Conservative America’s Dangerous War on Abortion

Michael Odenthal


In June of this year, the nation’s cineplexes were gifted with Obvious Child, a film from first-time feature director Gillian Robespierre. Obvious Child is an almost objectively delightful romantic comedy that follows struggling comedian Donna Stern (played by the definitely objectively wonderful Jenny Slate) as she gets dumped by her long-term boyfriend, learns that her day job will soon vanish into the ether, becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night stand, decides to have the fetus aborted, begins to fall for the aforementioned hook-up and generally starts to find her voice and sort out her life. The abortion around which much of the film revolves (and has been talked about at length in reviews and various think-pieces elsewhere) is handled very straightforwardly. Donna has sex around 26 minutes into the film, finds out that she’s pregnant at the half-hour mark, and both commits to and doubles down on having an abortion by minute 36. Neither hemming nor hawing is involved.


Donna’s experience may seem highly relatable to young women in blue states or urban areas in 2014. There’s actually a moment in the film wherein Donna confesses her pregnancy and chosen solution to her mother, and is surprised when her mother reacts with empathy and even relief. As the film proceeds to lay out, Donna’s mother had an abortion herself when she was in college during the 1960s, a procedure that was illegal in her home state of New York at the time, requiring her to travel to New Jersey. The whole endeavor is rightfully presented in an antiquated fashion, an ordeal stemming from the under-evolved mindset of a bygone era. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that, in many areas of this great nation, there’s a concerted push by elected officials – many of whom are, to the surprise of no one, older, white males – to turn back the dial on both abortion and contraceptives to a similarly antiquated way of thinking. In many states, the attitude toward these seemingly obviously necessary solutions to a very real problem is best summarized by a line from Nellie, Donna’s best friend in the film (who had also undertaken an abortion years earlier), as portrayed by Gaby Hoffman:

“We already live in a patriarchal society where a bunch of weird old white men in robes get to legislate our c***s.”


Take Pennsylvania for example, where, on September 12th, a mother began to serve her 9-to-18 month jail sentence for ordering pills online for her then-16-year-old daughter, in an effort to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. The drugs that she purchased are available from doctors across the United States with a valid prescription, according to a piece by Emily Bazelon that ran in The New York Times Magazine on September 22nd.


The woman in question, Ms. Jennifer Whalen, 39, of Washingtonville, Pa., is a mother of three children, two of whom still live at home with her husband while she is in prison. Her daughter had told her of the pregnancy in late 2012. Then in high school, Whalen’s daughter said that she’d taken a few days to consider things, and, as she felt she could not have nor care for a baby at that time, asked for her mother’s help in finding a clinic. They looked online, learning that the closest clinic was around 75 miles away, and that the state requires mandatory counseling followed by a 24-hour wait before receiving the procedure, which can cost between $300 and $600 in the first trimester. This would have required Whalen, who works as an aide in an assisted-living center, to either make several trips or to stay away from home overnight, a huge burden on the family from a financial standpoint, and from the fact that Whalen and her husband share a single car to get to and from work. So, after reading all literature available and confirming that the pills that she had selected were as safe as could be obtained online, and were in fact the same ones a doctor would use, she ordered them for her daughter, without any knowledge that her actions were illegal.


The daughter had a miscarriage, as the pills were intended to induce, but, worried about bleeding, Whalen and her daughter went to the hospital and honestly (and, in hindsight, unnecessarily) confessed as to where they had acquired the pills, for which a hospital administrator reached out to child protective services. Several days later, she was contacted by law enforcement, and was brought up on felony charges in December of last year. She currently sits within the confines of the penitentiary system because her home state failed to provide her with reasonable options to care for her daughter, causing her to take matters into her own hands.


