Archive | February, 2012

Can We Choose to Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? — And How?

10 Feb

A guest post from Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian. Cross-posted from On the Issues Magazine.

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.

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.

Judy Norsigian:

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.

Ayesha Chatterjee:

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, in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change in 2011, or Long Term Policies, Long Term Gains 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. So, staying abreast of facts to counter their fiction is critical and there are innumerable on-line and off-line resources. Here are two: The Guttmacher Institute and Ipas.

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?


Struggle is not necessarily failure: on the importance of self-care

8 Feb

As a blogger with the Abortiongang, we are compelled to write about current events surrounding reproductive rights. This usually involves cultivating an anger or, at the very least, a frustration of some sort that provokes a post. But what happens when, as an activist, you become so overwhelmed that your activism stalls?

I’ve been trying to write a new post for a month and half with no success. I have a copy of said post saved in my “Drafts.” It still doesn’t say what I want it to say and I’m not sure it ever will. In and of itself, this is disheartening because I have a passion for words. When they don’t come out right, I feel like a failure. Combine this with my currently evolving life, and I’ve found myself with less and less motivation to tap into that passion that is so utterly necessary to activism. The rest of my life has been too exhausting to expend my anger here.

So what do you do when you find yourself deleting, en mass, calls to sign petitions in your inbox? Or not attending protests in your area? Or ignoring your deadlines for the blogs that you write for? (Well, before it gets to be too depressing and embarrassing to acknowledge that you’ve been slacking…?)

Recently, Serena wrote about self-care, and how we need all need to take better care of ourselves within the movement. Obviously I agree with her. Self-care is extremely important because burnout is all too real. But I don’t feel that I am at the point of burnout, necessarily, just trying to deal with a case of the “laissez-faire’s.”

After struggling for some time, I gave myself permission to acknowledge that my life is kind of screwed up right now and I’m doing the best that I can, and that is OK. My friends and my community have certainly all been there, and they will understand.

By simply giving myself permission to be in the place that I am, I was able to take the next step: taking off my blinders and shifting my focus. Instead of agonizing over a post that may never be, I’m writing this one. Cathartic, to be sure, because I’m actually doing something, just not the thing I originally intended. Will this post have as great an impact as the one I intended to write? I don’t know, but right now, I don’t care.

Finally, I got together with some other activist lady-friends and spent most of the time NOT talking about activism. We drank lots of wine and played with some puppies and talked about life, just not the activist life. It was refreshing and necessary and I love those ladies for spending the time with me as friends.

The moral (if there is one)? Stopping to rest isn’t necessarily stalling. Struggle isn’t necessarily failure. Life happens; having the support of your friends and community is important, but what may be more important, motivating and successful is to make peace with yourself where you are.

NARAL: Stop Talking to the Press about Engaging Youth

7 Feb

Guest post by Abortion on Demand.

Is there an advocacy organization more ham-handed about talking about young supporters than NARAL Pro-Choice America? I opened the Washington Post Outlook section on Sunday and found yet another bunch of completely stupid quotes coming from both NARAL’s President Nancy Keenan and Communications Director Ted Miller. To wit:

  • “These are people that we haven’t quite crossed their radar screen,” NARAL President Nancy Keenan explained in a recent interview. “They share our values, they’re pro-choice, but the question is: How do we talk to them?”
  • For many women who have grown up in an era of legal abortion, that mentality has persisted. NARAL’s Keenan often refers to the graying heads of the major women’s groups as the “menopausal militia.”
  • NARAL has begun dividing its e-mail list between its younger and older supporters, testing different messages on about 10 percent of its subscribers. The group saw response rates double when younger people received a message from a NARAL staff member their own age, rather than one from the group’s president.
  • “Much of our list consists of people who are baby boomers,” says NARAL communication director Ted Miller. “With Millennials, we’re trying to be more strategic and communicate in a different way.”

Dear Keenan and Miller, guess what great communications strategy is for either selling widgets or organizing people: NOT TALKING ABOUT YOUR TARGETS IN THE THIRD PERSON. Also maybe not talking about HOW you are going to SELL TO THEM. Cause everyone loves to know how they are marketed to, like they are a piece of meat.

You want to talk amongst organizations about successful campaigns that seemed to resonate amongst college-age kids? Great. Do it privately. You gain NO BENEFIT TALKING TO A WASHINGTON POST REPORTER ABOUT THIS.

And please stop, stop, STOP publicly talking about the “intensity gap.” (That 2010 study you commissioned should have NEVER been a document you shared with the press).

The “intensity gap” absolutely exists amongst non-activists. Let’s get something straight, voter does not equal activist. Voter just means you go out and vote. Activist means you do something (anything) other than voting on Election Day. But what you’re voting on Election Day is often determined by what activists were doing leading up to Election Day.

