. So yeah, we have this idea of choice versus life, which many pro-choice advocates have kind of accepted. But it’s something that sort of, you know, everyone loves life. Life is the most important thing in the world, right? And choice is kind of this bourgeois capitalist, uh, you know, uh, I’m going to choose between Cornflakes —

Nima: I have the luxury of choice. (Laughs)

Adam: Yeah, between Hyundai and Chrysler. It’s not about rights, it’s not about —

Nima: Well, and it’s not about ethics, it’s not about morality, it’s not about real people.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Right. ‘Life’ has to do with babies and has to do with the meaning of why we’re all here in general. And so anything as opposed to that is already going to be on the losing side of a rhetorical debate in that way.

Adam: Yeah. So while the Supreme Court, they upheld the Roe case, they also altered restrictions on the right of abortion. So this allowed states to craft their own laws on the first trimester of abortion, whereas all first trimester abortions had previously been legal under Roe versus Wade. Uh, and then the Clinton administration entered into the fray. And while Bill Clinton made, when he first got in office, he made a lot of pro-abortion, pro-choice moves, uh, most of which unraveled certain Reagan era restrictions regarding fetal tissue research and counseling. He couched these moves in a language that would infect the issue from then on, as The New York Times reported in 1993 quote, “In a ceremony at the White House this afternoon, Mr. Clinton reiterated the carefully nuanced position on abortion he had maintained in the campaign, calling for ‘an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare.’” The safe, legal but rare construction effectively grants the morality of the issue to, uh, to the right as something that is sort of bad or shameful or dirty. And this sort of gives the moral argument, for the sake of short term pragmatic or legal, uh, interest, something that could work for, you know, a year, an election cycle, maybe even ten years, but eventually, and John Kerry did this too when he ran in 2004. ‘I’m a Catholic. I oppose abortion on moral terms, I think it’s wrong.’

Nima: Right. But I support the —

Adam: Right.

Nima: Right, exactly.

Adam: ‘I think this is baby murder, but I like choice,’ doesn’t really —

Nima: (Laughing) Right, exactly.

Adam: Doesn’t really ring that, that true to people I think on an intuitive level, it sort of strikes people as a kind of false compromise that if you actually believe abortion is murder, you probably should be pro-life. You know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say, I believe personally it’s murder and shameful and should be seedy.

Nima: Right. It just winds up being political hand wringing that serves the counter narrative to what you wind up then advocating and policy. And so therefore you are not seen as being credible.

Adam: Yes.

Nima: The next big debate came in the mid nineties with the advent of language around partial birth abortions. So at first it was safe, legal, rare. Now it has shifted. There’s a new term from the opponents of abortion called partial birth abortion. This one term really served to revive a national debate on the issue despite the fact that a proposed ban on this so called procedure was only relevant to an extremely small percentage of pregnancies in which something really goes, goes terribly wrong and the health of the mother is, is in dire jeopardy. So the term partial birth abortion was created, and when I say created, I, I literally mean invented by Florida Congressmen Charles Canady, along with lobbyists from the anti-choice group, National Right to Life Committee in 1995. It had not existed before 1995. So it refers again to a very specific procedure, exceedingly rare data has shown that 2,200 partial birth abortions are performed a year, which is a mere 0.2 percent of the total over one 1.3 million abortions performed yearly by doctors in the United States. This is a minuscule thing and yet this captured the political imagination of the right. And then used this term, this partial birth abortion term to really move a political policy agenda.

Adam: So despite the purely propagandistic nature of the term, the press adopted it very, very quickly. So one researcher, Hannah Armitage, explored this proliferation of political messaging on the issue in an article entitled “Political Language, Uses and Abuses: How the Term ‘Partial Birth Abortion’ Changed the Abortion Debate in the United States. In it she writes, “the term effectively appeared from nowhere. There were no articles in 1994, 11 and 1995, 65 and 1996. The first news article I found which utilize the term, and one which other commentators have also identified, was entitled ‘Pro-Life Attack on Partial Birth Abortion Bears Fruit.’ It was written by Joyce Price in 1995 and published in The Washington Times.”

Nima: Which is a right-wing publication, incidentally.

Adam: Right.

