The 2012 Election: Could our reproductive future be even worse than our past?

Double bonus of Sister Courage today! This is a guest post by a woman leader I admire about a woman leader I admire.

Both have made many contributions to women’s reproductive rights, health, and justice. But neither Carole Joffe—author, researcher, and professor at the UCSF Bixby Center—who wrote this piece, nor its subject, filmmaker extraordinaire Dorothy Fadiman, is about to slow down her quest for women’s full equality. It’s my honor to feature them on Heartfeldt.

They raise profound questions voters must consider when they go to the polls. For those who say so-called ‘women’s issues’ are peripheral to the political debate, I say our daughters’ futures hang in the balance. What could be more important?

Watching the haunting images in Dorothy Fadiman’s new compilation, “Choice at Risk,” drawn from her award-winning PBS abortion rights trilogy, is even more unsettling than it was before.

For years, I have shown Fadiman’s films about abortion to students, finding her work the most effective way to communicate to young people both the horrors of the pre-Roe v Wade era—as shown in her Oscar-nominated  film, When Abortion was Illegal—and the continual threats to abortion rights since legalization.  The third film in the trilogy, The Fragile Promise of Choice, offers a searing portrayal of the violence and harassment that abortion providers undergo as they struggle to meet the needs of their patients.

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But now, writing these words, I feel that this talented filmmaker, by editing her 2 ½ hour body of work into clips and mini-docs, is showing us in chilling detail, not only our past, but our possible future. A future, moreover, that may be even worse, in some respects, than the pre-Roe era she has so ably documented.

How could anything be worse than the era of the back-alley butchers and women attempting to self-abort in dangerous ways?

Here’s one set of circumstances that could conceivably be worse. Even in the pre-Roe era, the medical community had the authority to approve some abortions, when the life or the health of a pregnant woman was at risk, or when serious anomalies were detected in the fetuses of pregnant women. To be sure, like so much else in American society, class privilege was a factor here as well: middle and upper class women were far more likely to obtain so-called “therapeutic abortions” than poorer women. But at the least, there existed a consensus among physicians, and among most sectors of the general population, that certain situations warranted an abortion, even if the procedure was not generally available.

That consensus, however, is not shared by the contemporary Republican party. The 2012 Party platform calls for an absolute ban on abortion, and contains no language for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or—astonishingly—threats to the life of the pregnant woman. Recently, the Orwellian-named “Protect Life Act,” (H.R.358 passed in the Republican-controlled Congress by a vote of 251-172, (including 15 Democrats who voted with the majority). This bill, among other things, stipulates that hospitals may “exercise their conscience” and refuse abortions to women in life-threatening conditions. Given the slim majority Democrats now hold in the Senate (which has prevented this bill from being voted on in that body), and given the certainty that President Obama would veto such a bill, so far this legislation has gone nowhere.

But what would happen with this kind of bill if Republicans controlled the Senate? And would a President Romney sign such a bill? In recent days, in light of the media circus that has surrounded the Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark about “legitimate rape,” Mitt Romney has stated that while he supports the overturning of Roe v Wade, he favors exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the pregnant woman. But that is not very reassuring. Because during the Republican primary season, when asked by Mike Huckabee, a leading power broker in the Religious Right, if he supported “Personhood” amendments, Romney’s answer was an enthusiastic  “absolutely!”

Memo to Mitt Romney: You can’t both be in favor of exceptions to an abortion ban and “absolutely” support Personhood amendments. These amendments make clear that a fertilized egg has the status of a living person—under this logic, aborting a fetus conceived as a result of rape or incest would be the same as murder.

But what about when a pregnant woman’s life is at stake? Whose life would take precedence then, the woman or the fertilized egg inside her? While the overwhelming majority of Americans would say of course the woman’s life should be saved, here is what Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Religious Right had to say about such situations:  “I believe that if you have to choose between new life and existing life, you should choose new life. The person who has had an opportunity to live at least has been given that gift by God and should make way for new life on earth.”

So this is the situation American women face as we head into the November 2012 election: the Republican presidential candidate has, in his career, been all over the place with respect to abortion, but currently, at best, would allow abortion only in very limited cases; his vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, doesn’t even approve of those limited exceptions; the current Republican Congress is on record saying its OK to let pregnant women die in hospital corridors and be refused life-saving care.

Fadiman’s “Choice at Risk” project provides a constellation of easily shared short media bites, all of which bring this possible future into focus.

If women, and the men who care about them, don’t want Mitt Romney picking the next Supreme Court Justices, or Paul Ryan being one heartbeat away from the presidency, or a House and Senate controlled by fanatics deciding on public policy, there is only one way to prevent all this: Vote.


