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Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion

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Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right over 40 years ago, it bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A--in the United States. Millions participate in or benefit from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, st Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right over 40 years ago, it bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A--in the United States. Millions participate in or benefit from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a source of shame and secrecy? Why is it so regularly debated by politicians, and so seldom divulged from friend to friend, or loved one to loved one? This book explores the personal stigma that prevents many from sharing their abortion experiences with friends and family in private conversation, and the structural stigma that keeps it that way. It argues persuasively that America would benefit from working to reverse such stigma, providing readers with tools that may help them model ways of doing so. Our silence around private experience with abortion has distorted our public discourse. Both proponents and opponents of abortion's legality tend to focus on the extraordinary cases. This tendency keeps the public discourse polarized and contentious, and keeps the focus on the cases that occur the least. Katie Watson focuses instead on the remaining 95% of abortion cases. The book gives the reflective reader a more accurate impression of what the majority of American abortion practice really looks like. It explains why this public/private disjuncture exists, what it costs us, and what can be gained by including ordinary abortion in public debate. As Scarlet A explains, abortion has been a constitutional right for nearly 45 years, and it should remain one. What we need now are productive conversations about abortion ethics: how could or should people decide whether to exercise this right? Watson paints a rich, rarely seen picture of how patients and doctors currently think and act, and ultimately invites readers to draw their own conclusions.


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Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right over 40 years ago, it bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A--in the United States. Millions participate in or benefit from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, st Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right over 40 years ago, it bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A--in the United States. Millions participate in or benefit from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a source of shame and secrecy? Why is it so regularly debated by politicians, and so seldom divulged from friend to friend, or loved one to loved one? This book explores the personal stigma that prevents many from sharing their abortion experiences with friends and family in private conversation, and the structural stigma that keeps it that way. It argues persuasively that America would benefit from working to reverse such stigma, providing readers with tools that may help them model ways of doing so. Our silence around private experience with abortion has distorted our public discourse. Both proponents and opponents of abortion's legality tend to focus on the extraordinary cases. This tendency keeps the public discourse polarized and contentious, and keeps the focus on the cases that occur the least. Katie Watson focuses instead on the remaining 95% of abortion cases. The book gives the reflective reader a more accurate impression of what the majority of American abortion practice really looks like. It explains why this public/private disjuncture exists, what it costs us, and what can be gained by including ordinary abortion in public debate. As Scarlet A explains, abortion has been a constitutional right for nearly 45 years, and it should remain one. What we need now are productive conversations about abortion ethics: how could or should people decide whether to exercise this right? Watson paints a rich, rarely seen picture of how patients and doctors currently think and act, and ultimately invites readers to draw their own conclusions.

30 review for Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion

  1. 5 out of 5

    Juli Rahel

    Abortion is a difficult topic to tackle. Everyone has an opinion, and almost everyone also feels very strongly about those opinions. I myself have always been a big proponent of women being allowed to make the choice that is right for them, which means that the government needs to make sure that healthy and safe options are available. But even though I have read other books about abortion before, Scarlet A offered a lot of new insights and was very well written. Thanks to Oxford University Press Abortion is a difficult topic to tackle. Everyone has an opinion, and almost everyone also feels very strongly about those opinions. I myself have always been a big proponent of women being allowed to make the choice that is right for them, which means that the government needs to make sure that healthy and safe options are available. But even though I have read other books about abortion before, Scarlet A offered a lot of new insights and was very well written. Thanks to Oxford University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Key to Scarlet A is what Katie Watson refers to as 'ordinary abortion'. Initially I was confused as to what she was referring to, but once I got it I understood just how important it is to discuss. Watson is right when she says that most conversations around abortion are about those extraordinary cases such as rape, incest, or immediate danger to the well being of the mother and/or child. I myself have never had an abortion, but know friends who have, and not for the reasons mentioned just now. These are the ordinary abortions that Watson discusses in Scarlet A, the abortions that are done because the women aren't ready to be parents, or because they know they don't have the money for a child, or because they simply don't want children and made a mistake. These types of abortions make up the majority of abortion cases, yet they are also the ones that aren't discussed openly and that come with a lot of shame. It is incredibly important that books like Scarlet A address the experiences of these women, especially when they do it as well as Watson does. Watson accomplishes something almost miraculous with Scarlet A, which is making the abortion debate accessible and, as far as possible, understandable. As an academic, she makes sure to either explain her jargon or to avoid it as much as possible. She shares her own interest and thoughts throughout the book, without influencing her readers, which makes Scarlet A feel more personable than many other books out there. She includes to stories of many different women, and men, about their experiences with abortion, the shame they felt, or that they didn't feel, the anger they faced, the support they received, how their thoughts have evolved since the abortion. Scarlet A also looks into the different Supreme Court cases since Roe vs. Wade that addressed abortion, discusses the terms used in the abortion debate, and much more. I walked away from Scarlet A with a lot more information than I had before, but also with a new perspective on a number of related issues. Katie Watson manages to make Scarlet A an incredibly accessible book, opening up a debate that is famously tricky and full of loopholes. I'd recommend that everyone interested in knowing more about abortions, about the stories of people who have gone through one, about the politics and the ethics around the debate, read Scarlet A.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cassidy (Reminders of the Changing Time)

