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Friday, November 18, 2011

Review of "Life Choices" by Linda Weber

Linda Weber was one of the first abortion counsellors in the United States in the 1970s, a founder of an abortion and women’s health clinic in Boulder, Colorado and has been a psychotherapist and spiritual counsellor for women for almost forty years. Her new book, Life Choices, is the culmination of decades of her thinking about abortion, its relationship to the rest of life and what it has to teach us. In it, she asks her readers to “be open-minded,” and to try to look at abortion with “curiosity and compassion,” which is exactly what she has done here. 

Weber’s work is feminist to the core. It is also holistic, stressing the interconnectedness of all life. She is part sociologist, part historian, part anthropologist, part psychologist and part philosopher as she examines the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual impact of crisis pregnancy in women’s lives. She urges us to reproduce consciously. I appreciate the use of the word “conscious” when it comes to reproduction and everything it implies. While Weber always remembers that humans are part of nature, she also stresses that we are sentient and conscious beings, and able to make choices about the direction of our lives.  Without abortion, conscious reproduction is not possible. As Weber says, “We are not free if we do not have reproductive freedom.” (p. xvii)

In considering the barriers to free choice, Weber offers a combination of old school consciousness raising along with what feels like an introductory Women’s Studies course. She presents a primer on patriarchy. She describes mothering mythologies and how women have learned to subordinate our true desires within patriarchy, referring to feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich and Carol Gilligan, among others. But she also refers to women she has come into contact with in her practice, giving them equal authority. She writes that choice is difficult. We sometimes fall back on our learned subordinate roles and allow others to make choices for us. As women, we sometimes do not know how to make our own decisions based on our own needs or are unaccustomed to making our own decisions. We have learned to be subservient, to place the needs of others before our own, to adopt the values of social institutions like churches and not to think for ourselves. She writes, “It is nothing short of revolutionary for a woman to define her own morality.” (p. 58)

Some women will balk at this description of themselves in patriarchy and refuse to believe they are subject to forces beyond their control. No one likes to be painted as powerless or under the control of forces they don’t consciously understand. I’ve seen women utterly reject this notion in Women’s Studies classes. But if this is your reaction, I urge you to keep reading. Often, we can’t see the box we are in until someone makes us feel the edges of it. Yet, there is no place in this work for seeing women as victims. There is only opportunity for growth. A crisis pregnancy can teach women about their own true desires and to act in their own best interests, to know themselves and to take conscious control of their lives. Whatever choices are made, there is no blame or judgement. Weber writes, “Women make choices within the context of a society that is hostile to our choice making. Pressures come from within and without. We make our choices within the limits of our awareness. We do the best we can.” (p. 39)

Weber speaks of women who have positive experiences with abortion and who feel empowered by this opportunity to make a choice that is best for them. She reminds us that taking care of oneself is not selfish, and I think at this point in women’s social history we cannot be reminded of this frequently enough. She also considers stories of women who struggle with the termination of their pregnancy. Yet, she never falls into the trap of blaming abortion itself for trauma, as many anti-choice people do. She writes, “Women need to be careful not to mimic the culture by using the abortion experience as a convenient dumping ground for feelings about other unresolved aspects of our lives.” (p. 55) Further, she writes, “To find causes for these feelings we must develop a broader, deeper perspective about life as a woman in patriarchal society.” (p. 55)
Weber explains all of this in a tone that mirrors the curiosity and compassion she asks of her readers. Crises involving sex and death bring us face to face with our place in creation. Death is a vital and necessary part of life, yet our culture does not encourage us to think about death. Weber asks us not to shy away from the fact that abortion is a kind of death and to understand that death serves life. She challenges pro-choice people to engage in discussions, even when words like death and killing are used and not to deny that abortion can include feelings of loss and grief.

To do better, we must know better. We must learn. Weber teaches by offering us the stories of women she has counselled and her own experiences. She extends her observations about these stories into an explanation of the social, political, historical and cultural context of our collective lives. In this way, she is able to illustrate how the personal is political. In this approach, you can see her roots in second wave feminism.  Her work is a reminder of how powerful consciousness-raising can be as a tool for change.

Sometimes I wish she delved a little further into the existing research and offered a few more footnotes. For example, she writes, “Scarcity of social support is the most significant contributor to psychological distress and confusion around abortion, especially in relation to morality and spirituality.” (p. 15) I agree, but feel she misses an opportunity here to cite studies and provide the reader with something beyond her (admittedly vast) personal experience that we could use to support this point of view.