Crazily enough, Pennsylvania seems like a liberal bastion compared to Alabama, where a minor cannot receive an abortion without obtaining parental consent unless a judge specifically allows the victim to bypass this requirement. A judge may do so in extenuating circumstances, such as, as Mark Joseph Stern points out in a Slate article from October 3rd, if it was a parent that raped and impregnated the victim. And that is by no means the end of it, as state legislatures are currently pursuing a severe new law that allows a judge to appoint a lawyer to represent a minor’s fetus, to have the district attorney question the minor in court, and to have the DA call witnesses in effort to discredit the minor and advocate for said fetus.



Someone who knows what all of those words mean separately may have trouble comprehending them all together in a manner that seems Scopes Monkey Trial bananas, but this is where Alabama is now. It’s an unenviable feat for a young woman – especially a minor, roughly a decade younger than Obvious Child’s Donna – to confess to an unwanted pregnancy. Deciding on an abortion, and then going through with the procedure, involves exponentially more hurdles, which Alabama seems more than eager to add onto, in the form of professional litigators who are using degrees from accredited universities to argue on behalf of a flesh pouch. And while this law will hopefully be shot down by the Supreme Court before it can contribute to some horrible dystopian reality, the fact that it’s even part of the conversation on the cusp of 2015 is dizzying.


These tales out of Pennsylvania and Alabama are but two of the most heinous examples in recent months of conservative lawmakers making whatever the opposite of inroads is (outroads?) on abortion and contraception. The reality is that this epidemic affects much of red-state America. Examples are legion, but to offer a few:


  • From Molly Redden in Mother Jones on December 17th: “A Missouri Republican is pushing a bill that would allow a man who gets a woman pregnant to stop her from having an abortion. The measure would force a woman who wants an abortion to obtain written permission from the father first – unless she was the victim of ‘legitimate rape.’” There’s an incest exception written into the bill as well, lest one think that women’s rights were not being fairly represented in this horror show. And one more fun fact about Missouri to grow on: the state is home to but a single abortion clinic, in St. Louis, a one-stop hub of urban convenience.


  • From Anna Merlan in Jezebel on November 4th: “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has temporarily blocked two laws designed to restrict access to abortion. The first would require abortion clinics to have a doctor on staff with admission privileges at a local hospital, while the second would ban medication abortions after 49 days of pregnancy and required physicians to comply with an outdated protocol for using abortion-inducing drugs.” While the lede here is that the state Supreme Court is not having these laws, anyone who follows local legislation knows that the proponents of these bills will continue jamming versions of them down the court’s proverbial throat until some permutation is passed to their liking. That, or until the national dialogue has shifted to the point where these bills are no longer a viable political move.



  • Finally, this piece by Tara Culp-Ressler from ThinkProgress on December 16th cites a Guttmacher Institute policy analysis that illustrates how “leading anti-abortion groups are working hard to cast certain birth control methods as a form of abortion,” including the morning-after pill and the intrauterine device, despite all of the science that currently exists arguing otherwise. As Culp-Ressler points out in the article, this line of argument was the basis for the infamous Hobby Lobby case that recently went before the Supreme Court, the reverberations of which are still being felt.


So, while a lovely independent comedy wherein the three leading female characters have all undergone abortions can do very well with audiences and critics alike, this is still not a conversation that most of America is willing to have. Progressive minds may hope that the Obvious Childs of the world act as a signifier that abortion is becoming less of a hot-button issue, and has been embraced as an inexorable concept ingrained into our society - yet one that can be mitigated via convenient access to safe contraception and increased and comprehensive sex education in our schools.


However, the instances above illuminate the fact that most of the country is equally tired of hand-wringing over abortion, save that, given its druthers, abortion wouldn’t be talked about because it wouldn’t exist. So before putting the finishing touches on that New Year’s Resolution list, consider adding ‘voting Bible-thumping old men with draconian takes on reproductive rights out of office,’ because their bases are united and motivated to continue on this backwards path unless they’re actively silenced using sound logic and science. A lofty goal, to be sure, but isn’t that what the why we regularly look hopefully upon a new year?


Author Bio:
Michael Odenthal is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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World Can't Wait (Flickr); Wikipedia Commons
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