from Talk to Action
While the Bible that many South Dakotans are substituting for the Constitution these days maintains that "her price is far above rubies," those same people have decreed that the worth of any woman, no matter how virtuous, plummets at "that point in time when a male human sperm penetrates the zona pellucida of a female human ovum." From that moment forward, not only her body, her hopes and her dreams, but sometimes -- despite the hollow promise of a tacked-on provision allowing "a medical procedure designed or intended to prevent the death of a pregnant mother" â€“ even her very life can be forfeit.
Directing the lives of women who are in the family way seems to be very much a family affair in Pierre.
Sylvia Rhoden of Union Center, a sister-in-law of Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, the chairman of the [State Affairs] committee, said her life was turned upside down when she had an abortion more than 20 years ago.
"I had grace and I had mercy that were just there when I realized what I had done, when I had taken the life from my womb and I had destroyed it, and that I had taken the hand of God and I had stopped him from fashioning what was inside," she said.
So that's what a woman does when she has an abortion. She tells God to keep his hands to himself, a sacrilegious impertinence that no virtuous woman could imagine.
However, blame for the South Dakota ban cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Republicans of a somewhat deranged religiosity. Its main sponsor was Democratic Senator Julie Bartling, and no one has fought this abomination with more character and determination than Republican Senator Stan Adelstein of Rapid City.
Sen. Adelstein strongly disagrees with the portion of the bill's text stating that life begins at conception, maintaining that it is inconsistent with Judaism. Adelstein, chairman of his synagogue in the Black Hills, stands on the principle that state law should not be fashioned from any one group's religious beliefs.
When the senate rejected proposed exceptions to the near-total ban for women whose health was threatened by pregnancy, or for those who became pregnant through rape or incest, Senator Adelstein stated his belief that it would be a "a continued savagery unworthy of South Dakota" to compel a woman to remain pregnant and bear a child conceived as a result of rape.
But the unworthy savages in South Dakota have Stan Adelstein and his friends outnumbered, and "life of the mother" is the sole exception to be allowed. Despite the lurid and now notorious fantasies of Sen. Bill Napoli, a woman doesn't have to be a religious virgin "brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it" in order to be imperiled by pregnancy. As grievous as insults to piety and virginity might be, there are other ways in which pregnancy can place a woman in danger, and not all of them are even medical.
The term "virtuous" is from a noun meaning strength, efficiency, ability. Virtue refers to strength of character as well as moral firmness or chastity, so that "Who can find a virtuous woman?" can be translated literally as "Who can find a woman of strength?"
How virtuous are these three women, how strong, and what is their worth?
"She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms."
Amber is only 20 years old, but she already has four children, the first born when she was only 13. Her husband is more than ten years older. Keeping Amber pregnant and busy with childcare keeps her in the house -- HIS house. And of course he's free with the fists. Amber went to a battered women's shelter a few months ago, but said, "I just couldn't live there." A condition of staying at the shelter was that she look for a job, which Amber was eager to do. But there was no available childcare, so she had to job hunt with all four kids in tow ... on the bus. With no family or friends to help her, Amber went back to her husband's house.
Still looking for way out, she began classes to get her GED. She's living on the hope that with a high school equivalency she can get a decent job and be able to take care of her children by herself. Amber told me her story on the phone, and when she said that she was taking GED classes, out of the blue I heard myself say, "And now he's having dreams that this time, you're really going to leave him." She immediately responded with, "Yes, how did you know? He had a dream like that, and he woke up and just started hitting me."
Amber has no money of her own, of course. Men like her husband hold as an article of faith that a woman can't get far away on foot. So while South Dakota anti-choice activist Leslee Unruh thanks God for their abortion ban, I thank God for the two Texas funding groups that reached out to help Amber keep her hopes for herself and her children alive: the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund. Bible-governing legislators and career anti-choice operatives might not believe that having an abortion saved Amber's life, but she does.
"Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all."
