Campaigning daughter of civil rights leader who extended her father's legacy
Yolanda King, who has died suddenly aged 51, was the eldest child of the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King (obituary, February 1 2006). As an actor, she appeared in films and television dramas, many connected with the African-American cause. She was a champion of lesbian and gay rights, and of racial minorities.
Known to her family and friends as Yoki, King was born in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1955 bus boycott that launched her father on a national career leading to the Nobel peace prize in 1964 and assassination in Memphis in 1968, when his daughter was 12. She learned of his death from a television news bulletin while doing the washing up. "To this day," she told a magazine 30 years later, "my heart skips a beat when I hear a special bulletin announced."
Determined from a very young age to act, at eight, King attended the Atlanta Actors and Writers Workshop, then the only unsegregated drama school in the Georgia state capital. It was run by Walt and Betty Roberts, the parents of Julia Roberts.
At 15, King played a part-time prostitute in The Owl and the Pussycat, made into a 1970 movie by Barbara Streisand and George Segal. Her appearance - opposite a white actor - triggered the first of many rows resulting from her uninhibited commitment to the causes she believed in. "The white community criticised it because they didn't think interracial sex was right," she said later. "The black community asked, 'How could you disgrace your dead father's image by playing a prostitute?'" She recalled being forced to stand up in church and explain her actions.
King, who moved to Culver City, near Hollywood, was founder and head of Higher Ground Productions, which she called a "gateway for inner peace, unity and global transformation". Her website described her mission as encouraging personal growth and positive social change.
As an actor, she played many parts more or less directly based on her father's life. At her grandfather's church in Atlanta, she did a one-woman show representing scenes from the civil rights movement; in 1978, in the TV mini-series King, she played Rosa Parks (obituary, October 26 2005), the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger triggered the Montgomery bus boycott. One of her strongest roles was in the movie Ghosts of Mississippi (1996). She also worked with Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, in a series of anti-racist performances; in 1981, she played his wife, Attallah's mother Betty Shabazz, in the film Death of a Prophet.
King graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1976, having majored in theatre and Afro-American studies, and took an MA in theatre at New York University. From the beginning, she was troubled by the expectations that she would devote her life to the civil rights cause; as she pointed out in an interview, in the end she did so - but she did it in her own way, through theatre.
She was first arrested in 1984, demonstrating against the apartheid regime in South Africa. She spoke regularly to meetings of the American Heart Foundation, because she was particularly keen to warn African-Americans of the dangers of strokes. In 2000, she was one of 187 people arrested at a demonstration by lesbian and gay rights activists at a church meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, being addressed by George Carey, the then archbishop of Canterbury.
Last year, she told a gay rights meeting that "If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans. You cannot marry ... you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this is totally unacceptable."
King was a member of a number of civil rights organisations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by her father, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she was on the board of the King Centre in Atlanta. In 2005 she sided with her brother Dexter on the proposed sale of the centre to the US national park service, which her brother and sister, Martin Luther King Jr and the Rev Bernice King, opposed. The family dispute has still not been resolved.
King was on her way from speaking to a meeting of the American Heart Association when she collapsed and died in the doorway of Dexter's house. - Yolanda Denise King, actor and campaigner, born November 17 1955; died May 15 2007
Yolanda King, 51, Actor and Dr. King's Daughter, Dies
Yolanda King (Nick Wass/Associated Press, 2006) By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Yolanda King, the eldest child of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who melded her fathers message of racial equality and nonviolence with her own calling as an actor and a motivational speaker, died on Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 51.
Steve Klein, a spokesman for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said the cause of death had not been determined but seemed related to cardiopulmonary problems.
Ms. King was meeting her brother Dexter King at a friend’s home when she collapsed and died.
Yolanda Denise King, who was born on Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., lived virtually her entire life in the maelstrom of the civil rights revolution that her father and mother, Coretta Scott King, helped lead. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and Mrs. King died last year.
Besides her brother Dexter Scott King, Yolanda King is survived by another brother, Martin Luther King III, and her sister, the Rev. Bernice King.
Yolanda King wrote and produced plays; gave speeches to groups that included elementary schoolchildren and Fortune 500 corporations; and acted in commercial movies. With Elodia Tate, she edited a motivational book emphasizing the importance of diversity. Ms. King’s consistent goal was to infect her work, including her films, with her family’s deeper purposes.
She portrayed Rosa Parks, who sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat in a miniseries, “King” (1978), and Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, in “Death of a Prophet” (1981).
In 1999, she acted in “Selma, Lord, Selma,” about the civil rights march, and in 1996 appeared in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about efforts to track down the killer of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader.
She founded a dramatic group with Atallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, the slain civil rights leader, and started a theatrical production company, Higher Ground Productions, dedicated to what she called personal empowerment. She was also on the board of the King Center.
