Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reproductive Justice Under Pervasive Attack

By Sue Davis
Published Nov 19, 2011 11:12 AM

Initiative 26 was trounced 58-42 percent by voters in Mississippi on Nov. 8. It would have outlawed all abortions, many forms of birth control, fertility treatments and stem-cell research and possibly have criminalized women who had ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages.

Known as the “egg-as-personhood” referendum, its defeat is an unexpected victory for women in the most conservative state in the U.S. It’s also a real setback for all who seek to deny women their full human rights by denying them control over their own bodies.

This pro-choice victory was not predicted even two weeks before the election. Polls showed passage was a done deal. The Oct. 26 New York Times reported both candidates for governor supported passage and quoted people in favor of or undecided about it.

What turned things around was a massive eleventh-hour, grassroots effort mounted by Mississippians for Healthy Families, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation and the NAACP. Mississippi now joins Colorado and South Dakota in rejecting “personhood” laws — twice in both those states. But new campaigns are said to be planned in Nevada, Georgia, Florida, Montana, Ohio, California, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and South Dakota (yet again).

Meanwhile, anti-choice laws have spread like a rabid virus in many states. They include bans on insurance coverage for abortion; laws mandating that women who seek abortions must visit a “crisis pregnancy center” for an anti-abortion lecture by religious zealots; and laws that require a woman to view a sonogram of the fetus before having an abortion. Other laws seek to deny public funding to Planned Parenthood because it is the country’s largest abortion provider, even though millions of poor women rely on its facilities for their primary health care. Those who would be deprived are disproportionately women of color, young and living in rural areas.

But the most far-reaching attack on women’s reproductive rights occurred at the federal level on Oct. 13, with the endorsement and blessing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council. By a vote of 251 to 172, the House of Representatives passed the horribly misnamed “Protect Life Act.” Among its many anti-women, anti-health and anti-life provisions was one that would allow doctors, other health care providers and hospitals to “exercise their conscience” and let pregnant women who need emergency medical care die.

No wonder women’s rights and progressive legal groups called it the “Let Women Die Bill,” while thoroughly opposing it. During debate before the vote, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) denounced the bill, saying that “had this law been in effect 20 years ago she might not be here, because she was one of those women who needed an emergency abortion to save her life.” (, Oct. 13)

Among its provisions, which would deprive millions of women of benefits they receive today, the law would force insurance companies to drop comprehensive coverage in state health insurance exchanges. This would prevent women from paying for health insurance, even with their own money, if it includes abortion coverage. And it would allow states to pass laws stipulating that health plans can refuse to cover preventive services, including birth control, even though the Department of Health and Human Services announced Aug. 1 that all preventive care for women, including birth control, should be provided at no extra cost in insurance plans.

All the major women’s health and rights organizations are fighting the good fight. For instance, the Center for Reproductive Rights won injunctions in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Texas to stop anti-choice laws from going into effect. Planned Parenthood has mounted an information campaign asserting that though it is a major abortion provider, no government funding is used to pay for abortions.

United fightback needed

But more is needed to defend women’s rights and ensure reproductive justice for all women in this climate of political reaction. Nowadays, lawmakers would rather use state power to impose paternalistic, life-threatening limits on women’s right to life and health than to pass bills that create real jobs or that tax millionaires.

It’s instructive to note that in an essay posted Oct. 27 on, Loretta Ross, an African American who has devoted 35 years to the struggle for reproductive justice, advocated that the coalition fighting Initiative 26 link that struggle with the fight against Initiative 27, which mandated government-issued identification in order to vote. The Feminist Majority Foundation calculated that passage of similar laws nationally could prevent 35 million women from voting. Ross raised the slogan: “Two no’s make a right.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and the voter ID exclusion act passed.

After calling the defeat of Initiative 26 “a peoples’ victory, a triumph in which people of all backgrounds, races, professions and religions came together,” Ross wrote in the Nov. 9, “Millions of dollars of staff and resources poured into Mississippi from around the country to defeat 26. … What if those same resources had been equally devoted to defeating 27? … Could we have saved the right to vote in Mississippi at the same time we saved (at least temporarily) the right to obtain an abortion?”

It’s time to link the fight for women’s rights with today’s fightback movement led by Occupy Wall Street, the unions and community groups. A broad-based, united struggle is needed to win justice on all issues for all people.

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