Pearl is 19 year old and comes from the Piney Woods of deep East Texas. Pearl's mother was so horribly abused by Pearl's stepfather that after almost 10 years of routine and near-ritualistic rape and battering, one night she finally broke down and killed him. I remarked to Pearl that it was remarkable that her mom had received probation when she was convicted, since women so often are given stiffer sentences than men for killing a spouse. Pearl told me that her mother's sentence was probated because the abuse she endured was so horrific and unending that even her husband's friends testified for her in court.
As a child, Pearl took her share of beatings from her stepfather, too. And years later, as often happens to young women who grow up knowing nothing except abuse, Pearl found herself involved with a man much like him. After he discovered that she was pregnant, on a Monday her boyfriend would say, "I'm glad we're going to be a family," and on a Tuesday he would growl, "If you know what's good for you, you'd better get an abortion."
Pearl was confused about what to do right up until the night he threw her down a full flight of stairs. When she packed up to go to her mother's house, he threatened to kill her mother and the rest of her family. That was Pearl's epiphany, the moment she realized that she was well on her way to living the same life that her own mother had had to kill to escape from -- and that the only way she could see to be a loving mother was not to give any child of hers this brutal man for a father.
"She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness."
Jade is a very young woman who came to the clinic with her mother. She arrived in fear and in pain. The doctor's ultrasound examination discovered what he at once suspected to be an early, extremely rare and difficult to diagnose condition known as heterotopic pregnancy â€“ a double gestation with one normally implanted intrauterine sac and another implanted in a location outside the uterus. In some other clinic on some other day Jade 's condition might have gone undetected. A perfectly competent physician could have completed her abortion procedure, thought everything was fine, and unknowingly sent her home with a time bomb ticking away in her belly.
And if most clinics in less restrictive states had diagnosed or even suspected such a condition, a doctor could have sent Jade straight to the nearest ER. Our own doctor would have liked to have that option. But here in Texas -- because of both our draconian antiabortion policies and the reluctance of the medical establishment to challenge the "religious" anti-choice lobby â€“ almost any hospital would deny her the level of treatment she deserved to have. When an ectopic pregnancy is discovered in time, before a rupture of the Fallopian tube occurs, nonsurgical treatment with methotrexate often saves a woman from the risk of possibly massive internal bleeding resulting from a rupture, and usually also saves her Fallopian tube and her ovary, therefore helping to preserve her future fertility. Treatment with methotrexate also reduces the risk of future ectopic pregnancies. But since methotrexate would also terminate the embryo in her uterus, there are few hospitals in the state that would provide that option to Jade.
Our doctor called the hospital with which our clinic has an admission agreement, and verified that their policy indeed would deny Jade nonsurgical treatment. Since surgical treatment also posed some risk to the viable embryo, the hospital was less than enthusiastic about proceeding with that option, either, but it was all that they were willing to offer. In order to make sure that Jade would receive adequate treatment at the hospital, our doctor performed an aspiration abortion of the normally implanted pregnancy under Doppler ultrasound. I faxed her surgical record and several pre and post-operative sonograms to a doctor at the hospital. Then I gave Jade her own copy of the records, drew a map to the hospital and walked her and her mother out to their car. Only when she no longer qualified for an abortion to "save the life of the mother" did Jade become eligible to receive optimal treatment for a life-threatening and nonviable ectopic pregnancy.
Even though she had every right to be angry about having to undergo one surgery in order to avoid another, more invasive procedure, all Jade said was "Thank you." But what would have happened to her if she were living under the religious regime now being imposed in South Dakota?
Bill Napoli didn't consider the worth of women like Amber, Pearl and Jade when he was detailing exceptions to the law for the brutal rape, sodomizing and impregnating of religious virgins. When abortion becomes a crime again, what happens to real flesh and blood women who live outside such fantasies? What price will they pay for our failure to demand that their lives be valued as more than merely semi-precious?
For every one of them, each in her way, is a virtuous woman.
"Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come."
[Title Image: The Virtuous Woman by Edward Burne-Jones from Victoria Art Gallery]