Chart from “Political Language, Uses and Abuses: How the Term ‘Partial Birth’ Changed the Abortion Debate in the United States” by Hannah Armitage (Australasian Journal of American Studies, July 2010)

Nima: But then The New York Times at first resisted using the term because they identified it as being a political message rather than describing a medical procedure, because the procedure itself is more correctly known as “Intact Dilation and Extraction” or D&X, which is itself a variation of an even more commonly used, and legal, still legal, second-trimester abortion procedure called “Intact Dilation and Evacuation” or D&E , which can occur when a pregnancy has resulted in serious health risks. It is not known as “partial birth abortion.” That is not the medical term. That is a purely political term. And so The New York Times initially didn’t want to use it, but it became so infused in the debate that they wound up, I guess, you know, shoulder-shrugging and having no choice but to use the term. And so The New York Times winds up using it in dozens and eventually hundreds of articles for the rest of the ‘90s as this new debate is underway and they get backing for this term from Democratic politicians. One of the, I think, more frequent Citations Needed villains is Senator Daniel Moynihan, who pioneered a lot of talk about about Broken Windows, which we’ve talked about before, and “welfare”, he had a lot of very dubious ideas about race. And so, enter Moynihan again in May of 1996 talking about “partial birth abortion” and saying that this procedure was, quote, “as close to infanticide as anything I have come upon.” End quote. And so the idea that Moynihan who, you know, big name Democrat, a pro-choice politician, is using the word infanticide, carries so much weight and therefore the entire debate begins to change. And all because of this idea of “partial birth abortion”, that was introduced by the right-wing.

Adam: Yeah, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senator’s Senator. Always there to be a team player and carry water for the far-right. I’m surprised he didn’t say anything racist.

Nima: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Schumer has really picked up the mantle.

Adam: So this language reframed anti-abortion rhetoric as protective of mothers, which was something that the Christian right and the Republican Party really started to do a lot in the nineties. This idea that they were out to protect mothers and that they cared about mothers and then as we all know, the Roe versus Wade “Roe” — Jane Roe — later became a huge pro-life advocate and was handled and, I think to some extent, and exploited by the far-right and then this “regret” narrative really began to take off and Democrats didn’t have a lot of moral recourse since they already conceded the major point in many ways. Not all but many did that abortion wasn’t indeed not desirable and was, was something to be frowned upon.

Nima: And so they kind of use this idea and it’s actually written into the actual congressional legislation for the partial birth abortion ban, where it talks about that they need this law in place because of what this procedure does to the mother following the abortion. Right? So that, you know, feelings of loss, trauma, depression, regret, and that, that is what they’re really so concerned about and that’s why they need this law to pass to then a further erode abortion rights in this country.

Adam: Uh, the partial birth abortion ban eventually passed in 2003, uh, when President George W. Bush really pushed it before the 2004 election. And then as Armitage notes, quote, “This is the most important section of the 2003 Act. According to Roe, every abortion ban requires an exception stating that an abortion may be performed to protect the life and health of the mother. The health exception has been a central tenet of abortion jurisprudence since Roe. The 2003 Act only allows an exception to save the life of the mother.”

Nima: Right. So it removes “health” from the, you know, one of the reasons why this is legal to protect the health of the mother, the 2003 Act, which Bush signed and which was kind of a rejiggered version of the 1995 Act, which was vetoed by Bill Clinton and then again, he vetoed another one in 1997, but then Bush actually signed it into law and in ‘03 with this idea that to protect the life of the mother was still protected, health of the mother removed, removed from that, from that language. So this 2003 Act was then brought before the Supreme Court, it was challenged and it wound up being upheld in a five to four decision in the Gonzales v. Carhart case. This was in 2007. So this marked the very first time that the Supreme Court had ever outlawed any medical procedure. It was also the first time since the Roe v. Wade decision in ‘73 that the Supreme Court justices approved an abortion restriction that did not contain an exception for the health of the woman. And parts of the Supreme Court decision itself are just dazzlingly patronizing. At one point, the five men who made up the majority — Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito — basically psychoanalyze imaginary women who have had this procedure. And they say this, this is in the actual Supreme Court decision:

Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child…[it goes on to say]…While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant they once created and sustained…

It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast developing brain of her unborn child.

