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Reproductive Justice and Women’s Equality: There is Some Good News!

In spite of the continuing onslaught against reproductive justice and women’s equality, legislators in 17 states introduced 64 measures to expand reproductive options during the first quarter of 2014, the largest such number in 25 years.

Oak Park NARAL/PLAL protest. (Image: Mikasi / Flickr)

For 41 years, since the Supreme Court issued its 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade, opponents of reproductive justice and women’s equality have been working to roll back abortion access and limit anything even remotely connected to sexual liberation.

They’ve scored a slew of victories.

But the tide may have finally begun to turn. To wit, during the first quarter of 2014, legislators in 17 states introduced 64 measures to expand reproductive options, the largest such number in 25 years.

Donna Crane, vice president for Policy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, attributes this to growing recognition of what is at stake if the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party garners enough support to impose its domestic agenda. “We have been working proactively since the late 1990s, but there is a different sense of opportunity out there today,” she told Truthout. “The other side has overreached and brought on a backlash. People who were never before invested in reproductive health issues are fed up. When Virginia tried to pass a forced ultrasound law, it got public and press attention. So did many of the statements made by Republican lawmakers. Comments about ‘legitimate rape,’ the boys-will-be-boys mindset that downplayed the significance of sexual assault, were illuminating. We now know that this is how many members of Congress think and legislate. This is nothing new, but the public has come to realize just how crazy and out of touch these lawmakers are.”

That said, as Crane speaks, she repeatedly emphasizes that a disgruntled electorate did not suddenly emerge, but came about through on-the-ground organizing campaigns led by NARAL and other proponents of women’s health and equity. Laying the foundation for this year’s legislative push, she says, were efforts going back to the mid-1990s. “When we first learned that insurance plans were covering Viagra, but women were paying out-of-pocket for prescription contraceptives, we saw it as an issue of parity. If policies covered Viagra, they should also cover birth control. We got people fired up and won on this,” Crane continues. “We also pushed on Emergency Contraception [EC], and today, 17 states have laws mandating that EC be available in emergency rooms for women who have been sexually assaulted.” Another NARAL campaign, she adds, has restored insurance coverage for the abortions of rape victims serving in the military.

These, of course, are small gains, especially in light of the significant rollback of reproductive options in much of the country. Indeed, the Guttmacher Institute reports that just 13 states are presently wholly supportive of abortion rights. Worse, only seven – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Washington – have codified Roe into state law, guaranteeing the right to choose even if conservatives succeed in overturning federal protections for the procedure.

“Women have different rights depending on which zip code they live in,” says Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Legislators in some places are now saying, ‘Enough.’ It is interesting to me that in several states we’ve seen packages of bills geared to protecting women’s health. There are bills that support pregnant women in the workplace, advocate for pay equity, address violence against women and that would expand Medicaid coverage and guarantee abortion rights. The shift means that we’re not just opposing bills, but are introducing legislation for the things we want.”

New York is a case in point. A 10-pronged Women’s Equality Act (WEA) is currently pending in Albany, and supporters are pressuring lawmakers to take up the measures before adjourning in mid-June. Should it pass, the WEA will disproportionately benefit women of color since women of color have higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace and when renting or buying property than white women.

Andrea Miller, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York and head of the NARAL-led National Institute for Reproductive Health, has her fingers on the pulse of both federal and state initiatives. She calls the WEA “a proactive, unapologetic, approach to reproductive health rights and justice.” What’s more, she says that the act – which protects the entitlement to abortion in up to 24 weeks of pregnancy; protects women from discrimination in housing and employment; assures pay equity; and extends sexual harassment protections to workers in small businesses – underscores the interconnected issues impacting women’s lives. “You can’t have women’s equality without reproductive rights, but reproductive rights alone are not sufficient to guarantee that women are treated equally,” she says. “This strategy, to promote full access to reproductive health and equity, came from advocates on the ground who were asking what women and families needed. This cluster of bills encompasses our vision for a healthy future for New York residents.”

