The DAY AFTER issue of On The Issues Magazine; Fall 2012
Success on equality and justice takes activism in every season -- in and beyond elections. Our writers and thinkers zoom in on core concerns and ideas for our future in On The Issues Magazine Fall 2012.

Silos No More: Shaping Alliances for Reproductive Justice
by Susan Yanow


Every four years, reproductive justice advocates mobilize to support the presidential candidate who we hope will protect and advance our rights. Election after election, we are unable to hold those we elect accountable for promises made, and fail to achieve the gains that we need for women to exercise their full reproductive and human rights.

This year, we must work differently.

We must give up old messages that no longer resonate, move out of our organizational silos and build new alliances. We must develop an aspirational vision that includes all women and the complexities of their choices to continue or end a pregnancy, and stop compromising for the sake of political expediency. This year, too much is at stake.

Regardless of the outcome of the November election, we again have our work cut out for us. In the last decade there have been unending attacks on reproductive rights. The chipping away of access to abortion that started with the Hyde Amendment has become an all-out jackhammer assault. We need to create a long-term strategy to protect and expand reproductive rights.

Gigantic Steps Backward

Four years ago, optimistically anticipating that a change in the presidency would open the door for a progressive reproductive rights agenda, a coalition of advocates spent months creating an inclusive policy document. It presented a powerful list of priorities that included: promoting unbiased information about reproductive and sexual health; improved access to contraception; securing women’s right to choose and obtain abortion; improving health care for pregnant women; supporting reproductive rights and health in foreign assistance programs; and promoting recognition and protection for reproductive rights as human rights.

Reviewing these goals, created so recently, is sobering. While the Global Gag Rule has been repealed and our Secretary of State speaks at global forums about the importance of reproductive rights, domestically, we have taken gigantic steps backward on reproductive freedom and rights.

On The Issues Magazine - 8c American Family. Family Planning 1972
8c American Family. Family Planning 1972

Nine states have moved to ban abortion for any reason after 20 weeks (and Arizona has banned abortions after 18 weeks); 119 restrictive state laws, including waiting periods, restrictions on medication abortion and biased counseling passed in states between January 2011 and June 2012, and the Supreme Court has upheld the right of legislators to determine what procedures doctors can use when providing later abortion care.

Amazingly, even the right to contraception is now contested. In the 1970s, there was a U.S. postage stamp celebrating family planning. In contrast, in the last two years, 11 states have moved to defund at least some family planning clinics.

While these egregious assaults on abortion access have primarily occurred at the state level, we have suffered reverses at the federal level, as well.

Abortion care was excluded from the Health Care Reform plan long before it was voted on, and the House of Representatives is dominated by members who would like nothing better than to make abortion illegal again by overturning Roe v. Wade. At every level, the bedrock of women’s reproductive rights is being undermined. The cracks are becoming a crevasse, and too many vulnerable women, particularly young, low-income and rural women, are falling through the gaps, unable to access the reproductive health care that they need. Fifty five percent of U.S. women of reproductive age now live in one of the 26 states considered hostile to abortion rights.

These setbacks are the result of a long-term strategy by those whose goal is to end abortion and limit women’s autonomy. Those opposed to women’s rights have successfully shifted the public discourse away from women’s rights to a conversation about morality, stigma, “harm to women” and the rights of the fetus. But the conservative swing on abortion is part of a broader change in the American public.

Rolling Back Waves of Conservative Hostility

In 2010, conservatives and ultra right-wing Tea Party candidates surged into power in many states and in Congress, riding on people’s fears of a weak economy and a health care plan framed by its opponents as a new tax and a government intrusion. Stuck in a dysfunctional marriage with the faltering Democratic Party, progressives failed to mobilize a convincing campaign to overcome the money, mudslinging and messaging of our opponents. As a result, conservative state legislators have not just eviscerated abortion access, but have attacked other values and rights important to progressives and to women. They have passed racist anti-immigrant bills, destroyed public employees’ rights to unionize and have even passed laws to suppress the vote to ensure that their policies are in place for the long haul.

To overcome this wave, we must make common cause with other progressive movements and find new ways to frame reproductive rights issues.

55% of U.S. women of reproductive age live in a state hostile to abortion rights

The reproductive justice framework creates an opportunity to address the broad issues that impact women, including economic security, and the right of ALL women in this country, including those without documents, to have healthcare and education. Our recent “win” in Mississippi when the “personhood” bill was defeated was also a lost opportunity to work in coalition with others to defeat a voter ID bill that will suppress future voters.

We have to look beyond a narrow and often short-term focus on reproductive rights and learn the language of the reproductive justice movement, which will allow us to create new allies and new messages to move forward. The November elections are one barometer of public sentiment. Can we who care passionately about reproductive rights and reproductive choices find ways to mobilize the millions of Americans who are focused on jobs, wars and other issues to pay attention to our issue, as well? Can we move out of our own organizational silos to create new coalitions and new ways of organizing to become more politically effective? Can we mobilize beyond the election cycle to become a sustained political force to be reckoned with?

One Truism: Women Will Need Healthcare

There is no question that the office of the president matters. There will be Supreme Court vacancies in the next four years, and those in the court will determine the future of legal abortion in the United States. Cabinet and other government appointments influence the lives and health of women domestically and globally. If conservatives continue to gain power, the obstacles for reproductive rights will become insurmountable for even more women.

But, regardless of the outcome of the election, critical work is ahead.

Women’s need for contraception and abortion will not change. The need for women to raise the children they choose to have will still mean the need for access to health care, adequate day care, good schools, adequate nutrition and more.

Women will still need to fight for our basic human dignity and equality. Women who are young, low-income and rural will continue to bear the brunt of restrictions on any healthcare service, including family planning and abortion. The results of the November election, and how we organize before and after the campaign, will determine whether we are able to expand our reproductive rights, or will be forced to defend the ever smaller scraps of what is left of our human right to control our bodies, our destinies and our future.

Susan Yanow, MSW, is a long-time reproductive rights activist. Yanow was the founding Executive Director of the Abortion Access Project. She is currently a consultant to a number of U.S and international reproductive rights and health organizations that work to advance access to abortion, including ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) at UCSF, Ibis Reproductive Health, the Reproductive Health Access Project (RHAP), the International Consortium on Medical Abortion (ICMA), Women on Web and Women on Waves. She has also consulted with the Byllye Avery Institute for Social Change, Gynuity, Planned Parenthood New York City and SisterSong. She serves on the Boards of the ACLU of Massachusetts, NARAL ProChoice Massachusetts, the Cambridge Commission on the Status of Women and Chennai Children.

Also see: The Abortion Rights Looking Glass: Canada Reflects Women First by Nick van der Graaf in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Broken Politics: Republicans Assail Suffrage Itself by Tanya Melich in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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