So note here how the appeal to emotion, it takes it out of a medical procedure, takes it out of being about health and rights and justice and the decisions that people make and basically, uh, has the Supremes decide how best to “protect” women’s mental well-being, based again on totally unmeasurable assumptions and they basically admit to having no evidence to back up their claims. And it’s merely stated as being “unexceptional” and “self-evident” to rule this way. So this, this ruling in 2007 in the latter half of the end of the Bush presidency really hinged on the opinions of the Justices that Bush himself had appointed during his presidency. So the Supreme Court had actually previously rejected a Nebraska law. This was back in 2000, which was aimed at doing something very similar, aimed at banning partial birth abortion, but the Supreme Court rejected that on the grounds that it lacked the specific and explicit exception for preserving the health of the woman. That then in 2007, when it was no longer a Clinton court and it was now a Bush court, that didn’t matter anymore and so and so the law wound up changing.

Adam: So this all sets the table for our next guest who, unlike us, is not sort of in the ether of theory and criticism, but actually it does on the groundwork and deals day to day with people who are considering seeking or trying to get an abortion and I think, I think this is a perspective oftentimes missed in these conversations and we’re excited to have her.

Nima: Absolutely. We’re going to speak with Cait Vaughan, a community organizer with Maine Family Planning, an independent abortion provider. She will join us on the phone from Portland, Maine. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Cait Vaughan. She joins us today from Portland. Hi, Cait.

Cait Vaughan: Hi there.

Adam: So this episode is, we’re talking about the narratives surrounding abortion and specifically how they’ve changed over the years. When you go through Democratic Party collateral, uh, abortion is rarely prioritized. It’s usually given back-burner status, although it is used a lot for fundraising. But when you look at speeches and TV debates and campaign videos, it’s almost never mentioned. In your opinion, just to sort of start high level here, what do you think the reasons for the deprioritization are? Is it a fear of feminism in general? Is it kind of broader conditioning to be squeamish about abortion and to what extent do you think the ways in which we talk about abortion or rather more importantly, don’t talk about it affect the way the average person in your line of work approaches the topic?

Cait Vaughan: I think in some ways it’s important to remember that abortion and talking about it is fundamentally, at its core, it’s about sex. And so, you know, abortion is one potential outcome of pregnancy and pregnancy happens because of sex. So we live in a culture that uses sex to sell things, to maybe manipulate certain things and there’s a lot of representation of lust and all kinds of stuff like that in media. But actually we’re also a culture that really discourages practical, straightforward ways of talking about sex. And so I think that’s part of the sort of weird, awkward, squeamishness around abortion. But, uh, of course we don’t also have a feminist political party. So it’s also misogyny. We don’t have a political party in this country that I would consider feminist that would prioritize something as fundamental to people’s ability to determine their own life path as abortion is, you know, so, and I think that it’s both marginalized too much in broader discussions about healthcare because it is healthcare, but it’s also kind of been in the mainstream sort of elite white feminist movement. It’s also been like over pronounced and overrepresented in terms of discussions of reproduction. So, when we’re talking about people’s reproductive lives, we could really talk about a whole bunch of things like maternal health or lack thereof. We could talk about poverty, we can talk about access to healthcare more generally to safe communities, to raise kids, all kinds of things. And so these are reasons I think that it’s been easy for abortion to become more and more marginalized because it’s convenient for some people to dismiss how powerful reproduction is and that reproduction has always been political. And in this country, reproductive policies have been very powerful in controlling certain populations. But also I think because the mainstream feminist movement has done a disservice in talking about abortion as isolated from the rest of people’s lives and their reproductive lives and certainly leaders in the reproductive justice movement have addressed that for years and years and years.

Nima: Do you see the, the lack of kind of like an honest discussion or even normalized discussion of abortion in both our politics and our pop culture, do you see that as really impacting the way that people even understand abortion kind of writ large? And what do you see as potential ways to lessen the stigma, to almost breakthrough both the kind of marketing of sex, but also the more puritanical squeamishness that I think our culture has about talking about things that are fundamental to human life and to not only reproduction but just like healthcare. Where can these things start to be broken down?

