Simonds explores abortion politics, feminist identity

During a time when the word "abortion" can draw blank stares from those weary with the redundancy of the moral arguments surrounding the issue, one professor in the Institute of the Liberal Arts has grasped a new angle on the subject.

Assistant Professor Wendy Simonds, in her new book Abortion at Work: Ideology and Practice in a Feminist Clinic, explores the intersection of two themes: abortion politics and feminist identity. Her research on these topics is detailed through the individual narratives and personal observances Simonds obtained in a five-year study of health-care workers in a progressive feminist clinic that provides abortion services.

Simonds, who refers to the clinic as "The Center" located in Anyville, U.S.A., uses several questions as a framework: What does feminism mean to women working to provide feminist health care and abortion services in the late 1980s and early 1990s? What are the ideological consequences and emotional tolls of doing such work in a hostile socio-cultural environment? Can feminism and bureaucracy co-exist productively? How do feminists confront the anti-feminist opposition, from anti-abortion protesters outside to racism within feminist organizations?

The Center's workers and their day-to-day activities while struggling with these questions comprise the crux of Simond's book. "That's the kind of work I've always done with people," Simonds said. "It seemed like a logical way to do it. Since I'd worked in a clinic, I wanted to see what this clinic was up against, and I wanted to see how a feminist clinic worked. I wanted to see how a commitment to abortion would be challenged." Simonds had heard of the Center's feminist agenda, which motivated her to do her research there and not elsewhere.

Simonds discovered several factors during her research that propelled her to shift some of her focus; before she began her research, she was primarily concerned with the feminist politics of the organization. "I didn't even know when I got involved in the clinic that they did late abortions. I was thinking about the feminist aspect of the clinic, not the doing of abortion, and what it was like to deal with `the enemy' [anti-abortion protesters] on the day-to-day basis," Simonds said.

"For me, the way [the workers] would talk about abortion became an important part of the work. What they said in essence was that the pro-choice movement refuses to discuss abortion -- what it's like to have an abortion, what it looks like. They believed it would strengthen the pro-choice movement to talk about this. The pro-choice movement has taken a very sanitized approach. They don't talk about the physical aspect of abortion."

Simonds said, regarding her own personal insights in the book, that this is the newest treatment of abortion in book form. Other books, she said, "try not to take sides on the issue. This is different from that. There's no way that I could do it like they did. I admire their work, but I think it's important for feminist researchers to take a stand. Part of research is knowing where you stand, not pretending to be a detached observer unless you are."

Simonds witnessed many of the struggles in running an effective business while maintaining a feminist perspective. "I learned what it means to take an organizational feminist stance. I think [the Center] helped me to see the complexities," she said. "Hearing the management and the workers express different views about the same organization opened my eyes to how difficult it is to run an organization that's different and consistently feminist, one that respects and promotes women and progressive politics.

"This organization definitely succeeds in offering health care in a feminist way, a way that's supportive of women, that never demeans them, but supports them and nutures them in a remarkable way," she said. "On the other hand, I'm not sure it treats workers the same way, but I'm also not sure that it can do that and still run efficiently."

While exploring these other issues was an important part of Simonds' work, the feminist aspects were still the most central. "Feminism means many different things to the women I interviewed," she said. "There are many different types of feminism, but there are some things that I see as essential. I don't think you can be a feminist and be against abortion. I think you can be one and not want to have an abortion, but I don't think you should believe the process should be illegal."

If Simonds could see one thing happen as a result of her research, she would want people "to recognize the complexity of abortion and to expand a pro-choice sensibility in the way that these women's narratives recommend. The pro-choice movement has to talk about abortion more openly. Maybe that's simplistic, but I think that's what a lot of it boils down to. You can talk about abortion openly, and you can acknowledge aspects of abortion that aren't pretty. These women acknowledge what they find disturbing about abortion and they keep women central."

Simonds' newest research stems directly from her work at the Center. The Center recently became one of 17 nationwide test sites for the drug mifepristone (RU486) issued early in pregnancies to terminate them without surgery, which is in the middle of the Food and Drug Administration's approval process. Last summer, she interviewed women who used the drug and also has been involved with the Population Council, which is sponsoring clinical trials. "I'm especially interested," Simonds said, "in what happens when you take the surgical aspect out of abortion."

-- Danielle Service

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