In a statement, Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said that being Dr. King’s daughter was to carry an extra burden.
It began on Jan. 30, 1956, when Yolanda, nicknamed Yoki, was 2 months old and the family’s house was bombed in the Montgomery bus boycott.
In 1958, Dr. King narrowly escaped death when he was stabbed in a bookstore in Harlem. To Yolanda, it seemed as if adults naturally went to jail occasionally, because all those she knew seemed to do that.
Her deepest memories were the love of her father, who taught her to swim and playfully pummeled her but never spanked her. She called him “my first buddy,” saying, “I was tremendously loved.”
Ms. King was 12 on April 4, 1968, when she heard a news bulletin on television saying her father had been assassinated in Memphis. Four days later, she and her brothers accompanied their mother to appear at Memphis City Hall. Mrs. King said the children attended because they wanted to.
The next year, Ms. King’s uncle A. D. King, her father’s sole brother, accidentally drowned. In 1974, an apparent madman fired a gun in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and killed her grandmother Alberta Williams King.
Yolanda King learned about racial discrimination at 3 or 4 when she was barred from an amusement park. She was one of the first black children at a previously segregated elementary school in Atlanta, where she endured racial epithets. In high school, she was president of her sophomore and junior classes and vice president of her senior class.
She wrote her first play at 8, and her mother sent her to acting school the next year. Her decision in 1971 to play a prostitute in a school production of Bill Manhoff’s “Owl and the Pussycat,” which involved kissing a white man, scandalized the white and black communities. Her paternal grandfather, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., refused to attend, but her mother supported her.
Ms. King graduated from Smith College and earned a master of fine arts degree from New York University. She then toured the country with the Christian Theater Artist Company, which she helped found.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 1998, Ms. King said acting had liberated her, not least the parts unrelated to her family history.
“In life,” she said, “I had to be prim and proper and poised the King daughter. But acting, I could be zany, silly, sometimes the foolish person that I am. I could let the rough edges show.” ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Thursday May 17, 2007
Yolanda King, daughter of MLK, dies at 51
Story Highlights • The Rev. Joseph Lowery says Yolanda King "wore the mantle of princess" • Cause of death uncertain; family suspects heart problem • She played Rosa Parks in a miniseries and appeared in "Ghosts of Mississippi" • Her death comes more than a year after her mother, Coretta Scott King, died
ATLANTA, Georgia (AP) -- Yolanda King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s eldest child who pursued her father's dream of racial harmony through drama and motivational speaking, collapsed and died. She was 51.
King died late Tuesday in Santa Monica, California, said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center. The family did not know the cause of death, but relatives think it might have been a heart problem, he said.
"She was an actress, author, producer, advocate for peace and nonviolence, who was known and loved for her motivational and inspirational contributions to society," the King family said in a statement.
Former Mayor Andrew Young, a lieutenant of her father's who has remained close to the family, said King was going to her brother Dexter's home when she collapsed in the doorway.
Her death came less than a year and a half after her mother, Coretta Scott King, died in January 2006 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke. Her struggle prompted her daughter to work with the American Heart Association to raise awareness about strokes, especially among blacks.
Yolanda King, who lived in California, was an actress, ran a production company and appeared in numerous films, including "Ghosts of Mississippi." She played Rosa Parks in the 1978 miniseries "King."
"Yolanda was lovely. She wore the mantle of princess, and she wore it with dignity and charm," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of her father's close aides in the civil rights movement. He added she was "thoroughly committed to the movement and found her own means of expressing that commitment through drama."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also worked with her father, said: "She lived with a lot of the trauma of our struggle. The movement was in her DNA." The Rev. Al Sharpton called her a "torch bearer for her parents and a committed activist in her own right."
White House press secretary Tony Snow said President Bush and the first lady were sad to learn of King's death, adding, "Our thoughts are with the King family today."
Yolanda King founded and led Higher Ground Productions, billed as a "gateway for inner peace, unity and global transformation." On her company's Web site, she described her mission as encouraging personal growth and positive social change.
The flag at The King Center, where she was a board member, flew at half-staff on Wednesday.
Yolanda Denise King -- nicknamed Yoki by the family -- was born November 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, where her father was then preaching. Her brother Martin III was born in 1957; brother Dexter in 1961; and sister Bernice in 1963.
She was just two weeks old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus there, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott spearheaded by her father.
When she was 10 weeks old, the King family home was bombed in Jan. 30, 1956, as her father attended a boycott rally. Neither she nor her mother was injured when the device exploded on the front porch.
In 1963, when she was 7, her father mentioned her and her siblings at the March on Washington, saying: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
She was 12 when her father was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
King was a 1976 graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in theater and Afro-American studies. She also earned a master's degree in theater from New York University.
Yolanda King was the most visible of the four children during this year's Martin Luther King Day in January, the first since her mother's death.