Dorothy Fadiman has been producing award-winning documentary media with an emphasis on human rights and social justice since 1976. Honors include an Oscar nomination and an Emmy. Subjects range widely from threats to fair elections to progressive approaches in education to a woman’s remarkable healing from a spinal cord injury.

She is the author of PRODUCING with PASSION: Making Films that Heal the World. Films related to women’s reproductive rights include: 

  • CHOICE: Then and Now: From the Back-Alleys to the Supreme Court & Beyond
  • WOMAN by WOMAN: New Hope for the Villages of India and
  • FROM RISK to ACTION: Women and HIV/AIDS In Ethiopia.


Carole Joffe, PhD, is a professor at the UCSF Bixby Center’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) Program and a professor of sociology emerita at the University of California, Davis.  Her research focuses on the social dimensions of reproductive health, with a particular interest in abortion provision. In January 2010, Dr. Joffe’s book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us, was published by Beacon Press. In 2010, Dr. Joffe received the Irwin Cusher Lectureship by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals.  In 2006, Dr. Joffe was awarded the Public Service Award by the Academic Senate of the University of California, Davis.


  1. Aletha on October 10, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Of course our reproductive future could be worse than the past, but how likely is that scenario described above, really? The Obama campaign ran an ad back in July that claimed,

    Romney backed a bill that outlaws all abortion, even in case of rape and incest.

    The Tampa Bay Times Truth-O-Meterranked that claim Pants on Fire, because the Obama campaign could not cite any convincing evidence. The language in the Republican platform has not changed. Neither has the likelihood that any constitutional amendment Republicans may propose will contain exceptions, as all recent examples of such amendments have. Carole Joffe and Randi Rhodes, but tellingly, neither NARAL nor the Obama campaign, have taken this scare tactic to the extreme, implying that any woman who needs an abortion to save her life will be condemned to die.

    Romney has been all over the map on abortion, so there is no telling where he really stands, but exaggerating the threat posed by Republicans is such a stale tactic of the Democrats. The truth might be more effective. I say might, because truth be told, both candidates pose threats to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of everyone. The threats each poses are different, but real nonetheless. Or perhaps because Democrats sound better on some issues important to women, it should not matter that Obama is presiding over a budding police state with a rapidly degrading environment and food surfeited with poisons, right down to the DNA? What do you think that is doing to our reproductive future? His pretensions of caring about consumer safety and environmental quality are a sick joke. Romney may well be even worse, but it seems a foregone conclusion that in general, our future will be worse than our past, regardless of who wins.

  2. Politicalguineapig on October 18, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    The problem isn’t Romney, it’s Ryan. Do you seriously believe that Romney will stand up to Ryan and his cronies on abortion? Yeaaaaaah. Hope you’re okay with having a rape baby- are you cool with incest as well? Also, notice the concience clause will likely be revived. Do you really trust your ob/gyn to save your life?
    Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, punching out my uterus.

  3. Aletha on October 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Was that addressed to me? This illustrates why I get so disgusted with the way Democrats manipulate women. Republicans have become more extreme over the years, but I doubt they are about to risk antagonizing virtually all the women who support their party. The Human Life constitutional amendments they have proposed have included exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Removing any of these exceptions would cost them dearly, and they know it, because even most women who vehemently oppose abortion do not think women should be forced to bear the child of a monster. Romney is relatively moderate, as modern Republicans go; that is why he got attacked in the primary battle as not conservative enough. He certainly is a threat to women’s rights, but exaggerating that threat just plays into his hands, because women on the fence are likely to realize the threat is exaggerated, and therefore wonder why they should believe the Obama campaign about anything. In politics, credibility is everything.

    Regardless, I think you totally missed my point, which is that women should not trust either party. Your insinuations are insulting and silly. If I could not trust my ob/gyn to save my life, I would find another doctor.

  4. Gloria Feldt on October 20, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    The problem with Aletha’s formula of not trusting either party is that one is clearly worse than the other for women, and for the nation as a whole. No politician is ever squeaky clean. Because they are all human. We’re always having to make decisions from less than perfect options. The real problem is that women have not done a good enough job of holding their feet to the fire both before and after they are elected. It’s our job as advocates to make it impossible for them not to do the right thing.

  5. Aletha on October 22, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Gloria, that is all very fine, though I think you have a gift for euphemistic understatement. I do not think the problem with politicians is that they are less than perfect, squeaky clean, or human; the problem is that they are bought, sold out, working to serve their big campaign donors instead of the people. From my perspective, the problem with your formula is that the politicians are having no problem ignoring the pressures from feminist advocates, so it does not work. That may be because mainstream feminists, while occasionally mildly critical of Democrats, are so terrified of the obvious alternative that they allow Democrats to walk all over them and say Democrats are 100% in their corner. No, effectively, mainstream feminists are 100% in the Democratic corner, and where has that gotten women? Meaningless seats at the table, as I see it, and apparently Democratic strategists see it likewise.

