Toeing life’s line
Both sides of the abortion debate are represented on the Palouse

May 2, 2017

by Lyndsie Kiebert & Hailey Stewart

In 2013, 664,435 legal abortions were performed in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2015, 1,272 legal abortions occurred in the state of Idaho, according to the state’s Health and Welfare Department.

Abortion is a widely debated topic in courts across the world and on the Palouse. With the presence of a Planned Parenthood in a community of diverse views, the Palouse is no different from anywhere else, and members on both sides of the debate call this area home.

These are some of their voices.

‘I remember Roe’

Elizabeth Brandt was a college freshman when she heard the news.

The Supreme Court reached a historic ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade — the right to legally and safely end a pregnancy through an abortion. The year was 1973.

Now a lawyer and a University of Idaho professor of law, Brandt said the debate surrounding female reproductive rights, especially in relation to abortion, has evolved.

“To me, it was something that was going to help women have choices and eliminate women being taken advantage of,” Brandt said.

Brandt said the argument in the ‘70s focused on women’s safety and health. The increasingly high rate of unauthorized, dangerous abortions initiated the conversation about female reproductive rights, but Brandt said Roe v. Wade helped put the issue on the map.

“Women were dying because they were meeting strangers for back-alley abortions and using coat hangers,” Brandt said. “It is horrible to think that women died because of the healthcare they couldn’t receive.”

To Brandt, no one believed the outcome of Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, but still, she always knew that millions took issue with it.

“It seemed like a victory. No, it didn’t just seem like a victory, it truly was a victory,” Brandt said.

Roe v. Wade set a strong legal precedent, but Brandt said abortions have always been linked to phrases like “failure” and “baby killer,” language steeped in moral complexity .

Moscow Right to Life President Sam Paul has his own issue with the morality of abortion.

“I don’t think you can separate the legal from the moral. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral,” Paul said. “At one time, it was legal in Germany to kill Jews. Does that make it right?”

‘A swing against women’

Frances Arend never considered the possibility of being pro-choice.

Similar to Paul, the president of the UI Students for Life club said she believes the legality and morality of abortion share a fine line.

“Morally it is wrong to kill someone, and it is illegal because we view it as immoral,” Arend said.

For Arend, abortions do not just affect women — abortions impact all lives involved, including the lives of the unborn.

“When injustice is inflicted on another, because of a rights issue, we have to ask the government to step in and have the government protect the innocent human being,” Arend said.

For Brandt, the idea of the government intervening on behalf of choice is rooted in the concept of slavery. Though she said her views may seem “a little out there,” she said being forced to bear a child against one’s will enslaves the female body.

“If only the woman is forced into that and not the man, then it is gender-based slavery,” Brandt said. “Sadly, I’ve had to become this radical about it all.”

Somewhere along the reproductive rights discussion, Brandt said the conversation shifted from keeping women safe to keeping women controlled.

She said the tide turned, making women fight for their constitutional rights to bodily independence.

“Attempting to take abortion rights and reproductive rights away is a swing against women — a swing against female independence, a swing against female bodily autonomy, a swing against a female’s ability to support herself,” Brandt said.

Ramiro Vargas, a UI student and concerned brother and friend, said it is not a man’s place to make decisions on topics that directly affect women’s bodies.

While reproductive rights can include both males and females, Vargas said he knows women are rarely involved at the legislative level when it comes to their rights.

“It’s not really my place, or any man’s place to make those decisions for a woman about the things that happen to ‘her’ body,” Vargas said.

Vargas said the reproductive resources available to women before, during and after pregnancy are often sparse because of government interference.

“Women need those resources to take care of their children, but conservative leaders want to diminish those resources to nothing,” Vargas said. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Vargas said he views his pro-choice stance on abortion rights as a pro-female outlook.

As the only male in a largely female family and someone who has a close set of female friends, Vargas said the decision to fight for female reproductive freedoms was an easy one.

“Being pro-choice doesn’t mean I want abortions to occur, it just means I want my female friends and sisters to have choices,” Vargas said.

Arend also identifies as pro-woman — but in a different sense.