When asked by The Associated Press at that event how she was dealing with the loss of her mother, she responded: "I connected with her spirit so strongly. I am in direct contact with her spirit, and that has given me so much peace and so much strength."
At her father's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, she performed a series of solo skits that told stories including a girl's first ride on a desegregated bus and a college student's recollection of the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala.
She also urged the audience to be a force for peace and love, and to use the King holiday each year to ask tough questions about their own beliefs about prejudice.
"We must keep reaching across the table and, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, feed each other," she said.
Funeral arrangements would be announced later, the family said in a brief statement.
France’s voters had the opportunity to elect their first woman president. But 30 years after Frenchwomen secured equal labour rights and control of their own bodies, they face significant reverses By Mona Chollet
“When I was 18 I genuinely believed we had achieved sexual equality,” said Maud Gelly, a doctor and an activist with the National Collective for Women’s Rights. “Then I got a summer job as a waitress and I couldn’t believe the way customers and the owner behaved. Later, as a medical student, I did a stint in gynaecology and I was appalled by the way they treated women who had just had an abortion. I saw a doctor toss a pack of contraceptive pills to one of them and say, ‘OK, show me how you use them!’ ”
Feminist commitment often arises after an awakening to the gap between reality and the way society presents itself. It is as if women have accepted a widespread illusion (which has lost all credibility in other areas) that postulates a “direction” to history, a “natural” process of social evolution leading to greater sexual equality. As Christine Delphy of the National Centre for Scientific Research said: “As long as women’s rights don’t actually regress, we imagine that everything is fine. But all that really means is that the forces of reaction and those of progress are balanced. History, sadly, has no sense of direction.”
Poland legalised abortion in 1956 and banned it in 1993 under the revived influence of the Catholic church after the fall of the communist regime. Such a reversal is unlikely in France. The victory of the pro-abortion lobby in the Portuguese referendum last February is a reason for optimism. But the general climate and the resurgence of religious values worries feminists. Séverine Auffret, who supervises the history of feminist ideas seminar at the university of Caen, suggested: “The concept of a clash of civilisations benefits traditionalists, Christian or Muslim.”
Colette de Troy of the European Women’s Lobby said: “Given the current composition of the European parliament (1) and the militancy of some Catholic organisations, our current goal is less to secure new advances than to prevent these issues being put to a vote, so that we can at least hang on to what we’ve won.” The lawyer Gisèle Halimi played a key role in the legalisation of abortion in France in 1975 (2). She campaigned against the European constitution because it did not make sexual equality one of the European Union’s values and omitted the right to abortion: “Europe’s abolition of the death penalty was a step forward for civilisation; we should also guarantee abortion rights, which are fundamental to women’s freedom.”
Formal legislation will not be enough to dispel the aura of guilt that surrounds abortion. Women may no longer be guilty of having had sexual intercourse, as they were before legalisation; instead they are considered guilty of not having used effective contraception (3). In France there are currently 200,000 abortions a year, a figure that could be reduced. But, as Mäité Albagly, general secretary of the French Movement for Family Planning, said: “There will always be a certain number of terminations – women aren’t machines and it’s unreasonable to expect them to exercise absolute control over their fertility for 35 years.”
‘Sort of tolerated’ A view of women and their rights persists; society may allow them to have abortions but it does so grudgingly. Many doctors staffing French abortion clinics are former activists nearing retirement and there is nobody to replace them. Patients can already wait as long as three weeks for a first appointment. As Gisèle Halimi said: “This is a freedom that used to be recognised, accepted and proclaimed; now it is sort of tolerated.”
There is a paradox. Before the 1975 act, women who had tried to terminate a pregnancy often ended up in hospital emergency departments, inspiring activism among doctors. But with the dramatic decline in deaths, doctors have lost interest. Medical practitioners are not interested in terminations. “It’s like trying to get worked up about unblocking someone’s sinuses,” said one (4).
But as Maud Gelly explained, the fundamental difficulty is that “doctors are used to making a diagnosis and prescribing a treatment. Unfortunately a woman who wants an abortion isn’t ill and already knows what treatment she wants” (5). Few in the medical profession share the attitude of Sophie Gaudu, a gynaecologist in a Paris hospital: “If a woman wants to give birth, I’m there for her. If she wants an abortion, I’m there too. My priority as a doctor is the patient” (6).
Mariana Otero directed the 2003 documentary film Histoire d’un secret (7), dedicated to her mother, the painter Clotilde Vautier, who died in 1968 after an illegal abortion. She fears the return of the belief that abortion is a crime: “Many people would see that as the problem. But women suffer because of what seeking a termination reveals about the state of their relationship and the desire or reluctance of each partner to have a child.” Women also suffer because of the ideological pressure on them and the hostility they experience. Gelly emphasised that although women experience post-natal depression, a condition with well-defined medical characteristics, “no one has ever identified any clinical condition of ‘post-abortion depression’. We systematically overestimate the physical and mental consequences of termination.”
