First, let me say that I am guilty. I am guilty of thinking that the work of securing women’s equality and the fight for legal abortion in this country were finished. I was grateful for this progress, sure, but I didn’t see the need to keep fighting when we’d won. I assumed women could obtain safe, legal abortion care if needed, the same way that I assume that women can acquire credit cards solely in our name. I took it for granted.
I married, raised two daughters to be educated, strong women, and patted myself on the back for doing so. I looked at the women around me becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and lawmakers, and thought, “We’ve come so far.” Then came the 2016 election, and I felt like a sleepwalker shaken suddenly from a dream into a much harsher reality. I realized that we as a country hadn’t come as far as I’d hoped — and the more I learned, the more I realized that we still have so much work to do.
The first wave of feminism in the US secured (white) women the right to vote. The second wave brought legal abortion, accessible birth control and a shift in women’s roles in the workplace. But these “wins” were far from permanent, and abortion rights have been under constant assault since the moment the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down. Meanwhile, the majority of my generation has been complacent. No sooner was the right to legal abortion secured than the “Moral Majority” conservative movement of the 1980s stepped into shame and control women as a way to strengthen their patriarchal political and “religious” base — and it worked.
Nothing unites better than a common enemy, and an autonomous woman is an easy mark in our society. Over the decades, myths and misinformation have clouded the issue of abortion by heaping shame and blame on women for the audacious act of deciding when and whether to become a parent. The ability to make decisions about our health, families and futures is a human right. However we may feel personally about abortion, this is a personal decision a woman must make for herself, based on her unique circumstances.
Some politicians, from the White House and Congress to my home state of Kentucky, disagree.
Never mind that women are powerful, capable professionals, and leaders in society and business, some politicians still don’t think we’re capable of making our own health care decisions. We see this insulting notion when politicians pass laws forcing women to delay abortion care for one, two or even three days between appointments, making women take extra time off of work because politicians say so. We see this disrespect for women’s decisions when laws are passed with the clear intention of shutting down health providers on which we rely.
As long as there has been pregnancy, there have been women who have ended pregnancies. Yet it’s 2017 and Kentucky is one of seven states in the country where just one abortion clinic remains open — all other providers shut down by politically-motivated interference.
So here I stand (better late than never) and fight for women who make the decision to end a pregnancy. As a legal observer for the last abortion clinic in Kentucky, I watch and document how these women and their companions are berated, chased, physically pushed and shamed as they walk down a public sidewalk to get to their appointments. I watch as brave volunteer clinic escorts are pushed to the ground by anti-abortion extremists. I watch these bullies with their large graphic signs drape themselves over clients’ cars, shouting that the people inside will go to hell and calling them heinous names. I’ve seen women verbally attacked and male companions gender-shamed (because men control women, right?), all while being chased up the sidewalk and berated all the way. The volunteer clinic escorts try to create a safe space for the women under attack, using their bodies as buffers and their gentle words as a source of calm while the chaos swirls around them.
I have vivid memories of black and white films taken during the 1960s and realize we have not come very far at all.
Trying to stop someone from accessing their constitutionally-protected health care is not “freedom of speech,” it’s harassment. I’ve even seen these so-called “protesters” accost pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and passing motorists. In Kentucky, our governor meets with these extremists, giving credence to their attacks, and even encouraging them to protest outside public schools with their gruesome (and usually Photoshopped) signs.
The scene outside Kentucky’s last abortion clinic provides a fitting, if grim, metaphor for what it’s like to be a woman today. There you are, going about your life, perhaps getting an abortion, perhaps getting birth control or supporting a friend, perhaps simply jogging by — and the simple act of being a woman who makes her own decisions is enough to prompt an avalanche of shame and blame, barriers and bullies.
Where is the outrage over these aggressive attacks on women accessing legal medical care? Perhaps, like me, you thought this fight was over. I can tell you now, it is not.
Why do I fight for safe abortion access? How can I not? How can you not? As it has been said, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”