Cait Vaughan: Yeah, so I mean, we do find that people have an enormous amount of misinformation about abortion and that includes people who are against abortion and also people who are supporters. So both sides have a lot of misinformation and I think that, you know, the right and the anti-abortion movement has done a fantastic job of organizing people with disinformation. And so they’ve been really aggressive for decades and they haven’t stopped and they have mutated their strategy over and over again. So they’re very strategic. They’re very savvy. And people who are supportive of abortion remaining legal have instead kind of played to the lowest common denominator at the same time that our opposition was really ratcheting up the rhetoric and really getting more and more strategic. And so one of the most important things we can do when we talk about abortion, one of the things that I start with, with a lot of people is reminding them how common it is. So the safe, legal and rare rhetoric really kind of made it seem like those people have abortions and that it’s a small group of people and that it’s very tragic and unfortunate. When, you know, the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute tells us that one in four women in this country will have an abortion by the age of 45, at least one abortion. And so you can’t, if you really look at how common it is, it becomes a lot harder to say, ‘oh, well that doesn’t matter to me.’ Right? And so I start there with a lot of people about talking about it’s commonness and saying whatever you personally feel about it, I’m not ready to throw away one in four women in this country or to say that they’re only irresponsible or that they shouldn’t have access to the things they need. You know, I don’t think you are either and most reasonable people will actually follow that line of logic. But I do think that when we shy away from talking about what abortion is directly in terms of it as a procedure, even when we, when we really shy away from that, we leave a lot of space for that disinformation campaign from the anti-abortion movement to succeed and to fill up the space. So I find a lot of supporters saying stigmatizing things without meaning to, but they, we just haven’t filled that space with really clear information. So one of the answers for me has been to lead trainings with clinicians from our abortion care staff. You know, I’m an organizer. I’m not a clinician, but I’ve worked really closely with our abortion care staff to develop trainings where we don’t just talk about language and the politics and you know, how to fight for policy change. We, we show them what the procedure is, we show them the instruments, we let them touch them. We talk about every step of what an abortion appointment is like and how we provide the care. And that really, that demystifying is a great place to start because people kind of relax and realize like, ‘oh, I, even though I support this, I kind of had bought into all of these media representations that are really inaccurate.’

Adam: I want to talk for a second about the intersection of abortion and race, something you’ve talked about in other interviews and other writings. Obviously the state you work in is majority white. I think it’s something like 94, 95 percent white. In that kind of empathy gap where the number of states in the last ten years or so that have started to chip away at abortion around the margins that these sort of quasi, semi-legal mechanisms, namely cutting off rural areas, which in a lot of states like yours is mainly white, to what extent does the going after abortion in white sectors, you think, elevate this to something that people are therefore concerned about? And to what extent do you, do you think that the, that the focus on white stories around abortion can, can have a deleterious effect?

Cait Vaughan: Yeah, so, I mean, I think, Dorothy Roberts, who is an incredible writer and one of the thought leaders in the reproductive justice movement, has said that, you know, reproductive politics are always racial politics. And absolutely that’s the truth. And so even in a very white place like, a white majority place like Maine, it’s really important to talk about what it means for like how, how reproductive politics have been used to control poor people, to control communities of color and what it means to have someone tell you whether you’re fit to be a parent or not, to encourage certain people to not be parents and to encourage others to reproduce more and more. And so, I mean, we are, we are a majority white state, we are also very rural and overwhelming our patients are poor, which, you know, abortion is concentrated more and more among poor people in this country. So, I think I never talk about abortion politics without talking about race and poverty and the sort of attempts to say who’s fit as a parent and that it is racialized even when it’s happening to poor white people. The reason that it’s allowed to happen at all is because their policies of control that had been tested out on people of color. And so making that connection sometimes takes a little work with people. But it’s also again, why we don’t, we really can’t be addressing abortion in an isolation tank away from, you know, we have a lot of people here in Maine who over the past twenty years, the African immigrant population in Maine has grown and a lot of people have chosen to stay, particularly Somali people have chosen to stay in Maine and now they’re a couple generations of folks here and raise their families here. And so I’m often talking to people who are like, ‘yay, abortion.’ But also like, why are all these Somali people having so many kids? And so the way that we talk about our work as saying we’re fighting for the right to people, for people to have whatever families they envision for themselves. And that includes, you know, terminating pregnancies. It also includes fighting for resources for people to have large families. And to try to make the connection between how a Franco American folks were treated not that long ago and how people are now looking at the Somali families here. So yeah, abortion is always racialized I would say and also, of course, the anti-abortion movement has cooperated a lot of language from the civil rights era to target particularly black women. Saying, you know, abortion is genocide and you know, really to undermine the sort of basic trust and respect we should have for people making decisions about their reproduction, particularly black women being trusted to make their own decisions. And so, that’s important everywhere I would say. And it’s, uh, we in this movement have maybe not been as good in the sort of mainstream reproductive health and reproductive rights movement, haven’t been as good about consistently talking about that connection, particularly in mostly white spaces. But the reproductive justice movement has always talked about it that way.

