Dealing with the Tragedy and Trauma of Loss in a Reproductive Justice Context

25 Feb

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.

5 Responses to “Dealing with the Tragedy and Trauma of Loss in a Reproductive Justice Context”

  1. anonymous February 25, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi Pot. My name is Kettle. Two words for you – Savita Halappanavar. Pro abortion blogs, web-sites, and the misinformed all jumped on this, drawing erroneous conclusions, spewing vitriol and hate in the direction of pro lifers, and gratuitously capitalizing on the death of this poor woman, even though it has been concluded that she died of septicemia, and an abortion would NOT have saved her life. Even the reporter who broke the story is backed off the feedingfrenzy –
    saying the paper never suggested that an abortion would save her life. Please. Drop the sanctimony. There’s enough hypocrisy on both sides of the issue to sink a battleship.

  2. Kaitlyn February 26, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Hi Kettle, nice to meet you! I’m Kaitlyn.

    Thanks for raising this issue. When the woman whose case I reference here passed away, we had an internal discussion about this very thing: the politicization of Savita Halappanavar tragic death. In fundamentally important ways, although it’s easy to compare the two – a woman died, abortion was involved or not involved, the incident was widely pointed to by people with a belief system – these two cases are very, very different. In Savita’s case, her family came forward and said that her death was caused by the hospital’s failure to put her health and safety ahead of the politics of abortion. They supported this claim by repeating what they had been told by doctors. They have called for new pro-choice laws to be passed in her name. And the reproductive justice community has taken up the family’s cause and supported them. In the case of the woman in Maryland, her family’s wishes remain unknown. Her and her family’s privacy was invaded and medical information was illegally released to the public by anti-choice activists, who then did whatever they wanted with the information they had.

    In your accusations of hypocrisy, you are quite wrong. The fed-up-with-it-all, everyone-is-equally-at-fault mentality is exactly what is sinking political coverage in our media. “Everyone is annoying me so everyone is equally at fault.” Pro-choice activists specifically insist that the wishes of the mother, and her life and health, should be paramount. Anti-choice activists insist that the fetus should be the priority. So for pro-choice activists to say, “Hey, a woman died because, according to her family, she didn’t receive the medical care she asked for. That’s really bad and we should change that.” is very in keeping with our fundamental values and consistent with our messaging. For anti-choice activists to insist that a woman’s life and health should be less of a concern than the life and health of a fetus and then claim that WOMEN MIGHT DIE FROM THEM is a reason abortions should be illegal is, in fact, hypocrisy. Women are more likely to die in childbirth; if women’s lives are the priority, they should want access to abortions as much as we do.

    Here’s what I ultimately concluded, though: when it comes down to it, I don’t know if it matters. I don’t know if it matters if “what we’re doing” or “what they’re doing” is “different” or the same. I think there’s a trap set there. We’re not opposite sides of the same conversation – and that is where we fundamentally disagree. Two-sides-of-the-same-conversation – the conversation being, “Is abortion right or wrong?” – is the anti-choice argument. That is not our argument. Our argument is that all people, everywhere, ultimately need and deserve education, awareness of, and access to every reproductive option available, so that, in whatever reproductive challenge they face – wanting to have a child, wanting to prevent pregnancy, wanting to terminate pregnancy, etc – they and their doctor can decide, together, without judgment and with every option at their disposal, how they should proceed.

    Those are very different overarching arguments and long-term goals. If both sides occasionally end up using the same kinds of messaging, or exploiting tragedy, it isn’t about “us” or “them,” because reproductive justice and anti-choice are not two sides of the same coin.

  3. S.L February 26, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Anonymous, you’re full of it. Savita’s pregnancy was the cause of her septicemia, and it has NOT been “proven” that abortion would have had no effect. Even if it hadn’t, Savita is not the only woman who has died from being denied an abortion.

    Seriously, who let anonymous post their comment?

  4. Kaitlyn February 27, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Hey S.L, thanks for the comment, the support, and the clarification! While the act of commenting as “anonymous” is cowardly and lays some pretty clear groundwork for what kind of “discussion” the commenter wants to have, we maintain a pretty open policy on commenting. Responding is at the discretion of the poster, so I try to come prepared to engage with comments like these, which fall under the “rudely phrased but not actually fundamentally wrong in some of their accusations/assertions” category. They can provide good opportunities to clarify and expand on some points, and I hope give the community some more to think about.

    Thanks so much!

  5. S.L February 27, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

    Thanks for the reply, Kaitlin. I can stomach the usual anti drivel, but I am fed up with antis using women like Savita and Jennifer (the woman from the Germantown clinic discussed here). Bunch of vultures…

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