Abortion issue of On The Issues Magazine; Winter 2012
What's next for women's autonomy? To mark four decades of women exercising the right to abortion, our contributors share ideas & actions in On The Issues Magazine Winter 2012.

Letter to a Young Activist: Do Not Drop the Banner
by Barbara Santee


I am 74 years old. When I was 18, I had an illegal abortion that nearly killed me. I ended up in the hospital where I underwent surgery to save my life. That event put me on a trajectory I never dreamed possible.

In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, I started the first pro-choice group in my home state of Oklahoma, and have been a fervent pro-choice activist ever since. I have learned a few things that I believe would be helpful to young people to help them become actively engaged in this fight.

First of all, understand that the anti-choice movement has been with us nearly 40 years, is not going away, and probably never will. Young people must prepare themselves for a lifelong engagement in this crucial war to protect women's reproductive autonomy. If we don't consider ourselves soldiers in a war, we are living in a dream world because the anti-abortion extremists do consider themselves to be warriors. If side A is prepared at any cost to take away side B's freedom, and side B is saying, "It can never happen," it will happen. Trust me. It is not hyperbole to say that abortion hangs by a thin thread.

I encourage you to incorporate some aspect of reproductive freedom into your career plans, not as a peripheral issue of occasional interest, but as a central piece of your life's work. Your energy, intelligence and skills are desperately needed.

Anti-Abortion Infiltration is Everywhere

The average American has no idea of how deeply our social fiber has been infiltrated by anti-abortion extremists. The constant bombardment of political and religious extremists affects not only our judicial and legislative institutions, but the areas of education, medicine, bioethics, military, the media and "research."

Here's one example of how successful the anti-abortion forces have been at flying under the radar and picking the taxpayer's pockets to further their agenda. The federal government's Office of Faith Based Initiatives has lined the pockets and enabled thousands of evangelical churches and fundamentalist religious groups to spread anti-abortion propaganda. Many of the groups are Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) that deceive women seeking abortions into coming to their facility for "counseling," even though their sole purpose is to prevent abortions and to push religious proselytizing. Most of these centers receive government funds for abstinence-only programs. By 2008, the federal government had spent more than $1.5 billion on such programs. This amount does not include the amounts granted by the 20 or more U.S. states that provide funding for CPCs.

Congress continues to provide $50 million each year for these programs, despite a 10-year Congressional evaluation showing these programs do not work. Most CPCs do not provide contraception, do not supply Plan B after rape and won't make a referral for these services or for abortion. Public funds are being used by these anti-abortion propaganda mills to further their religious agenda and to mislead and lie to young, vulnerable woman. Only recently pro-choice activists have started challenging these deceitful practices through city council regulations. But we need national legislation because there are thousands of these places in the country -- over 60 in Oklahoma alone and 4,000 nationwide -- and to stop pouring millions into them.

There's more, of course. Since Roe, thousands of anti-abortion organizations have sprung up designed specifically to eliminate abortion and birth control -- Evangelical Christian law schools are dedicated to training attorneys to oppose abortion, and phony think tanks grind out "research" filled with lies, using methodological and scientific distortions that anti-abortion extremists can quote to legitimize their attacks.

These extremists have managed to eliminate federal funding for elective abortions under Medicaid, the Indian Health Services and federal employees insurance plans. Neither military funds nor facilities may be used for abortion anywhere in the world. This means, those women fighting in a hostile country can't use a military hospital for an abortion but must risk their lives going to a local hospital and pay for the procedure out of their own pockets.

Nothing Short of Christian Theocracy

But most troubling of all, the religious extremists have infiltrated our military all the way from the ROTC and the military academies up to the Pentagon, from privates to generals and everywhere in between. This is an ominous sign because the power behind most anti-abortion activities comes from a fundamentalist faction called the Dominionists. Their aim is to take over the government of the United States and turn it into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. They are convinced that if they can't do this peacefully, they will do it by force; hence, their wooing of the military.

We desperately need young, intelligent people to commit their lives to this fight

Over 20 years ago, I became aware of the Dominionists' game plan when I attended the first meeting of the Christian Coalition in Tulsa, my hometown. They began the meeting with a prayer followed by the flag salute. But it wasn't the American flag. It was the Christian flag, complete with a pledge of allegiance to Jesus that gave "life and liberty" only to those who "believed" in" him"! ("I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior, for whose kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.")

The implications of this horrified me. I immediately called a progressive minister friend and together we founded the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, a group of mainstream people of faith who have served as a counter voice to the religious extremists -- not an easy task in the home town of the fundamentalists' Oral Roberts University.

Domionism's goal is a nation governed by Christians and their version of biblical law; this goal drives conservative Christians to seek control over secular government. Thus, the legislative deadlock and open hostility toward anyone who disagrees with them. They bring their fundamentalist binary thinking (black/white, good/evil) to the legislature. Those who disagree are not just wrong; they are "evil." Domionists feel they are the rightful rulers and those who don't agree are standing in their way of doing God's bidding. They truly are waging a holy war and they are funding it on the backs of women, raising millions with their anti-abortion crusades.

Pro-choice supporters must face this threat in every institution in our country because it is there in every institution. We desperately need young, intelligent people to commit their lives to this fight, because thousands of young people are being groomed now on the opposing side.

