NOW Emergency Campaign Plans for Abortion Speakouts
By Stephanie Seguin, Past President, University of Florida Campus NOW
In the face of the current unelected administration, numerous proposed anti-woman/anti-abortion bills being considered, and the potential appointment of Supreme Court Justices, NOW has called for an Emergency Campaign for Women's Lives. There is an urgent need to evaluate our strategy against the whittling away of our abortion and reproductive rights. Earlier this year, Patricia Ireland responded to Republican leadership's statements quoted in a Washington Post article by saying, "The newest attacks on abortion rights.[are] clearly part of a stealth strategy to erode our constitutional right to abortion while avoiding a full-frontal attack." Ireland further states, "Instead, the Congress intends to launch restriction after restriction on access to abortion and birth control until Roe is nothing more than a shadow of women's rights past."
Some of these restrictions are parental consent/notification laws, D & X bans, anti-choice so-called "informed consent" laws, waiting periods, high cost, "fetal rights" laws, excessive clinic regulations which result in increased medical costs, abortion and birth control not covered by insurance, national and state laws limiting Medicaid and public funds from covering birth control and abortion, a shortage of abortion providers-and even the requirement that only doctors do abortions.
Not only have these restrictions cut off more and more women's access to abortion, but in slicing off women's access, it also cuts off women's stake in fighting to "save Roe." So this article will make a case for why it is in all women's interests to win back these rights, and make a case for how this could be done.
NOW Launches Feminist Demand for "Abortion Law Repeal"
In November 1967 at our second national conference, NOW members had a fierce internal debate about whether to take on the issues of abortion and the ERA. The membership ultimately voted to adopt them as two of the main battles of NOW. They were published as two planks in NOW's eight-point national women's rights program, "National Organization for Women Bill of Rights" the next year, in 1968. With this document, NOW became the first women's rights organization to call for "abortion law repeal," leading in the understanding of the need to win this as a key to winning women's equality. NOW's Bill of Rights demanded "The right of women to control their own reproductive lives by removing from penal codes the laws limiting access to contraceptive information and devices and laws governing abortion."
Why repeal? In a speech, "Abortion: A Woman's Civil Right," given in January 1969 by NOW's founding president Betty Friedan, she explains,
"The right of woman to control her reproductive process must be established as a basic, inalienable civil right, not to be denied or abridged by the state. What right has any man to say to any woman-you must bear this child? What right has any state to say? This is a woman's right, not a technical question needing the sanction of the state, or to be debated in terms of technicalities-they are all irrelevant. This question can only be confronted in terms of the basic personhood and dignity of woman, which is violated forever if she does not have the right to control her own reproductive process. This is the only way that abortion is worth talking about; we're going to demand it and see what happens..." [Speech given at the First National Conference for Repeal of Abortion Laws, Chicago, January 1969, quoted in Friedan, It Changed My Life, p. 171.]1
Feminist Movement Wins Roe v. Wade Victory
In 1968 a new branch of the growing women's movement burst forth on the national scene when women protested the Miss America Pageant. In the first public action of what came to be called the Women's Liberation Movement, women picketed, threw girdles, curlers, makeup and women's magazines into a "freedom trashcan," and declared war on all the false ways women are made to look and act, "because men don't find our real selves attractive," as pageant protest initiator Carol Hanisch put it. The action resulted from these women getting together and testing a technique called feminist consciousness-raising, in which they analyzed their lives, and spoke out about things they'd never talked about before.
In consciousness-raising sessions women started to talk to each other about their constant fear of pregnancy during sex, the humiliation of having to scrape together money and undergo surgery with no anesthesia in filthy conditions, or of having a child you didn't want because you could find no one to help. From comparing experiences and seeing how common the problem was, women saw it was not a personal problem or error in judgment to be ashamed of - women were being politically oppressed by anti-woman laws, which required that upon pregnancy you had to produce a child.
Women began to see that to change the conditions they were facing as a group they would have to fight as a group. Many women knew from working in the Civil Rights Movement that people had the power to change the laws. They'd seen racist, segregationist Jim Crow laws fall in the South due to united, defiant, direct action.