Adam: Yeah. You mentioned earlier this idea of the choice narrative. I know there’s some pushback from groups like Sister Song to use the word choice because it implies that everyone has the same amount of choices. And there’s a, there’s a little bit, if I’m not mistaken, there is a little bit of movement to, to frame it as something different. Do you want to talk about what we mean when we say choice in pro-choice?

Cait Vaughan: Yeah. So, I mean certainly, I mean in the reproductive justice movement, of course, it’s not merely a response to the sort of mainstream, largely white elite reproductive rights movement. It is its own being, right? And its own thing. So, but yeah, I mean choice is a term I think a lot of people are moving away from. I don’t use it very much in my work. Because, uh, you know, choice to me implies that you have a lot, you know, a kind of buffet of options and you pick your favorite one and really what happens and the move is a lot to talking about decisions and decision making and really that’s because that’s what it is. When someone has an unintended pregnancy, they have to make a decision at some point and that doesn’t mean it’s a decision that they made easily or that they are in love with. It doesn’t mean they had a whole bunch of other possibilities that they could have embraced. And so I think decision is the word we use a lot. And also I just, instead of saying pro-choice, I just say I’m an abortion rights advocate, I’m pro-abortion because I think saying abortion over and over again and talking about it as normal, common, and healthcare is really the best way to, to fight, one of the best ways to fight stigma over and over again. Is to take the power out of the sort of hiding behind choice. And also when you put pro-life next to pro-choice, pro-choice looks kinda crummy next to pro-life. Like pro-life looks way better and who doesn’t want to be that instead? So I think I also just don’t like the alternative.

Nima: Right. Sort of like taking back language in a certain way. And um, yeah, something that we were talking about earlier on the show is how the term partial birth abortion was wholly created. It was created by a Republican congressman along with lobbyists from anti-abortion outlets and, and how this language is so vital to kind of understanding the way that people do understand abortion. And so digging a little deeper to the idea of abortion as a medical procedure, as part of healthcare, can you tell us a little bit about how in your work you’ve seen the impacts from a mental health standpoint, how the kind of constant repetition in our politics and in our media of this being anti-life, right? Being evil and again rare, this kind of last resort, this hand wringing thing-

Adam: Something seedy.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Like something to do it in an alley.

Nima: Right. That like still has the kind of grime of the back alley, but is now in the fluorescent lights and that, that is somehow the scandal, the fact that this could be normalized and so what kind of impact have you seen that have, on people both who get abortions and who are providing them?

