The Fight of Our Lives
“I don’t want to hear any of this denial about ‘They won’t really do it, they can’t do it,'” Kathleen Turner said, her unmistakable voice filling Foley Square. “They can do it. They are doing it. And that kind of talk only helps their side. It doesn’t help us.”
She was speaking at the Rally for Women’s Health this past Saturday, an event organized by Planned Parenthood and attended by an estimated six thousand people. She referred, of course, to the Pence Amendment, which would strip the Planned Parenthood Federation of America of its federal funding, devastating the organization. PPFA is a major provider of health care to low-income women; for many, it is their only provider. Ninety percent of the services they provide are “preventative, primary care,” including cancer screenings, STD testing, and contraceptive distribution. Like one in five American women, I have turned to Planned Parenthood for medical care; like many of them, I was uninsured, and understood that they would help me whether or not I could pay them in full. Like the rest of that ten percent of the American populace, I have a personal relationship with this organization. I trust them. They have saved my bacon and that of many of my friends. When my younger sister went away to college, I looked up her local Planned Parenthood. If I have a daughter someday I will do the same. Their centers are a safe haven, a rare judgment-free zone for women to discuss their bodies and the consequences of their sexuality. The possibility that this organization could fold is heartbreaking.
Judging from the crowd at the rally, I’m not the only one who feels the gravity of this threat. Kathleen Hanna, of Le Tigre and Bikini Kill fame, spoke about how she was treated by PP when she was on her first tour and only had twelve dollars in her pocket. Councilwoman Letitia James spoke passionately about the importance of family planning clinics in her Brooklyn district. Senator Chuck Schumer declared his support not in a politician’s hedging language, but unequivocally, in moral terms. Representative Anthony Weiner did the same. The bloated, slothful quality of Albany politics may be a popular punchline, but lately, Weiner has made me feel truly proud to be a New Yorker.
Regardless of your personal views on abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood makes no sense for anyone who claims to be a proponent of American families. For one, PP spends its federal funds on preventative and primary care, not abortion services. More importantly, Planned Parenthood can claim credit for preventing more abortions than perhaps any other group. It’s right there in the name: this organization is about family planning.
Here’s a news flash for the Republican Party: people have sex, and people make mistakes. Those two statements come right behind death and taxes in terms of inevitability. No amount of wishing or legislation will stop people from having sex, and as long as they do, there will be broken condoms, missed pills, and bad decisions made in emotional moments. There will always be uninsured women, particularly in rural areas, who do not have the good fortune of an accessible Planned Parenthood to provide them with the pill at a low cost (imagine how this problem would multiply if PP lost their federal funding). Pro-life politicians like to “otherize” the women who terminate pregnancies, often dragging racism into the picture, as in the case of the despicable SoHo billboard that was recently taken down at Councilwoman James’ urging. However, according to the Guttmacher institute, about one in three American women has undergone the procedure. Much has been written about the prevalence of abortions among groups of people who are thought to be culturally opposed to them, such as Catholics and evangelical Christians. Apparently, living in a climate hostile to reproductive freedom does not change the fact that people have sex, and people make mistakes.
Supporters of the Pence Amendment should be reminded that unplanned pregnancies are not all about women “trapping” men; they are about men trapping women as well. The sad fact is that one of the ways men control women is by impregnating them. In fact, you might say that it is the granddaddy of the ways men control women, but it continues to this day; I’ve seen it, right here in New York City, in 2011, with my own eyes. Men who have no intention of contributing to the upbringing of a child will shame a woman into keeping her baby because they know that once she does, she will be beholden to him, to some extent, for the rest of her life, and other men will not want her. It is a way of putting a woman in her place. The desire to maintain this male power, and the female subjugation that corresponds to it, is more evident in anti-choice rhetoric than any sincere concern for the personhood of a fertilized embryo.
Planned Parenthood’s feminist philosophy has always been threatening to the defenders of male privilege. Often, its opponents seem just as troubled by the information and support PP provides as they are by the abortion services available there. The House Republicans who voted to strip PP of its funding know that a crippled budget means fewer centers with shorter hours and fewer doctors on staff. It will result in fewer abortions performed by PP doctors — though not fewer overall — even though the funding in question was intended for preventative care. The Pence Amendment aims to circumvent the law by making abortion inaccessible even as it remains legal, with no apparent concern for the primary care services that will go down with the ship. It also reflects a general discomfort, on the part of these (mostly male, uniformly well-off) lawmakers, with the concept of women making their own decisions.
Yet women will make those decisions, and they will often take on considerable risk to do so. The role of parent is too all-encompassing, too life-changing, to be taken on against one’s will. It’s a fact of life: unplanned pregnancies happen and women will seek to end them. If a society doesn’t provide a safe, humane way for them to do so, the inevitable result will be back alleys and coat hangers.
As a feminist and a Catholic, I won’t pretend that there are any easy answers with regard to the abortion debate, nor do I wish to demonize all people who are not pro-choice. Some people genuinely believe that life begins at conception, and that terminating a pregnancy, even at the earliest stages, is immoral. But even people who are honestly concerned about this — and I’m not convinced that those people make up the majority of the pro-life movement — need to consider that women will inevitably suffer and die if affordable abortions are not available to them. I would challenge anyone who accepts the prevailing right-wing dogma about abortion to ask themselves: Do you really think that one out of three women in this country is willing to commit what she believes, according to the wisdom of her own body, to be murder? Is your belief in the personhood of an embryo or fetus so strong that concern for it eclipses the imminent harm to the low-income women who will have unsafe abortions when PP’s doors are closed? Even if you believe that it is irresponsible for people to have sex at any time that their lives cannot accommodate a child (which is, frankly, incredibly unrealistic), what gives you the right to make their most intimate decisions? If it was your daughter who was fifteen, pregnant, and terrified, what would you want for her? Perhaps most saliently, why on Earth would you want to defund an organization that provides the birth control and information that can reduce unplanned pregnancies — an organization that, it bears repeating, does not use federal tax money for abortion services?
There is a lot of hypocrisy on the so-called pro-life side of the abortion debate. It’s visible in rape-or-incest exceptions to abortion laws: abortion is murder except when it isn’t. It’s visible in the judgmental treatment of single mothers in this country, and the social shaming of women who have ended pregnancies. As I said, I believe that people who see an embryo as a sacred human life are out there. I just don’t believe that those are the people who are framing this debate. The Pence Amendment is the work of cynical misogynists who are trying to force a political victory out of economically tight times. It is callous, crude, and extremely dangerous. Mike Pence aims to kick the powerless when they’re down.
It is critical for the voting public to make it clear that this kind of regressive, opportunistic nonsense will not be tolerated, no matter what the political weather. Sign petitions, talk to your relatives, make noise in the street. Call your senators, your representatives, your state senators, your councilmen and assemblymen, and tell them that what’s true for the Tea Partiers is also true for progressives: we will remember in November. We will remember who threw women under the bus because it was politically convenient. We will remember who, like Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, had the guts to stand up for what was right. As another speaker said at this weekend’s rally, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Don’t be silent. Make your voice heard, and tell your public servants that enough is enough.