So in February 1969, six months after the Miss America Pageant Protest, a group of women, who later became Redstockings, began plotting how to counter the anti-woman laws against abortion. The New York legislature was at the time holding hearings about loosening up the abortion laws. The hearings had been initiated by humanitarian doctors and other professionals, who thought that the abortion laws were unreasonable. A legislative hearing was scheduled for New York City to consider various bills, which would allow women to possibly get abortions if they had already had more than four children, women whose pregnancy had fetal deformities, women who had been raped or were victims of incest, or if a girl was 14 years old or younger. The legislators had assembled a panel of so-called experts - 14 men and one woman, a nun, to discuss these reforms.
Fifteen Women's Liberation activists attended this hearing, and as planned, they started to disrupt the hearing by jumping up from the audience and arguing with the legislators. As stated in The New York Times, February 14, 1969, "a young woman in the audience [Kathie Sarachild] stood up and shouted, 'let's hear from some real experts-the women.' Another woman yelled 'We've waited and waited while you have held one hearing after another. Meanwhile the baby I didn't want is 2 years old.'" The hearing had to eventually be moved behind locked doors, but the action received much national press and attention.2
On March 21, 1969, these same women held their own "hearings," the first Speakout on abortion. For the first time, women talked publicly about having illegal abortions (at the time you could be arrested and go to jail for having one, cops would even stake out hospital emergency rooms, hoping to catch women who had abortions). Women talked about how they had abortions because they DID NOT WANT to have a child, not because they fit in with one of the few special exceptions being considered as legal reforms by the well-intentioned legislators. Speaking out was simply the public version of the consciousness-raising that women had been doing in private.
The February and March Speakouts shattered the silence on abortion, showing other women that they were not alone, and indicating how the demand for abortion without restriction was a central part of the fight for women's freedom in every realm.
Just one year later, in 1970, as a result of the feminist movement's continuous actions demanding repeal of all abortion laws, New York passed the most liberal abortion law in the country, allowing women to get abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy, performed by a licensed physician, or after the 24th week if a woman's life was in danger. This was not repeal (though legislators, to confuse their constituents, and newspapers and even history books have falsely called it repeal!), but the law far exceeded any other law currently passed expanding access to legal abortion. In fact, this law was much less restrictive than what we have today, and it became the model for the Roe v. Wade case three years later.3
However, Roe v. Wade, just like the reform law passed in New York, fell short of what feminists had struggled for. Roe legalized abortion, but stopped short of the idea that women have the absolute right to control our bodies no matter what, instead asserting that the state had a right to regulate our reproduction. This hole in the law left the door open for the situation we have now, with the many restrictions that the government has put into place.4
What is NOW Doing Now?
In 1989, in NOW's Expanded Bill of Rights for the 21st Century, we took the position of standing for ".the right of all women to freedom from government interference in abortion, birth control and pregnancy, and the right of [poor] women to public funds for abortion, birth control and pregnancy services" (see Carabillo et al., Feminist Chronicles, p. 247).
The current fight we have been forced to wage against the piecemeal attacks on our rights, against the restrictions that Patricia Ireland said are greatly undermining Roe, is similar to the fight for repeal waged by our feminist movement sisters of the 1960s. Feminists refused to allow abortion by loophole-by special exception only-but rather called for abortion without state interference, and by demanding this, they moved forward. Today, NOW is refusing to accept restrictions so we can hold the line against moving backwards, and ultimately move forward again.
The good news is we aren't powerless against the war of restrictions being waged against our abortion rights. As is shown by our own history, the feminist movement won fairly unrestricted abortion for women in New York State in 1970 when abortion had been illegal, and then Roe followed just three years later, making abortion legal for most women in the country. In January 2001, NOW responded to the rollbacks by calling for the Emergency Campaign for Women's Lives, which was kicked off nationally with a march and rally on the Capitol in April 2001. Then at the July 2001 national conference in Philadelphia, NOW passed a resolution calling for actions and sit-ins at legislators' offices in the spring and declaring a national day of Speakouts as a few of the next steps for the campaign. The way we will "advance and defend Roe" and win more of what we need- abortion for all women without restriction, paid parental leave, contraceptive coverage by insurance companies, and men to take more responsibility for birth control and child care-is for the real experts on abortion - women- to testify again at Speakouts across the nation. The demands we are making of those in power will go further if they come from women's real, honest experiences.
