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She's disabled, raped and pregnant, but

Jeb Bush demands, 'Protect the fetus'

By Leslie Feinberg

It's hard to imagine a more vulnerable young person for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to offer up as a sacrifice to the ultra-right strategy of abolishing women's reproductive rights.

She is 22 and publicy identified only as JDS. She is severely developmentally disabled and autistic. JDS lives with cerebral palsy and seizure disorder. She cannot speak. She can't stand or take a step without assistance. She weighs only 88 pounds.

She has been institutionalized in a small state-licensed group facility in southwest Orlando for 19 years, where she reportedly slept on a bed in an open hallway next to a bathroom. (Orlando Sentinel, May 16)

In April, say officials of the Department of Children and Families, they discovered she was approximately five months pregnant. She is unable to consent to sexual intercourse. Her pregnancy is a result of rape.

Doctors stress that her disabilities are multiple and severe, making this a high-risk pregnancy that endangers her life.

In early May, DCF officials asked an Orange County circuit judge to appoint two guardians--one for the woman, the other for her fetus. But on May 12, officials retracted the request for a fetal guardian, acknowledging that a landmark 1989 Florida Supreme Court decision had ruled such an appeal "clearly improper."

The very next day, Gov. Bush--who is consistent in opposing a woman's right to control her own body--publicly intervened. He ordered state lawyers to fight for one guardian only--for the fetus.

The National Organization for Women, Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union immediately filed a brief asking the court to reject Bush's move.

A June 2 hearing has been set to determine JDS's competency. Soon after June 2, a guardianship hearing will take place. There, Bush has vowed to push state officials to ask a judge to appoint a "guardian" for the fetus.

Pro-choice activists are angered at these attempts to keep the case moving slowly through the courts. After the sixth month, an abortion will no longer be a legal alternative in the state.

Roe vs. Wade in the cross hairs

A decision in this case would not result in the wholesale elimination of Roe vs. Wade--the hard-won 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

But it is the use of the courts to make an end-run around Roe, while avoiding a direct assault on the law that could ignite mass protests. This reactionary tactic is sharply focused in Gov. Bush's carefully crafted language.

"Given the facts of this case, it is entirely appropriate that an advocate be appointed to represent the unborn child's best interests in all decisions," he said in a May 13 statement. "This is a tragic case about a mom who cannot make decisions for herself," he said on May 15.

A pregnant woman is not a "mom" until she bears a child. A fetus becomes a child at birth.

This is the second attempt nationally in recent weeks to set a legal precedent to establish the "personhood" of a fetus.

In April, Jeb Bush's brother in the White House, plus members of Congress, tried to manipulate the public horror and rage generated by the apparent murder of a pregnant woman in California--Laci Peterson. They used her death to press for congressional passage of the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act." This bill would make a fetus a separate "person" from the woman carrying it--making a fetus the woman's legal adversary.

This legislation would extend to the womb 14th Amendment protections to life, liberty or property that women themselves do not automatically have.

It was conservative men, of the same stripe as those now arguing for legislation to "protect" the fetus, who killed the Equal Rights Amendment that would have provided equal protection to women under the law.

One such legislator is Sen. Orrin Hatch, a very conservative Republican from Utah. Speaking approvingly of the "Unborn Victims" bill, he said of its critics, "They say it undermines abortion rights. It does." (BBC News, May 15)

Disability rights?

The shocking insensitivity to JDS's body and life also illuminates conditions for disabled people in this country.

Her potentially life-threatening pregnancy requires careful monitoring of her health, but even JDS's court-appointed lawyer doesn't know what kind of care she's getting--if any.

Rod Taylor, her sole official advocate at this point, said he "doesn't know what kind of medical attention she's receiving beyond her daily medication and vitamins." (Orlando Sentinel, May 19)

Carla Josephson, president of the Orlando-area chapter of the National Organization for Women, questioned how the state could provide complete medical care for JDS and other disabled people if they have no guardians.

"What kind of medical care was she getting all along?" Josephine asked.

A month after JDS's pregnancy was confirmed, the state has still not found her a guardian with the legal power to make life-or-death decisions--despite a court document stating that she is in "imminent danger."

Pressed by the Sentinel, officials revealed that JDS is one of 857 developmentally disabled adults in Florida's state-licensed group homes who have no legal guardian.

Tallahassee lawyer Lance Block says it doesn't look like the DCF has learned anything since he represented a developmentally disabled young woman who became pregnant after being raped in a state home 12 years ago. The DCF left the woman without a guardian in the home for three months, near her rapist--the home operator's son.

But even after the high-profile exposure of the abuse of JDS, the May 19 Sentinel article concludes, "For now, DCF says it has no immediate plans to change its rules or call for changing the law governing its practices."

'Pro-life'? They gotta be kidding!

The right-wing of the national political establishment views Florida as an ideal battleground to wage war against women's reproductive rights.

Its "pro-life" governor helped deliver his anti-choice brother to the Oval Office by disenfranchising Black voters.

Now the Bush brothers and members of both parties of big business are pushing to roll back the right to abortion under the slogan "right to life."

Not JDS's life.

And certainly not the rights of women and children as a whole.

A zealous crusade against lesbians and gays was waged by orange-juice industry figurehead Anita Bryant in 1977 under the cynical banner "Save Our Children." The result was a ban in Florida on lesbian and gay adoption and foster parenting.

The "Scarlet Letter Law," now in the process of being repealed, was enacted by the state in October 2001, penned by state Sen. Walter Campbell--a Democrat, it's worth noting. It required that a pregnant woman of any age who planned to give up her baby for adoption must pay for ads to publish her name and descriptions of all her sexual partners over a 12-month period in the newspaper--even in cases of rape and incest. The rationale given was that the father would then be able to claim the child.

The right wing's "we care about children" campaign is a deliberate distraction. It portrays poor women as villains when in fact they face especially difficult decisions about having children in this period of dwindling jobs and deteriorating living conditions.

Politicians from both parties, with the backing of their right-wing patrons, have succeeded in abolishing welfare, which offered minimal sustenance to women and children impoverished under capitalism. After having minimized taxes on the rich, they claim there's not enough money for programs like Medicaid. That is already translating into less pre-natal care and medical access for poor children. Education is on the chopping block. Day care is less available and priced out of reach.

Many of the social programs important to women were won during the last period of progressive mass action in the 1960s and 1970s, when the militancy of the anti-war and civil rights struggles, along with national liberation movements around the world, helped spark mass movements for women's and gay liberation as well. The huge anti-war mobilizations of the past year, which have been even more diverse than back then, give promise that a new social movement has begun that can turn back the right-wing offensive and win new and stronger rights for women.

Reprinted from the May 29, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

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