Abortion contradicts the stereotype of woman as life-givers. The doctor and writer Martin Winckler has pointed out that France, more than other countries, “is a country that still regards women as having been created to have children”. According to the sociologist Michèle Ferrand: “We still expect women to procreate, even if it is for the sake of their personal happiness rather than for the nation.” The journalist Olivia Benhamou has studied gynaecological textbooks for medical students; one, published in 1998, described women seeking terminations as suffering from “a sense of general emotional, psychological and social failure” and recommended giving them “renewed confidence in their ability to be a mother”.
As Gelly said: “Women who seek to justify their decision to have an abortion have internalised the fact that it is more acceptable to invoke the welfare of a non-existent child than that of the woman who already exists.” The wave of feminism may have weakened this priority but it was unable to reverse it.
Work and home There is another area where well-established rights are in danger of becoming meaningless. Access to paid employment was the other achievement of women during the 1960s and 1970s. In France, inequalities persist, not only between men and women but also, and increasingly, between two categories of women. As the sociologist Margaret Maruani pointed out: “Certain professions (medicine, journalism, the law) have undergone significant feminisation without becoming devalued. But the top of the hierarchy continues to resist this process. I call that vertical discrimination.”
Differences of salary that owe nothing to age or training, and can only be explained by sexual discrimination, vary between 5% and 15%. Horizontal discrimination continues to restrict women to a limited number of professions: 45% of the female workforce is confined to just 20 of the 455 professions listed by the France’s National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies.
Women also fill 80% of part-time jobs. The situation varies between sectors where such work is most widespread, but acts as a cover for under-employment. Part-time work is presented as a way for women to combine family life with economic activity; in reality it enables those who work as cleaners, shop assistants, cashiers or in factories to combine flexible hours with low salaries. This is a new development; before the 1980s, women in France worked full time. Although work was equated with autonomy during the 1970s, this is no longer the case (8). Being a woman increases the risk of unemployment and working poverty, especially if the woman is of immigrant origin or a foreigner (9).
Mothers continue to bear the major responsibility for the material and moral welfare of their children. Research by the socio-demographer Nathalie Bajos and the sociologist Michèle Ferrand demonstrates that the spread of modern contraception has had a paradoxical effect; that children are wanted has increased pressure on parents and especially on mothers, who now bear the responsibility for procreation (10). Ferrand added: “During the 1970s there was some mixing of roles; but the mid 1980s saw a significant recrudescence of a psychology-driven discourse on the specifics of motherhood.”
Women continue to do 80% of household tasks. Christine Delphy, who has led the way in researching the implications of domestic work, has no illusions: “I have always said that this situation could last another 2,000 years. There is no internal reason to change it” (11). Mothers still have to respond to a disproportionate number and variety of demands compared with their partners. They then proclaim their success, making other mothers feel inadequate. According to Séverine Auffret: “The activism and shared experiences of the 1970s encouraged political awareness. But if you are a feminist today, it is usually the result of personal reflection.”
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) The 2004 European elections saw an advance by the Eurosceptic conservative right.
(2) During the landmark Bobigny trial of 1972, she defended a young woman and those who helped her abort after being raped.
(3) In France, 66% of unwanted pregnancies occur among women using contraception.
(4) Olivia Benhamou, Avorter aujourd’hui (Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2004).
(5) Maud Gelly, Avortement et contraception dans les études médicales: une formation inadaptée (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2006).
(6) Benhamou, op cit.
(7) See www.clotildevautier.org
(8) See Margaret Maruani, “France: the working poor” and “Hard times for working women”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2003 and September 1997.
(9) See Marina Da Silva, “France: outsider women”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2004.
(10) Nathalie Bajos and Michèle Ferrand, “La contraception, levier réel ou symbolique de la domination masculine?”, Sciences sociales et santé, vol 22, n° 3, Paris, September 2004.
(11) Christine Delphy, L’Ennemi principal, tome 1: Economie politique du patriarcat (Syllepse, Paris, 1998).
Lately, what the US does, Australia does. The federal government seems set on apeing George W. Bush’s administration, whatever Australians want, think, need or say. Now, consistent with US policy and practice, it’s gone so far as to put women’s health at risk, and breach Australia’s discrimination laws.
In July 2006, a US minority congressional report said federally funded “pregnancy resources centers” were “incorrectly telling [American] women that abortion results in an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility and deep psychological trauma”. Sound familiar?
In August 2006, Reproductive Choice Australia issued a press release headed “Over 15,000 Australians Plead: ‘Stop Deceiving Women’”, reporting that Senators Natasha Stott Despoja (Dem), Judith Adams (Lib.), Claire Moore (Lab.) and Kerry Nettle (Greens) had joined together in support of Despoja’s Transparent Advertising and Notification of Pregnancy Counselling Services Bill 2005.