Of course there are lots of under 30 activists in the pro-choice movement. Some of them write for this blog even. But here’s my message to NARAL. Shut up about the intensity gap. First of all you don’t know about the “intensity diminishment” as all those young supporters you see bused to Washington, DC by their parents on Roe Day grow up. Guess what? A lot of them will end up drifting away from their church and their anti-choice positions. Not all of them, of course, but usually what you feel at 12 you don’t feel quite as intently about in your 20s or 30s or I would still get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


“I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had about 1,300 attendees.

You want to garner more teenagers and 20-somethings Keenan, then why not just do it and stop telling the press HOW you’re going to do it. Stop talking about the fact you don’t have as many “youth supporters” as you’d like (all it’s going to do is piss off everyone who is a young supporter of Choice).

Maybe another piece of advice is Keenan (and Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards who’s a tad better at talking about what they do) need to just stop spilling their guts to reporter Sarah Kliff. Not because Kliff is misquoting them. Because the first rule of communications strategy is that if you don’t have a good message when talking to the press THEN DON’T DO IT.

Komen, Meet the Online Feminist Army

6 Feb

Never again should anyone doubt the organizing skill and agility of the pro-choice movement, at least under the right circumstances. I’m often the first to groan that the big girl organizations are so mired in bureaucracy they can’t be nimble and that we’re usually so busy playing defense that we can’t even prepare to play offense. This was not the case in Planned Parenthood vs. Komen. Planned Parenthood had a carefully thought out response to Komen’s decision that included prepping their affiliates and partners with talking points, setting up specific donation channels ahead of time, and laying out a social media strategy to aggregate online outrage and channel it into action.

And never again should it be said that online organizing doesn’t work or that young feminists don’t play a vital role in the pro-choice movement. In fact, we were so effective during the defunding battle that PPFA built us into the strategy this time around. They knew they could rely on online feminist activists, many if not most of them young women, to stoke the fires of outrage and help them once again showcase the stories of the millions of women who’ve relied on their services. Amanda Marcotte’s #standwithpp hashtag, first used during the defunding battle, made a quick reappearance. And Deanna Zandt quickly put up a Tumblr called ‘Planned Parenthood Saved Me’ to collect the stories of women and men who got lifesaving medical care from their local affiliate. Komen’s Facebook page was deluged with angry comments, with Twitter users helpfully providing the link to the page so others could pile on.

Online organizers and journalists were also instrumental in quickly exposing the extent to which Komen’s decision was the result of anti-choice pressure. Bloggers quickly connected Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood who was recently added to Komen’s payroll, to the decision. Lisa McIntire snapped a screenshot on Handel’s page of a retweet, which she later deleted, that read, “Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a river.” Adam Serwer and Kate Sheppard reported on the online outlet Mother Jones that Penn State, under investigation for covering up child sex abuse, would have also lost funds if one of Komen’s excuses for defunding PP, that they would not give to organization under investigation, actually held water.

No, Komen shouldn’t be congratulated for doing the right thing when all they did was damage control. Their statement wasn’t a victory for Planned Parenthood or for anyone, really. But the way things went down is victory in that an anti-choice power play failed miserably in the court of public opinion. As the election season heats up, the pro-choice movement just proved that we are not a paper tiger and that the public, when asked instead of told what to think, is on the side of women’s health. The GOP and the Democrats should heed this successful mass mobilization as a warning that we’re not to be trampled on and we’re not to be underestimated.

And doubters in the pro-choice movement should never again be given airtime or column space to say that online organizing isn’t real organizing or that young people aren’t invested in the movement. We just united – younger and older, online and offline – to play offense and we just won.

Why I refuse to call the Komen About-Face a Victory

4 Feb

So Komen decided to about-face on their disgusting decision to defund Planned Parenthood amid a shitstorm of controversy and an overwhelmingly negative backlash.


A victory would be if Komen acknowledged that their decision was based in partisan politics and then actually decided to remedy the issue by removing executives who are pandering to political bases. A victory would be if they doubled or tripled their contribution to not just Planned Parenthood, but to the institutions who do life-saving stem cell research, from whom they recently pulled over $12MILLION in support. A victory would be if their fake apology didn’t at the same time justify their decision to defund Planned Parenthood as “right and fair.”

Just because Komen decided that it would be better to reverse their decision than risk absolving their business is not a victory. Stop congratulating them on doing what could still barely be considered “the right thing.” Nancy Brinker and the Board of Directors has rightfully earned public scorn and a loss in “donations” (revenue).

We cannot accept their about-face as a victory because we are doing a disservice to all of these other wonderful organizations that have never abandoned their commitment to saving lives. So, I’m begging you, don’t go have a drink to celebrate because Komen decided not to remain GIGANTIC asshats. Have a drink and prep for our next battle, because this is far from over.

What if I don’t like the cup?