Cait Vaughan: Yeah, stigma works at the interpersonal level, the cultural level and the institutional level, right? So we see a lot of different impacts from stigma. I would say in terms of mental health it really could be argued that the worst mental health outcome of stigma really falls on people who decide to have abortions and cannot access them. So the reason people can’t access abortions has entirely to do with institutionalized stigma. And so if someone decides to have an abortion and they cannot access it because of money, geography, because of ridiculous laws, or because they can’t trust anyone to support them in making this decision and carrying it out, they really suffer the most. And so I would just say that that’s really important that there’s a really important study in our world from an organization called Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, or we call it ANSIRH, and it’s called “The Turnaway Study” and it’s a five-year longitudinal study following people about, I think, 1,200 women who had decided to have abortions and they follow the people who were able to access those and the people who weren’t and I think they’re in like the fifth year of this checking in with them. And so they’ve been rereleasing all this information as it goes along. And 97 percent of those folks who were able to get their abortion that they decided to have expressed no regret. So there’s a lot of lies about, you know, abortion harms women, it’s bad for their mental health and of course it doesn’t, but the people who were denied the abortions are really the people who suffer mental health impacts and they also suffer socio economic impacts. And so of course people who have abortions, like stigma is real. If you live in a family and a community where you can’t talk about this decision where people talk about abortion as though no one around them has had one, of course that’s hurtful, that can be very isolating. But I don’t think that that isolation necessarily compares to the reality of being coerced into carrying out a pregnancy that you had really hoped to end. And so, you know, and I think in terms of, you know, stigma, really the institutionalized stigma is very severe. So, you know, being a provider of abortion care people, the providers I work with, will talk about how people in their lives, many of them aren’t comfortable talking about the work that they do, so they don’t get to talk about their work life the way other people do. Certainly, you know, providers are targeted with harassment, threats of violence and actual violence all the way up to, you know, assassinations and bombings and things like that. So that, that stress on providers is of course there. And even working for a provider and being associated with it, you know, I think that’s there, but really it’s the institutional stigma that leads to terrible policies that make, that put care out of reach, but also it disincentivizes new providers in training, new clinicians in training from wanting to pursue this type of care. And so, you don’t have to learn anything about abortion if you’re training to be a physician or a nurse and you have to go out of your way to learn about it and get trained in it and then you have to really actively decide to take on the risk of being harassed and targeted and, you know, receiving threats of violence. And so we’re at a place where, you know, it, some places don’t have a lot of abortion access simply because they can’t find providers who are skilled enough to do it and who are willing to do it and to be public about it.

Adam: I want to talk briefly about the kind of elephant in the room, which is, which is I think, fair to say, religion. Abortion, statistically speaking, is very rare in that it’s a issue that divides along class lines in a way that shows that in an inversely proportional relationship from numbers that I’ve seen, the people who are poor are more likely on average, even adjusting for race, are more likely to get abortions. But when you actually poll people about whether or not they are pro-life or pro-choice, people that are poor are paradoxically more likely to be quote unquote “pro-life.” I think most people accept that that’s largely animated by religion. As someone who deals with stuff on the ground I’m sort of curious how one deals with the issue of religion in a way that’s, I mean you have to be practical about it, right? You want to be sensitive but at the same time you need to talk about this in terms that are, that are moral terms and are ethical terms and from your work, how do you approach that? I assume the kind of above the fray, Sam Harris, you’re all idiots approach doesn’t really work and I’m kind of curious how people who actually are on the frontlines and try to negotiate the religious aspect of this.

Cait Vaughan: Yeah. Um, you know, Maine is much more secular than many parts of the country and yet the anti-abortion movement here is very, very religious and very, you know, sort of Christian religious. And so yeah, I mean when talking about abortion and religion, I mean we talk, I, I train people to talk about abortion from a value spaced place. So really, you know, talking about the deep values we hold that compel us to, to support abortion and to fight for access and, and so that is moral, you know, we really talk about it in a moral way. And also if I’m trying to talk to someone who is coming from a particular religious perspective, I do a lot of listening because that’s what I mean organizing you’re supposed to listen more than you talk, but the facts, the data bears that out that people, you know, people of all religions have abortions. People who think abortion is a sin, abortion is murder, uh, who vote for Donald Trump like those people are in our waiting rooms. They are having abortions. They are often, we often have patients who express that they don’t think this is right and they don’t think it should be legal and here they are and they’re receiving that compassionate care. So, you know, you can talk about facts and you can say, you know, Catholic women for example, get abortions at the same rate as women of any other religion or nonreligion. But really I think it’s more about letting, I like to let people know that, you know, whoever comes in our doors, we are respecting the decision they made and they receive extremely compassionate care and that includes the people who, you know, who stand outside our clinics, a quote unquote “praying” for us and harassing us. And so, I kind of start from that place because, I mean, I can’t talk as an expert about someone else’s religion or their beliefs, but I can talk to them on moral grounds. I’m, I’m happy to do that with people and say, you come from a really strong moral conviction about this and I need you to know, so, so do I. It’s not simply science or anything like that. It really is a moral conviction and a belief that abortion care is really sacred work that people do. And so I think, you know, Dr. Willie Parker, who is an abortion provider in the South and is religious himself, wrote a really beautiful memoir that talks about a moral argument for choice. And I think he does a much better job than I do of talking about a sort of, you know, he says ‘I’m an abortion care provider because I’m a Christian, not in spite of it.’ He believes that it is part of a Christian duty for him as a, as a physician. So, I think there’s lots of ways to come at it, but I think you have to invite people to know that there their religion is not going to be sort of crapped on. That’s kind of the basics.