A Senate inquiry heard that women had been told by pregnancy services receiving federal government funding that “terminating a pregnancy was ‘a sin’ and … was ‘killing the baby’”. Callers and clients were denied the possibility of pregnancy termination, receiving misleading information about its “risks”, “including an alleged link between breast cancer and abortion”. The services also tell women that abortion causes post traumatic stress or at least inconsolable psychological pain.
The purported link between pregnancy termination and breast cancer has been disproved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Breast Cancer Council of Australia, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG).
As for trauma, many women speak of the relief experienced upon termination, consistent with their decision that now is not the right time for them to bear a child.
Some women may suffer psychological distress, but the reasons are not as stark as the pregnancy counselling services seek to suggest. Rather, social pressure, religious force, political posturing and pestering along with family renunciation may cause stress and upset. Mostly, distress may arise for women wanting a child, but whose health or fetal indications stand in the way. Abortion is not the problem. Being unable to have a healthy child is.
False and misleading information will hardly assist these women, nor protect them from mental harm.
In support of the Bill, Despoja affirmed the “urgent need for legislation to outlaw "misleading and deceptive advertising’ by pregnancy counselling services, to ensure anti-abortion services are upfront about their stand, and women are not misled”.
Around the same time - mid-2006 - the federal government said it would designate a Medicare number solely for pregnancy counselling accessed by women unsure of whether or not to continue their pregnancy. In the government’s words, the Medicare number was for counselling (PDF 125KB) for “women who have, or have had, an unintended pregnancy, or who are unsure about whether to continue with a pregnancy”.
In September, the government said the number would apply to all pregnancy counselling. Nonetheless, that a policy so invasive of Australian women’s privacy could be suggested indicates a lack of concern for women’s health and privileging of fundamentalist religious views scapegoating abortion and women who contemplate it. It prioritises these over the non-judgmental provision of health care and services.
Both policies - funding organisations providing misleading information and failing to give women all pregnancy options, including termination; and having a special pregnancy counselling Medicare number - run directly counter to federal and state anti-discrimination laws and breach women’s human rights.
With pregnancy termination, the federal government pursues policies detrimental to women’s health, women’s health care and the health of Australians generally, ignoring the majority of Australians - who believe in women’s abortion rights.
The 2004 Australian Election Study (AES) found more than 50 per cent of respondents “believe a woman should be able to readily access ‘abortion on demand’”. Almost 90 per cent of respondents supported abortion when that included allowing termination “under special circumstances”. Only 4 per cent said “abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances”.
In its 2003 study, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found 81.2 per cent of respondents agreed a woman “should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion”. Of those surveyed, only 9.4 per cent denied a woman’s right to abortion. Only 4.4 per cent disagreed “strongly” with this right.
Support for women’s right to control our own bodies has increased steadily over the past 30 years, from the 1980s - where 38 per cent of respondents to AES in 1987 said women “should be able to obtain an abortion readily, when they want one”, to the responses of this century.
Yet the federal government continues to target women who undergo abortion.
Why should a Medicare number cover a specific type of health counselling, namely for pregnancy? Shouldn’t there be one universal “health care counselling” number covering anything from prostate cancer counselling, to counselling for radical surgery, to counselling for asthmatic conditions, to counselling for pregnancy services?
A Medicare number, targeting women receiving pregnancy counselling targets women as women, breaching women’s right to equal treatment by reason of pregnancy and sex-gender. Isolating pregnancy counselling means pregnancy is treated differently from any other health condition, just as it means that women are being treated differently from men. Men will not require pregnancy counselling so will never be labelled by this special Medicare number. The question then is whether this different or unequal treatment causes detriment to the women seeking it, who will now wear the label. Clearly, it is - and does.
Although pregnancy termination is legal under certain circumstances, it continues to carry negative connotations among some in the community. Unfortunately, those “some” in the community are known to engage in conduct invasive of women’s privacy, and to abuse women, potentially causing women psychological injury and even sometimes seeking to do women physical harm.
Picketing of abortion clinics, where picketers engage in roughhouse tactics by shouting slogans at women entering the clinic, showing placards with gruesome and explicit diagrams or photographs, shaking their fists, stalking and otherwise threatening the health and wellbeing of clinic clients and personnel, is detrimental to women seeking pregnancy termination.
The shooting of a security guard at a Melbourne clinic is further evidence of detriment. Not only may this conduct deter women from seeking health advice and treatment, it confirms the risk women run when they carry with them health records showing they have sought pregnancy counselling.