The book isn’t linear; she loops back to ideas, repeats them, adds to them. You have to read to the end to see her whole point or you risk categorizing her ideas wrongly. I have to admit that Weber nudges up against places that bother me. But, I kept reading with curiosity, as she advised. She is a bit new-agey for me. I imagine that this part of her thinking, as unappealing as it is to me, will appeal to others. At one point, she questions the importance of championing individual rights. I understand that in her holistic world view, rights can only be understood in relationship, but in the world the way it is now, I think we have to remain vigilant about respecting the rights of individuals. Finally, she calls her perspective “pro-life.” I understand why she does this. Anti-choice people have taken up this moniker when they are really only pro-fetal-life. It is important to make this point. Re-branding is necessary, but I think it would be better to find a new term. Otherwise, as she admits, we risk blurring the lines between those who want to ensure women can make conscious choices about reproduction and those who would do anything to remove those choices.

In another case, she does find the new term we need. She dismisses “family planning” as a descriptor because people are not necessarily planning for families when they seek birth control methods and information. She says what they are doing is “sexual planning,” and she is right. We could all adjust our language here and better describe our work. This is one of many little gems scattered throughout the book and easily missed on too quick a read.
Weber’s final thoughts on how the dynamics of personal and political power will have to change in order for women to safely and peacefully determine what she calls “the flow of life” through pregnancy is inspired and hopeful. Life Choices is a thoughtful and provocative addition to the wider literature on abortion and has the potential to help many women (and men) come to a better understanding of the important place abortion has in our lives.  
This review is part of a blog tour I was asked to participate in by Linda Weber’s publisher, Sentient Publications, who provided me with a review copy. I have not been paid for this review and the views expressed are my own. In fact, I would have blogged about the book anyway (though probably a little less formally) because I think it’s an important addition to the very scant literature on abortion. The next blog on the tour is at Women's Glib on November 19 and the previous blog on the tour was at Anti-choice is Anti-Awesome. Linda Weber will be doing an actual physical tour of the west coast in February. Please consult her website for more details closer to that date.

The Abortion Monologues is available for purchase at www.abortionmonologues.com and available as an e-book on Smashwords. Check it out.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An open letter to Justin Trudeau

Dear Justin,

Forgive my informality; it's just that I feel like I know you. I was a big fan of your father. I watched you grow up, have watched your family's ups and downs, have been saddened by your losses and celebrated your successes from afar.

I am sorry to see you've been having a rough time lately. Jane Taber indicates you can't catch a break, whether it's on the long gun registry or Catholicism or that stickiest of issues, abortion. Although guns aren't really the topic of this particular blog, let me just say for the record that I applaud your stand on the long gun registry. You are absolutely right to take every opportunity available to point out that most women killed by their partners in Canada are killed with guns. Thank you for that.

Now on to matters more typical for this forum. Dean Del Mastro, a Conservative who has been unleashed upon you, says you are not Catholic enough to speak to children at Catholic school, and asks if there is any Catholic teaching you do observe. Who does he think he is? Apparently, he seems to think he speaks for the Church, that he's the Pope's man in Canada, and it's his job to be your Inquisitor. I think not. He's hiding his partisan bullying behind a pulpit, something I personally find intolerable. Call him on it.

Del Masto's comments seem to misunderstand one of the most central tenets of the Catholic faith. In the Church, the individual conscience of each person is recognized as the keystone of moral decision making. As a result, we have the existence of groups like Catholics for Choice. They have no problem with being pro-choice and Catholic, (although clearly Del Mastro wouldn't agree with them) and make compelling arguments in support of their position. If you are unaware of them, I think you should visit their website at www.catholicsforchoice.org. There is a Canadian branch too, but this main one has a more complete website. Have a look at their issues section on abortion, particularly the notes on Canon Law. You will find plenty to add to your arguments and prepare you for further debate.

