Now, summer is approaching, and with it the beginning of a new fiscal year for ACCESS and the Women's Health Rights Coalition. I am working full-time as Executive Director, our programs are strong, and there is a renewed vision and energy in the organization. We are also recommitting to our promise to publish a quarterly edition of Volunteer Notes, to share information and stories with you. In this edition you will find bulletins about current outrageous events in our community, an analysis of the Supreme Court case threatening to criminalize women who use drugs while pregnant, stories from the hotline, information about a new advocacy campaign, and an update on practical support organizing. I also want to share my excitement to be returning to work at ACCESS full-time. I had the pleasure of working with many of you when I was hotline staff and coordinator of practical support, several years ago, and I look forward to reconnecting with you as I begin my new work as ED. To me, ACCESS offers a model for changing the world - connecting each woman and girl with the information and tools to make her own destiny, breaking the silence about abortion, bringing individuals and communities together to help each other, and raising our voices to demand justice. I am grateful to be part of an organization committed to such important work.
My belief that ACCESS is a world-changing organization has led to frustration when, in my search for new funding sources for our work, I find that many progressive foundations who support abortion and reproductive rights will not fund "direct services." They see projects like the ACCESS hotline as important and necessary, but not radical. I disagree. Every day at ACCESS we talk to women and girls who have been denied their right to make informed decisions about their health care, their reproductive choices, and their lives. When doctors and insurance companies refuse to refer for abortion, when anti-abortion groups tell women that abortion causes breast cancer and infertility, when Depo-Provera and Norplant are pushed on young women and women of color, when schools do not teach young people about their bodies and their sexuality - when these things occur, providing honest and unbiased information is a radical act.
At the recent annual meeting of the National Abortion Federation, a doctor from Nebraska told the story of a newly immigrated woman he had seen this spring. The woman and her husband, who spoke very little English, spent thousands of dollars to fly from Portland, OR to Nebraska for an abortion after they were told by a crisis pregnancy center that abortion is illegal in Oregon. The woman was only seven weeks pregnant. This maddening story illustrates what can happen when women are unable to get real information about the options available to them. Those who would dictate what women should do with our bodies and our lives are not afraid to lie in order to achieve their goals. They know that knowledge is power - but so do we. ACCESS exists to make sure all women have accurate and complete information about their reproductive options, and the support and material resources to act on the choices they believe are best for them. Thank you for helping us make reproductive freedom and the theoretical "right to choose" a concrete reality.
The latter is a case brought by 10 women who were searched, without consent or warrant, for evidence of drug use when they sought obstetrical care at a the Medical University of South Carolina hospital. The suit was brought in 1993 against the City of Charleston, local law enforcement officials and the Medical University of South Carolina for its policy, begun in 1989, of testing a targeted group of pregnant women for drug use without warrant or consent when they came to the public hospital for prenatal care or to give birth.
Under the policy, pregnant women who tested positive for cocaine were reported to the police; some were arrested right out of their hospital beds. Although the hospital discontinued the policy after the lawsuit was filed, 30 women had already been arrested. They were charged with the crime of "distributing a controlled substance to a minor" under South Carolina law which considers a fetus over 24 weeks old a "person". All but one was African-American. After a federal jury ruled against the women, they appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In July, the court upheld the lower court's verdict, calling the searches reasonable under a "special needs" exception to the Fourth Amendment, which justifies search any time "the government can present a health or safety reason."
Priscilla Smith of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and co-counsel from the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, represent the plaintiffs in this case. According to Smith, "the Supreme Court's decision, expected in 2001, could determine whether pregnant women have lesser constitutional rights than other Americans". The American Public Health Association and other groups of nurses, physicians and public health counselors from across the nation submitted a "friend of the court" brief on the side of the women. Without denying the clear advisability of protecting infants from exposure to cocaine," they added, "medical research is increasingly finding that the sense of impending 'crack baby' crisis that impelled the prosecutors, doctors, and nurses here to discard ethical and legal responsibilities . . . [was] without solid foundation."
Very little attention has been paid by feminist organizations to Ferguson. In reviewing pro-choice web sites including Medical Students for Choice, NARAL, NOW, ACLU Reproductive Rights page, The Abortion Activist, Abortion Access Project and a number of others, I found no mention of the case. CRLP itself had only a short article in its February newsletter announcing that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. All the web sites contained extensive information and analysis concerning Stenberg.
