Janet Howell Stands For Choice: A Love Story

I received a lifesaving abortion from a team of highly professional, skilled, and compassionate health care providers. Everyone, everywhere, should have access to the level of care I had at all times and in all situations, no questions asked.
Publish date:
January 31, 2012
bodies are not political footballs, politics, reproductive health, abortion, pro-choice

I know politics is Sara’s beat1, but I’m infringing on her territory, because this is a story too excellent to pass up.

Folks, I’d like you to meet Virginia Senator Janet Howell.

Janet’s a pretty awesome lady. She’s fought hard for some victories for Virginia’s LGBQT community, she favors keeping private medical decisions private, and she’s pushed for things like better insurance coverage for people with autism and more civil rights protections for voters. She’s the kind of Democratic candidate I tend to like, even if, like all of us, she is not 100 percent perfect.

But then, she got even better.

On Monday, the Virginia Senate voted on a proposal to mandate ultrasounds before abortions, part of a sweeping array of anti-choice legislation happening across the United States. Numerous states enacted various restrictions on access to abortion last year, and it looks like that battle is going to heat up in 2012.

Now, she could have just voted nay. But that wasn’t enough.

Instead, she tried to add an amendment to the bill in the interest of gender equality:

Prior to prescribing medication for erectile dysfunction, a physician shall perform a digital rectal examination and a cardiac stress test. Informed consent for these procedures shall be given at least 24 hours before the procedures are performed.

Her proposal failed, which isn’t too surprising, but the margin was quite narrow, 19-21. Her point was made, and she was the toast of news services (and my Twitter stream) that night.

This quiet act of rebellion wasn’t just a comment on the bill and how terrible it is. It was also a comment on the larger trend of anti-choice legislation in the United States, which threatens access not just to abortion, but also more generally to reproductive health services.

People may have been joking about the idea of requiring invasive testing and a waiting period for Viagra on Twitter, but it’s equivalent to what people face to get abortions in many states, as many of us know. And the widespread war on reproductive rights also adds fuel to the fires of anti-choice demonstrators, who enjoy turning things like a routine trip to get birth control into a gauntlet.

Almost 40 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the right to privacy and indicated that this right extended to abortion services. As a result, medical complications related to unsafe abortions rapidly plummeted, because women were able to access safe, compassionate medical care in settings with professionals who could intervene quickly if problems were detected. That was a major victory for public health and reproductive rights. High five, Supreme Court!

Now, the worldwide rate of unsafe abortions is increasing, and laws exactly like the one Virginia is attempting to pass are part of the problem. The more hoops required, the harder it is to obtain an abortion; 24-hour waiting periods require two trips to the doctor, for example, which can be difficult if you don’t have transportation or need to take time off from work to get an abortion. Mandatory notification laws, meanwhile, are tough on minors with conservative parents, and those who are pregnant because they're being raped by their parents.

Invasive testing can be expensive, a concern for many patients without insurance who know they will be paying out of pocket for their reproductive health needs. It’s also traumatic; many people are apparently not aware that transvaginal ultrasounds are used at the stage of pregnancy when abortion most commonly occurs, and if you’re a survivor of rape, molestation or sexual assault, one of the last things you probably want is someone conducting a transvaginal ultrasound.

And, in some states, your health care provider may be forced to describe the stage of fetal development and point out key features on the ultrasound screen.

Just to make sure you know the government thinks you're a dirty baby-killing slut.

Senator Howell took a stand for what she thinks is right, highlighting the absurdity of requiring costly testing and waiting periods to access routine medical care. People might say it’s ludicrous for the state to interfere in the practice of medicine by requiring a digital rectal exam before a Viagra® prescription, and it would be. It’s also ludicrous for the state to interfere with the practice of medicine by requiring abortion providers to torment their patients before performing procedures, which it is doing right now.

Many people are predicting that this is going to be a key year in terms of reproductive rights and access to abortion, and rightly so. Emboldened by successful legislation in a number of states, a growing number of anti-choice groups are lobbying hard to get more restrictive measures on ballots and in statehouses. Anti-choice demonstrators are following suit, ramping up the rhetoric, the protests and the threats.

Reproductive health care is a dangerous profession, and it’s growing a lot more dangerous over time, as the rise in attempted clinic bombings, hate lists of abortion providers and threats indicates. 40 years after Roe v. Wade, not everyone can access a safe abortion in the United States.

And that is a serious problem.

Which means that we need to fight back, and fight back hard, to protect access to abortion services, and other reproductive health needs, for everyone. Senator Howell is part of that fight, and she's come out swinging.

We need to protect abortion access for our generation, for the next generation, for the generation after that. 80 years after Roe v Wade, abortion should be widely and safely accessible for everyone. The same should hold true 120 years later.

I’m alive today because I received a lifesaving abortion from a team of highly professional, skilled and compassionate health care providers. Everyone, everywhere, should have access to the level of care I had at all times and in all situations, no questions asked, no unwanted medical procedures as part of the package. I salute Senator Howell for taking a stand for her constituents.

1. Sorry, Sara. We can duke it out in a pie fight sometime if you want. Return