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A Blast From the Past Can Secure Abortion Rights

by Carol Downer

To secure the availability of abortion, we who are "pro-choice" need to take the lessons from the "second wave" movement in the 1960s and 1970s and create a mass movement as strong or stronger.

As it stands now, women seeking abortion care must walk through crowds of protestors; abortion providers fear for their safety; states are passing laws to make women seeking abortions go through waiting periods, obtain parental or judicial permission, or view photos of aborted fetuses; politicians vote against women's reproductive rights; and the author of the last U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion, Justice Anthony Kennedy, publicly shamed women who have later abortions in Gonzales v. Carhart.

But the changing of the climate around abortion can lead to a number of positive steps to educate the public about the need for safe, legal abortion. Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans generally approve of abortion being available under some, if not all, circumstances, and one out of three women actually get abortions.

We can learn from the strategy of the abortion reform movement in the decade before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Dedicated individuals took up the cause of abortion reform within their own social and professional organizations at a local and national level.

In a common scenario, one or more individuals would suggest that their group invite an abortion reform advocate to speak at their meeting. Then, after the talk, they would form a committee to study the effects of the abortion laws. This committee would meet and later make recommendations to the leadership. The leadership would present a resolution for the group's approval to take the stand that abortion laws were unjust and causing illness and death to women. After the resolution passed, a press release was sent to the local papers. Over the decade, the newspapers around the country carried many articles, with headlines similar to: "Local medical association (or social club) favors reform of abortion laws."

Did the reformists have opposition? Yes, both spoken and unspoken, and sometimes it took months or years to achieve victory. But campaigns to legalize abortion in several states were successful.

By the time the Supreme Court took up the Roe v. Wade case in the early '70s, many churches, social service organizations, professional associations and political groups were on record as supporting abortion reform to end the national scandal of women dying from illegal abortions.

Today, we need women who have had abortions to share the story of their abortion. Sharing our stories not only helps us to integrate our abortion experience into our lives, but also informs others of the reality of abortion and lets other women know they're not alone.

If women start speaking out and sharing their stories, especially when gathered together with other women in small, intimate meetings which are focused on the circumstances that led to each woman's abortion, her experience of the abortion and others' reactions to her. By overcoming barriers between us and hearing each other's stories, we may come to see what we have in common and the ways in which our experiences are different. Through this, we can compare what social conditions led up to us having an abortion and which social forces are trying to prevent us from getting abortions.

As our consciousness is raised, we will understand the politics of abortion, and based on these insights, we can develop strategy and new tactics, perhaps launching powerful projects. In this way, we will create a movement.

A movement, unlike a special-interest group with a single-issue, has broad, loosely-defined goals that bring together people who are working on a wide range of social issues. A movement is made up of women of all classes and ethnic backgrounds and sexual lifestyles. Not everyone will like or agree with every part of this widespread movement or want to associate with every faction in it. But we will all be moving in the same general direction: reproductive and sexual freedom that can only exist in an egalitarian and humanistic society.

Some tactics to jump-start a movement for reproductive freedom and justice include reaffirming our beliefs openly with family and friends, holding public speakouts to tell our stories, supporting local abortion providers as escorts and volunteers, working within our community organizations to pass supportive resolutions, talking at our workplace about the need for legal and safe abortion, forming and attending consciousness-raising groups devoted to understanding every woman's abortion experience and developing strategies to secure reproductive rights and justice.

The internet is one significant difference from the pre-Roe era. The web offers many opportunities for people to speak out and share their stories about abortion at sites like: 45 Million Voices; Feminist Women's Health Center; California Women's Health Specialists; Women's Health In Women's Hands; I'mNotSorry.Net; Women On Web; Abortion Chronicles; Abortion Care Network; National Abortion Federation; and I Had an Abortion.

When hundreds of thousands of us start sharing our stories with friends and relatives, the cumulative effect of our honesty will be like the sun coming out of the clouds.

May 25, 2010

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Carol Downer is a co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Center in 1973 in Los Angeles. She co-authored and is editor of several books on women's health care, notably "A New View of a Woman's Body." She is an attorney and a member of the board of Women's Health Specialists in Chico, California.

Also see "a href=""> "On 'Generation Y/Millennials' and Teaching Reproductive Justice through Film" by Angie Young in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Women's Liberation Consciousness-Raising: Then and Now" by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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