Women comprise only 17 percent of the current U.S. Congress, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. In Indiana, women make up 21 percent of the state legislature.
So far this year, nearly 40 laws have been enacted in 15 states with the potential to restrict women's access to reproductive health care, according to a report by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., didn't inspire confidence in male politicians legislating reproductive rights when he said “legitimate rape” doesn't often lead to pregnancy and that when a woman is raped “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” He later apologized for his comments, which had no basis in fact and were debunked by doctors.
President Obama said Akin's comments underscore “why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.”
But Akin's comments were just the latest in a string of culture clashes over reproductive rights that have fueled passionate, sometimes ugly debates much of this year. The News-Sentinel decided to give local women a voice in the issue by asking women on all sides where they stand. Here's what they had to say:Nancy Hansen expressed a sentiment similar to President Obama's. “I find it offensive that politicians are able to practice medicine without a license,” she said, referring to laws that interfere with medical decisions.
She believes politicians should leave decisions on reproductive issues up to women and their health care professionals.
“If you would leave this issue of reproductive choice and rights to medical professionals, I think medical professionals are perfectly capable of doing the right thing,” she said.
She also believes preventive efforts would lead to fewer abortions.
“If you deal with issues prior that lead up to a woman seeking an abortion, you wouldn't have as many abortions,” she said, referring to access to birth control and help with economic struggles.
And while responsibility for birth control may fall disproportionately on women, because they are the ones who get pregnant, Hanson believes society “still does not hold men accountable enough for the children they sire.”
While this issue of reproductive rights is polarizing, Hansen said, “Rather than dig in your heels for your side, I think we need to sit down and talk to each other.”
Hansen is convener of the League of Women Voters of the Fort Wayne Area. The nonpartisan political organization works to educate voters.
“Our local league chose not to do a lot with reproductive issues because we have such an active Planned Parenthood organization,” she said.
However, these reproductive issues — no matter what side you fall on — are why women should educate themselves and then vote, Hansen said, adding that women's voices need to be heard in whatever way they find most comfortable, such as writing a letter to the editor.
Mary Ann Schieferstein grew up Republican and stayed that way until she watched the Republican convention in 1992.
“Those people were so mean,” she said, citing in particular Pat Buchanan. “I thought, this isn't my party anymore.”
She says the Republican Party has only gotten worse since then. “My biggest gripe is that everybody is for smaller government,” she said, yet, “I cannot understand men wanting to make decisions for women's rights.”
In the case of reproductive decisions and abortion, “It's such a painful personal decision; to make political fodder out of it is, I think, un-Christian.”
Schieferstein considers herself pro-choice — which is not synonymous with being pro-abortion. “Nobody is 'for' abortion — no one,” she said. “But until you've walked in someone else's shoes, don't judge them.”
Schieferstein wishes more women would become involved in politics. Like Hansen, she wishes people on both sides could talk to each other about their beliefs respectfully.
“We have lost the ability to talk to each other kindly and civilly in a nonthreatening way,” she said.
Kathryn Carboneau, M.D., a retired anesthesiologist, says efforts by politicians to legislate reproductive rights have become oppressive and sometimes are based on “junk science.”
Asked about Akin's comments on rape and pregnancy, she said, “It is terribly disturbing to me that this person sat on a committee for science legislation.” (Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.)
“Everyone deserves access to accurate reproductive information and comprehensive services,” Carboneau said. That's why she's an advocate for Planned Parenthood, which she says provides affordable preventive services, testing and screening.
Regarding abortion, Carboneau is strong on prevention. She believes that if people really want to reduce abortion, they should put “tons of effort into reducing unintended pregnancy by offering excellent comprehensive sexuality education in public schools — promoting abstinence while also teaching accurate and age-appropriate information on healthy relationships, contraception and benefits of condoms to reduce sexually transmitted infections.” Other countries with better sexuality education show better measures of reproductive health than the U.S. does, she added.
She believes women need to have control over reproduction for several reasons.
“Determining when and if they have children gives women better health, stability and opportunity to care for themselves, their families and their future children,” she said.
Reasons for preventing or terminating a pregnancy include heart, lung or cancer issues or fetal abnormalities, she said. “These can be wrenching decisions.”
