Daily BeastNational Right to Life, Family Research Council, and other anti-abortion organizations have been enthusiastically spreading the word about a study published in the New England Medical Journal showing that a fetus can be viable if born at 22 weeks gestation with advanced medical intervention. A New York Times article about the study was very clear that survival was for a “tiny minority” and that 24 weeks remains the medically and scientifically accepted point of viability.  Nonetheless, as all sides in politically polarized issues tend to do, abortion opponents have focused on sharing the headline of the study and not the details. Although coincidental, the publication of the study is perfectly timed with the U.S. House of Representatives passing the 20-week abortion ban, which the Senate will now consider.

Predictably, those who oppose abortion see the study as the proof needed to ban late term abortions, also suggesting that viability age should be lowered. They are appealing to our hearts through survival babies, giving the false impression that at 22 weeks most fetuses can survive outside of the womb. Many who believe that late term abortions must be legally available might even agree with them if the study was conclusive. It is not.

There are important medical-scientific limitations to babies born before 24 weeks. When pregnant women either go into labor early or a medical complication otherwise comrpomises the pregnancy, doctors discuss available medical interventions and the prospective outcomes of each on the fetus. Not all hospitals have the technology or equipment most able to produce a live birth and not all parents choose to have those interventions. Indeed, it is those very women who may choose a late term abortion to save their own lives or spare their wanted child a life of poor health. Much as they felt joy at being pregnant, life offered them a heartbreaking complication. No one has the right to judge the decision they make, certainly not Congress or political opponents of abortion.22 week fetus

In a column for the Daily Beast, Cornell Professor of Pediatrics Jeffrey Perlman noted in more eloquent terms that the study had serious biases and design flaws and should not lead to lowering the age of viability. For that to make sense, a randomized study with and without medical intervention would be necessary. Perlman also pointed out that the research would have to account for  a range of factors, such as gender differences in fetal development and accurate estimates of the age of the fetus to name a couple.

I am personally very grateful for the medical advances that have made it possible for premature babies to survive and live healthy, productive lives. I have significant reservations about the use of technology to force life too early to ensure health and quality, just as I do with sustaining life too long when people are confined to a bed with no consciousness and only technology allowing them to breathe.  All of us know of children born with disabilities or conditions that require lifelong care. That happens and to full term as well as premature babies. Families accept and embrace the children, adjusting and growing with the child. The acceptance that society places on these children and the value they place on supporting them and their families is evident through public policies, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and various educational reforms.

If a 22-week-old fetus can receive medical assistance and survive, how should medical experts and ethicists respond in the future, if at all, to the prospect of lowering the stage of viability if technology continues to advance? Are we concerned about the financial and social/personal costs associated with using the technology? There are high costs for the medical technology and there are high costs to care for babies born so early that they must receive medical care throughout life however long or short. What about 22-week gestational stage babies born addicted to drugs? Are we going to complain about the public assistance their moms receive? Will Congress thwart programs that support the care for these babies?

Doctor with laptop and pregnant woman in doctor's officeFor pregnant women in the wrenching situation of unexpectedly delivering a 22-week-old fetus, this study might offer hope if they happen to be at a hospital with the technology and expertise to offer medical intervention that might allow survival of the fetus. For other pregnant women, if this study is improperly used for political gain, and it already is**, instead of hope, it will further erode their options to make decisions they consider best for them and the baby they wanted and may even allow a physician to place priority on the life of the fetus over the woman. Which life is more important?

Instead of having implications for late term abortions and viability, the real issues to come from the study involve ethics and social support. A 22-week-old fetus is not naturally viable. An abortion at 20-22 weeks gestation may well save a woman’s life or spare a baby a life of pain. Nothing has changed in that regard.

** 5/15-15 update: Political misuse of the study has begun. See http://black.house.gov/press-release/rep-black-lauds-upcoming-house-vote-pain-capable-unborn-child-protection-act and http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/opinion/an-abortion-bans-bogus-arguments.html?_r=0

In a recent Daily Beast article concerning abortion-related comments between Rand Paul and Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, Samantha Allen wrote, “By turning late-term abortions into a metonym for the issue as a whole, [Rand] Paul is clearly attempting to challenge the American consensus on the legality of abortion earlier in pregnancy. It’s a tactic as old as Roe: make first-trimester abortions guilty by association with the more easily demonized late-term procedures.” Nothing new was said here about the intent to frame all abortions as happening in the third trimester. “Metonym” is what caught my attention.