Nima: That is so amazing to hear. So thank you for joining us today, Cait Vaughan, community organizer with Maine Family Planning, an independent abortion provider who joined us from Portland, Maine today. Thank you Cait again for us today and Citations Needed.

Cait Vaughan: Thank you so much for having me. It was really great to chat with y’all.


Adam: It’s interesting to hear the complexities of how people deal with it, who deal with it on a day to day basis. It’s not as pat or as or as ideological. I mean it’s like what Cait said about the people she sees in her waiting room in Maine are people that she knows for a fact are either very religious, or Trump supporters. And this is the thing when you deal with, when you deal in this world, you deal with people who 364 days out of the year will tell you to go to hell and call you a baby killer. But then when it’s time for them to use your facilities, then you have to welcome with open arms. And I think that takes a lot of patience. I think a lot of courage. It’s not something that I think you or I are equipped to do it all. There’s this demonization and there’s this vitriol and when you get down to it, it’s way more complicated than that

Nima: And at the same time as being complicated, it’s also so vital to note how normal this is in our society.

Adam: Normal is the word here.

Nima: Yeah, so this is not an aberration that affects a tiny percentage of people. This is a very, very normal thing in people’s lives, in a lot of women’s lives, in trans lives who are dealing with pregnancies. This is a very normal thing in our society as a part of being human, in reproductive health and reproductive justice. This is a very normal issue and the efficacy of political language being weaponized to make this abnormal, to make this seem like an abomination is what has been so devastating in our politics and also in our pop culture as we discussed in the first part of this episode, and so really it has to do with the way framing language works, right? The invention of terms that speak to people’s emotions, that speak to people’s ethics and religion and sense of morality. Partial birth abortion sounds horrible, horrible. It sounds like killing something that is being born as opposed to a medical procedure to save the life or protect the health of a mother when a baby is not going to survive anyway, but that doesn’t become part of the debate.

Adam: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head with the concept of normalization. We talk a lot about that. You know, we’re normalizing Trump, this is not normal. And I think that the denormalization of abortion through pop culture and through the news, as something, again, rare and unfortunate and seedy and something you should be ashamed of and people are pushing back on that and you’ll see that in pop culture. You see that with the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, which was a Twitter hashtag campaign for people to tell people about their abortion. Something people don’t normally offer. And I think that those efforts to kind of say this is not something that’s obscure or done rarely, despite what Clinton wants us to believe, this is something that’s actually very common in, in that, again, you don’t want to be glib about it, as I think some people perceive that as being glib, but it’s not. It’s saying this is something that I’ve done. This is something that your sister or other people you know have done. This is not uncommon. And I think that that’s, I think that’s a good place to end it. I think that this is, we usually end on a, on a despair note, but we try to accurately reflect reality and oftentimes reality is just, this is just sad. There’s not really much we could do to change that. Uh, but this is one of the rare things we’ve covered where there’s actually an uptick in the shift in the narrative. And so when we did the research for it, we realized that in the last two, three years there’s been a, there’s been a bit of a shift. It’s not a huge one, but creative content makers, for lack of a better term, are really trying to change it a little bit and try to mix it up and trying to reflect the reality of it. So we’re, we hope that in the next five years, again, we went 23 years without any sitcom character having or discussing abortion in a meaningful way and now now we’ve had four in the last few years. So there’s a shift and we’re excited about that and we were interested to see where that goes.

Nima: Yeah. Thank you for joining us for this two-part episode to kick off our second season of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening and for supporting the show. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show, help us out, keep us independent through Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast, that’s with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support has been and will continue to be so greatly appreciated and keep the show going, especially the support of our critic-level patrons. I am the Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultants are Josh Kross and Sarah Lazare. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. Our music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next week.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 12, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.