Why I Trust Women

by Leslie Lytle on February 22, 2012

I have found myself powerfully drawn into the current debate on women’s reproductive rights in Virginia. This morning I was at the Capitol again, showing up to bear witness to the political process in action, to show my opposition to the bills my government is in the process of passing. As I walked home along Grace Street after helping to carry 33,030 signatures opposing HB 484, (the now infamous ultrasound bill), HB 1 (the “personhood bill), and HB 62, (which would prohibit state-funded abortions for low-income women even if the child they are carrying would have totally incapacitating deformities or impairments) to Governor Bob McDonnell this morning, these thoughts accompanied me on my journey:

For most of the past twenty years, my work has been in the realm of birth. As a prenatal yoga instructor, doula, and childbirth educator, my role has been to support, protect, and/or advocate for pregnant and birthing women so that they have autonomy in their choices about where, how, and with whom they give birth. What I have learned from women through birth has also informed my worldview on women’s reproductive rights at the beginning of pregnancy. So the Virginia General Assembly legislation regarding mandatory ultrasounds (HB 484) and personhood bills (HB 1), and state funded abortions for low-income women facing devastating diagnoses (HB 62) troubles me deeply. The first bill would require women who seek an abortion to undergo an ultrasound before they can have an abortion, mandating a medical test that is not medically necessary and presenting an additional financial, emotional, and physical barriers to women seeking abortions. HB 1 gives a fertilized egg the same rights and privileges as a fully developed human being, setting the legal stage for pitting women against their own embryos and fetuses. I can’t even speak about the lack of compassion demonstrated by HB62. These bills violate the very same autonomy I believe so fully in for women at the opposite end of the reproductive cycle. This is why I stand with and for women at all stages of the reproductive continuum.

Here’s what my years of working with pregnant and birthing women have taught me: it is impossible to stand in another woman’s shoes, to assume that I know what’s best for her. No matter how well I think I know her, she is the person who is the greatest authority on her own reproductive needs, capacities, and desires. I can offer information (offer being a key word here – not force or shame), help her explore her options, and then it is my job – in fact it is my duty – to step out of the way so that she may make her own choices. I cannot make decisions for her. To do anything more would be coercion. To do anything more would make me responsible for the outcome and not the woman herself.  When we’re talking about becoming a parent, taking on the responsibility of raising children, what is important is that a woman (or man) takes on the full responsibility for her decisions, in order to become fully empowered human being. If I (or the state) make reproductive decisions for a woman, I am essentially usurping her power. And that has far-reaching consequences into the future of her life, and the life of any children she may bear. I cannot go there. It’s not my job. Nor is it the job of the state of Virginia.

In my experience, women generally make very intelligent choices about their reproductive needs. In fact, years of working with pregnant and birthing women have taught me deep respect for the exquisite wisdom women display in making their own reproductive choices. On rare occasions, I can see that a particular woman is headed down a path that will not produce the outcome she desires, that her choices are not leading her where she wants to go. But then it is perhaps even more important that she be allowed the opportunity to stumble, to learn and grow from her decisions. Often that same woman will come back even more powerful in making choices for a later birth, because of what she has learned in a previous birth. Who am I, who is the state, to take that right, that opportunity for growth, away from her. I trust women. I believe they are the sovereigns of their own bodies, their own reproductive lives. To give the state sovereignty over their bodies is an assault on their humanity.

The right to informed consent and refusal is a basic principle of medicine, and is a key component of reproductive health. Nowhere in medicine does anyone have the authority to force another person to have a medical procedure (trans-vaginal or otherwise). HB 484 and HB 1 stomp all over that principle, essentially allowing the state to insert itself into the intimate relationship between a woman and her health care provider. It also requires health care providers to go against a basic principle of their training: first do no harm. You harm a person as soon as you take away her power. You harm a woman when you perform a procedure on her without her consent. This is another form of assault.

An even more intimate relationship, perhaps the most intimate relationship of all, is that between a woman and the being that is forming inside of her during pregnancy. It is not for me, or my state, to insert myself into that relationship.  HB 1, the personhood bill, does just that. If passed, it sets legal precedent for situations like those women’s health physician Wendy Klein spoke of so eloquently today in the GA briefing room. Situations in which women could be forced to undergo procedures to which they do not consent, such as Cesarean section. Where a woman with a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy could be criminalized for seeking emergency treatment (along with the health care providers who save her life).  HB 1 violates women’s humanity, their basic dignity, their ability to make choices that no one but they should have the power to make.

I have held the hands and stroked the foreheads of women as they go through the very difficult journey of birth. And I will do the same, physically and metaphorically, for women who are going through the equally difficult journey of terminating a pregnancy, for whatever reason. It is not my place to make that very difficult decision for them. It is not my place to usurp their power. It is my duty however, to bear witness, to bring as much compassion, dignity, and respect as I can to the process of life unfolding itself in my presence. And that is what I will continue to endeavor to do, in all of my actions. I trust women.

My personal as well as my professional experience with pregnancy and birth informs my worldview. I have been pregnant three times. In my mid-twenties, at the peak of my fertility, when the desire to a baby was burning a hole in my psyche, I terminated two pregnancies. These were not “lifestyle” choices that I made flippantly, casually. I was in a committed but troubled relationship. The second pregnancy, which I initially welcomed, quickly exposed the deeply riven faults of the relationship I was in, as I grew to understand that if I were to carry this child, I would be parenting alone, forever connected to a man who was unable to sit beside me at the table of parenthood (and I say that without blame or judgment). It was a heart-wrenchingly difficult decision to make. I grieved deeply over that decision. I have never regretted it. I cannot imagine the dynamic that would have been set up between my child and myself, were I forced to bring him or her into this world against my will. I trust that whatever energy, whatever being was seeded in me, understands that I made the right decision for me, for us. I trust life.

With gratitude to Patience Salgado and Jennifer Joy Black at kindnessgirl.com for being the spark that helped me find the words to describe my feelings about the legislation that is happening in my home state and across the country.

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