It is metonyms that keep the average person confused about abortion. Since most people, politicians and regular voters included, do not go out of their way to educate themselves about abortion and the numerous complexities of the debate, they are influenced by metonyms.

Not to be confused with a metaphor, a metonym is “a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.”  We use metonyms all the time. Online sources cite “Washington” as an often used metonym for the federal government, “sweat” for hard work, “plastic” for credit card and so on. Most of us take care in everyday conversation to avoid metonymic usage if it will misinform. That is not the case in politics and, after reading Allen’s article, I realized how pervasive metonyms are in the language used to discuss abortion, primarily by those opposed to abortion.

What is the most destructive are the efforts to present abortion as something it is not. Achieving public policy objectives through false data and building public support by misleading the less passionate into a belief system based on ideology presented through using inaccurate and incorrect word choices is wrong, yet never effectively challenged.Embryos-Human

Responding to the same Rand Paul – Debbie Wasserman-Schultz comments, Casey Mattox shared in the Federalist that Wasserman-Shultz and the Democrat Party support abortion “through all nine months of pregnancy.” He later states, “Democrats are big on abortion euphemisms. When they say, as Wasserman-Shultz did, that abortion should be a woman’s ‘choice’ through all nine months, they want you to focus on something other than the reality of what abortion is. Simply put, there is no clean and humane way to kill a seven-pound, full-term baby.”

I am not sure what specific euphemisms Mattox had in mind, or if he incorrectly thinks that correct terms, such as blastocyst, embryo, or fetus, are euphemisms and that pro-choice advocates should use his preferred set of ideological words or metonyms. All pro-choice people I know would agree that it is inhumane to kill a full-term baby. We also tend to believe it inhumane to have public policies that would force a woman to compromise her health or die in order for a fetus to evolve into a born person. Mattox used the “choice” term in the context of the abortion debate as a metonym for “abortion on demand at all stages of pregnancy for any reason.”  Sadly, the dispassionate all too often believe such rhetoric.

Over the years, many of us have written about the language used to discuss abortion. Often divisive and steeped in emotion, the language is powerful. The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have always created barriers to productive discourse about abortion to the point that many people now refuse to be categorized as one or the other.

Decoding Abortion Language imageFetus and unborn baby are frequently used as metonyms for blastocysts and embryos. Abortion opponents use murder metonymically for the abortion procedure itself.  Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: The Communication of Social Change (Celeste Michelle Condit 1990) discussed how metonymic language shaped public policy on abortion. That was 25 years ago and metonyms continue to define each and every facet that leads to abortion-related public policy today. Another book, Lexical and Syntactical Constructions and the Construction of Meaning, published in 1995, also discussed the metonymy of abortion language. When “embryo” is used by abortion opponents, it is as a metonym for stem cells, which has dramatically limited potentially lifesaving research. As author Mark Bracher stated in yet another book, Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism (1993), “Insofar as antiabortionist discourse convinces its audience, through such operations of metaphor and metonymy, that the fetus is an instance of human life, it succeeds in positioning abortion…” (p105).

Metonymy has positioned abortion in public policy outcomes. What it cannot accomplish is altering the experiences so many Americans have had, directly or indirectly, with abortion. Abortion polls that both sides use to claim victories from time to time are not reliable. What is reliable are the personal and family experiences people have with abortion rights and access.  Those experiences reject the metonyms and steer people to the belief that abortion is a personal decision between a woman and her medical provider.

David Gunn, Jr.

David Gunn, Jr.

Sitting in Mrs. Croom’s third grade classroom during recess, copiously copying text from a random text book as punishment for some nine year old transgression I cannot recall or name, a girl sitting next to me on one of those round white tables with a black plastic border looked up from her science book, regarded me seriously and full of unmitigated and undeserved hate, and told me I was going to hell. Here I was nine years old and condemned to hell wondering just what I did to deserve soul annihilation at the hands of an angry Satan and even angrier third grade girl.