Interestingly, About.com did feature an article on Ferguson on its web site in February, at the time the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case. The article was accompanied by an opinion poll which asked, "Is it a violation of rights to test a pregnant woman for drug use?" Of the small number of respondents (56), 70% said No! Those who have written about the case focus on what the lower courts' decisions mean about the rights of pregnant women, which is of course important. But the disastrous effects of such policies, which are still in effect in other South Carolina public hospitals, on the health of women and their children has not been addressed at all. Clearly, in a state with such policies in force, women who have used illegal drugs during pregnancy will avoid seeking prenatal care and many will attempt to deliver themselves in unsafe conditions.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in the fall and hand down a decision early next year. If the decision is adverse to the women, it should be met with the same outrage and protest that will definitely accompany a decision upholding Nebraska's ban on the "D&X" procedure. In order for this to occur, we need to start now educating women about this threat to women's health and lives.
"John" called for his girlfriend. She was pregnant and they needed help. They were both teens living with parents on a military base in Vacaville. They had health insurance through their parents but Tri-Care military insurance does not cover abortions. They were both in school and neither of them could tell their parents about the pregnancy or ask them for money. Shondra explained the way for minors to apply for confidential services through MediCal to pay for the abortion and then referred them to a local clinic for the procedure.
"Katie" called from Sebastapol concerned about a painful lump in her breast. She had no health insurance. She had made several appointments for a mammogram but had been skipping them because the whole process was so intimidating and she was sure it was cancer. Becca talked to her for a while about the different possibilities of what a breast lump can be and how important it is to find out what's going on as soon as she can. They called around to find women's clinics in Sonoma County that would do a clinic breast exam for free and refer her out for a mammogram. Then they made a plan for Katie to make an appointment and ask a friend to support her in getting to the appointment and making sure she did not have to go through it alone.
"Danielle" called from Berkeley. She was experiencing symptoms of menopause. She had MediCal and was getting primary care through a community clinic. However, she had been unsatisfied with the care she was getting and the information she'd been given. Shondra and Becca researched support services for women in menopause and were able to offer her referrals to a feminist health clinic and a menopause support group in the East Bay.
"Tara" called ACCESS in April scared that she was pregnant She was fifteen. She wanted information about pregnancy testing, birth control, and abortion, and referrals for clinics where she could get a pregnancy test in Lodi. She called back again in May to let us know that she had had a negative pregnancy test and gotten her period since we last spoke and she was very relieved. But she wanted to talk about her boyfriend and her concerns that the relationship had become abusive. He was mean to her and put her down all the time, especially in front of other people. She and Becca talked a long time about self-esteem., relationships, and abuse. Tara said that she knew she deserved better things and that she had a lot of people in her life who were looking out for her and would support her leaving him. She just had to get herself ready to do it. Tara called again the next week and let us know that she had left her boyfriend and was feeling hopeful that they would stay apart. She said she'll stay in touch with ACCESS.
"Manuella" called from Stockton needing help with transportation and housing for her overnight abortion procedure in Sacramento. Mona helped her make a plan to catch the bus and to stay overnight with Liz, a practical support volunteer. In the clinic waiting room, Manuella met up with "Tasha" a woman who had traveled from Modesto and whose ride home had bailed. She had no money to stay overnight in a motel and the clinic wouldn't let her go home and come back the next day alone on a bus. Liz was able to take both women home for the night and reported back the next day that everything had gone smoothly and everyone had taken great care of each other.
"Miriam" called from Lodi for her daughter who's fifteen and pregnant. They wanted to travel a bit out of town for privacy reasons and she asked for help finding a clinic in Sacramento where her daughter could be asleep. They had just been to a Crisis Pregnancy Center and Miriam's daughter was now very nervous and unsure about the abortion. She was still certain that she did not want to be a mother or arrange an adoption. However, the anti-abortion counseling and the fetal pictures they had showed scared her badly. We were able to give Miriam and her daughter a lot of information about abortion safety and what to expect from the experience. We then referred them to a clinic that would see her and offer an extended pre-abortion counseling session.
But despite the illogical (and clearly anti-abortion) basis for the charges, prosecution of the case continued. On May 6th of this year, citing emotional and financial strain, Dr. Steir accepted a plea bargain of involuntary manslaughter. Despite letters from the National Abortion Federation, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers and others urging leniency in this case, on Friday, May 26th, Dr. Steir was sentenced to 120 days in Riverside County Jail and 1 year of probation. His license to practice medicine has also been permanently revoked. Dr. Steir is currently serving his sentence, and can be reached by mail at:
P.O. Box 710
Riverside, CA 92501
The imprisonment of a doctor for a tragic patient death which, based on the medical facts, was a medical error, is a miscarriage of justice. It also sets a dangerous precedent for future abortion providers, clearly demonstrating that the controversy of abortion has allowed abortion providers to be maligned and targeted not only by anti-abortion fanatics, but by our own justice system. Have we any doubt that an OB/GYN would not be charged with murder if a patient died during a c-section?
