Commentary Abortion

Three Strategies for Promoting Women’s Right to Safe Abortion Care

On The Issues Magazine

Engaging, mobilizing and building alliances on an issue like abortion can be an uphill climb. But as 2012 rolls in, we want to take a few minutes to remind you about why it is important and suggest a few ways you can go about this challenge.

Originally written by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian for On The Issues Magazine

As current staff members at Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), an organization that has advanced the health and human rights of women and girls over four decades, and longtime reproductive justice activists, we continue to hope that safe and affordable abortion care will, someday, become a reality for everyone. With increasing attacks and restrictions on abortion access worldwide, we have our work cut out.

Here, in the U.S., the debate around abortion has become especially polarized. Right-wing and anti-choice groups bombard young people with messages that stereotype and stigmatize those seeking abortion services — both individuals and entire communities. Think: billboards have popped up around the country equating abortion to the genocide of African-American children, who are further described as an “endangered species.” These — and other — oversimplified messages mock a personal and often complex decision, not to mention the right to a constitutionally-protected and medically- safe procedure. They influence how people, especially young people, articulate and align themselves on abortion. They drive our activism — our tireless commitment to alliances across aisles and opinions, and to conversations that move beyond “pro-life” and “pro-choice” rhetoric to focus on the individual, her needs, rights and circumstances.

Engaging, mobilizing and building alliances on an issue like abortion can be an uphill climb. But as 2012 rolls in, we want to take a few minutes to remind you about why it is important and suggest a few ways you can go about this challenge.

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Building Up Our Friends

Our allies are our greatest strength. We especially need to appeal to the hearts and minds of people “on the fence,” by connecting abortion rights to principles that they hold valuable — equality, privacy, dignity, security and more. We must show how these principles will be affected if we do not have the fundamental right to reproductive freedom. We believe that we can even engage anti-choice people in conversations about how restrictions on access to abortion affect women and girls — especially those who are uninsured, under-insured, socially or ethnically marginalized and isolated.

We need to take a few minutes to contact the judges in our communities and ask them to defend the rights of women and girls. Monica Roa, the lawyer who argued a case before Colombia’s Supreme Court that liberalized that nation’s restrictive abortion law in May 2006, identifies judges as a key audience: “Judicial bias is a major conflict throughout the world.” She proposes a highly effective “court targeting” approach that includes getting better acquainted with specific judges and their position on issues.

And we must not forget our friends, our existing allies — an activist neighbor, a local abortion fund or a provider — on the forefront of the abortion rights movement and under threat because of it. Supporting them is critical and we can do so in a number of ways. We can donate money to local abortion funds which provide financial and logistical assistance to women that need abortions, or simply volunteer our time to their activities — a list of abortion funds is online. We can also volunteer at clinics, in roles that range from administrative to serving as clinic escorts that guide staff, providers and clients in and out of clinics and shield them from harassment and pro-life demonstrators. If these options seem daunting, we can help tremendously by just talking — with family and friends at home, with our community via blogs and local newspapers, and with our political representatives on the phone.

Listening and Engaging Listeners

In our bid to build alliances across the table, those of us involved in the struggle to preserve abortion rights must develop new tools of moral suasion. How? For a start, we need to be good listeners, good storytellers and patient communicators, and to create safe spaces for respectful dialogue, either one-on-one or in groups.

Judy Norsigian:

I remember an eye-opening conversation many years ago with a priest – a family friend – who had regularly sermonized about the evils of abortion. He described how one year a woman came to him afterwards and described WHY she had had her own abortion and why what he had said in church was so wrong and hurtful to her and many other women. A thoughtful and compassionate person, he decided to cease such sermons, but his comment about this encounter was instructive: “Don’t get me wrong, I still think of abortion as killing life in some form…I have not changed my mind about that. But what I realize now is that an abortion can be the RIGHT and moral thing to do.”

In the years that followed, I found a number of people who resonated with this kind of thinking and who could find a way to support a woman’s right to choose, while, at the same time, holding on to the concept of abortion as an act that destroyed life in some form. They noted that society does, at times, sanction even the killing of human beings (during war, in self defense) and, thus, could envision abortion as a moral choice and one to be preserved for women needing to make that choice.