It was quite an odd statement from a fellow classmate, and one that felt irrationally unjustified since my sin to innocence ratio at age nine, though I had smoked a cigarette, drank some beer, and had the beginnings of what would eventually become carnal thoughts (not hard to develop when you’re the son of a gynecologist and overly hormonal even for a nine year old), were nonetheless relatively new and certainly not worthy of eternal damnation in my estimation. Being a damnation virgn so to speak, I asked her what justified my condemnation to everlasting suffering, and I recall she pointed to my T-shirt.

You have to realize, I discovered rock music at an early age and developed what we might now call a man crush on Kiss at age six or seven. I had most of their records by third grade, even the shitty solo efforts each member released of which Ace’s was my favorite. In fact, I was a proud card carrying member of the Kiss Army, and my room was adorned with all sorts of Kissmobelia. Of course, in 1979, Kiss was widely known as Knights in Satan’s Service in certain circles in America especially those in the Bible Belt where I now found myself firmly planted. Even at nine I realized the proposition that four New York pop rockers who wore clown make up and sang incessantly about sex were not Pied Pipers to Hell’s gate; yet, my first taste of damnation stung and troubled me for longer than I wanted to admit. In fact, though I’m loathe and embarrassed to admit, they served as an introduction to fundamentalism to which I later succumbed as a result of relentless pressure and more eternal damnations.

Of course, this was not the first time I contemplated my immortal soul’s fate or experienced fundamental Christianity. It was, though, the first time I was damned to hell–and by a nine year old ne’er-do-well sitting in detention with me at that! My dad’s parents were about as fundamental as fundamental could be in the late 1970s, belonged to the Church of Christ, and were absolutely committed to their perceived duty to God. Fortunately or not, during my early years up until I was around 11, I, like many others of my generation I suppose, was shipped off to my grandparents’ house each summer for at least a two week tour of duty. Looking back on it now, it is odd how I relished going to visit my paternal Kentucky grandparents yet was oftentimes dismayed at the prospect of reciprocal time with my mom’s more progressive parents.


I believe my Kentucky preference was highly influenced by the fact I had other cousins who stayed at my grandparents’ home who were the same age as me, served the same sentence as me, and ultimately made the stay enjoyable. While we spent much of our time exploring the woods surrounding my grandparents’ house, a standing expectation was we attend any and all church function at the local Church of Christ. If there was a teeming casserole potluck, we were at church. If it was Wednesday afternoon, we were at church, and if it was Sunday—morning and night—we were at church.

Now a fundamentalist Church of Christ, for those uninitiated in their machinations was a fairly terrifying prospect for a young person, and I was there each summer from post toddler age up to prepubescence. They landed somewhere on the continuum of Cotton Mather/Jonathan Edwards on one hand and Pat Roberts/Jim Jones on the other: apocalyptic, hyper suffocating, and always damning us to hell for half thoughts, half deeds, and potential eventualities which never came to pass. In fact, if you recall, the late 70s and early 80s was a boon year for what became the moral majority and I was there to soak it up in all its majestic and twisted intimidation. My uncle was the church choir director which was an interesting proposition as music in our church was strictly verboten aside from the unadorned human voice. I guess a piano, organ (it referenced a sexual organ as everyone knows), or God forgive, a band was simply too indulgent for the fundamental faithful. Moreover, my grandfather was a guest sermonizer who could pound his fist and speak of the approaching fall of man with the best of them. As I grew up in this community each summer, not only did it become somewhat normal, but it exposed me to adults I found influential as well as cousins and peers in the community who were as want to list off mortal sins as the third grader who damned me to hell for a wardrobe choice. As a result of warm embrasure in this close knit and insular community, I continued to wonder what I was doing to contribute to my soul’s eternal torment in a hell of rendered human fat while simultaneously wanting to please those around me.

By the winter or spring of 1980, I took to wearing three piece suits, carrying a Bible with me everywhere I went, and essentially succumbed to numbing fundamentalism: one which is inclined toward judgment and condemnation as opposed to unconditional love and forgiveness. I also questioned my every action and motivation and wondered how they would contribute to my eventual residence in Satan’s abode. Coming home to deep southern Alabama certainly reinforced my newfound rebirth as Southern Baptists are kissing cousins of the Church of Christ, and I eventually tried to purge myself of sin by burning the symbol of my selfish and sinful indulgence, my Kiss record collection. Though it was one of my most shameful acts, the neighborhood Christjihadists urged me on to destroy the symbol of my eternal ruin. Once the offending records of my sin were burned in their own hellfire of my creation, I felt a sense of what I can only describe as orgasmic bliss though I had no referent for orgasm at 10 or 11. What I did have was an enduring fear that nothing I did would save my soul and even my pithy attempt at a burnt offering would fall on God’s deaf ear.

