The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice recently asked me, because I am a “man in the movement,” to tell my story. I became involved with reproductive justice issues while I prepared for the ministry, but I think the impetus to advocate for women’s issues was planted in my heart when I was a young boy.
My mother worked for the American Red Cross and was ill-treated by her supervisor. After they divorced, my father did not abide by his agreement to pay child support and in those days, the courts did not enforce the agreement. That alerted me to how women are treated differently than men.
My first girlfriend and I were both reckless and stupid. She got pregnant and had to go to Puerto Rico for an abortion. That alerted me to restrictive abortion laws. My wife had an abortion before I met her and she had to travel from an upstate New York dairy farm to inner-city Philadelphia for the procedure. I know that among my four daughters, three have had abortions. It would have been impossible for me not to be involved in advocating for reproductive justice.
For a year, while I was in seminary, I worked as the statewide coordinator for the Illinois chapter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I recall preparing promotional materials and once, making a trip to the statehouse to advocate and meet representatives.
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It concerns me that laws drawn from religious beliefs are being considered and in some cases, passed, in legislatures dominated by men who are moved too much by those religious beliefs.
I wish that legislators who would restrict abortion or tighten its availability could meet more women and listen to the stories they tell. I believe they should be exposed to the human side of the issue. It’s not an issue to be considered in the abstract, like the decision to build an airport.
The issue of abortion is a lot like immigration reform, where language is so important. When someone uses the term, “illegal alien,” it frames the issue as a matter of law and order. But if we talk about how children die in the desert trying to cross into this country, if we name them and tell their stories, we have a chance to see the human side of immigration. Same for reproductive issues. Tell the stories.
You never hear Dick Cheney hollering about “the gay agenda,” like so many intolerant zealots. That’s because his daughter is gay and he knows she doesn’t have an “agenda.” He knows her and knows her story. Same for anyone (except Fred Phelps and others of his ilk) who knows a woman who had an abortion and knows her story.
When we put a human face on this issue, we will begin to change the way the issue is perceived.
I also wish that more men appear at legislatures alongside women. Yes, it’s important for women to be heard, and no, I don’t want to stifle their voices, and no, I’m not saying women can’t speak for themselves, but the fact is that men listen differently to men than they do to women. It’s a cultural thing, but it can be countered.
To speak for the rights of women without alienating them is not an easy task. To be successful, it’s critical that the man who speaks for women appear to other men as a self-reliant man, not someone who is riding the bandwagon with women only because the big boys won’t play with him.