Further, Del Mastro apparently not only thinks he can speak for the Church, he also thinks he can speak for the school. Can the Catholic school in question not invite anyone they want to speak to their students? Del Mastro implies only Catholics can speak to Catholics, and only certain Catholics at that, Catholics who follow a certain line of Catholic thinking. Would he object to a Presbyterian speaking to the student body or a Muslim? Just wondering. This is a side issue, for sure, but it demonstrates the problem with fracturing public school into various special interests. There is a danger that our children will only have exposure to other children who are like them. This makes it difficult for them to cope in a diverse society, to appreciate other points of views, to be open minded, and to recognize valid approaches to problems and solutions that come from other sources. It means that they reinforce their own ideas over and over creating an endless cycle of homogeneity. Let's not fall into that trap. The children at this school will be fortunate to have such a distinguished guest. You have a good deal to say and could well inspire these young people to go into public service.

I want to remind you too that the current core of Conservatives are a bit too fundamentalist for the liking of most Canadians. Don't get sucked into a contest of who can be more religious. The last thing Canadians need is the kind of pandering to the religious right that has gone on in the United States. We see the results of this all too clearly in the current race for Republican leadership; every issue is filtered through the lens of religion and candidates bend over backwards to prove they are more religious than their opponent. Put religious zealots like Mr. Del Mastro in their place. Remind them Canada is a secular society and you believe every Canadian is entitled to their beliefs, even him.

Finally, I have one small and gentle criticism to make of your remarks through this whole thing. You say you are personally against abortion but pro-choice. Most people understand what that means. But you can leave out the first half of that statement. It is implied in the second half and utterly redundant. In stating the point the way you do, you give a subtle nod to the misconception that being pro-choice is only about ensuring women are able to have abortions if they choose. We pro-choice folk want women to be able to make any reproductive choice they want including having babies. We think women can and should use their individual consciences to make informed and conscious choices about reproduction that are right for them and right for their families.

So keep up the good fight, Justin. Don't be discouraged. If anything, be bolder. Take those bullies on. Don't back down. I'm with you, and I know many others are too.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We are the 7 Billion

There are now, as of this week, 7 Billion humans on the planet.  
This is an incredible fact. I am one of them. So are you. And we're a bit of a problem. We're pushing other life to the edge of its capacity to survive, we are rapacious users of energy and resources, we pollute, cause climate change and seem unable or unwilling to plan for the long term survival of our own species let alone any other. And we're not even that good to each other. We do not distribute power equally, do not observe human rights equally, and this enables a very few of us to keep whatever we can for ourselves. We damn some of our number to live in poverty and misery as though it is not our problem, as though they are not just as human. 

I read somewhere this funny and profound answer to someone who was complaining about being stuck in traffic. The response was, "You are not in traffic. You are the traffic." We are the traffic, my fellow humans; we are the 7 Billion. We are the problem and we are the solution.

As the Occupy movment has pointed out so well, our leaders have let us down. Their obsessions are mere distractions from the real problems the human community and the earth face. They exist to maintain power among themselves. The United States continues its downward spiral with the attention of its leaders averted from showing leadership on the environment and on human rights in the global community, or dealing with its crushing debt, a debt with the potential to destabilize other countries, or even dealing with the growing gap between the rich and the poor within its own borders. Instead, they are obsessed with legislating control  of women and criminalizing non-reproductive behaviour.

But we have to remember. We are not just the 99%. We are the 7 Billion. If we let them get away with it, it's no one's fault but our own.

I like to believe we are in the death throes of patriarchy, that the kind of desperation being exhibited by fundamentalists the world over is the desperation of patriarchs clinging to power. I happened to see a segment of Oprah with Chris Rock, who talked a little bit about the Tea Party. He said something like he was heartened by them. He felt that they were like kids who were over-tired, acting out just before they finally succumbed to sleep. He said something like he figured this was a last tantrum, a  last explosive burst of racism and sexism and heterosexism, the fury of which was a sure sign it would end soon. Bed time is coming.

Of course, patriarchy has been with us for some 5000 years now, so this last burst might take a while. But I have faith.

In Canada, there are those who are just as obsessed with women's reproduction as our American friends, patriarchs one and all. They want to "reopen" the abortion debate instead of dealing with the real problems we face. Reopening the debate is just another way of saying they want to recriminalize abortion, delegitimize non-reproductive behaviour in women, attack women's human rights and re-assert that women's primary role is to bring babies into the world. Apparently they have such a huge interest in this happening that they are willing to legislate away women's freedom. ARCC (Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada) has a new piece on what reopening the debate means, and more importantly, what we could make it mean.

We could make this into a discussion about how to end problems with access and end the stigma associated with abortion. We could make this into a discussion about how women can further break from patriarchal controls. Conscious choice in reproduction has never been more vital. We are the 7 Billion.