At minimum, this is a “flag” alerting the mischievous or retributive anti-abortion fundamentalist to women who may have sought or had abortions. It provides an indicator enabling those seeking to interfere with women’s health provision and health choices to invade women’s privacy and to inflict damage upon them. Confidentiality and privacy laws are little guard against the determined anti-abortionist.
Women are well aware of the negative consequences which may be visited upon them by the small minority seeking to control women’s lives, health care and health choices. No man will ever carry with him a health record labelling him as a target for abuse and attack. Hence, federal government Medicare policy breaches the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and runs counter to state government policies embodied in state sex discrimination and equal opportunity legislation.
The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is similarly breached, and government reports to the CEDAW Committee ought to reflect this. The World Health Organisation (WHO) - which carries international responsibility for ensuring women have access to healthcare, advice and treatment without discrimination on grounds of sex-gender - should bear down upon the federal government, too.
The federal government is also complicit in promoting breaches of the Sex Discrimination Act, state policies and CEDAW in funding counselling services providing misinformation and no information on particular health care, viz pregnancy termination or pregnancy termination services. As well, the government breaches the Act in funding these arguably substandard services.
It is highly unlikely that the federal government would provide funding to services giving out false and misleading information about men’s health care and services. If a service purporting to cater for men’s health refused to acknowledge prostate or testicular cancer, or heart disease, as conditions for which men may require counselling and treatment, funding would likely be cut or never granted.
Why then is funding not only given to counselling services purporting to cater for women’s health, but given exclusively to those failing to provide full, clear information about all services - including pregnancy termination? This is unequal treatment on grounds of sex-gender and pregnancy, detrimental to women’s health and wellbeing. It runs counter to Sex Discrimination Act and CEDAW provisions, as well as state government Acts.
So too with hospitals or clinics receiving federal government funding and failing to provide the full range of services and health treatments, including pregnancy termination. Government funding policies breach sex-gender discrimination laws - international, federal and state. The hospitals arguably breach the legislation and put women’s lives at risk: pregnancy termination is a health-saving operation, recognised by medical practitioners and legal decisions alike. Failure to provide health-saving treatment may lead not only to discrimination claims, but provide an opening for negligence claims as well.
Not advising women of the full range of health treatments and services available in respect of pregnancy breaches the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and state and international disability provisions, too. The law classifies pregnancy termination as a life-saving operation or one for the wellbeing of the patient - the woman who seeks and undergoes it.
Abortion is legal because it is necessary for the life, health and wellbeing of the putative mother. Hence, if a service fails to provide information about the treatment, or provides false and misleading information about it, this breaches disability laws. In funding services denying the right to information or the services themselves to women, the federal government ignores Disability Discrimination Act principles. Services, including hospitals, which refuse accurate information and treatment to women seeking pregnancy termination breach the Act’s requirements, too.
There are no over-arching federal Religious Discrimination or Political Discrimination Acts. The states and territories’ discrimination laws generally outlaw religious and political discrimination, though jurisdictional differences exist and some are more comprehensive than others.
Pregnancy counselling services which, upon religious or political grounds, provide misleading or false information about abortion, and hospitals which fail to provide the full range of health treatment for pregnant women, including pregnancy termination, arguably breach state laws. Services and treatment should never be provided so as to cater only for those who believe, on religious or political grounds, that abortion is unacceptable.
Health treatment should never be based in political and religious discriminatory policies. Sadly, Australia - like the US - currently is ruled by those appearing to adhere to policies based not in women’s health and wellbeing, but in politics and religion as a basis for women’s health treatment.
All members of federal Parliament who accept that women have a right to full and accurate information in respect of women’s health - including pregnancy whether carried to term or not - should be supporting the Transparent Advertising and Notification of Pregnancy Counselling Services Bill 2005.
In not doing so, members show themselves not only to be ignorant of Australia’s domestic discrimination legislation and obligations in international law. They may reveal themselves as supporting funding initiatives, counselling and health services that put women’s health rights second or even further down the list.
On April 18, 2007, the Supreme Court signaled a significant change in abortion jurisprudence. It held in Gonzales v. Carhart that a federal statute outlawing the use of "partial-birth abortion" is constitutional, even though many members of the medical community believe that the procedure should be available when it is the safest option for terminating a pregnancy. No exception was made for protecting a woman's health; only a threat to a woman's life would excuse the use of the procedure. Absent that excuse, a physician who knowingly performs an intact dilation and extraction (D&X) is subject to 2 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and monetary damages for psychological injury to the husband or parents of the pregnant woman.