3 Feb

Those who know me may not be shocked to know that in my younger years I was a bit free-wheelin’ – I had a pretty “hippie” vibe back in high school, which has transitioned into a fairly left – some might say radical – take on most social and environmental issues even now that my hair is cut to a reasonable length.

My combined interest in conservation and lady stuff naturally led me to tampon and pad alternatives. In my early twenties, all the cool enlightened feminists I knew were talking about Diva Cups. I had already read about bleached tampons and toxic shock syndrome, and I also kinda hated the whole process of using pads and how much paper was produced, and the constant possibilities for embarrassment (come on, who hasn’t shown up for class with a pad stuck to their jeans?). So I was pretty excited for something new.

I did my research first, because $40 was a lot of money for me, an unemployed college student. I knew it would save me a lot of money in the long term, but “long term” has never really been a mainstay in my financial vocabulary. So first, to make sure it would be okay for me, I bought the disposable menstrual cup things. They look like a clear plastic bag attached to a livestrong bracelet – you sort of squeeze the rim together and shove it up until it’s sitting against your cervix.

I tried the disposable cups for two periods and I liked them. I bought the Diva Cup. And I hated it.

I tried, I really did. It was forty dollars, after all. I tried using it for three cycles, and then I gave up.

The problem was that I could never get it to feel comfortable. Now I know that I have an unusually long and narrow vaginal canal (thanks, horrible IUD insertion!) and a weirdly tilted cervix, I guess the problem was that I wasn’t getting it in far enough to sit against my cervix. When you’re putting something solid like that into your vagina you tend to get increasingly nervous the further you shove it, and I just didn’t want to push it too far. However, even now that I know that, I’m not sure I would want to try it again. When it comes to menstrual blood, I’m more on the side of flow than containment.

I couldn’t go back to disposable pads and tampons though – I felt like I was losing enough ecofeminist cred as it was. That’s when I discovered cloth pads. Wonderful, lovely cloth pads. Again, they are expensive – but you can use them for a long time, so you save money in the long run. And they can be messy, but if you are diligent about soaking them before throwing them in the wash, it’s really no biggie. I kind of love them. Also, they can be an opportunity to support independent crafters!

It wasn’t until a couple years after I gave up on the Diva Cup that I even said anything about it to anyone. One of the volunteers at the clinic asked me if I had one. Before I could answer, she started to tell me about hers – how much she hated it, how she was trying so hard to like it, how she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. I was so happy to have found someone who shared this with me!

I really think that feminists have a code like any other group, silent unwritten rules that vary from chapter to chapter, and one of them (at least in the circle I was running with at the time) was that under no circumstances were you to badmouth any of the great feminist advances – the pill, the Diva Cup, etc. etc. Maybe that was just in my head, I don’t know. But I was so relieved to find there was another feminist (and presumably lots more out there) who wasn’t as stoked about this great device as everyone else.

The lesson, I guess, is that everyone is different. I would never go around badmouthing the Diva Cup (in fact, I promote it as much as I can – after all, most of the people I know who have it, love it), but I’m always careful to tell people who ask me about it that it’s ok to feel like it didn’t work out for you. The more people who are upfront about what’s not working for them, the more chance there is that something else will come along to meet those needs.

So if you are thinking about chucking pads and tampons for something earth-friendly, I recommend doing your research (either online, with friends, or if you have a local feminist sex shop or health store,ask the staff about your options), and considering what features you’re looking for (eg. how comfortable do you feel putting something inside you?, etc.) before committing. Your comfort and safety should always be at the forefront of decisions you make about your body, so don’t be afraid to take some time to choose.

Good luck and happy bleeding!

Rectal exams for men and abortion restrictions for women are not the same thing

2 Feb

It always comes up. Usually the argument goes as follows: why do men get Viagra paid for by their health insurance, while women are stuck paying out of pocket for birth control? Senator Janet Howell’s recent proposal to require a rectal exam and cardiac stress test prior to offering prescriptions for erectile dysfunction drugs in order to highlight the invasiveness and over-reach of a Virginia law that proposes to require a woman undergo and view an ultrasound is the most recent and creative iteration of this theme.

While I heartily agree that a state legislature has no place telling doctors which procedures their patients must undergo, and I recognize that the Senator is trying to make a point in a political theater, I think in the end making comparisons such as these do us a disservice. They minimize what a pregnancy truly means in the life of a woman.

Sexual dysfunction is a serious matter that can affect a man’s emotional and sexual well-being in important ways. However, pregnancy affects women in a more profound way. It affects not only a woman’s emotional and sexual well-being, but also her general physical health, and her financial health. If she continues the pregnancy and gives birth it affects every minute of her day for many years to come.

The idea that medical treatment for male sexual dysfunction is a fair analogy to medical treatment to prevent or treat undesired pregnancy has always bothered me. It minimizes the profound impact pregnancy has on women’s lives. I can’t think of any event common to the male experience that compares. And perhaps that is exactly the problem.