“Aborting Culture”


Posted on January 12th, 2009 by Katherine Franke
 4 comments  

Khiara Bridges is the Center for Reproductive Rights/Columbia Law School fellow at Columbia Law School who has just completed her PhD in Columbia’s Anthropology Department studying the intersection of race, poverty, and gender through the experience of women in an obstetrics clinic in a New York City public hospital.  She blogged earlier on the racial implications of surrogacy and now offers the following reaction to a recent article in the New York Times on Dominican women’s “self-help” abortions:

For Privacy’s Sake: Taking Risks to End Pregnancy, an article that was published last weekend in the New York Times, reports on the use of misoprostol by Dominican women within New York City to self-induce abortions. Misoprostol is a prescription drug that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to reduce gastric ulcers; however, the article reports that many Dominican women have purchased the drug, sans prescription, from local pharmacies and have used it to terminate unwanted pregnancies in their homes, without oversight from medical institutions and personnel. The article also reports on a study documenting Dominican women’s use of other “extra-medical” methods to abort pregnancies—such as “mixing malted beverages with aspirin, salt or nutmeg; throwing themselves down stairs or having people punch them in the stomach; and drinking teas of avocado leaf, pine wood, oak bark and mamon fruit peel. Interviews with several community leaders and individual women in Washington Heights echoed the findings, and revealed even more unconventional methods like ‘juice de jeans,’ a noxious brew made by boiling denim hems.”

Kirsten Luce for The New York TimesInterestingly, the article argues that Dominican “culture” explains why many Dominican women do not look to medical institutions when seeking to terminate their pregnancies. The author argues that women from “fervently anti-abortion cultures” may use such methods to induce abortions “despite the widespread availability of safe, legal and inexpensive abortions in clinics and hospitals.”

In this way, the article exemplifies the dangers of “culture” as an explanatory concept. Although there are several other processes at work that do much to explain Dominican women’s off-label use of misoprostol to self-induce abortions, “culture” emerges for the author as that which explains the phenomenon most convincingly. The myriad of other, more compelling reasons as to why Dominican women avoid the medical establishment when terminating their pregnancies is discussed only after the author cites an obstetrician who offers that “‘[t]his is not just a culture of self-inducted abortion…. This is a culture of going to the pharmacy and getting the medicine you need.’” Coming second to “culture” is the fact that those residing in the country without documentation may distrust any institution, medical or otherwise, with the power to reveal their immigration status to officials. Less important than “culture” is the possibility that inducing one’s own abortion may allow women greater control over the meanings that they will attach to the event. Inferior to “culture” is the fact that for women who live in poverty and without access to health insurance, the “safe, legal” abortions that can be procured in clinics and hospitals are far from “inexpensive.” All of these explanations are derivative; “culture” is primary.

The article demonstrates the tendency, observed by progressive anthropologists and others, whereby racial and ethnic minorities, as well as others disempowered by reason of nation, class, religion, etc., are thought to have “culture.” Meanwhile, “culture” tends not to explain actions taken by those with power—i.e., “white males,” “the U.S.,” “the West”; indeed, such actors are thought to be free from “culture.” Last of the Old Guard: Abortion Providers Retire in the West, Leaving Their Posts Empty, published on July 30, 2008 in The Planet Jackson Online, helps to illustrate this tendency by offering an instructive counterpoint to For Privacy’s Sake. Last of the Old Guard tells the story of a woman living in South Dakota who resorted to inducing her own abortion because she could not afford to procure a “safe, legal and inexpensive abortion” in a clinic or hospital: “By her estimates, getting to Sioux Falls—some 300 miles away—for a ‘doctor abortion’ would have cost her $660, including $100 for gas, $60 for a hotel and $500 for the procedure itself. She would have needed a car, which she didn’t have, and two days off of work to wait out the state-mandated, 24-hour waiting period. Time and money were resources she simply had no access to.” As a result, she chose to “drink her pregnancy to death” by imbibing as much whiskey as she could on one snowy night. She reports, “‘I nearly drank me dead, too. I had to find that balance between it dying and me dying, you know?’” Nowhere in the article is “culture” offered to explain the dearth of abortion providers in the Midwest, this individual woman’s decision to self-induce an abortion, or medical students’ decisions to refuse to learn how to provide abortion services. Such phenomena— occurring within a wealthy, powerful nation to racially- and ethnically-nondescript “Americans”—are explained in terms of politics or individuals’ personally-held beliefs. The U.S. and the actors within are rendered free from “culture.” Yet, a young Dominican woman’s decision to “bring her period down” by taking several misoprostol pills is accounted for in terms of her “culture.”

For Privacy’s Sake reminds us that ostensibly neutral terms, like “culture,” may serve to marginalize the disempowered while naturalizing those who have historically occupied positions of power.

4 comments

  1. The Times article had some grievous reporting problems. See this link, to an article I did for RHRealityCheck.org:

    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2009/01/12/side-effects-complications-the-new-york-times-diy-abortions

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