Pro Life Pro Choice

Credit: benuski on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)– It was a typical setting for a July 4th barbeque at an East Hampton, Long Island home.

Hot dogs on the grill, children splashing in the pool, dogs running along the beach below and the hostess discussing the opening of her new abortion clinic.

Well, perhaps the latter was really not that common at all, particularly when seated amongst East Hampton affluence. But this was exactly the type of discussion one would expect at the home of Merle Hoffman, a long-time advocate for the reproductive rights of women.

Having opened her first abortion clinic in New York City at the age of 25, today, 40 years later, Hoffman has found it necessary to open a more expansive center to handle the "down-south surge" of patients arriving from states that are adopting more restrictive abortion laws.

"Our country is now being divided into slave states and free states for women," Hoffman says.

It was fitting that the question of women’s enslavement was being discussed on the date our country was celebrating its independence.

While many women may have been enjoying the holiday, far too many are still unaware of how our freedoms are slowly being taken away by the same Republican officials we helped to elect.

If the current Republican presidential ticket has its way in November, many women’s rights, including our right to abortion may, in fact, become extinct. As approved by the GOP at the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, the party is calling for a constitutional ban on abortions based upon platform language that leaves little room for exceptions. The plank actually states that "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."

The Republican platform committee also approved language opposing drugs like RU-486, which can terminate pregnancies. Mary Summa, a delegate from North Carolina, introduced a plank calling on the Food and Drug Administration not to approve such drugs.

Turning Back the Clock

If anyone doubts how the criminalization of abortion would hurt women and society as a whole, one need only turn back the clock to a time before abortion was legalized, as Hoffman recounts in her recently published memoir, "Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom."

Recalling the threats she encountered from anti-choice groups, after opening Choices Women’s Medical Center in Long Island City, N.Y., in 1971, two full years before Roe v. Wade, Hoffman writes how "abortion previously had a particular place in hell . . . the word was whispered . . . the act relegated to back alleys . . . performed by hacks posing as doctors . . . and whether the procedure ended successfully or in tragedy, illegal abortion was kept in the shadows."

Her book also takes on a more personal tone as she describes in delicate detail how the center’s patients exhibited "anxiety levels that matched their relief and dread."

"Choice is sometimes not a choice at all," Hoffman says. "It is an outcome determined by the economic, physical, sociological and political factors that surround women and move them toward the only action that allows them to survive at this point in their lives."

And this is what those on both sides of the abortion debate need to address. Rather than debating a woman’s right to abort, they should be questioning why our society compels a woman to abort.

For Hoffman, the answer is quite clear. "Our society is pro-natal only for the nine months of pregnancy, and then it stops." After a baby is born, Hoffman says, the mother is left completely on her own to care for her child, regardless of her situation.

‘On Her Own’

And being "on her own" too often translates into no paid maternity leave. The United States is one of only three nations–out of 178–that does not offer paid maternity leave benefits.

It also translates into no federally-funded child care. The average annual cost of private, center-based daycare in the U.S. is a staggering $11,666, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

It also translates into no universal health insurance. The increasing cost of health insurance is depriving approximately 9 million children in the United States of coverage.

Our country actually penalizes women for having children. Did you know, for example, that motherhood is the single greatest risk factor for poverty in old age?

Women work an average of six fewer years than the 35-year employment history used in the Social Security benefit calculation, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

These six "zero years"–which are primarily due to a mother’s childrearing responsibilities–are then averaged into her total earnings. That reduces her final retirement benefit at age 65 or over to approximately $12,100 per year, compared to an average of $16,000 for men in the same age group.

All this, combined with additional discriminatory employment practices that include women earning only 77 percent of what men earn (on average), ultimately leads to poor financial prospects for women with children.

"Clearly," Hoffman says, "we need to create a society that is pro-natal long after the baby is born, rather than just before." If not, U.S. women will be increasingly relegated to live both in a country, and in a state, of slavery.

Lori Sokol, is publisher of Work Life Matters magazine and author of "The New Future of Work." She’s also a Women’s eNews board member.

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