Miller’s enthusiasm for the WEA is audible. “We are incredibly awe-struck by the energy around the Act,” she continues. “Through the National Institute for Reproductive Health we’re finding partners in other states, not just on the coasts, but in the West, Midwest and South. Even in red states, people are seeing 2014 as a turning point and are recognizing that they can push back.”

Yet despite her zeal, Miller is keenly aware that winning takes hard, sustained work on the part of both activists and legislators and notes that this is the second time the WEA has been introduced in the New York Statehouse. Will it pass this year? I ask. “They call it Planet Albany for a reason,” Miller laughs. “Scheduling is unpredictable, but historically, the most important legislation is passed late in the session. Legislators know that the bulk of their constituents want to see these bills become law.”

But even if it takes a third try, Miller notes that the WEA has fired the imaginations of activists in numerous states beyond New York. In Pennsylvania, for one, a package of seven bills, similar to the WEA, is pending. Its provisions include a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion facilities, workplace protections for lactating women, and increased funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings.

In addition, CRR’s Amanda Allen reports that pro-women legislation has been introduced in Virginia, Arizona, Rhode Island, Colorado and Washington.

Laura Reinsch is the Political Organizing Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado. Although an effort to codify Roe into state law failed this year, she calls the campaign to get it passed “an opportunity to do something proactive rather than defensive” and says that she is hopeful that a similar bill will be introduced in 2015. “It often takes more than one year to get something through,” she explains. “Choice is a Colorado value. State residents treasure individual freedom and have consistently defeated fetal personhood ballot initiatives by a three-to-one margin.”

Still, reproductive justice activists and supporters understand that the federal government can and should take the lead and pass legislation to negate the state patchwork of abortion restrictions and strengthen protections for the reproductive health of the one in three US women who will have at least one abortion before her 45th birthday.

Senator Richard Blumenthal [D-Conn.] has taken the helm of this effort and his Women’s Health Protection Act, introduced in November 2013, would overturn the most egregious state restrictions on access to services. The WHPA currently has more than 150 Congressional sponsors; nonetheless, a hearing on the measure has yet to be scheduled, and most supporters believe that its passage hovers between unlikely and impossible.

Another uphill slog centers around the 37-year-old Hyde Amendment, which prohibits low-income women – many of them Latina and African American – from using Medicaid coverage for abortion unless she lives in one of the 17 states that presently provide locally raised revenue to pay for the procedure. Many activists consider this a blatant economic injustice since the poor typically have less access to contraception than others, and have created the All Above All campaign to contest it. The 40-member coalition is led by the National Network of Abortion Funds and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Stephanie Poggi, Executive Director of NNAF, says that All Above All is trying “to demonstrate how much support exists for women’s equality. We want to show the great benefits of Medicaid funding where it is provided and demonstrate what that funding has meant to the women and families who rely on Medicaid for their healthcare needs.” The organization is simultaneously working to protect existing state coverage and educate Congress members about why the Hyde Amendment should be overturned. “This is a long-term campaign involving and led by groups that work with low-income people and youth. We are standing up and saying that poor people should not be discriminated against when making some of the most important and fundamental decisions of their lives,” Poggi adds.

While those working on a federal level will likely need to keep their eyes on the prize for the foreseeable future, it is noteworthy that becoming proactive has already led to several small, but significant, progressive wins. The Vermont Senate recently repealed several unenforceable 19th century abortion prohibitions, including a 10-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of helping end a pregnancy. Hawaii enacted a law guaranteeing the availability of Emergency Contraception in hospital emergency rooms, and California made learning how to deal with anti-abortion violence a permanent part of law enforcement training. California also expanded the number of people who can provide first trimester abortions; physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives can now provide this care.

Other victories benefit youth. The Colorado legislature passed a bill to require schools that offer sex education classes to use a comprehensive curriculum rather than one limited to abstinence only. Colorado also passed a law enabling non-minors who are still on their parents’ health insurance to communicate directly with the insurance company without parental involvement. Lastly, the land of Lincoln – Illinois – replaced abstinence-only course materials with a curriculum that addresses birth control and STD prevention in all sex ed classes.

Baby steps toward justice and fairness? Alas, yes. But they are still victories worth savoring.

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