Carboneau raised another issue, related to privacy. When we pick up a prescription, we must stand back from the other customers so we don't overhear a conversation with a pharmacist; it's a requirement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
Privacy is paramount in the doctor's office, too. Yet pro-life protesters, exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, attempt to dissuade women from having an abortion by shouting at them outside abortion clinics.
“Strangers who station themselves outside to strike up discussions intruding in personal medical issues of patients going in — that's inappropriate,” Carboneau said.
“If we focus on poverty and disparities in health care, education and opportunity, people who choose to parent can do so in an environment that's safe and healthy for their children,” she said.
On a recent Thursday, Jami Beer, who recently graduated from IPFW, silently stood outside Fort Wayne's abortion clinic.
Asked why she was there, she explained, “It's the death of babies, so I think it's important to be here. Abortion is the greatest injustice of our time. It's just a gruesome killing. It's atrocious. And this is legal.”
Beer is a Christian, but she said, “I don't think you have to be a Christian to see that abortion is killing a child.”
Even in the case of rape, Beer doesn't think abortion is justifiable.
“I don't think the injustice a man does to a woman justifies that woman killing a pre-born child,” she said. “Yeah, it wasn't her choice to get pregnant. But if a mother killed her 2-year-old or 1-year-old, we wouldn't call that a choice — we'd call it murder.”
Beer is in favor of informed consent laws. “I am in favor of anything that will save the person inside the womb and will help the woman be more informed about what she is doing when she kills the baby.”
Certain forms of birth control are acceptable to Beer, as long as they don't “take a human life.” That would exclude any form of birth control that is used after fertilization when the embryo is “whole, living, distinct,” she said.
Judy Shaw, who was praying at the Fort Wayne abortion clinic on a recent Thursday morning, would agree with the statement that there is a “war on women,” but not as that phrase is commonly perceived.
“I believe that a woman's gift from God is to be a mother and caretaker,” she said. “I think it's just in us, the need to nurture.”
Shaw believes President Obama “has evil intentions against women” because he is pro-choice and pro-birth control. To Shaw, the president is pushing things on women that are harmful to their very being.
As a Catholic, Shaw believes all babies are a gift from God. So, like Beer, she does not believe abortion is acceptable, even in the case of rape.
“Rape is a horrible tragedy, yes,” she said, expressing sympathy for the victims.
“Punish the perpetrator, not the baby. God can make something good come from anything bad. He can use that gift to make your life happy. No, I don't think anybody ever should have a choice to kill another innocent human being.”
Shaw, who believes life begins at fertilization, said “any society that lashes out against its own kind is spiraling downward.” She cited crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies as options for women who don't think they can raise a child.
As for men, they bear a responsibility for child-rearing, too. “The man's role is along with the woman in the context of marriage to be open to life and to take care of that life as best he can,” she said, expressing a desire that “everyone would just keep to the moral laws God made for us.”
Her eyes pooling with tears, Shaw expressed her fervent pro-life belief.
“No matter what circumstance a woman is in, if she turns to God he will help her and she will never regret choosing life,” she said.
Shari Hampton is a volunteer at A Hope Center, a local agency with four locations that provides free, confidential pregnancy testing and counseling, community referral services, an earn-while-you-learn program, post-abortion services and a fatherhood program.
A Hope Center provides abortion information but does not perform abortions or make referrals for abortions.
Hampton, a mother of two teenagers, became acquainted with A Hope Center when she turned to it for information on abstinence-based pregnancy prevention that she could share with her daughters.
She eventually became a volunteer at the center.
“As an advocate, I meet with young women who are pregnant (and sometimes with the fathers, as well) and not prepared for it,” she said. “We have a talk. The object is to give them information about choices.”
Growing up in an African-American church, Hampton “heard lots of messages not to have sex before marriage.” She said she governs herself biblically. Yet she doesn't presume her values are necessarily the same as others, so as an advocate she approaches those who come to the clinic in a nonjudgmental manner.
“What I hope is to be able to give them information so they can make a decision intelligently,” she said. “When they walk out, they are equipped to make the best decision for their situation.”
Hampton isn't interested in protesting or praying at an abortion clinic.
She observed the situation at the local clinic one time and didn't like the feeling she got.
“It didn't fit what I thought would be a way to evangelize people,” she said.
“I don't want to be a person outside an abortion clinic,” she said. “I want to be in their lives before they get to the abortion clinic.”