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A Surprising Advocate for Pregnancy Rights

Lynn Paltrow is a short woman to stand in front of such a big room. But her voice is strong as she lectures those in the hall about how to talk about drug users. She doesn’t talk about “dirty” and clean,” she says, getting a little emotional, because in fourth grade someone called her a “dirty Jew.” And she believes that just as the Nazis used that language to dehumanize the Jews, so we may, if we use such language today, dehumanize others.

This is a tangent of the keynote address, but it sets the tone for this conference of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women organization, called the National Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women, held in mid-January in Atlanta. The conference is the six-year-old organization’s second, but “the first of its kind intended to begin healing the divide between those who advocate for women giving birth and those who advocate for women seeking abortions,” as Paltrow puts it. Paltrow is putting the 317 of us in attendance on notice: this is a place where the humanity of all women, whether they used drugs while pregnant or oppose abortion, is recognized. It is the soft side of Paltrow, generous and welcoming, and indeed, the conference her fourwoman team put on is by far the most complex and diverse gathering on women’s rights I’ve seen.

There’s a tough side of Paltrow as well. She does not mince words in saying that mainstream pro-choice organizations have failed, strategically and practically, by focusing narrowly on abortion, and the group’s web site, advocatesforpregnantwomen.org, includes a prominent section on “the abortion diversion,” with articles “exposing the abortion issue for what it is — a diversion from pressing economic, public health and family life issues.” It’s not that she thinks that abortions rights are not important. It’s that for many reasons, including the steady creep of fetal rights, pregnant and laboring women find themselves subject to arrest, forced medical procedures, and other violations of their rights.

The first time I interviewed her, Paltrow also slammed national pro-choice women’s groups for not supporting grassroots strength, throughout the country and in South Dakota, where she testified against the abortion ban in 2005. “It’s a decision not to engage at that level, and it’s a decision that has failed us,” she said, contrasting the decision with right-wing support at the local level.

These are bold statements from a woman who served as senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, as Director of Special Litigation at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and as Vice President for Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood of New York City. Still, Paltrow maintains good relationships with many pro-choice groups, and indeed her conference enjoyed co-sponsorship by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, local NARAL chapters, and the National Organization for Women.

With her odd mixture of renegade revolutionary spirit and nurturing, Paltrow’s effort is to widen the scope of women’s activism. She is particularly focused on low-income women, women of color, and drug-using women in particular. “As a white woman having grown up with relative privilege I have often asked myself how it is that I find myself sometimes representing and advocating on behalf of some of the least popular people — low-income African-American pregnant women who use cocaine, for example,” she reflected. She recalls a long federal district court trial in Charleston, South Carolina, where she was challenging a hospital policy of searching pregnant women for evidence of drug use and, if positive, turning that information over to the police, “coordinating the patient’s inhospital arrest (some still pregnant, others still bleeding from delivery) and taking them out in chains and shackles.”

“When I finally got home,” she told me, “I stumbled on to a documentary about the Eichmann trial in Israel. It helped me to recognize my place — both as a lawyer who tries to use the legal system to achieve justice, and as a Jew. Jews have throughout history been subject to everything from discrimination to pogroms, to genocide based in part on campaigns that dehumanized them. Pregnant women, and particularly the ones I represent, have been subjected to extraordinary dehumanization. I have a profound understanding that if one group of people can be subjected to this degree of dehumanization, other groups — including mine — could also be subjected to dehumanizing policies and practices.”