American pro-life activist Brita Stream was in Australia recently on a speaking tour. Tim Cannon caught up with her in Melbourne.
Beauty pageants, with their quintessential American glitz and glamour, remain something of a peculiarity for Australians. Indeed, for Australian audiences, the appeal of watching such a spectacle unfold would no doubt have more to do with a compelling sense of curiosity than a genuine interest in the proceedings.
Least among reasons for tuning in would be to listen to what the contestants themselves had to say, given the reasonable expectation that the beauty queens’ mission statements would follow a relatively generic and politically-correct template: “If I win, I will work to end poverty/hunger/war, and I will look gorgeous while I’m at it.”
It is little wonder, then, that when Brita Stream, contesting the Miss Oregon pageant in 2002, spoke of her desire to educate women about the link between abortion and breast-cancer, shocked audiences sat up and listened. Simply daring to utter the dreaded “A” word in such a public forum was bound to stir controversy. Suggesting that abortion might be unsafe for women was tantamount to an open invitation for pro-choice advocates to unsheathe their daggers.
That she went on to win the title merely confirmed that the American public wanted to know more about Stream’s confronting and uncomfortable message.
Winning the title gave Stream a ready-made public profile, and launched her on a public-speaking career during which she has worked with more than 100 different organisations and community groups, both in Oregon and across the United States.
She has also lobbied at the state and national legislative levels for the “Women’s Right to Know” – or informed consent – legislation, under which a doctor or abortion-provider must provide a woman patient with comprehensive information about not only the medical risks for abortion, pregnancy and childbirth, but also the psychological side-effects of abortion, including possible future depression and grief.
Stream was recently in Australia for a speaking tour, and managed to squeeze an interview with News Weekly into her busy schedule.
It was while completing her studies in social services and community health at Oregon State University that Stream first stumbled upon research which pointed to a link between abortion and breast cancer. Surprised that this research – which would be of great interest to the hundreds of thousands of women having abortions each year – had received so little public attention, Stream decided to delve a little deeper, a decision, she says, which took her “in way over my head”.
The link between abortion and breast cancer is a contentious one, and Stream is the first to note that the research on the issue is divided. But she sees the formidable body of medical evidence which points to a link as being reason enough to at least warn women that having an abortion may increase the risk of breast cancer.
She points out that “generally in the medical community we have established that it is better to be safe than sorry”. In the same way, she argues, it is better “… to give women more information so that they can make more of an effort in protecting their health, rather than censor information”.
In the cold, hard language of surgical practice, an abortion is simply an “elective procedure”. That being the case, Stream is puzzled at the fact that, whereas other elective procedures are preceded by the stringent disclosure of possible complications or side-effects, abortions proceed with only minimal attention to the impact they may have on the physical and psychological health of the women involved. She notes that even prescription medications come packaged with an exhaustive list of dangers associated with taking the drug, even if the connection is disputed or the possibility remote.
So why is abortion treated differently? Stream suggests there are many factors which contribute to the suppression of information about the possible dangers of abortion, not least of which is the strength of the almighty dollar. Drawing a comparison with the long-suppressed link between smoking and lung-cancer, she points out, “Whenever there is medical research or evidence showing that something is detrimental to your health, and there is big money behind that thing, you’re going to be faced with a big fight.”
Considering that in 2005 America’s largest abortion-provider, Planned Parenthood, turned a profit of $63 million, the prospect of abortion being declared unsafe could be very bad for business. (It should be noted that since Planned Parenthood is technically a not-for-profit organisation, the figure of $63 million is described in their annual report as a “surplus”).
Ideological motives are also responsible for the suppression of this valuable information. The so-called “right” to abortion is considered by many to be the crowning glory of feminism’s war on a patriarchal society; but, as Stream points out, “the abortion industry is built on the ‘fact’ that abortion is safe”. So great would be the fallout for politicians and community leaders, should they meddle with this (unholy) sacred cow, that “nobody wants to admit that there could be a health risk resulting from abortion”.
Still, in the history of the fight to protect the unborn, Stream suggests that the grassroots pro-choice and pro-life movements are at last beginning to agree on at least one thing: that the health and welfare of women cannot be neglected in discussions about abortion.
This consensus is paving the way for new legislative reforms which carry the potential to vastly reduce the number of abortions being performed each year. In this regard, Stream hopes for the success of two proposed reforms in particular: informed consent laws (such as the one mentioned above), which would ensure that women’s health was made a genuine priority; and parental consent laws.
In the case of parental consent, Stream points to the absurdity of a legal framework in which young girls are required to obtain parental consent for everything from school excursions to dental surgery, but in which they can have an abortion without their parents’ knowledge. Making parental consent a mandatory prerequisite for minors considering abortion would ensure that young women are not forced to deal with the pressures of an unplanned pregnancy alone. It is a measure which, once again, demonstrates a genuine concern for the welfare of the pregnant woman.
Stream suggests that initiatives of this kind are predicated on a common ground, upon which the pro-life and pro-choice movements can engage in constructive, intelligent dialogue.
In this dialogue, says Stream, we have the advantage of knowing that the same hard questions will be asked of the pro-life movement as have been done throughout its history. Thus, with the growth of an acknowledged consensus on women’s health, comes an unprecedented opportunity for those in the pro-life community to “show that I’m an educated person, I’m a caring person, and I can speak to you in a way that is emotionally un-charged … and I can give you good, solid reasons for believing what I do”.
Projecting this image of the pro-life advocate, says Stream, is also vital to winning over what she calls “the mushy middle”, the great politically-correct majority who genuinely want to be compassionate, and who dislike abortion, but feel that it is not their place to “impose their values on others”.
Whereas in the past the fight against the proliferation of abortion was heroically and selflessly fought by pro-life ideologues predominantly at the political level, today it takes place among the everyday men, women, boys and girls who have never been forced to seriously consider the nature and consequences of abortion.
It is particularly important to engage younger generations. Says Stream, who relishes the opportunity to speak to school- and university-aged women: “They want to hear about it – they want somebody to talk to them about it, because it does affect their lives.”
But she stresses that the way in which the subject is broached can be just as important as the message itself, concurring with the age-old maxim, “Actions speak louder than words.” The middle ground needs to become familiar with a positive representation of “the pro-life person”.
Strangely, then, it would seem that although rates of abortion continue to rise at terrifying rates around the world, there has never been a better time for pro-lifers to make a difference; says Stream; it is simply a matter of “being available”, of getting out there and making sure that women know the dangers of abortion, and are aware of the alternatives.
A thick skin
This, of course, means entering the fray – a daunting prospect made to look easy by the likes of Stream, who admits that, given the emotional nature of the abortion debate, one cannot afford to be precious about what people might think: “You have to have a thick skin.”
It is something that comes naturally to Stream, having grown up as part of a conservative minority in the liberal US state of Oregon. To its credit, Stream points out, the Oregon community is one where controversial issues are openly discussed, rather than ignored, so that “you learn from an early age to communicate what it is you believe and to stand behind it”.
This, then, is the key to clawing back the rights of the unborn, and the rights of women to genuine reproductive health. Ultimately it is up to pro-lifers to contribute more than just good intentions. The time is ripe, says Stream, “If we don’t do it, no one will.”
– Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.