This article was originally published in On The Issues Magazine as part of its special issue on abortion history, politics and activism, featuring contributions from dozens of writers and artists.
by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian
As current staff members at Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), an organization that has advanced the health and human rights of women and girls over four decades, and longtime reproductive justice activists, we continue to hope that safe and affordable abortion care will, someday, become a reality for everyone. With increasing attacks and restrictions on abortion access worldwide, we have our work cut out.
Here, in the U.S., the debate around abortion has become especially polarized. Right-wing and anti-choice groups bombard young people with messages that stereotype and stigmatize those seeking abortion services — both individuals and entire communities.
Think: billboards have popped up around the country equating abortion to the genocide of African-American children, who are further described as an “endangered species.” These — and other — oversimplified messages mock a personal and often complex decision, not to mention the right to a constitutionally protected and medically safe procedure. They influence how people, especially young people, articulate and align themselves on abortion. They drive our activism — our tireless commitment to alliances across aisles and opinions, and to conversations that move beyond “pro-life” and “pro-choice” rhetoric to focus on the individual, her needs, rights and circumstances.
Engaging, mobilizing and building alliances on an issue like abortion can be an uphill climb. But as 2012 rolls in, we want to take a few minutes to remind you about why it is important and suggest a few ways you can go about this challenge.
Building Up Our Friends
Our allies are our greatest strength. We especially need to appeal to the hearts and minds of people “on the fence,” by connecting abortion rights to principles that they hold valuable — equality, privacy, dignity, security and more. We must show how these principles will be affected if we do not have the fundamental right to reproductive freedom.
We believe that we can even engage anti-choice people in conversations about how restrictions on access to abortion affect women and girls — especially those who are uninsured, under-insured, socially or ethnically marginalized and isolated.
Create safe spaces for respectful dialogue
We need to take a few minutes to contact the judges in our communities and ask them to defend the rights of women and girls. Monica Roa, the lawyer who argued a case before Colombia’s Supreme Court that liberalized that nation’s restrictive abortion law in May 2006, identifies judges as a key audience: “Judicial bias is a major conflict throughout the world.” She proposes a highly effective “court targeting” approach that includes getting better acquainted with specific judges and their position on issues.
And we must not forget our friends, our existing allies — an activist neighbor, a local abortion fund or a provider — on the forefront of the abortion rights movement and under threat because of it. Supporting them is critical and we can do so in a number of ways. We can donate money to local abortion funds which provide financial and logistical assistance to women that need abortions, or simply volunteer our time to their activities — a list of abortion funds is online.
We can also volunteer at clinics, in roles that range from administrative to serving as clinic escorts that guide staff, providers and clients in and out of clinics and shield them from harassment and pro-life demonstrators. If these options seem daunting, we can help tremendously by just talking — with family and friends at home, with our community via blogs and local newspapers, and with our political representatives on the phone.
Listening and Engaging Listeners
In our bid to build alliances across the table, those of us involved in the struggle to preserve abortion rights must develop new tools of moral suasion. How? For a start, we need to be good listeners, good storytellers and patient communicators, and to create safe spaces for respectful dialogue, either one-on-one or in groups.
I remember an eye-opening conversation many years ago with a priest — a family friend — who had regularly sermonized about the evils of abortion. He described how one year a woman came to him afterwards and described WHY she had had her own abortion and why what he had said in church was so wrong and hurtful to her and many other women. A thoughtful and compassionate person, he decided to cease such sermons, but his comment about this encounter was instructive: “Don’t get me wrong, I still think of abortion as killing life in some form…I have not changed my mind about that. But what I realize now is that an abortion can be the RIGHT and moral thing to do.”
In the years that followed, I found a number of people who resonated with this kind of thinking and who could find a way to support a woman’s right to choose, while, at the same time, holding on to the concept of abortion as an act that destroyed life in some form. They noted that society does, at times, sanction even the killing of human beings (during war, in self defense) and, thus, could envision abortion as a moral choice and one to be preserved for women needing to make that choice.
Active in the grassroots abortion access movement in the Boston area, I am also expecting my first baby in the spring of 2012. While I see absolutely no dichotomy in my activist and parenting roles, I have been asked a few times whether becoming a mother has softened my position on abortion rights, made me more empathetic to pro-life reasoning. My response: Far from it!
My decision to have children is situated within my unique context and personal needs and capacity. If anything, the hands-on experience with the ongoing physical, emotional and financial commitment needed to nurture another human being has only deepened my understanding of an incredibly complex and personal issue, as well as my appreciation of why some decide to terminate their pregnancy and others, despite the many and different challenges, carry theirs to term.
When we are at a loss for words, drawing on other eloquent voices in the reproductive justice movement can help get the discussion started.
For starters, here are a couple such individuals:
Dr. Garson Romalis, a Canadian abortion doctor, whose speech on January 25, 2008 at the University of Toronto Law School Symposium is well worth reading. Dr. Romalis had been physically attacked — shot and stabbed, on two different occasions six years apart — and remained deeply committed to providing abortion services throughout his long career.
At the close of his speech, he wanted to describe “one last story that I think epitomizes the satisfaction I get from my privileged work.” He continued, “Some years ago I spoke to a class of University of British Columbia medical students. As I left the classroom, a student followed me out. She said: ‘Dr. Romalis, you won’t remember me, but you did an abortion on me in 1992. I am a second year medical student now, and if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here now.'”
Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, offers many compelling insights in, for example, “Missed Opportunities in McCorvey v. Hill: The Limits of Pro-Choice Lawyering,” (pdf) in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change in 2011, or “Long-Term Policies, Long-Term Gains,” (pdf) in Conscience in Winter 2006-2007.
In the latter, Paltrow writes: “those who defend the right to choose abortion often frame their defense in terms of protecting Roe v.Wade and access to abortion services. But far more than Roe and abortion is at stake. The health, dignity and human rights of all pregnant women are threatened by anti-abortion and fetal rights laws. Such laws create the basis not only for outlawing abortion but also for forcing women to have unnecessary Caesarean sections, for banning vaginal births after Caesarean sections and for treating pregnant women with drug, alcohol and other health problems as child abusers before they have even given birth.”
It also helps to be prepared for contentious conversations with compelling arguments and facts.
Anti-abortion advocates often use dangerous and misleading approaches to restrict access to abortion and birth control, and having a counter argument ready goes a long way. This misinformation runs the gamut — from claiming that the emergency contraception or morning-after pill (Plan B) is the same as the “abortion pill” to asserting that feticide laws, now existing in about 38 states and on the federal level, protect pregnant women, when in reality they are frequently used against pregnant women, especially those who may have used drugs during a pregnancy.
Converting Our Energy
When we gain ground by changing hearts, minds or policies, we have to ensure it translates into action — securing real and affordable access to birth control and abortion for women and girls.
While we have a long way to go before reproductive justice is a reality for everyone, the looming possibility of an anti-choice administration (and all that this would entail) has serious implications for women and girls in the U.S. and, through policies that restrict the use of U.S. development aid overseas, women and girls around the world. Your voice is important.
Our goals are substantial and clear. We need to become involved — to educate one another and ourselves on the nuances of abortion rights and access; defend the fast dwindling numbers of abortion clinics and abortion providers nationwide; express our outrage when they are attacked and vilified; demand greater and equal access to all reproductive health services including affordable and safe birth control and abortion care; counter misleading and dishonest anti-abortion propaganda and hold the people behind these tactics accountable for their actions.
Doing this effectively will require creativity, tenacity and abiding respect of all women’s realities and circumstances. We’re up for the challenge — are you?