We need attorneys to fight for reproductive freedom in courts. We need a professor in every law school. We need Students for Choice on every campus in this country. We need judges who will make decisions not based on politics, but on justice and the law. We need legislators to counter anti-abortion, anti-woman legislation. We need doctors who will teach abortion procedures and who will take over when the aging doctors in our abortion clinics can no longer practice. We need research and social scientists to counter the bogus anti-abortion research. We need informed leaders in the military to counter the religious proselytizing.

Now it’s your generation’s turn

We need more pro-choice ministries that do all-options and pro-woman counseling. We need historians to record our experiences so they won't be rewritten by the extremists who even now claim few women died or were injured when abortion was illegal. We need supporters in the arts -- writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, musicians -- who can tell the truth about choice and touch people's hearts. We need administrators to lead activist organizations. We need professionals in the news media to make sure the reporting on abortion is timely, thorough and accurate. We need philanthropists to give generously to the cause.

In other words, we need you!

Over the last 40 years, I have seen how the concerted and determined efforts of these anti-abortion extremists have eroded our basic right to reproductive autonomy until we are now on the brink of losing Roe. If we lose abortion, birth control won't be far behind.

The suffragists stood in front of the White House with their banners demanding the right to vote. One-by-one, they were arrested and dragged off by the police. Before being taken to jail, each woman handed her banner to the next woman who continued holding it until she, too, was dragged away. The women changed, but the banners remained because the next woman was willing to step up and accept the burden. Just as it took 70 years and complete dedication for women to win the vote, we must have that same determination in this fight.

And now it's your generation's turn. Don't drop the banner!

Dr. Barbara Santee holds a Ph.D from Columbia University and three Masters degrees. She has been the director of evaluation for International Planned Parenthood Federation and the executive director of NARAL ProChoice Oklahoma. She currently is a consultant for the Abortion Access Project and moderates several pro-choice lists for her state.

Also see: How Anti-Abortion Protesters Got Me: Letter From a Young Activist by Sarah Flint Erdreich in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Can We Choose Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? -- And How? by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Read the Cafe for new and updated stories.

Harold E. Hill posted: 2012-01-13 21:08:35

Knowing Dr. Santee since 1970, I am convinced of her intelligence, dedication, and devotion to freedom for women. I have joined with her in her cause, as have many other community servants. My over-riding concern is over-population of the planet. We must keep the number of "reproductive" offspring to two or less per family. This, of course, does not restrict family size; there are plenty of children to be adopted. But it does argue for sexual activity without reproduction. My second concern as a forty-year college teacher engaged in the scientific study of religion in society (including the 'original' text of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin of religious documents is to remove from all classrooms the mound of misinformation about religion to be found there. All teachers at all levels should be required to take college courses in the subject--as was Dr. Santee--her doctorate, by the way, was not in religion but in an equally important field. As most of my professional colleagues would agree, "one cannot responsibly tell what the Bible says without being able to read it in Hebrew--and Aramaic where appropriate--and in Koine (not 'classical') Greek." That does not include the "authorized" (King James) of the 17th century which has been replaced by a series of new English translations and revisions since then. I congratulate your magazine and those who have contribute to it and its cause. Rev. Dr. Harold E. Hill, PhD. (Yale)

Lesley Rimmel posted: 2012-01-16 14:54:59

I was privileged to hear Barbara Santee speak two years ago in Oklahoma. She is one of the most inspiring people I have ever heard on the topic of abortion, reproductive justice, and women's rights generally. Brava, Barbara; may many heed your call and take up the banner!

Lauren Kate posted: 2012-02-02 14:37:08

As a young woman from Australia that just randomly stumbled on this article, I just wanted to say how inspiring it is that at 74 you are still passionately standing up for women's basic human rights.

mayra posted: 2012-02-02 20:51:14

I´m in favor of women rights but not abortion! we all have the right of living,and if you cont want that child, there is someone else who will. If you dont want to think about abortion, think before you act!or use another birth control method, but abortion is taking things too far.

Emilee posted: 2012-02-02 22:01:31

This article is so inspiring! I'm a young feminist still in high school and am committed to the fight for my right, and every other woman's right, to have safe and legal abortions for whatever reason they so choose. thank you for even more fuel to my mission to keep the world safe for women and their bodies.

Polly Rothstein posted: 2012-02-11 16:30:21

Well done, Barbara. I came upon your article, began reading, and a few paragraphs in, I scrolled to the top to see if you had written it. You're amazing. Polly

Craig Williams posted: 2012-02-27 00:50:59

I heard Dr. Barbara Santee speak this past weekend at a conference in Oklahoma. For the rest of my life I will always remember her speaking to everyone in the room and telling us: "Don't drop the banner." Solidarity.

Elizabeth posted: 2012-03-09 16:03:14

Mayra, here's something to ponder: I would fight for your right to bear children in the face of fears of over-population. Or in the face of fears that you are not a capable parent. I cannot think of an instance where I wouldn't fight for your right to bear children. I would fight for your children to receive adequate pre- and post-natal care. I would fight for your body to be thoroughly invested in as it goes through gestation to birth and beyond. And yet you ...cannot equally invest in my health or my choices. This is inequity. There's nothing wrong with abortion- I've had 'em, so I would know, right?

Edwina Gray posted: 2012-03-11 17:04:48

I too had an illegal abortion in my twenties (I am now 67. I too went to the hospital when I had complications. If Roe v. Wade is overturned this is where young women are again headed. Some will die. We have to fight for our rights! No one else will.

Leia Peison posted: 2012-10-07 13:45:17

why the distinction between abortion and birth control? abortion IS a form of birth control. we need to quit seperating them. we add to stigma when we do

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