    Meanwhile the Obama campaign is running advertisements attempting to prove that Romney does not mean what he says when he claims to support exemptions from a ban on abortions. This is a desperation tactic and I predict it will backfire. When someone has been all over the map like Romney on this issue, nobody can know what he really believes. It was expected that Romney would try to play the arch conservative during the primary and then tack back toward the center. Obama used a similar strategy last time, portraying himself as the outsider peace candidate to win the primary, then tacking back toward the center. This is politics as usual, and all the while it seems to get steadily more difficult for poor women, at least, to obtain abortions, no matter who is in power. I am working for a feminist revolution, and think it is far more likely to happen with a Republican in the White House. This is the ancient dilemma of feminists, and of all revolutionary movements; which is worse, the blatant enemy, or the enemy who pretends to be a friend? This race was Obama’s to lose, and it would not surprise me if it works out he has found a way to lose it, ironically by squandering the gender gap.

  6. Aletha on October 22, 2012 at 2:46 am

    I phrased my second sentence clumsily. I meant to acknowledge politicians are human, so cannot be expected to be perfect or squeaky clean, but I believe the problems we are facing have precious little to do with that. I think you would agree with that. Where we differ is what should women do about it.

  7. Politicalguineapig on October 25, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Aletha: I think you missed the part where Ryan and his cronies tried to redefine rape down to the point where it’d cover as few actual rape cases as possible. Aside from that, lots of women don’t bother trying to press charges in rape cases, since the victim ends up on trial more often then not. I doubt a lot of women are going to bother going the legal route if they have to jump through a lot of hoops and have their reputation shredded.
    Unlike you, I’d prefer a little bit of progress to rapid regression. Good luck with your ‘feminist revolution,’ airmonger.

  8. Aletha on October 26, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Politicalguineapig, do you honestly think I am unaware of all that? Or are you running so scared you refuse to acknowledge my point?

    Airmonger, huh? I see rapid regression regardless of who is elected, different in degree and in which particular areas, but regression nevertheless. Perhaps that is because I am an ecofeminist, and I hear a President sounding like an oil company commercial. Or does the Hyde Amendment not matter to you? That mainstream feminist groups are all over themselves to endorse Obama despite how he sold women out to pass his health bill makes me wonder if the old charge that mainstream feminism is a movement of white middle class women is really true. They can afford to pay for an abortion, so the Hyde Amendment perhaps is not a deal-breaker for them.

  9. Aletha on October 26, 2012 at 1:57 am

    By the way, Ryan and his cronies were not attempting to redefine rape. They want to use the same definition of rape the FBI has used since the 1920s, which was finally expanded only this year.

  10. Politicalguineapig on October 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    The Hyde amendment was in place before Obama was elected. I dislike how that battle played out, but it wasn’t one he could win. I suspect the Hyde amendment will be repealed in a few decades; we just have to wait for the conservative Christians to die out.
    And once they’d gotten rape defined down to a 1920s level, where would they have stopped? Hmm? As several Republicans have made clear this year, they don’t really believe that rape or incest exist. You want those guys anywhere near power?

  11. Aletha on October 31, 2012 at 2:00 am

    Same old excuse, Obama had to do what he did because he had to make some kind of deal with those nasty Republicans, not to mention those nasty anti-abortion Democrats. The Hyde Amendment was first passed in 1976. Democrats never did anything about it when they did have a chance. Now NARAL says there are only 40 reliably pro-choice Senators. Perhaps a couple of those are Republicans. The Democratic leadership does not choose whom to support based on who supports the right to abortion; that is a low priority issue for them. The Freedom of Choice Act was a top priority for Obama the candidate, so he promised, but after he was elected, it dropped off his agenda. Why should women trust Democrats? That the alternative is worse is fearmongering, not a reason to trust. Republicans already have so much power because Democrats have no principles and are all too willing to make deals with them! No? Why do you think Republicans have so much power? Why do they have any power? What do you think triangulation means, and why do Democrats think it is a smart strategy? If Democrats could be trusted to stand up for the principles they espouse, Republicans would become a dismal footnote of history! Instead, it seems more likely that fate awaits the kinder, gentler corporate lackeys called Democrats!

    I suspect you are baiting me for the fun of it. There are plenty of Democrats and leftists who believe in the forcible rape definition the FBI finally was forced to abandon this year. I think a hell of a lot of men, of all political persuasions, were perfectly happy with that definition. Have stone-age Republicans been in control of the FBI since the 1920s? Who, specifically, do you think has made clear he does not really believe rape or incest exists? Why would you insinuate I want Republicans in power? I want all the bums thrown out. It would happen, if people believed it was possible, but the power of mainstream mythmaking keeps people believing they must settle for the lesser of two evils.

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