The Clinic: A No-Spin Zone

For anyone who has spent a lifetime listening to the bumper-sticker rhetoric of abortion politics, hearing Renee Chelian describe how she does things at the Michigan clinics she oversees is, no question, a shock to the system. "We're not going to correct a woman when she says 'baby' instead of 'fetus' and 'killing' instead of 'termination'," says Chelian flatly.

"If it's her body, she gets to use her terminology. We have to speak the language of the patients, not of political positions. Women don't come to us and say, 'I'm having an abortion because it's my choice.' They say, 'I'm having an abortion because I can't have a baby.' And sometimes they feel sad about that."

These are some of the honest discussions taking place around America's most contentious personal moral and ethical issue. They're found in places like Northland Family Planning, where the counseling staff may suggest that a woman who is uncertain complete a pie chart with the heading "How much of you wants what?"

At clinics like Chelian's the staff deals with the actual, the difficult, sometimes the terribly necessary. But in the legislative world, it's all about strategy. When South Dakota's governor signed a measure banning almost all abortions, much of the second-guessing that followed could have concerned a tax cut. Would a more moderate approach have been better for the Republicans? Would the legislation push more female voters toward the Democrats? On Planet Spin, it was possible to forget completely that the legislation could change the destinies of many ordinary women. A coalition of nurses, teachers, doctors, ministers and other nonpoliticos finally brought the matter back to earth and onto the ballot for all the state's residents to consider in the November election.

Recently the House passed a bill that would make it a federal crime to accompany a minor seeking an abortion from a state that requires parental notification to one that does not. Like most abortion debates, this one had its stock characters: the grandmother imprisoned after helping a girl impregnated by her stepfather, the young woman victimized by the predatory older man. If those sound like plotlines from Lifetime movies, it may be because none of this had much to do with reality, with almost no chance of squaring the House and Senate versions of the law for a compromise that could be sent to the White House. But voting the bill out now gave House conservatives something to crow about just in time for the midterm races.

The conventional wisdom about parental-notification and consent laws was that they would cut down on abortion, which is why anti-abortion activists loved them. But earlier this year The New York Times ran a jaw-dropping analysis that found the laws had no significant impact on teenage abortion rates. (They also may be way behind the curve; at Chelian's clinic, young women already tell counselors that you can order an ulcer medication online that all their friends swear will cause a miscarriage.) The statutes did, however, have one unintended consequence. "We have parents who come in and want to force their daughters to have an abortion," Chelian says. "Their attitude is, 'If I can prevent you from having one, I can force you to have one.' And we have to tell them that that's not so. The mother will say, 'She's 14, I'm already taking care of her sister's baby, I can't take care of another one.' You know that it will be really hard for everyone."

Public pronouncements rarely make any of this sound hard for anyone, since they're too often based on mean-spirited assumptions. The gay-rights movement has shown over the last two decades that a powerful enemy of such misinformation is personal testimony, that coming out as an individual can combat the big lies about the group. In that spirit the current issue of Ms. magazine contains a list of the names of thousands of American women under the headline we had abortions. It is riveting, even disconcerting, because telling their own abortion stories seems in direct opposition to the bedrock belief that this decision, above all, is not subject to the scrutiny of strangers.

It's that very determination to stay within the zone of privacy that has made abortion, and the women who choose it, such an easy mark for cheap mythology and easy demonization. And sometimes the triumphant talk of rights has overshadowed the complex responsibility women feel. "Having the right doesn't make the decision any easier," said one of the signatories of the Ms. magazine petition. Chelian notes that while most patients come to the clinic with their minds made up, that doesn't mean they are not conflicted. "Sometimes we're working with a person who feels like she's got nothing but bad choices," she says. "She doesn't want to have an abortion, but she doesn't want to have a baby. That's what I think people need to understand. You can be ambivalent about abortion and still decide to have one. And you can be ambivalent about abortion and still be pro-choice. Lots of people are."