Ever since the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, it has been understood that states may regulate pre-viability abortion and outlaw post-viability abortion completely, provided that the rules protect both the life and the health of the pregnant woman. And in the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed this principle, requiring a health exception in bans of post-viability abortion and stating that regulations regarding pre-viability abortion may not impose an "undue burden" on women. This balance reflects the view that a woman's interest in preserving her own health should be protected more strongly than any state interest in preserving intrauterine life. The latest decision of the Supreme Court alters this balance and holds that requiring women to submit to an unnecessarily dangerous version of an abortion procedure (in cases in which D&X is deemed by a physician to be the safest option) is neither an undue burden on them nor a dereliction of the state's duty to guard women's health and personal autonomy. The decision thus opens the door to revisiting any number of state and federal efforts to restrict access to abortion services.
The Supreme Court considered this very same issue 7 years ago in Stenberg v. Carhart, when it struck down a similar Nebraska state statute because it did not contain an exception to protect a woman's health and because its definition of the prohibited procedure was so vague that it could reasonably have been interpreted by doctors to include not only the D&X procedure but other more common abortion methods as well. Writing for the 5-to-4 majority in Gonzales v. Carhart, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy distinguished the federal statute from the Nebraska one, noting that it included a more precise definition of the prohibited acts.
A so-called partial-birth abortion, or D&X, involves dilating the cervix, partially extracting the fetus, puncturing the skull while it remains in the uterus, and removing the brain tissue through suction, thus allowing for easy removal of the otherwise intact fetus through the birth canal. In cases in which the procedure is performed, it is usually done late in the second trimester of pregnancy, though in some cases it is used during the third trimester. D&X procedures are rare; in 2000, only 2200 were performed by 31 providers, accounting for 0.17% of all abortions in the United States that year. 1 The more common abortion procedures are suction curettage (used in the first trimester) and dilation and evacuation (D&E), which is the most common procedure in the second trimester. D&E requires dismembering the fetus within the uterus, which poses risks of uterine damage or perforation from surgical instruments and sharp remnants of fetal bone.
Congress passed two statutes banning D&X procedures in the 1990s and another in 2003 that added language to define the prohibited acts more specifically. All three versions allowed for an exception to the ban only in cases in which a woman's life was in danger. Supporters of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 argued that a health exception would most likely be interpreted so broadly by doctors that it would render the legislation meaningless. Similar legislation was passed by state legislatures, and by the late 1990s, 31 states had enacted laws prohibiting partial-birth abortion; only 5 of the bans contain any kind of health exceptions (see map).
Bans on Partial-Birth Abortion in the United States
Bans presumed to be unenforceable violate the terms set out in Stenberg v. Carhart but have not yet been challenged in court. Data are from the Guttmacher Institute.
When Congress passed its latest ban, it included a lengthy section of "factual findings," asserting that a "moral, medical and ethical consensus" exists that partial-birth abortion is "a gruesome and inhuman procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited." The legislation further asserted that D&X is "never necessary to preserve the health of the woman."
It is unclear, however, what degree of deference the Court should grant to such findings when Congress is acting as a source of scientific and medical authority. Legislation often must be passed despite the presence of scientific uncertainty, and much environmental-protection legislation, for example, could be challenged if complete scientific consensus were required before restrictions on industrial pollution could be upheld. But this case is singular in that the Court upheld congressional findings even in instances in which multiple state trial courts had found these same assertions to be based on nonexpert testimony and, in several instances, factually erroneous. The Court then argued that since medical opinion is divided about D&X, Congress has the authority to invade the doctor–patient relationship and substitute blanket legislative judgment for individualized medical judgment concerning the best care for a particular patient. Although regulation of the drugs and devices marketed for use in medical care has long been accepted, legislative restriction of doctors' individual medical judgments is far more contentious. Where governmental involvement in medical decision making is warranted, it is best handled through dispassionate, evidence-based expert reviews. As Kassirer has written, "The data upon which many important medical decisions are based are often contradictory and still in evolution. Legislators do not have the context nor the capacity to weigh medical evidence adequately." 2 And indeed, the tradition has been to allow the medical profession to define for itself the meaning of "medically indicated." 3
The decision in Gonzales v. Carhart poses a threat to physicians who perform the still-legal D&E procedure and to those who determine that a D&X is indeed needed to save the life of a pregnant woman. Although the Court emphasized that a physician cannot be convicted unless he or she intentionally violated the statute, questions as to whether a woman's life was in danger and whether the physician's intent was to perform a D&X (as opposed to a D&E) are matters of interpretation. Even if physicians ultimately expect to be exonerated, the mere prospect of being investigated by a possibly hostile prosecutor may well have a chilling effect on their decision making. Certainly, that was the effect on many physicians after the 1975 prosecution of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, who was indicted for manslaughter for performing a second-trimester abortion 2 years after Roe v. Wade . 4
As to the substantive issue of medical necessity, Greene and Ecker have raised troubling pragmatic questions about what would count as a risk to a woman's life, rather than merely to her health, and where the threshold of "necessity" lies: "Would a procedure that averts a 50 percent risk of death be adequate to qualify as `necessary to save the life of the mother?'" 5
In an impassioned dissenting opinion delivered from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalled the statement in the 1992 Casey decision that "liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt." The 5-to-4 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, occasioned by a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court, illustrates how fragile are the constitutional interpretations by which reproductive rights are guaranteed. The prospect of yet further revisions occasioned by future appointments to the Court adds yet another measure of uncertainty beyond the uncertainties that physicians will face when choosing how best to terminate a dangerous pregnancy. And throughout the country, in light of this decision, states will be determining whether their previously unconstitutional bans on partial-birth abortion have now been brought back into effect, many of them incorporating language and proscriptions different from and broader than those of the federal law.
