Forty-three years ago today, the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade changed the course of women’s lives in the United States. Since then, there has hardly been a moment since Roe in which supporters have been able to let our guard down, and the last few years have been particularly trying.
The onslaught of attacks on reproductive health care, abortion in particular, have often left us on the defensive. As a result, reproductive autonomy advocates often shift away from talking about abortion whenever possible, or frame abortion as a necessary evil when forced to address it at all. Instead of claiming the moral upper ground for supporting the availability of a common procedure that saves lives, we are often meek and self-effacing instead. This strategy, as evidenced by the continuous and unrelenting push to make reproductive care inaccessible, is not working.
Take, for example, the response to the consistent attacks on Planned Parenthood.
One of the right’s most highly publicized strategies to eliminate access to reproductive health care has been to target Planned Parenthood for defunding. Defenders of the organization are often quick to point out that only 3 percent of its services are abortion-related. What’s more, pro-choice advocates frequently add—to pander to those who obsess over taxpayer dollars—that the Hyde Amendment prohibits any federal funds going toward abortion care, as if that status quo is not worth challenging.
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And how could we forget the longtime Clintonian slogan of referring to abortion as “safe, legal, and rare”? Though Hillary Clinton herself appears to have retired it for her most recent presidential campaign, it has pivotally shaped the ways we talk about abortion as a political issue.
These reactive frameworks contribute to the deep stigma around abortion, making it harder in turn for folks to access care.
At least by today’s standards, if all those who seek an abortion were able to overcome obstacles and get the care they needed, we would almost certainly see a rise in the number of procedures done. But this increase in the number of abortions would be an overall positive: The data suggest that women who are denied an abortion are more likely to end up below the poverty line and suffer worse health outcomes than those who were able to procure the care they needed.
And while the Clintonian turn of phrase likely refers to a world in which women’s education about and access to contraception is not compromised in the same ways in which it is today, the truth is that no birth control method is 100 percent effective, not all people are able to use the most effective contraceptive methods for a variety of reasons unrelated to health care, and quite simply, circumstances are always liable to change.
Even in a society in which health-care access is no longer much of a problem, abortion may still not be rare. And yet, for those who seek it—may the numbers be large or small—the ability to access this procedure legally and safely literally saves lives.
Tens of thousands of women die every year due to clandestine abortions, the majority of whom are located where safe and legal abortion access is severely limited. Among those who do not die, unsafe abortion is a significant cause of ill health, with nearly seven million women being treated worldwide for complications in 2012. Women pay for these restrictions with their lives, with their health, and with the financial stability of their families, not to mention with their bodily autonomy and personal freedom.
But we don’t have to go as far the Global South to see what happens when safe abortion isn’t accessible or legal. All over the country, state legislatures have targeted abortion access, and are working at chipping it away by any means necessary.
Let’s look at the highly publicized case of Texas, where over the course of two legislative sessions in 2011 and 2013, the state cut family-planning funding by two-thirds and enacted one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. These policies resulted in catastrophic closures of facilities providing affordable reproductive health services, including the shuttering of more than half of the state’s abortion clinics. Those that are left are all in East Texas, meaning that residents of West Texas may in fact be closer to clinics in neighboring states. For months, there was no clinic in the border region, meaning that undocumented women living there and seeking abortion care were stuck between the 100-mile immigration enforcement checkpoints and a border they couldn’t cross if they expected to get back to their families and lives.
In the first six months since HB 2 was enforced in Texas, the abortion rate went down 13 percent—contributing, then, to making abortion “rare”—but by all measures that take account public health and economic equity, this decline was devastating for Texans.
The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) has been evaluating the effects of these policies. It has found wait times at abortion clinics of up to 20 days. This wait could push a woman seeking abortion care into a more complicated and more expensive procedure, or could bar her entirely from obtaining the care she seeks. In the face of such staggering barriers, the data suggest that Texas women may be likelier to consider self-inducing an abortion on their own without medical assistance. A TxPEP study of women’s experiences with self-induction found that most of the women asked would have preferred a procedure in a clinic, but felt that it was out of reach.
For too long, abortion has been framed as a necessary evil not by our enemies, but by those who make up our movements and the politicians who work to defend our access.
But what is clear from the experiences of those living in contexts in which safe and legal access to abortion care is severely limited is that safe abortion is not just necessary; it’s a social good. By giving in to defensiveness, we give the right the moral upper hand when in fact the moral position—the position that safeguards the lives and material conditions of those seeking abortion care—belongs to us.
Beyond a claim to the moral upper hand, framing safe and legal access to abortion as a social good can help us win. One example of this was the Respect ABQ Women campaign in November 2013, in which Albuquerque, New Mexico, voters defeated an attempt to ban abortion access after 20 weeks.
“We struggled as a coalition on messaging, for sure,” said Tannia Esparza, executive director of Young Women United, one of the organizations who coordinated on the campaign, in an interview with Rewire.
“There were partners who wanted to talk about exceptions [to the law] for rape and incest,” Esparza said, referring to messaging that reinforces notions of “good abortions” versus “bad abortions.” “We knew that was the short-term solution. We were really looking at the long term.”
Voters decisively rejected the measure in a groundbreaking and historic victory, in no small part because of the proactive messaging created by women of color—messaging that acknowledged the complexities of New Mexicans’ feelings about abortion up front, and focused on respect and strength-based perspectives.
“I have to say that it was women of color that made our messaging strong and proactive,” said Esparza. “The mainstream movement really held on to some of those defensive messages. We had to say to our partners: ‘That’s not gonna work.’”
What is clear is that defensive messaging has not been working in general. Around the country, we have seen state legislatures increasingly propose and enact a variety of restrictions meant to chip away at abortion access: 20-week bans, waiting periods, punitive and medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and targeted regulation of abortion providers that make cumbersome and unnecessary requirements of clinics and practitioners have all been proposed, and sometimes passed, across state legislatures. The movement, it seems, is ready for a change.
“I’m definitely heartened to see the landscape start to move more toward proactive messaging about how important and ethical abortion is,” said Lindsay Rodriguez, communications manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds, in an interview with Rewire.
Thanks to the hard work of reproductive justice activists, politicians may be moving in this direction as well. This campaign season, instead of touting an ideal state of abortion as “safe, legal, and rare,” Hillary Clinton has instead taken a decisive and groundbreaking stance against the Hyde Amendment, a political game-changer the likes of which this movement has not seen in decades. Could this be the year that we start framing abortion as a social good?
“Our economic freedom is tied to our ability to decide if, when, and how to start or add to a family,” said Rodriguez. “Our families and communities are stronger when that’s possible.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the Texas Policy Evaluation Project is a separate research organization at the University of Texas.