When the first rumors began to spread about a woman who had died following an abortion performed by Dr. Leroy Carhart, one of the last doctors in the country willing to perform third trimester abortions, the Gang gathered around our proverbial fireplace to talk it out.
Our first reactions were, as always, a enormous outpouring of empathy for the woman and her family – not just for the loss of her life, but for the invasion of their privacy and lack of space to grieve that would now be inevitable. This was accompanied by a sinking feeling of dread at all that we knew would now happen. There would be the aforementioned invasion of privacy by anti-choicers. There would be loud insistence that they had been right all along, that abortion is inherently unsafe, even though the exact opposite is true – women are 14 times more likely to die from complications of childbirth than from abortion.* Anti-choicers would use this to attack pro-choice work, insisting that we don’t care about women and babies, and we’re all essentially murderers. Meanwhile, we’re grieving for the loss of one of our own, and worrying about the future of one of the few doctors left in the country who unequivocally supports the right to choose at the cost of his own privacy and safety. We also discussed the fact that for at least a week or two, all information would be a rumor, the loudest and sometimes the only voices would be anti-choice, and we would need to wait for real information, out of respect for the woman and her family, before we could talk about the case.
It went down just like we thought it would.
Anti-choicers, with no information about what had actually happened to the woman who had been Dr. Carhart’s patient, immediately began harassing out pro-choice advocates online, including, among a bunch of other crap, this early tweet to our editor. We advised everyone to use the “block” function liberally. Then the Washington Post reported that anti-choicers had illegally invaded the woman and her family’s privacy by first obtaining (ILLEGAL) and then publicly broadcasting (FUCKING ILLEGAL) her medical records from the hospital. And throughout this, of course, there were a million articles and blog posts on anti-choice newsfeeds and websites nearly rejoicing in this woman’s death, since they were sure it meant a huge political win. That kind of thing is really hard to take, although it lead to some good conversations about how tragedy and death are politicized in all social movements, and in what ways that is effective and respectful or disrespectful depending on the circumstances.
It has now become clear that the woman died of rare complications that can occur after vaginal birth, c-section, or abortion. There is no way to tell if a woman will experience these complications.One source in the article describes it as the obstetric equivalent of being hit by lightning. All appearances, including a gift registry, suggest that this was a wanted child and that health complications for either the mother or the fetus required the third-trimester procedure.
It’s disheartening that we knew exactly the way this story would unfold, but it demonstrated to me that we have solid, responsible coping mechanisms in place. Here are what we can offer as some best practices for dealing with a tragedy like this:
1) Don’t believe the hype. Don’t believe anything you’ve heard until reputable, mainstream news sources are releasing reliably sourced information. In the beginning, while we do our job of hanging back respectfully and waiting, anti-choicers will be gearing up a political campaign of epic proportions. They love this shit. At this moment, they’re like dogs after the juiciest bone of their lives. They are not going to wait to discern what’s true. While it’s painful, let them do their thing. Don’t respond on social media, don’t make a statement. Remember that while we as out pro-choice activists are targeted by these people and hear their messages all the time, most of the world is totally unaware that they exist. Practice self-care and respect for the human lives involved by not engaging until you have more information.
2) Allow yourself to grieve in complicated ways. You are allowed to grieve for the loss of a community member while also feeling fear for the medical professionals involved. You are allowed to acknowledge the reality that anti-choicers will attempt to exploit a woman’s death for political gain, and you are allowed to feel dread. It is extremely unfortunate we couldn’t mourn in a straightforward manner, but knowing that the consequences of the tragedy will be complicated and political and not looking forward to that at all does not make you less compassionate or less aware that a real human life has been lost and that is awful.
3) Do not engage. Do not engage. Do not engage. You’re not dealing with rational people, and yes, as an out pro-choice activist, they do want to hurt you. You’re not required to get involved, and as much as you want to yell, you don’t have all the information yet, and you need to remember that they don’t either – see #1.
4) Seriously engage with the real issues. Once you know what the real issues involved in the case are, consider them. In this case, the real issue is that a woman experienced an extremely rare complication; it has nothing to do with abortion one way or another. But it’s also the case that a woman who wanted to keep her pregnancy found out very late that it wasn’t viable and required a third-trimester abortion, which is illegal in almost every state. She was lucky to find a doctor who would perform the procedure, and that doctor is under constant attack, a fact which this incident only serves to highlight. There may come a time in the next few years where someone with an unviable pregnancy has literally no options. Let’s talk about that.
*This should be a sign that our maternal care is fucking abysmal and in a comprehensive reproductive justice framework we should really try to do something about that. However, that being said, pregnancy itself is a project that takes a significant toll on the body and, even under optimal circumstances (which the US does not offer, especially for poor people and people of color), poses inevitable risk. Being pregnant is and will always be riskier for someone’s health than an abortion. So bless all of you willingly and happily bringing bright and beautiful children into this world, cause it is no easy thing.