Ayesha Chatterjee:

Active in the grassroots abortion access movement in the Boston area, I am also expecting my first baby in the spring of 2012. While I see absolutely no dichotomy in my activist and parenting roles, I have been asked a few times whether becoming a mother has softened my position on abortion rights, made me more empathetic to pro-life reasoning. My response: Far from it! My decision to have children is situated within my unique context and personal needs and capacity. If anything, the hands-on experience with the ongoing physical, emotional and financial commitment needed to nurture another human being has only deepened my understanding of an incredibly complex and personal issue, as well as my appreciation of why some decide to terminate their pregnancy and others, despite the many and different challenges, carry theirs to term.

When we are at a loss for words, drawing on other eloquent voices in the reproductive justice movement can help get the discussion started.

For starters, here are a couple such individuals:

Dr. Garson Romalis, a Canadian abortion doctor, whose speech on January 25, 2008 at the University of Toronto Law School Symposium is well worth reading. Dr. Romalis had been physically attacked — shot and stabbed, on two different occasions six years apart — and remained deeply committed to providing abortion services throughout his long career. At the close of his speech, he wanted to describe “one last story that I think epitomizes the satisfaction I get from my privileged work.” He continued, “Some years ago I spoke to a class of University of British Columbia medical students. As I left the classroom, a student followed me out. She said: ‘Dr. Romalis, you won’t remember me, but you did an abortion on me in 1992. I am a second year medical student now, and if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here now.'”

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, offers many compelling insights in, for example, Missed Opportunities in McCorvey v. Hill: The Limits of Pro-Choice Lawyering, in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change in 2011, or Long Term Policies, Long Term Gains in Conscience in Winter 2006-2007. In the latter, Paltrow writes:

those who defend the right to choose abortion often frame their defense in terms of protecting Roe v.Wade and access to abortion services. But far more than Roe and abortion is at stake. The health, dignity and human rights of all pregnant women are threatened by anti-abortion and fetal rights laws. Such laws create the basis not only for outlawing abortion but also for forcing women to have unnecessary Caesarean sections, for banning vaginal births after Caesarean sections and for treating pregnant women with drug, alcohol and other health problems as child abusers before they have even given birth.

It also helps to be prepared for contentious conversations with compelling arguments and facts.

Anti-abortion advocates often use dangerous and misleading approaches to restrict access to abortion and birth control, and having a counter argument ready goes a long way. This misinformation runs the gamut — from claiming that the emergency contraception or morning-after pill (Plan B) is the same as the “abortion pill” to asserting that feticide laws, now existing in about 38 states and on the federal level, protect pregnant women, when in reality they are frequently used against pregnant women, especially those who may have used drugs during a pregnancy. So, staying abreast of facts to counter their fiction is critical and there are innumerable on-line and off-line resources. Here are two: The Guttmacher Institute and Ipas.

Converting Our Energy

When we gain ground by changing hearts, minds or policies, we have to ensure it translates into action — securing real and affordable access to birth control and abortion for women and girls.

While we have a long way to go before reproductive justice is a reality for everyone, the looming possibility of an anti-choice administration (and all that this would entail) has serious implications for women and girls in the U.S. and, through policies that restrict the use of U.S. development aid overseas, women and girls around the world. Your voice is important.

Our goals are substantial and clear. We need to become involved — to educate one another and ourselves on the nuances of abortion rights and access; defend the fast dwindling numbers of abortion clinics and abortion providers nationwide; express our outrage when they are attacked and vilified; demand greater and equal access to all reproductive health services including affordable and safe birth control and abortion care; counter misleading and dishonest anti-abortion propaganda and hold the people behind these tactics accountable for their actions.

Doing this effectively will require creativity, tenacity and abiding respect of all women’s realities and circumstances. We’re up for the challenge — are you?


Ayesha Chatterjee is Program Manager at Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative and Judy Norsigian is Executive Director of Our Bodies Ourselves. See www.ourbodiesourselves.org.

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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