When it comes to women’s economic freedom and equality, few things are more crucial than our total independence when it comes to our reproductive health. If we cannot choose when, how, and if we have children, the rest of the choices we make begin to fall in rapid succession, beholden to our obligations about having and raising children. An enormous part of women’s liberation, financially and professionally, has been our access to contraception, abortion, and affordable, community-based reproductive health care that allows us to make our own decisions (and afford them, no matter our income level).
Being in control of our motherhood (or lack thereof) is a fundamental human right for women, and having a society full of mothers who chose the right moment for them to have children (or decided not to at all, because it wasn’t right for them) is better for everyone. And even if we never once use a facility like Planned Parenthood, never use birth control, never terminate a pregnancy — it is of enormous importance that these options are available to all women. The financially-struggling mother of three, the teenager in a rural, conservative community, the expectant mother who doesn’t speak English — all of these women deserve access to safe, affordable reproductive health, from regular checkups to prenatal care and education.
Our ability to earn our own money, pursue our professional dreams, and retain crucial independence in or out of a committed relationship, depends on these things. Women, from puberty onward, need to be informed and independent when it comes to their bodies, their rights, and their sexuality — and clinics are the only places many American girls and women can rely on to get these things. With institutions like Planned Parenthood being threatened in legislation across the country, and our sex education still dismally retrograde in many of our states, it’s more important than ever that women inform themselves about these issues, and advocate for them within their own communities. Even if we may never set foot in a Planned Parenthood, protecting its existence is vital for the women who depend on it, and the society that directly benefits from healthy, willing mothers.
To learn more about the ties between our reproductive and economic freedoms, I spoke to Pamela Merritt and Erin Matson, the co-founders and co-directors of Reproaction, a direct action group working to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about American women’s lives before Roe vs Wade, in terms of reproductive health? Was there access to birth control, or was that heavily restricted as well?
It is important to remember that women in America had abortions prior to the Roe v Wade decision by the US Supreme Court in 1973. Some women were able to access legal abortion, but that was not the norm, often depended on where a woman lived, and was cost-prohibitive for most women. Illegal abortion was common and thousands of women died as a result. According to Guttmacher, in 1930 abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women in America. Roe v Wade not only opened up access to legal abortion to women regardless of where they live, it also took abortion out of the back alley for women previously denied access and made it possible for all people seeking abortion to access safe services through health care providers.
Much like abortion, women in America have used birth control for centuries. The problem was that most of those methods were not effective, and some of them were dangerous. The first oral contraceptive was approved by the FDA in 1960. That historic approval was the result of decades of activism. Women were jailed for bringing birth control into the country, and had to fight to make birth control legal. Even after the birth control pill won FDA approval, women faced restrictions. For a long time, the pill was only available to married women, but consistent activism led to less restrictions on access. Women in America are now able to access a wide variety of birth control options as a method of family planning and to treat common conditions like uterine fibroids and endometriosis.
However, activists are still fighting restrictions on birth control methods like emergency contraception. And many women who seek emergency contraception are denied access through laws that allow pharmacies and hospitals to refuse to stock or dispense birth control simply because they have a moral objection. In Missouri, legislators passed a law that would have allowed a person’s employer to refuse health care insurance coverage for birth control if that employer objects to it, but that law was struck down in federal court. So, the fight for access to birth control is far from over.
2. Did we see any dramatic socioeconomic shifts in the wake of Roe vs Wade?
The Roe v Wade ruling in 1973 came on the heels of one of America’s most transformative decades. The 1960s saw racial segregation struck down, voting rights expanded, the Stonewall Uprising that sparked the modern LGBT equality movement, and the emergence of the modern feminist movement. There have been huge socioeconomic shifts since Roe v Wade, and access to safe abortion is one of many factors influencing those shifts. When we increase access and remove barriers to our rights, communities thrive.
3. We know that there has always been a link between socioeconomic status and access to reproductive health. Can you tell us a little bit about how Planned Parenthood has democratized that, how women of lower socioeconomic status are able to access things, whether that’s birth control, abortion, or even simply regular pap smears?
Reproductive Justice is defined as the human right to have children, or not have children, and to raise our families in safe and healthy environments. Access to health care through community providers like Planned Parenthood is crucial, providing affordable reproductive healthcare to women who would otherwise not have access.