“What about the woman in the womb?” Arend said. “To be a true feminist, you have to care about the rights of women, even if they are not yet born.”

When Paul works the pro-life booth at the Latah County Fair, he said small children stand before the various models of growing fetuses, point at the earliest stage and shout, “baby, baby.”

“Children are pro-life,” he said. “It’s not until they are told over and over again that the baby is nothing but a clump of cells, and it’s OK to kill it, that their minds are changed.”

UI freshman Ethan Renshaw identified as pro-choice through his early teen years despite his Catholic upbringing, but after a while, he said he found his pro-choice stance hard to justify.

“There’s a lot of discussion about the vague concept of choice, but not really discussing what that choice is, and that kind of bothered me,” he said.

Once the details of that “choice” — namely, the details of a late-term abortion — were brought to his attention, Renshaw reevaluated his position. He now considers himself pro-life, and has seen his other views shift to the conservative side as well.

Though Renshaw said he understands the desire to place the abortion limit at, for example, 20 weeks, he doesn’t see logic as the driving force behind those arguments.

“Essentially what you’re saying is that at 19 weeks, 6 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, this fetus is not a person, has no rights and there’s really nothing wrong with killing it — but two seconds later it’s precious,” Renshaw said.

Paul echoed Renshaw’s sentiment, noting that conception is the only point where something biologically changes.

“There is nothing that is logically consistent about drawing that line anywhere else,” he said. “The beginning is the beginning is the beginning. That’s personhood.”

Brandt acknowledged that drawing the line at which life begins is no simple task, but said conception does not equal personhood in her worldview.

“I draw mine in saying at least until that embryo is viable and turns into a fetus and develops further, it really isn’t a person in any sense that we would define personhood,” she said.

Though Brandt’s idea of “personhood” happens some time post-conception, she recognizes that a fertilized egg might hold a future.

“It is potential life, and we have to be very careful about that,” she said. “I would never encourage someone to get an abortion cavalierly — it’s a life-altering thing.”

UI freshman Mary Alice Taylor grew up with the impression that this life-altering aspect of abortion was inescapable — in fact, she learned “all mothers regret” terminating their pregnancies.

Other rhetoric surrounding abortion in Taylor’s Catholic upbringing included being told Planned Parenthood only did abortion, the fetus always feels pain and everyone believes life begins at conception.

It wasn’t until high school that Taylor was exposed to pro-choice ideas.

“I just realized that I was fed a lot of lies,” she said.

Trips to Planned Parenthood are scattered throughout Taylor’s early adolescent memories — not to access services, but to pray alongside her pro-life grandmother.

Now, as a woman who accesses birth control through Planned Parenthood, Taylor said she can’t imagine being in the shoes of the women who saw her pray.

“You’re just condemning them, and you don’t even know what they’re going there for,” she said. “I could just be going in to refill my birth control, and they just assume I’m going there to get an abortion.”

‘The best thing for me’

Mia* can’t tell her parents about her abortion because then they know they won’t see her in their ideal heaven.

Raised in a Mormon household in Idaho Falls, Mia grappled with pro-life and pro-choice views as early as fourth grade. Through conversations with relatives and eventually self-education in her teen years, she came to what she believed to be an informed decision. Mia is pro-choice.

It was a “mental breakdown” caused by the weight of a full course load and other personal struggles that set the UI student onto a course that ultimately led to her own choice.

In fall 2015, she left class, walked home, got in her car, drove back to Idaho Falls, found roommates on Craigslist, a restaurant job and an abusive partner.

When she realized she was pregnant, she had no partner, no parental support and barely enough money to make rent.

“There was no way that I could have gone through with the pregnancy, even if I was going to give it up for adoption, and actually sustain my own life,” she said. “It was the best thing for me.”

Mia said there is a clinic unassociated with Planned Parenthood in Twin Falls, just over two hours from Idaho Falls. However, the Twin Falls clinic required an in-person consultation and waiting period prior to the procedure, and she couldn’t afford the trip twice.

“Women don’t need a week to make a decision, but the government seems to assume you need time to mull over your decision before you can be sure because you’re not hysterical or whatever,” she said. “That’s sarcasm.”

