Abortion pill aftershocks


The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Thursday, the federal government handed American women a new option for obtaining an abortion, and in so doing transformed the political fight that has raged since the procedure was legalized in 1973.

Ever since Roe vs. Wade, anti-abortion activists have been able to target many of their protests at a finite number of abortion providers, concentrating on the clinics where about 1.3 million American women go each year to have their abortions.

But by dispersing abortion into homes and ordinary doctors’ offices, the RU-486 pill changes the physical landscape, making those locations elusive, the targets anonymous.

Activists on both sides agreed Thursday that the pill will radically alter the tactics and counter-tactics that have become mainstays of abortion politics. But the greatest burden is on anti-abortion groups to keep the stigma alive.

Within hours of the FDA’s decision Thursday, the anti-abortion movement began searching for new, more sophisticated ways to convince American women that taking the pill is not a routine procedure but an option as morally and politically loaded as having a surgical abortion.

"Right now the average ob/gyn will say ‘That’s not my specialty’ and refer you to the abortion clinic," said Troy Newman of Operation Rescue West, a spinoff of the radical anti-abortion group known for organizing some of the most aggressive clinic protests. "But now any ob/gyn has to face the question, and that makes things more difficult for us."

Newman and other anti-abortion protesters spent the day devising possible new databases, new pamphlets, new arguments. For Newman, it was just a question of redoubling their efforts. "We can just call every hospital, every ob/gyn and ask them: ‘If I am your patient will you give me RU-486?’ " said Newman. "Then we will treat them the exact same way we treat an abortion provider."

Others spoke of expanding their list of targets in new and creative ways, investigating to identify the unnamed pharmaceutical company that manufactures the pill, the investors who funded it and perhaps even the FDA that approved it.

Some anti-abortion groups were thinking up ways to equivocate abortion and RU-486, to counter the argument that the new option is morally neutral.

At the American Life League, which considers itself an education provider, the Rev. Joseph Howard said they were thinking of starting something called "Initiative 21" to remind women that a heart starts beating at 21 days after conception, well within the time most women would take RU-486.

"You try to emphasize a different set of biological facts," said Howard. "Because what’s the difference? RU-486 is a chemical procedure, abortion is a surgical procedure. That’s the only distinction. You’re still destroying an unborn life."

Many anti-abortion groups said they realize their hardest struggle will be to keep that scarlet letter affixed to a procedure many doctors and women are apt to find more palatable.

In surveys, women who have taken the pill in both the United States and Europe report feeling more comfortable with the procedure and less traumatized, exactly the feelings the anti-abortion groups want to prevent.

"It’s very private, so it removes some of the visibility, the harassment," said Susan Tew of the Allan Guttmacher Institute, which studies family planning. "And because it happens so early it might make the procedure more socially acceptable for many people, more mainstream."

Doctors are also more comfortable with the procedure. In a 1998 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of doctors said they were "very" or "somewhat" likely to prescribe mifepristone, as RU-486 is also known, once it was available. Only 3 percent of them had performed surgical abortions.

RU-486 also has the potential to build a broader consensus for abortion. In general, Americans are more likely to accept abortion if it’s performed early; 61 percent said they support abortions in the first trimester, well within the seven-week window RU-486 is prescribed in. Support drops dramatically in later weeks.

To restore the shame, anti-abortion groups plan to seize on some of these perceived advantages of RU-486 and turn them into personal crosses to bear. Because the average doctor can do the procedure himself and not just shift it to a colleague, the average doctor now is faced with a stark moral choice, said the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the anti-abortion group Christian Defense Coalition.

And because a woman has to take the pill herself and not let the doctor do the procedure for her she too has to search her conscience.

"There are no more gray areas. This will separate the chaff from the wheat, the sheep from the goats," said Mahoney. "It will force every ob/gyn to ask himself: ‘Am I here to support life or kill it?’ instead of referring that moral dilemma to someone else."

"And now women are personally culpable," he said. "The baby doesn’t get sucked out into a tube where they can’t see it. They have to do it themselves. It personalizes the murder."

Some also considered another option: replacing an emphasis on stigma with one on women’s health, expressed in more soothing therapeutic tones. In its press releases, the National Right to Life Thursday underscored the "intense trauma" to women, the uterine bleeding and the contractions, the emotional stress and loneliness, and offered "healing help."

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peeks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
State OKs Marysville plan with schools, jobs on chopping block

The revised plan would mean the loss of dozens of jobs and two schools — still to be identified — in a school district staring down a budget crunch.

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

The Trestle’s junction with I-5 is under evaluation (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Here’s your chance to give feedback on the US 2 trestle and its future

Often feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and on shaky ground? So is the trestle. A new $17 million study seeks solutions for the route east of Everett.

Suspected DUI crash injures trooper on I-5 north in Lynnwood

WSP spokesperson said two suspected impaired drivers have crashed into a state trooper in the past 24 hours.

John Pederson lifts a flag in the air while himself and other maintenance crew set up flags for Memorial Day at Floral Hills Cemetery on Friday, May 24, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Volunteers place thousands of flags by veterans’ graves in Lynnwood

Ahead of Memorial Day, local veterans ensure fellow military service members are never forgotten.

People hang up hearts with messages about saving the Clark Park gazebo during a “heart bomb” event hosted by Historic Everett on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Future of historic Clark Park gazebo now in hands of City Council

On June 5, the Everett council is set to decide whether to fund removal of the gazebo. It could be stored elsewhere.

Brian Hennessy leads a demonstration of equipment used in fire training at the Maritime Institute in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
‘Ready to go full sail’: Maritime Institute embarks at Port of Everett

The training facility offers Coast Guard-certified courses for recreational boaters and commercial vessel operators.

George Beard poses for a photo outside of the the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.  (Annie Barker / The Herald)
From sick to the streets: How an illness left a Stanwood man homeless

Medical bills wiped out George Beard’s savings. Left to heal in his car, he got sicker. Now, he’s desperate for housing. It could take years.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Lawsuit says Snohomish County deputies not justified in Sultan shooting

Two deputies repeatedly shot an unarmed Sultan man last year, body camera video shows. An internal investigation is pending.

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)
Good luck to Memorial Day travelers: If you’re like me, you’ll need it

I spent a night in the Chicago airport. I wouldn’t recommend it — but with flight delays near an all-time high, you might want to pack a pillow.

Editorial cartoons for Friday, May 24

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.