    Review available at http://bit.ly/2WYfAOj Review available at http://bit.ly/2WYfAOj

  3. 4 out of 5

    Melinda Kramer

    Five stars may seem a lot for a non-fiction book about Abortion Law and history, but this book is designed to educate the reader and enable dialogue on the topic. It’s worth reading no matter how you feel about it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mary Jo

    Comprehensive discussion of abortion from medical, ethical, moral, political and philosophical perspectives. The statistics cited were new to me. What a difference terminology makes in a serious discussion and court decisions.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Melissa McGowan

    So timely. The author has a unique intersection of professional training in law and medicine that made her uniquely well suited to address this topic.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Cara Heuser

    I'm floored by this book. As someone who has spent much time thinking about abortion and whose medical practice includes performing abortions, I thought I would read this book and see the old arguments rehashed. I was hopeful for maybe one or two insights. However, the author proposes a new paradigm for talking about this difficult topic--something with which I've been personally struggling over the last two years. Watson is clear about her position on the topic (pro-choice) but I didn't encount I'm floored by this book. As someone who has spent much time thinking about abortion and whose medical practice includes performing abortions, I thought I would read this book and see the old arguments rehashed. I was hopeful for maybe one or two insights. However, the author proposes a new paradigm for talking about this difficult topic--something with which I've been personally struggling over the last two years. Watson is clear about her position on the topic (pro-choice) but I didn't encounter any of the troubling rhetoric I've heard from "our side" in the entire book. Instead, she presents a nuanced analysis of the debate from different angles and on different plains (legal, social, ethical, etc). I've been searching for language to frame and communicate my thoughts about abortion. I'm grateful to this author for helping me on that journey.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    What an extraordinary book - even the title and term "ordinary abortion" is thought-provoking. The author wants people with any and all thoughts on abortion to read this and give the topic more thought, with more information and from different angles. It certainly made me reflect on my own thoughts more. I also ended up reading very slowly and taking time to digest every few pages. If anyone is reading this and flagging a bit, I might recommend skipping to the Epilogue - it is powerful as a stan What an extraordinary book - even the title and term "ordinary abortion" is thought-provoking. The author wants people with any and all thoughts on abortion to read this and give the topic more thought, with more information and from different angles. It certainly made me reflect on my own thoughts more. I also ended up reading very slowly and taking time to digest every few pages. If anyone is reading this and flagging a bit, I might recommend skipping to the Epilogue - it is powerful as a standalone essay and terribly compelling.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Deb Oestreicher

    This is really thoughtful and well argued. A great critical overview of different aspects of the national discussion about and actual experience of abortion.

  9. 5 out of 5

    NCHS Library

    From Follett: Winner of the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public LanguageAlthough Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right in1973, it still bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A. Millions of Americans have participated in or benefited from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion.Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a s From Follett: Winner of the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public LanguageAlthough Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right in1973, it still bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A. Millions of Americans have participated in or benefited from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion.Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a source of shame and secrecy? Why is it so regularly debated by politicians, and so seldom divulged from friend to friend? This book explores the personal stigmathat prevents many from sharing their abortion experiences with friends and family in private conversation, and the structural stigma that keeps it that way. In public discussion, both proponents and opponents of abortion's legality tend to focus on extraordinary cases. This tendency keeps the national debate polarized and contentious, and keeps our focus on the cases that occur the least. Professor Katie Watson focuses instead on the cases that happen the most, which shecalls "ordinary abortion." Scarlet A gives the reflective reader a more accurate impression of what the majority of American abortion practice really looks like. It explains how our silence aroundprivate experience has distorted public opinion, and how including both ordinary abortion and abortion ethics could make our public exchanges more fruitful.In Scarlet A, Watson wisely and respectfully navigates one of the most divisive topics in contemporary life. This book explains the law of abortion, challenges the toxic politics that make it a public football and private secret, offers tools for more productive private exchanges, and leads the way to a morerobust public discussion of abortion ethics. Scarlet A combines storytelling and statistics to bring the story of ordinary abortion out of the shadows, painting a rich, rarely seen picture of how patients anddoctors currently think and act, and ultimately inviting readers to tell their own stories and draw their own conclusions.The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author addressing new cultural developments in abortion discourse and new legal threats to reproductive rights, and updated statistics throughout.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