How Would a Speakout Work Today?
So NOW is calling for Speakouts around the country exposing the restrictions that have been gradually creeping into place. A small group of NOW chapters have been doing this and the National NOW resolution from our most recent National NOW conference, "Advance and Protect Roe" calls on all chapters to do so (see NOW Emergency Campaign resolutions at www.nownyc.org). When we look at restrictions from afar they SEEM reasonable--that is until women start applying the restrictions to their own lives and testing how these restrictions actually affect us.
University of Florida Campus NOW has been organizing Speakouts locally on our campus to get our student infirmary to provide more reproductive services such as free pregnancy tests, a larger women's clinic, abortion services (surgical and chemical), more birth control education and publicity of what they offer, and free childcare for women with children.5 Because of the pressure of women publicly speaking out, we have forced our university's Infirmary to follow their own rules to provide the Morning After Pill without hurdles or guilt trips, stopped an anti-abortion doctor from being hired as infirmary director, and forced a pharmacist to resign because he refused to prescribe the MAP. (The "Morning after Pill" is simply birth control pills you take within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse to prevent pregnancy. See http://ec.princeton.edu for specific birth control pill doses that work as the MAP.)
Alex Leader, Executive Director of the NOW-New York City chapter and past president of Campus NOW in Gainesville has spoken out about her own abortion at a Speakout organized by Campus NOW in 1996:
"I've had one abortion, and my experience was OK and I don't regret it. It's really pretty mundane, and for that reason I think it's probably similar to experiences lots of other women have had with abortion.
"The condom came off inside of me while we were having sex. I decided not to get the Morning After Pill because I heard false rumors that it made you throw up a lot, and because I didn't have the time to get a MAP prescription. I crossed my fingers and waited. My period was late, I got a pregnancy test at Gainesville Women's Health Center, and I was three weeks pregnant. I knew immediately that I wanted an abortion. I had no interest at all in having a child. I wasn't confused or sad, just nervous at the thought of having an operation. What would it be like? I also felt some stigma-wow, an abortion. I had done lots of feminist organizing to protect this operation. That's a big deal, I thought. It felt kind of unreal. One minute I was just normal me and the next minute I was pregnant.
"I got irritated at my counselor for wanting me to talk about my feelings about the abortion. I told her I just wanted to have it, and for it not to be a big deal. I told her I was mad at all the anti-abortionists out there who tell us that we shouldn't have abortions or that we should feel guilty and ashamed about abortions if we had them, because I didn't feel guilty or ashamed and how dare they try to make me?
"I got into a patient's gown, and went into a small room with my counselor, who was to be with me during the abortion. About a minute after I got the Staidol [painkiller] shot, I passed out. I was woken up a few minutes later by my counselor. I called in sick at work the next morning, in case I didn't feel well that day. But the way I felt was totally normal. I felt no pain at all, I never did. I didn't feel sore. I didn't feel tired or physically weird. And I felt very free, like I was free of the burden of being pregnant and all that went with that."
By talking about her experience with abortion openly and honestly, Leader's testimony shows us that abortion isn't always a big scary deal or something we did because we were "irresponsible"; it's as simple as not wanting to have a child.
Nicole Hardin, a Gainesville [FL] Area NOW activist, spoke at the NOW Emergency Campaign kickoff rally in D.C. this past April about her experience with facing the obstacle of cost when she went to get her abortion. She said, "I am speaking out today because I am tired of being apologetic about having abortions. Being able to decide if and when I have a child is a cornerstone of all our freedom. I also want to talk about the cost of abortion. When I first heard about abortion being expensive, I didn't think it applied to me. Then I got pregnant. An abortion costs $400 for the first trimester. All of the sudden it was my problem that abortion was so expensive. If I didn't come up with the money in two weeks then it could go up to $2000 for a second trimester abortion. Four hundred dollars was a lot of money to me. Then I found out that I had to pay $30-$40 to be put under, $20 for antibiotics, and an undisclosed sum for an ultrasound, required by Florida's new anti-choice "informed consent" law. So the true cost was really over $460. That was over two months of rent for me. When people talk about the cost of abortion, they don't talk about how hard it is to come up with nearly $500 in a couple of weeks. It really hit me that I could end up with a kid because I couldn't afford an abortion."