As a result, Mia traveled to Salt Lake City after a virtual consultation with the area’s Planned Parenthood. Three hours of driving, a little waiting, and 20 minutes later, Mia terminated her pregnancy through the traditional procedure.

Due to the tilted shape of her uterus, she said it took doctors four or five tries to make sure her uterus was entirely vacant, which made the process more painful than in typical instances. Due to that experience, Mia said she wants women to know the procedure is not easy to go through.

“It was actually fairly traumatic and painful. It’s not something that’s light. It sucks,” she said. “So yes, let’s all work together to make sure that as few people have to get abortions as possible, but it’s not because it’s murder — it’s because it’s tragic and difficult.”

After the insertion of a birth control implant — which helped to treat her endometriosis, a painful uterine disorder she has struggled with her entire life — Mia left Planned Parenthood and started making positive life changes.

Mia is back at UI, continuing her education.

“The peace of mind after the leaving (the clinic), and the ability to continue living your life is really, really cool,” she said.

Mia remains adamant that her trip to Planned Parenthood changed her for the better, despite her knowledge that pro-life activists wouldn’t support her decision.

“For me it’s been, ‘It’s my body, and why is that a question?’” she said.

‘Along the Moscow-Pullman Highway …’

Despite the liberal patch that is the University of Idaho, Eastern Washington and North Idaho remain predominantly conservative on the political spectrum.

Arend said she finds that same sentiment to be true in relation to female reproductive rights on the Palouse.

“On college campuses in general, and especially here at UI, I think people lean more toward the liberal side of allowing women to obtain abortions,” Arend said.

However, she finds the Palouse community to be abundantly pro-life. She said the various pro-life marches she has attended are proof of that.

Paul also sees the community as a supportive group of pro-life advocates, even if those voices are often shadowed by the large presence of the university.

“I think that the silent majority is astoundingly pro-life,” Paul said.

When it comes to community pro-life marches, Paul said the environment only furthers his thoughts about the general population.

“When people drive by we get nine honks to every flip of the bird,” Paul said.

On the other side of the debate, Vargas said community marches where the pro-choice view is present, like the Women’s March in January, draw crowds that share his outlook.

“Seeing the crowd that gathered at the Women’s March, and seeing all those people that wanted to make change was incredibly impactful,” Vargas said. “With our political climate now, we need that.”

Despite the community’s polarized views, the local Planned Parenthood serves as a reminder of the controversy on either side.

While the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” connote a person’s stance on Planned Parenthood, Paul said it really comes down to abortion. He noted the abundance of community health centers across the United States, and said they often provide the same contraceptives and other services as Planned Parenthood.

“We don’t need Planned Parenthood, and that’s very, very crippling to the pro-choice crowd,” he said. “(Community health centers) do the same things, they are just not murderers.”

Planned Parenthood in Pullman offers annual exams, birth control and contraceptives, STD testing and treatment and pregnancy testing for the greater Washington and North Idaho area.

However, the facility refers women seeking to terminate their pregnancies to abortion providers in Spokane.

“To me,” Paul said, “that’s just as bad.”

‘Access to care’

Brandt remembers a time when women had access to abortions in Moscow. That provider no longer exists, but it served as an ideological battleground while it did.

“It had protesters and picketers outside its door everyday — but at least there was a provider around at the time,” Brandt said. “If anyone had told me back then that we were further behind now than we were then, I would not have ever believed them.”

Brandt said reproductive rights are not just a question of “abortion” or “no abortion.”

“This is a health issue,” she said.

Paul remains an active community voice against abortion, but acknowledges that female reproductive rights encompass more than pregnancy termination.

“I don’t want murder to be allowed, that’s true,” Paul said. “But I also want women to be very well protected and I want them to always have access to the care.”

Today, Paul plans his next pro-life march as Brandt remembers the initial steps of the pro-choice movement.

Today, Renshaw applies a newfound logic while Taylor grapples with a newfound belief.

Today, Vargas defends his sisters while Arend defends sisters not yet born.

And today, Mia carries her abortion in her memory, confident she made the right choice for herself.

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