    Katie Watson is a lawyer and bioethicist who wants to expand our conversation about abortion. Although this book is relatively short, she manages to pack a fair number of topics into it--individual stigma, the ethics surrounding abortion, the law, structural stigma, and conversation. Watson is pro choice, but in the ethics sections, she gives due weight to anti abortion points of view (though it's still fairly clear she rejects them). Watson wants to split beliefs into legal vs. ethical. This is Katie Watson is a lawyer and bioethicist who wants to expand our conversation about abortion. Although this book is relatively short, she manages to pack a fair number of topics into it--individual stigma, the ethics surrounding abortion, the law, structural stigma, and conversation. Watson is pro choice, but in the ethics sections, she gives due weight to anti abortion points of view (though it's still fairly clear she rejects them). Watson wants to split beliefs into legal vs. ethical. This is useful, to a point--one may have a personal ethical viewpoint on abortion and yet not wish to make it illegal. However, when it comes to her stated belief in pluralism, it still runs into the roadblock of people who want to make abortion illegal. While we can have a conversation about personal ethics, it's difficult to get around the legality question, and the people she talks about who advance their anti-choice beliefs as being somehow feminist don't really make a case for it. The section on ethics is an excellent read for everyone on all sides, because she forces you to think about why you believe what you believe. Most people don't have a single ethical position, but balance different concerns, and it was personally interesting for me to do so. I do wish she would have addressed issues surrounding disability, though. The sections on personal stigma, the abortion narrative, and structural stigma are fairly straightforwardly pro choice arguments, with an awareness of reproductive justice and the importance of social factors in women's ability to access abortion, but they are well written. Ultimately, while her conclusion about respect for pluralism and a demand for honesty from anti-choice campaigners is logical enough, it falls a little bit flat because there's nothing new to say here, and no way to convince that segment of the population of the need to respect the beliefs of others. It may, however, be compelling to many of those who feel some conflict--that abortion should not be illegal, but that they have some issue with it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Shirley

    I read this for a book club and it lead to an interesting discussion. As a bioethicist, the author goes into such excruciating detail on certain terminology that the main points get buried. I will say however, that I now have a clearer understanding of Roe v Wade (viability) and Casey (shall not cause an undue burden) and how it is the language in Casey that created this new rash of anti-abortion laws making accessibility (especially for poor women) difficult. Most of these new state laws using I read this for a book club and it lead to an interesting discussion. As a bioethicist, the author goes into such excruciating detail on certain terminology that the main points get buried. I will say however, that I now have a clearer understanding of Roe v Wade (viability) and Casey (shall not cause an undue burden) and how it is the language in Casey that created this new rash of anti-abortion laws making accessibility (especially for poor women) difficult. Most of these new state laws using the ambiguity of the words 'undue burden' in the Casey decision making accessibility difficult such as a 24-48 hr waiting period, clinic doctors required to have hospital admitting credentials, and a myriad of other hoops to jump through) are written under the guise of protecting the health and safety of women. I was not that aware of these 'Trap' laws and the details, but it is alarming to what lengths women must go through in some states to get a procedure that by current law (Roe) is legal. It all seems to boil down to control of women and shaming/stigmatizing those who wish to terminate their pregnancy for various reasons. It is by no means an easy decision and it is surprising to me that there are those who can make it their mission to picket clinics performing the procedure when they have had an abortion or benefitted from one (husband or boyfriend). Evidently, they believe their reasons are superior to others and they feel that they are justified in judging other women's reasons for seeking one. The author makes the reader examine words such as labeling oneself or others as pro-choice or pro-life when it is a complex, layered explanation. Example: You may believe it is ethically or morally ok to seek an abortion before viability, but not after. And, there are many other examples to consider. So, read it and be informed so that we can have a more reasonable, educated way of understanding the choice.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Roberta