Now, we're ready to get organizing. Mona Jhawar, Practical Support Coordinator, will be travelling to different areas this summer to meet current practical support volunteers, women who have used the network, and local abortion providers. We hope to learn from you about the unique access barriers in your community, and to strategize about the best way to build a practical support network in your area. With your help, we will also be working to identify local individuals and organizations we can invite to join the practical support network and our efforts to ensure women can get abortions without isolation or delay.
Our hope is not only to recruit more volunteers, but to make the network itself stronger. We want you to be connected not only to the ACCESS office, but to each other and to the women you help. The goal of practical support is not only to ensure individual access to abortion, but to foster real community awareness and support of women in their struggle to act on reproductive decisions. We are excited about meeting all of you and developing new relationships over the next year.
Areas with the most need for practical support right now include Sacramento, Santa Cruz/Monterrey counties, and the greater Fresno area. The Bay Area, especially San Francisco and San Jose, are also magnets for women in rural areas who need second-trimester abortions. If you live in one of these areas and would be interested in hosting a gathering of local practical supporters, want to help organize new people in your area, or have other ideas, please contact Mona at (510) 923-0822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CARE includes a diverse coalition of over 100 local, state and national groups, including the National Black Women's Health Project, the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, the Ms. Foundation, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Some local members include the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom and the Reproductive Rights Network of Santa Cruz County! CARE is sponsored by the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), and is being coordinated on a national level by Marlene Gerber Fried, NNAF President, Leslie Watson, former Director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice's Black Church Initiative, and Toni Bond, co-founder of African-American Women Evolving and Executive Director of the Chicago Abortion Fund.
Events to launch the Campaign for Access and Reproductive Equity were held on Wednesday, May 24, in Washington, DC and Chicago. In the Bay Area, ACCESS will be spearheading CARE efforts. We have been meeting with local organizations involved in reproductive health, welfare reform and sex education, as well as leaders in communities of young women, women of color and low-income women, in order to build a local CARE coalition and identify possible opportunities for action. In cooperation with several of these groups and the national organizers, we are developing an event to rally the energy and involvement of local groups in CARE efforts. This event will take place in Oakland on July 31st, in conjunction with similar events in Philadelphia, NYC and other areas across the country. We will keep you informed as the details emerge.
ACCESS and WHRC have always been grounded in the knowledge that women's lives are whole and complex, and that true freedom and health will only be achieved when our reproductive, economic and human rights are recognized as interconnected and inseparable. We are thrilled to have this opportunity to work with such a diverse group of organizations in the fight to make these connections and ensure that public policies reflect the real needs of women. If you or an organization you know are interested in joining the Campaign or participating in the Oakland launch, please contact Parker at (510) 923-0739 or Mona Jhawar at (510) 923-0822, or email us at email@example.com.
One middle schooler recalled being told that abortion is dangerous, major surgery that kills one out of every 100 women who opt to end their pregnancies. The students were also given incorrect information on contraception options and efficacy, such as a 14-16% failure rate for condoms, far above the CDC's estimate of 2-4%. Superintendent of Schools Dennis Chaconas decided to suspend the program's operation on Oakland campuses until the district has reviewed the curriculum, which apparently no staffer can recall having done since First Resort began teaching in the schools in 1997. Media exposure of the group's message that "abortion is never the right answer" led Kaiser Hospital to yank it's agreement to refer pregnant patients to group last year.
Although we're sad to lose Michelle and Shondra, we have also gained several new members of the ACCESS community. Lilia Cardenas is a new and very active practical support volunteer, driving women in the East Bay to San Francisco General Hospital and back on a regular basis. Shalini Eddens recently began working with Mona on an advocacy project to document the barriers our callers with Medi-Cal face when seeking abortions. Shalini is a public health grad student at Emory University, and comes to us through the support of the UCLA Health DATA Project. The hotline also has two new interns this summer, Lauren Pesso and Felicity Kohn, both from Wesleyan University in CT. Apparently our Wesleyan intern from last summer, Michelle V, has been spreading the word about us! Thanks, Michelle! Last but certainly not least, we welcome Rina Mehta to the WHRC Board of Directors. Rina works in development at Asians & Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health, and brings lots of new ideas and energy to our board. Welcome, everyone!