This is part three of a three part series (here’s part 1 and part 2) on the state of reproductive rights in the United States. One of our guest writers, Christine Zulkosky, is passionate about accessible reproductive health for all.
A note from Christine Zulkosky: “This piece was originally written in May 2020, while many of us in New York City were still confined to our apartments. It was finished before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the accompanying protests. With the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, abortion access is in jeopardy now more than ever. This series is a slice of life from this past year. I hope it clarifies some of what is at stake. This is part one of a three part series.”
PART 3: Women Will Never Stop Fighting For Reproductive Freedom
When I speak to people about reproductive rights, or, honestly, about anything that could be considered a “women’s issue,” they want me to explain why I care so much. Where did your passion come from? Last summer, after a Fourth of July party at my parents’ house, my aunt and I found ourselves standing in the kitchen, chatting in the dark. We were alone, and she saw this as an opportunity. She took a deep breath and asked me, in her gentlest voice, “What made you so into this stuff?”
I have had this conversation several times, I know what the inquirer’s well-meant expectations are. This is supposed to be my big moment. My big moment to reveal some deep-seated trauma that occurred as a child. My big moment to shout, “I have had an abortion! That is why I care so much!” Or maybe I have been raped, like so many women. I’m supposed to reveal something about myself that indicates why I would choose to devote so much time and energy to women’s issues. As if there has to be a reason. People don’t just care about women’s issues otherwise. Not this much, at least.
Nobody asks my partner, a talented animator, why he has always loved to draw. Most people express admiration for his passion, not confusion. It’s so cool you have something you’re passionate about… But then again, everybody likes cartoons.
The implication of their questions is that women hold a position of secondary status in society. Advocating for “women’s issues,” and especially reproductive justice, is often difficult and uncomfortable. The abortion debate is polarizing. According to a 2019 poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, 13% of Americans want to overturn Roe v. Wade entirely. Although this group is small in numbers, they are often the people who shout the loudest. Women who advocate for women’s issues get death threats. Women’s issues are less respected than topics like politics or economics, as if women exist outside of those spheres entirely. Abortion, a “women’s issue,” is a constitutional right that was banned when the first opportunity arose. In essence, the deeply internalized notion behind these questions is that I make myself less powerful by aligning myself with these issues. If not less powerful, then at least less well-liked. Who would choose that? Especially at a time like this.
The queen, Roxane Gay, has an essay in her New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist, titled, “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot.” She begins the piece by recounting her experience of watching Senator Wendy Davis stand for nearly thirteen hours to filibuster a bill that would have closed the vast majority of abortion clinics in Texas in 2013. Gay watched it on YouTube, because it wasn’t covered by any of the major news networks. As I said, these emergency bans are nothing new, and yes, women’s issues tend to be ignored by mainstream media. But what is most striking to me about Gay’s essay is how she discovered the situation in Texas. The force that compelled her to seek out and watch the YouTube livestream was simply one woman speaking up on Twitter, activist Jessica W. Luther. This is revelatory because Gay admits that she is not automatically someone who is “plugged in” to reproductive justice. She confesses, “I’ll be honest—at first, I was completely clueless about what was happening in Texas. At times, I thought, I do not have the energy to care about this.”
Now more than ever, as we’re all experiencing a collectively traumatic event, I sympathize with and understand the feeling of nothing left to give. It was true then, and it is true now—reproductive justice is not always everyone’s top priority. Especially right now, I can understand why it wouldn’t be. As I write this, sirens blare outside my window and a news alert pops up on my phone, reporting that total job losses in the U.S. have reached 33 million. I am not sleeping well. I’m worried for my older relatives. I miss my friends. Living in the epicenter of the outbreak, I panic every time my partner leaves for groceries. When I gently nudged my best friend to take a pregnancy test, she deflected my prodding. She said she would do it later, some other time, maybe next week. Then, finally, she admitted, “This is just one more thing I’m scared of knowing.”
In the midst of this exhaustion, we need people doing what Jessica Luther did for Roxane Gay. “Luther was so committed… and so full of passion and good information, that I started to care. I started to pay attention. I read the articles and commentaries she shared and began to understand what was at stake not just for women in Texas but for all American women.” I am a woman, so I care about women. I care about my best friend. I care about myself, my neighbors. It was true in 2013, and it’s true again now—what happens to women in Texas affects all American women.
On my Instagram feed there are posts from feminist accounts urging women to “love your body.” I wish I could. What does it do to a woman’s sense of agency and self-worth when you take away her right to control her own body? Consider the language the Governor of Texas used in his initial Executive Order to ban abortion. He wrote that unless postponing the surgery or procedure would cause “serious adverse medical consequences or death, as determined by the patient’s physician,” then it wasn’t necessary. Women are omitted from the decision-making process entirely.
Skye Perryman, the chief legal and policy officer of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), has said that abortions are “time sensitive obstetrical and gynecologic procedures for which a delay will negatively affect or harm patient health and safety” and therefore, “they should not be considered elective.” According to a 2015 study, women who wanted an abortion but could not obtain one had more anxiety, lower self-esteem, and less life satisfaction than women who had access to the procedure when they needed it. An article published in 2017 revealed that women who lived in states with restricted abortion access had considered more dangerous alternatives, like self-induced abortion using herbs, home remedies, or even blunt-force trauma. In the midst of a pandemic the risks are only multiplied. Women who decide to drive long distances to a state where abortion is not restricted face the added threat of being exposed to the COVID-19 crisis along the way.
The last eight weeks have demonstrated that anti-abortionists will exploit any opportunity—even a national emergency—to further their cause. No matter how many bodies pile up in refrigerated trucks, valuable time, energy, and resources will still be devoted to stripping American women of their bodily autonomy. In fact, it’s clear that legislators think this may be the perfect time to satisfy their own political agenda. It is infuriating. They are unrelenting, but so are we. Women will continue to have abortions. The Guttmacher Institute reported that 18% of pregnancies were terminated by induced abortion in 2017. The CDC has reported that 59% of abortion patients are already mothers. These are people we know. Tara Schochet, a senior program associate at TelAbortion, tells me that their website saw a significant increase in viewership in March, receiving 35% more hits than usual. TelAbortion is a service that coordinates with local clinics to administer the abortion pill (mifepristone) via the mail. Of course, she can’t say for sure that the surge of views is linked to COVID-19, but she would imagine that’s why. Even now, women need abortion. The procedure is time-sensitive essential healthcare. It cannot be postponed.
TelAbortion was established in 2016 as a response to the panic created by Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Once again, I am reminded that attacks on abortion access are not a new phenomenon. As I type this, I hear Mary’s words echo in my head, “These emergency bans might feel unprecedented and alien, but they’re not, it’s essentially the same strategy they have always been using.” I am reminded that I was at a rally fighting for this, before the pandemic became a serious issue in the United States, before I was confined to my apartment. I am reminded of the other reason friends and family question my involvement with this issue, the one I usually choose not to acknowledge: they’re worried it’s hopeless. I am reminded that this does not begin and end with the pandemic.