The basic facts are daunting and damning: poverty creates hurdles to access to birth control, and economically-challenged communities often have high unplanned pregnancy rates. Teen mothers are likely to be in poverty already. And as a society, we don’t do enough to support teen parents, which leads to higher high school dropout rates. For those young parents who graduate from high school, they still face the expense of childcare, lack of support from employers, and the ever-present stigma toward young parents in housing and career advancement. Birth control coverage, affordable birth control, and having a community provider people can easily travel to can make a huge difference in a woman’s family planning options and decisions. A study by Washington University in St. Louis, published in 2014, found dramatic decreases in unintended pregnancy among study participants who were provided free birth control. So, we know that women who have access to affordable birth control use it, just as we know that poor women who have unplanned pregnancies face economic hardships that contribute to a cycle of poverty.
We also know that women need access to abortion. Even if birth control were free to all, women will still need access to abortion. Most women who have an abortion are already parents and know the challenges of that, as well as the impact another child would have on their life and ability to provide for their family. The current ban on federal funding for abortion is a case study in bad public policy, because it denies access to affordable abortion to poor women who need and deserve that access. As states continue to pass restrictions on access to abortion, they are opting to pander to the pro-life movement’s relentless attacks, rather than build common-sense policies that connect healthcare to those who need it.
And those same states will then turn around and call women “welfare queens,” while slashing access to food assistance, affordable housing, and education. That’s not good policy, that’s a recipe for disaster.
4. Do we see a direct tie in terms of economic freedom and reproductive freedom? Are there ties we can look at between states, or even countries, to see the disparity in women’s financial independence and their reproductive independence?
A lot has been written about the tie between unplanned pregnancy and poverty rates. But it is also important to note that the many of the same states that restrict access to reproductive health care also resist efforts to increase the minimum wage, address unequal pay for women, tackle affordable housing, expand Medicaid, pass non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, or fund education. Women’s financial independence is hindered by regressive policies that seek to maintain the status quo, rather than empower women to achieve their dreams.
5. We know that Planned Parenthood specifically has done more than any other private organization in this country to help prevent unwanted pregnancy. What are their specific strategies, and how can we contribute to that cause?
While the deceitful and violent attacks on Planned Parenthood are horrific and should concern us all, I want to be clear that Planned Parenthood is its own organization and they are best equipped to speak to what they do, their strategies, and how to support them directly.
That said, I want to talk about the important link between reproductive justice and economic justice. When people have accurate sex education and access to contraception, they are empowered to have children on their own terms. There is no such thing as economic justice when women are not free to determine if, whether, and when to have children. There is no such thing as economic justice when women who choose to continue pregnancies do not have access to adequate health care, paid parental leave, and good neighborhood schools. Women must be able to conduct our reproductive lives with dignity in order to have the full opportunities we deserve to thrive economically, period.
6. You are working right now on raising awareness for repealing the Helms amendment. Can you tell us a little about that, and why it is important for women’s health and independence?
Our #BadLegacy campaign will continue until President Obama does right on the Helms Amendment, which bars funding for abortion as a “method of family planning” in foreign aid. It’s pretty clear rape, incest, and life endangerment should be excluded from the interpretation of Helms, but Obama has not yet taken executive action to make that clear. This is a critical issue as rape is increasingly being used as a weapon of war around the world. In just one example, we know that the vast majority of the women kidnapped by Boko Haram came back pregnant. No one should be forced to bear a child after being kidnapped and raped in war.
Here at home, the Hyde Amendment bars federal funding for abortion. It’s discriminatory, and means that some people have more constitutional rights than others. No one should have their constitutional rights decided by the contents of their wallet. The EACH Woman Act would restore funding for abortion coverage. If passed, this bill would represent an important step forward for social justice.
7. How can we individually help women retain their reproductive freedom in this country?
We can’t all do everything, but we all can do something. Some of the most helpful things you can do are right in front of you. Commit to busting abortion stigma in your own personal life. Talk to your friends and family about why you support access to reproductive health care. If you read a column in your newspaper that talks down to women who have abortions or use birth control, write a letter to the editor back. Vote and make sure everyone you know votes, too. And of course, sign up at Reproaction.org to link up with activists around the country working with us to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice!
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