Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn activists push for more access to late-term abortions

June 12, 2019 Micah Danney
Members speak at Thursday's meeting. Eagle photo by Micah Danney
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As early-term abortion bans dominate national headlines, a growing network of pro-choice activists in Brooklyn is doubling down on a push for late-term abortion access closer to home.

“A big reason why we are where we are right now, with six-week abortion bans in states like Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Ohio, Louisiana and Texas, is because we haven’t been fighting for the most controversial kind of abortion — which is later-care abortion,” Kate Castle told members of NYC for Abortion Rights at the group’s meeting last week.

The Reproductive Health Act that New York passed in January expanded access to late-term abortions — broadening the scope to allow women past the 24-week point to terminate their pregnancies under health-threatening conditions, instead of solely life-threatening conditions.

However, the legislation includes no protections for women who choose to end their pregnancy after 24 weeks for other reasons.

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The group was formed in 2017, before the RHA passed, by Celia Petty, 69, of Kensington. A retired union organizer who has worked for abortion rights since the 1970s, Petty said she saw a need to stand up to anti-abortion protesters who harass women outside clinics and to organize resistance to any restrictive federal legislation in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.

The group grew by word of mouth and social media. It now counts nearly 500 subscribers to its mailing list and between 40 and 50 regular attendees at its monthly meetings, where members discuss strategy and plan events.

Attendance was sparse, however, at the last meeting. The people who showed up to the Mayday Space community center in Bushwick on Thursday, a mix of ages and backgrounds, totaled a dozen.

Castle, 28, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, said access to late-term abortions is an important ideological standpoint for the pro-choice community to advocate. It’s easy to overlook, she said, because so few abortions take place in the third trimester. Only one percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks, and 81 percent of Americans think that one percent should be illegal.

Making one such concession opens the door for more, Castle said, adding that the ban would betray the fundamental tenet that a decision to abort is a woman’s right that cannot be usurped by any rights granted to a fetus inside her.

“The anti-abortion movement has been extremely successful and strategic about the way in which they organize,” she said. “Their focus is on the fetus, and they’ve been able to dictate this debate about what the fetus even is, and to shape the framework that women are the aggressors and fetuses are victims.”

The political right’s grassroots building in the late 1990s laid the foundation for its recent successes, Castle said. Those efforts even include aspects of liberal legislation — like New York’s RHA.

According to these activists, imposing any gestational limit fundamentally shifts the conversation from one about a woman’s bodily autonomy to the question of when life begins.

“We should be disgusted that they get to control these arguments and then make us look bad or shy away from our position,” said Lizzie Stewart, who led the meeting. “They’re forcing people to give birth. That’s so violent.”

Bilal Zenab Ahmed, 28, of Crown Heights, noted that campaigners sometimes lean too heavily on abortion as a fix for societal problems that result from unwanted pregnancies carried to term. Those issues are often tied up with patriarchal systems, she said, and as a researcher with a specialty in Northwest Pakistan, she cautioned against narrow messaging that ignores other causes of such problems that can vary by culture.

Petty said that ethical questions like these are important for campaigners to consider and speak to. “We’ve got to figure out ways to talk more openly and more broadly about all of these things, and the most important thing is to not shy away from this discussion about later-term abortions,” she said.

For Petty, protecting women’s access to legal abortions has always been a central battle in the larger fight for women’s liberation. She had two abortions shortly after she had children. Having that option enabled her to continue working and avoid falling into poverty, she said. She later adopted a third child.

“It allowed me to think about the life I wanted to have,” she said.

For many women, a forced pregnancy can mean remaining in an abusive relationship, she said, or not participating in public life. The uniqueness of each woman’s situation is what makes the right to choose so essential, Petty said. It’s why her group is coordinating with activists around the country and planning a “speak-out” for June 22 in Washington Square Park, where women can tell the stories of their abortions, what situations they faced and what their choice meant for their lives.

Another initiative in conjunction with activists in other states aims to include reproductive rights in any “Medicare for all” plan Democrats advance.

Some goals are more localized. Petty said NYC for Abortion Rights is forming a campaign to expose a group of anti-abortion activists affiliated with the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan. A monthly Mass for Life at the church is followed by a protest march to the Planned Parenthood several blocks away.

Chris Flatz, parish manager at the church, said that parishioners pray quietly and don’t engage in protesting. Petty disputed that, claiming she has seen attendees heckling women as they enter or leave the clinic. She emphasized that her group’s intention is to highlight what she called the church’s “sponsorship” of the people who are most active outside the clinic.

“We picketed the church once, and some of their neighbors had no idea they were so involved,” Petty said.

Chris Baum, 45, of Dyker Heights, said he was drawn to the group because of his support for women’s autonomy and access to adequate healthcare, which he said benefits everyone.

“There’s a danger that people in New York might be complacent,” he said. “We need to understand that this is a fight that needs to be fought everywhere.”

Micah Danney is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. He covers human rights issues, criminal justice, international affairs and the environment. You can follow his work on Twitter.

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