    From simple anecdotes to brainy ethical arguments, this book has a little something for every type of reader. For what is essentially a pro-abortion bias, the book still does a good job respecting and considering the various arguments against it, before ultimately trying to land in a pluralistic middle ground. Pluralism, while a pro-choice philosophy, tries to honor all the potential positions on the subject (and let's be honest, most of us hold "mixed" positions), while very firmly asserting th From simple anecdotes to brainy ethical arguments, this book has a little something for every type of reader. For what is essentially a pro-abortion bias, the book still does a good job respecting and considering the various arguments against it, before ultimately trying to land in a pluralistic middle ground. Pluralism, while a pro-choice philosophy, tries to honor all the potential positions on the subject (and let's be honest, most of us hold "mixed" positions), while very firmly asserting that abortion is a medical and constitutional right, and the various "trojan horse" attempts to legislatively (and morally) chip away at that right are deceitful, patronizing and completely unhelpful, especially when considering that they actually increase the gestational age of a fetus prior to an abortion. Will this book change the minds of the religious right, the "pro life feminists" and those privileged enough not to have to worry about unintended or unwanted pregnancy? No. But for the rest of us, it's a good read. The epilogue, especially, helps personalize and de-stigmatize the concept of the "ordinary abortion", of which there are hundreds of thousands in the US every year (and millions worldwide) and which should actually be made easier, not harder, for women to access and openly discuss.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Valerie Brett

    This book is excellent. It could have a better subtitle; this is really all about changing how and why and about what we discuss when it comes to abortion. She lays out her book very clearly and that made a difficult topic approachable. It's a little awkward in that the audience is broad but therefore not totally defined; I think it's probably a bit challenging for the everyday reader, but also it's not an academic book. This should be read by everyone in the US, but if that's not possible, at l This book is excellent. It could have a better subtitle; this is really all about changing how and why and about what we discuss when it comes to abortion. She lays out her book very clearly and that made a difficult topic approachable. It's a little awkward in that the audience is broad but therefore not totally defined; I think it's probably a bit challenging for the everyday reader, but also it's not an academic book. This should be read by everyone in the US, but if that's not possible, at least by politicians, doctors, and women (who unfortunately are usually left to defend themselves and their bodies). I appreciated the author sharing her own story in the epilogue but maybe that could've been a preface.

  14. 5 out of 5

    FrauPop

    This book could have been a perfect attempt on the topic of abortion. It provides history, science, language and arguments without forcing an opinion. It is recommendable for newbies as well as pros who want to strengthen their reasoning. Two things destroyed the 5 star rating for me tho: A) Watson only refers to „women“ - which excludes other people with the ability to become pregnant who face even more obstacles trying to receive an abortion. B) the comparison of the murders of abortion provider This book could have been a perfect attempt on the topic of abortion. It provides history, science, language and arguments without forcing an opinion. It is recommendable for newbies as well as pros who want to strengthen their reasoning. Two things destroyed the 5 star rating for me tho: A) Watson only refers to „women“ - which excludes other people with the ability to become pregnant who face even more obstacles trying to receive an abortion. B) the comparison of the murders of abortion providers and lynching of Black people seemed very wrong and unnecessary. Watson only refers to some common grounds and seems to be aware that the comparison is problematic - but I am not sure whether this makes it any better.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Danny

    An outstanding, very accessible book that i will be promoting eagerly to friends, in furtherance of the author's mission to improve the understanding and discussion of maybe the most stigmatized subject at the intersection of Americans' personal lives and American political life. I am not the least bit surprised to learn that it was awarded the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. High praise for a high acheivement in such a needed en An outstanding, very accessible book that i will be promoting eagerly to friends, in furtherance of the author's mission to improve the understanding and discussion of maybe the most stigmatized subject at the intersection of Americans' personal lives and American political life. I am not the least bit surprised to learn that it was awarded the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. High praise for a high acheivement in such a needed endeavor. Katie Watson does not claim impartiality on the subject, but she writes directly and offers her arguments to the highest standards of good faith.

  16. 5 out of 5

    courtney Prior

    Argues that we should shift the abortion debate away from the rare cases (incest, health) towards the ordinary abortions that 100s of thousands of women have every year. The chapter discussing the political framing of abortions and suggesting that we frame abortion as an issue of justice really resonated with me. Also, the idea of systemic stigma that prevents providers that want to provide abortion from doing so was something I hadn't thought about. Argues that we should shift the abortion debate away from the rare cases (incest, health) towards the ordinary abortions that 100s of thousands of women have every year. The chapter discussing the political framing of abortions and suggesting that we frame abortion as an issue of justice really resonated with me. Also, the idea of systemic stigma that prevents providers that want to provide abortion from doing so was something I hadn't thought about.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Beth A