Oddly enough, in the summer of 1981 I returned to my paternal grandparents’ house for my yearly pilgrimage full of religious zeal and commitment. Where I had been a rock-n-roll hellion on the proverbial Highway to Hell to some, I now accompanied the church on an out of state missionary trip to Illinois where we were housed with strangers, impressed with the worthiness of our cause for the eight hour or so bus trip, and spent the next few days going door to door attempting to sell Bible sets for our lord and savior to the unsuspecting public in the non-descript Illinois town in which we found ourselves. I found the missionary trip stifling and intimidating, and, in retrospect, I wonder what the fuck the church was thinking when they sent tweens out unsupervised in a strange neighborhood to sell Bibles without the slightest concern of abduction, assault, or worse.

On the way back to Kentucky, as I thought over the experience, an older girl who accompanied us on the trip introduced me to what I can only affectionately call a dry hump but was probably closer to pedophilia. I was certainly taken by her interest in me—and mine in her—while also absolutely terrified that her Eveish actions were ruining the yearlong soul searching salvation I so desperately sought to save me from the Lord’s rage. As we pulled in to Benton, then separated into individual cars, and headed back to my grandparents, I was filled with awe and shame: awed that a teenager would find an 11 year old the least bit interesting and attractive but shamed I let down God by acquiescing to bodily sin. My misgivings were only reinforced when I heard my cousins talking about a girl they knew—or knew from a friend who knew—about a teenager who allegedly had sex. I was rapt as they described how she would certainly go to hell for her sexual misconduct, and I thought about my brief bus arousal and was confronted again with damnation even in the face of blind devotion.

Later that summer, before heading back to Brewton, Alabama from Benton, Kentucky, how was I to know that a somewhat trivial accident involving a broken lamp would shake my youthful faith to its foundation? You see, there were six of us staying at Mae and Pete’s that summer: my six year old sister Wendy, our six year old cousin Kristen, my 11 year old favorite cousin Hannah, and her 13 or 14 year old sister Courtney. Hannah, Courtney, and I were in my grandparents’ bedroom talking on the bed. They did not particularly like us in their room as kids were supposed to be outside, in church, or in bed; yet, there we were on the bed dicking around as close southern cousins are want to do—nothing incestuous; that came earlier and prior to my birth yet colored my entire existence. Unfortunately, our hefty cousin Kristen decided to run down the hall after my sister. As she came barreling toward the bed, she attained what I can only describe as a miraculous airborne height similar to how Douglas Adams describes flight, “falling but missing,” and landed full force on the bed knocking over an antique—and sentimental to my grandmother—lamp in the process. Of course, all parents and grandparents recognize the distinct sound of their shit breaking at the hands of their spawn, and swept in the room to lay final judgment on the potential damned. Though the oldest of us were sitting still and my sister was hiding as Kristen took porcine flight, crashed, and created the necessary reverberations resulting in broken lamp, Wendy and I were blamed for the incident.

As I listened to my elders’ harsh criticism and unfair sentencing, it occurred to me then that I was a vainglorious fool. If ones as purportedly wise and Christian as my grandparents could erroneously condemn innocents, how could an ineffable wise grandparent to all be expected to unerringly pass judgment on the masses? How foolish was I to believe salvation lie through denying flesh and indiscriminant art burning. I do not know that I was familiar with past censorious art massacres, but I could not believe a creator God would condone such abhorrent and wanton destruction. Though I was not philosophically acquainted with a free will defense, the problem of evil, and had certainly never heard anyone dare utter God is dead, he died for me that day just as my respect in my father’s parents suffered an irrevocable foundational shift. To me, that summer of contradictions whose trajectory started roughly two years earlier when an unnamed girl damned me to hell for a T-shirt, ended in an unrecoverable loss of faith. I realized, then, a loving, all knowing, and ever present god would not subject me to hell for my grandparents’ erroneous judgment, my choice of wardrobe, or my innocent almost dry hump in the church bus. Yet, here were the so called redeemed acting as “purblind doomsters” readily strowing “blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.” Screen Shot 2012-12-13 at 6.57.54 AM