But the greatest uncertainty of all concerns the continued viability of any right to abortion in all but imminently life-threatening situations. The federal statute makes no distinction between pre-viability and post-viability abortions and bans the D&X procedure in both situations, even in cases in which physicians believe that the alternatives are more dangerous to a woman's health. The prospect that a woman's health might be endangered by limiting access to D&X procedures is deemed insufficient to qualify as an "undue burden." Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart endorses this conclusion, stating that it is "legitimate" because "a fetus is a living organism within the womb, whether or not it is viable outside the womb" and that "choosing not to prohibit [a brutal and inhumane procedure] will further coarsen society to the humanity of not only newborns, but all vulnerable and innocent human life, making it increasingly difficult to protect such life."
And thus the balance of interests shifts, with women's health no longer paramount but rather societal morality and the state's interest in life even before the point of viability outside the womb. For Justice Ginsburg, this vote signals an end to support for the central premises of Roe v. Wade: "In candor, the Act, and the Court's defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women's lives."
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute. Source Information This article (10.1056/NEJMp078055) was published at www.nejm.org on April 23, 2007.
Professor Charo is a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a member of the board of directors of the Guttmacher Institute.
References Finer LB, Henshaw SK. Abortion incidence and services in the United States in 2000. Perspect Sex Reprod Health 2003;35:6-15. [ISI] [Medline] Kassirer JP. Practicing medicine without a license -- the new intrusions by Congress. N Engl J Med 1997;336:1747-1747. [Free Full Text] Bloche MG. The Supreme Court and the purposes of medicine. N Engl J Med 2006;354:993-995. [Free Full Text] Wright AA, Katz IT. Roe versus reality -- abortion and women's health. N Engl J Med 2006;355:1-3, 5. [Free Full Text] Greene MF, Ecker JL. Abortion, health, and the law. N Engl J Med 2004;350:184-186. [Free Full Text]
Pro-choice activists dressed as Roman Catholic clergy celebrate outside of the City Leislature in Mexico City, Tuesday April 24, 2007. Mexico City lawmakers voted 46-19 to legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Opponents have vowed to challenge the new law before the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
MEXICO CITY — A new measure legalizing abortions in Mexico City was published into law on Thursday, allowing doctors to almost immediately begin terminating pregnancies in their first trimester.
City Health Secretary Manuel Mondragon said early term abortions will be legal starting Friday, and doctors will be able to carry them out for women who are already at the 12-week legal limit and cannot wait.
Women whose pregnancies are less advanced will have to wait until regulations associated with the law have been published, probably next week. Girls under 18 would still need parental consent.
He also said that except in cases of medical emergency, women will have to prove residency in the capital, a city of 9 million — correcting widespread belief that the law would make the capital a magnet for women across Mexico seeking abortions.
The law also allows gynecologists with moral objections to refuse to perform abortions.
The procedure will be free and available at 14 of the 28 city hospitals. Mondragon said each facility will be able to carry out seven abortions a day. Officials said it was not immediately clear if private hospitals would have to offer the abortions.
The country's leading anti-abortion group has said it may block entry to clinics performing abortions and to publicly identify abortion doctors. President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party also plans to challenge the new law before the Supreme Court, which could suspend its practice until a ruling is issued.
The law, backed by Mexico City's leftist government, is historic in a region with a heavy Roman Catholic majority.
In all of Latin America and the Caribbean, only Cuba and Guyana permit legal abortions, and the rest of Mexico allows it only in cases of rape, severe birth defects or if the mother's life is at risk.
Under the Mexico City law, women receiving an abortion after 12 weeks would be punished by three to six months in jail, and anyone performing an abortion after the first trimester would face one to three years in jail.
Mexico City: Mexico City lawmakers have voted to legalise abortion, a decision likely to influence policies and health practices across Mexico and other parts of heavily Roman Catholic Latin America. The proposal, approved 46-19 on Tuesday, with one abstention, will take effect when the leftist Mayor signs it. Abortion opponents have already vowed to appeal the law to the Supreme Court, a move likely to extend the bitter and emotional debate. ``Decriminalising abortion is a historic triumph, a triumph of the left,'' said city legislator Jorge Diaz Cuervo.