    An amazing book; thoughtful, balanced, data-driven, measured, objective, not preachy. Regardless of whether your views are pro-choice, pro-life, pro-choice/anti-abortion, or any where in between this book clearly explains the law, ethics, and morality of ordinary abortion. The thoroughly researched book provides recommendations for more productive discussions about a constitutional right. A right that is best viewed as one in which we agree to disagree.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis

    I think it is an important work. Watson set out to write a clear account of abortion in this country since Roe v Wade became the law of the land. But she presented so many arguments from ethics, to law to philosophy to women's rights that my head was spinning. It was not an easy read in style and I did not finish the book. It is an important topic for woman's equality, I just wish it was easier to read. I think it is an important work. Watson set out to write a clear account of abortion in this country since Roe v Wade became the law of the land. But she presented so many arguments from ethics, to law to philosophy to women's rights that my head was spinning. It was not an easy read in style and I did not finish the book. It is an important topic for woman's equality, I just wish it was easier to read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nan

    Watson presents a thoughtful, fascinating discussion of the ethical issues in abortion. I have never encountered exploration of nuance in any discussion on this topic. The result is exactly what Watson set out to do - I am reflecting about my own beliefs and engaging in conversations with friends about ordinary abortion.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

    Worth reading just for the chapter on abortion storytelling, which is brilliant. I got a bit lost in the weeds in some of the bioethics, but for the most part, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly easy to follow examination of the ethics of “ordinary” abortion. Make sure to read the epilogue, which makes it clear that Katie Watson could write any kind of book she wanted to.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mira

    Accessible, relatable, thoughtful discussion of how to think about thinking & talking abortion with all sorts of people. This is a good laypersons’ review of the history of abortion law and a solid overview of what it means for real women when abortion is legal, illegal, or mixed status.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Abner Huertas

    One thing I like to do before making any judgement about a subject it's to study a little bit of it. With this book I learnt different perspectives about abortion, from psychological, religion to social. I certainly recommend this book for those who would like to learn more about this subject. One thing I like to do before making any judgement about a subject it's to study a little bit of it. With this book I learnt different perspectives about abortion, from psychological, religion to social. I certainly recommend this book for those who would like to learn more about this subject.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Natalee Someone

    An alternate title for me could be “how to have a discussion about abortion with your pro life friends” and for them “how to have a discussion with my pro choice friend.” Very thorough yet not dry summary of the ethical arguments in the abortion debate.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Adam Omelianchuk

    Helpful for understanding "ordinary abortion" and the demographics involved, but was underwhelmed by her overview of the philosophical issues involved, eg her assessment of the moral status of the fetus/embryo is largely a footnote to Steinbock. Helpful for understanding "ordinary abortion" and the demographics involved, but was underwhelmed by her overview of the philosophical issues involved, eg her assessment of the moral status of the fetus/embryo is largely a footnote to Steinbock.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jody Mena

    If I had to recommend one single book on the abortion issue in America, this would be it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    A must read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Laura Sterkel

    Admirable effort encouraging respectful and informed conversation about abortion, a difficult topic that is so emotionally charged.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    A phenomenal read for anyone anywhere, not just those who have strong feelings one way or the other on the topic of abortion.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mary Overby

    Currently my go to recommendation on abortion reading. The prose is great and easy to follow and gives a fairly decent overview .

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lesley

    Watson, a bioethicist and law professor, argues for separating the legal right to abortion, (which she describes as “foundational “ and beyond debate) from the ethical. She points out that all of us are affected by abortion in some way: 1/3 of American women will obtain one in their lifetimes; and the partners, friends, co-workers and children of those women can all be seen as beneficiaries. Watson establishes various frameworks for determining whether and when an abortion is ethically acceptabl Watson, a bioethicist and law professor, argues for separating the legal right to abortion, (which she describes as “foundational “ and beyond debate) from the ethical. She points out that all of us are affected by abortion in some way: 1/3 of American women will obtain one in their lifetimes; and the partners, friends, co-workers and children of those women can all be seen as beneficiaries. Watson establishes various frameworks for determining whether and when an abortion is ethically acceptable, and points out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in state restrictions (waiting periods, “fetal heartbeat” and “ability to feel pain” laws) and hospital rules. Disingenuous policies ostensibly created to “protect” women are clearly designed to discourage them from obtaining a completely legal medical procedure, and serve the same purpose as the now disfavored Operation Rescue style protests. Watson calls for honest, open conversation about abortion ethics, free from misogyny, sexual shaming, and class prejudice, and insists that no one has the right to be “apolitical “ on this issue.

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