Though I subsequently discovered many contributing and primary causes for my sister’s and my unfair persecution, I never regained the youthful exuberant blind faith I cherished for perhaps a year and a half. Later that year, I almost joined my parents’ less radical (ie. Episcopal) church—they joined because it was expected that a doctor and his spouse in a small Bible Belt Alabama town conform to societal norms and join a congregation to fit in with the social elite–my many conversations with the priest prior to Christening or whatever could not shake my newfound conviction theism was a fraud and a tool used to manipulate and control. Though I now think of myself as possessing some sense or form of individual strength and slight intellectual capacity, I am utterly ashamed at how easily fundamentalism seduced me as a kid; moreover, it is blatantly obvious that its survival greatly depends on fearful indoctrination of children; otherwise, it would wither and die as hatred and fear require careful and consistent cultivation which explains, to a certain degree, white flight, Islamaphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and the never ending persecution of women.

Also, looking back on those formative individual philosophical and political moments–though I could not name it as such at the time—I cannot help but question whether or not dad’s decision to embrace and perform a newly legalized medical procedure, a procedure misunderstood and unpopular six to seven years after it started to slough out from the shadows into the mainstream, contributed to my initial damnation since there are no secrets in a small Alabama town. I know now, as I grew older and the 70s ceded to the 80s and Christjihadism and Reagan’s social conservatism spread, that dad’s profession darkly, if unjustly so, colored everything that came afterwards.

PS. Shameless plug time: Please check out the following link for information regarding this summer’s planned Abortion Rights Freedom Ride set to kick off in late July:


Cranston Abortion

Cranston Abortion

This past weekend, I got a great treat.  I was alone in my house.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love my family.  But I have to admit it was fun to just putter around the house, drinking wine at 1:00 in the afternoon, taking a nap, drinking wine at 5:00.  At one point, however, I found some old newspaper clippings and noticed an article about something I was involved in when I worked for the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.

In the 1990’s the anti-abortion movement would hold massive demonstrations in front of abortion clinics.  It seemed like they could get hundreds of people at the drop of a hat to converge on a local facility.  They would march to the front door and sit down, preventing women from entering the clinic.  Of course, the clinic staff would immediately call the police but in conservative cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana or Birmingham, Alabama the police would just watch the demonstration.  That’s right – they would do absolutely nothing.  Hundreds of protestors were clearly trespassing but the police would just sit on their hands and let the demonstrators do their thing.  It was totally outrageous.

One day I was talking to a friend of mine who worked for Senator Alan Cranston of California and I told her about this problem we were having.  We started to think about how we could get local police to enforce the trespassing laws in those cities.  We came up with a brilliant idea.

In those days, just about every city in the country received “Community Development Block Grant” (CDBG) funds from the federal government.   These CDBG dollars were used for all kinds of projects:  to build affordable housing, construct new sewer lines, repair roads, etc.  Cities got millions and millions of these dollars (I know, those were the good ole days).

So, one night, when the U.S. Senate was in session Senator Cranston proposed an amendment to a bill saying in so many words that if the police did not do their job and arrest the trespassers, then that city would lose its CDBG funds.  Before the anti-abortion Senators knew what was going on, the amendment passed and ultimately became law.

The first thing we did was write a letter to every mayor of every major city in the country to tell them about this new law, just to put them on notice.  Our announcement caused an explosion around the country.  For example, within two days of the letter going out, I got a call from the Mayor of Philadelphia asking me about the new law.  No, that’s not entirely accurate.  What he actually said was “What the *%$)(#*@&% is this new law all about?   What the *#%()@#*%$# are you doing?”

After picking myself off the floor, I politely told him that he just had to make sure the police did their job and he would have nothing to worry about.  “*$()@*@(#%$,” he concluded and hung up the phone.  We never had a problem in Philadelphia again with protestors.

Also, whenever we heard about a demonstration that might take place, just to make sure I would call the Mayor of that city and warn him or her that they stood to lose a crap-load of money if the police ignored the protestors.  All of a sudden, police started making arrests in the most conservative of cities.

A lot of people are down on government.  They say there’s too much of it, it’s broken, keep it out of my face.  I get the argument.  But there are times like this one when government actually helped us guarantee that women would be able to exercise their constitutional right to have an abortion.

Is this a great country, or what?