The first abortion Speakout in 1969 showed how powerful it was for regular women to get together and bravely be honest about their lives. It showed how people speaking out was a strong force for change, as was evidenced by winning the New York State abortion law. Through hearing other women talk about their abortions, many women were sparked to action because they could see how this struggle related directly to their own lives.
With the un-elected Bush committed to further restricting abortion, and ultimately many of women's rights, we must use this powerful tool again to make the changes we need. Only through building a strong, broad-based feminist organization representing many members and ready to take action will we be able to hold onto what we've won in terms of abortion rights. And only then will be able to move forward in all of our struggles-for equal pay; quality, affordable childcare; no more discrimination on the job; and an end to racism, discrimination against lesbian and bisexual women; and violence against women; and treatment as equals by all men.
To find out more about how NOW chapters can use consciousness-raising and Speakouts, or to request speakers or activist materials, contact University of Florida Campus NOW at P.O. Box 2235, Gainesville, FL, 32602. Ph. (352)-371-6499, e-mail email@example.com
NOW activists Lori Tinney and Alex Leader and Gainesville Women's Liberation activist Andrea Costello contributed to this article.
Copyright 2001 Stephanie Seguin. For permission to reprint, contact the author, firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. See Betty Friedan, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (Dell Publishing, 1976), pp. 166-76. Also, the original NOW Bill of Rights is on p. 214 of the most comprehensive book on NOW history, Feminist Chronicles, 1953-1993 (Los Angeles: Women's Graphics, 1993), edited by long-time NOW leaders Toni Carabillo, Judith Meuli, and June Bundy Csida. The Chronicles can be ordered from the National NOW Action Center for $25. Also see Flora Davis, Moving the Mountain (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1991), pp. 66-68, and Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, The Rebirth of Feminism (Quadrangle Books, 1971), pp. 278-304.
2. To learn more about the 1969 legislative panel disruption and the first Abortion Speakout from original press and activist sources, order the Redstockings Abortion Speakout packet for $6.50. This packet and other women's liberation articles, audiotapes, and journals from the sixties to the present day, as well as activist speakers are available from the Redstockings Women's Liberation Archives for Action, www.afn.org/~redstock, or write to P.O. Box 744, Stuyvesant Station, NY, NY 10009.
3. I urge you to read the Roe v. Wade decision itself, see www.law.cornell.edu, and go to U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Endnotes 40 and 41 in the decision cite the NY state law as the model for the American Bar Association's 1972 Uniform Abortion Act, a standard for all states, and in turn, for Roe v. Wade itself. Also see Abortion Without Apology: A Radical History for the '90s, by Ninia Baehr and Lori Hiris (South End Press, 1990); and the book's companion video documentary, With a Vengeance, by Baehr and Hiris, entirely based on first-hand interviews with activists and footage of actions, available from Women Make Movies, NYC.
4. To learn more from the women's liberation activist, Lucinda Cisler, who led in the demand for abortion law repeal, see Lucinda Cisler, Abortion Law Repeal (sort of): A Warning to Women, 1970, 1973. Available from the Redstockings Women's Liberation Archives for Action, www.afn.org/~redstock, P.O. Box 744, Stuyvesant Station, NY, NY 10009. Cisler predicted that unless we won abortion on the premise that women had the absolute right to control our reproduction, we would experience rollbacks through obstacles which would cut off many women from access to abortion.
5. University of Florida Campus NOW got the idea to do Speakouts to organize for women's rights through NOW members who took the Gainesville Women's Liberation [GWL] Community Education Class, "Women's Liberation: Where Do I Fit In?" Recent testimonies from various NOW and GWL Speakouts with ideas for feminist action can be ordered in two publications called, "A Call to Speakout" ($5) and "Consciousness-Raising Organizer's Packet" ($6) produced by GWL. Send checks to GWL, P.O. Box 2625, Gainesville, FL 32602, ph. 352-373-4841.
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