I clearly remember the moment when my progressive politics stopped being something I simply absorbed. With a father who ranted about the latest Republican offense over breakfast every morning and a mother who clipped out Times articles she thought I’d be interested in and put them on my pillow, I was destined to grow up a pro-choice, liberal Democrat. But although I took in and thought about the political issues my parents exposed me to, it was awhile before one really grabbed me, outraged me, and demanded I do something with that outrage.
I read an article in the New Yorker about the Bush administration’s global sexual and reproductive health policies, particularly HIV/AIDS prevention in sub-Saharan Africa. It talked about the global gag rule that, until Obama overturned it, barred U.S. aid from going to organizations that even mentioned abortion. It talked about the Bush administration’s requirement that one-third of the dollars spent on HIV prevention go towards abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. And it talked about how more people than I—as a teenager on vacation in the U.S.—could even conceptualize were dying because of AIDS each day. And the epidemic continued to spread.
I couldn’t believe it. Families and communities were falling apart, aid workers deep in the trenches just wanted to do their jobs, African youth needed some condoms to save their very lives, and American politicians sitting half a world away in Washington, D.C. insisted on imposing their own conservative values on the whole damn world. The cultural arrogance, the moral self-righteousness, and above all, the complete disregard for the realities of people’s lived experience were breathtaking. I’d never heard of anything more infuriating. Still haven’t.
Later, my interest in HIV prevention abroad led me to discover the injustice of abstinence-only education closer to home. And the ties between the anti-sex education, anti-contraception, and anti-abortion rights movements helped me see these multiple and overlapping issues as part of a cohesive ideology. That, combined with an overarching thread of feminism and a heavy dash of economic justice, opened my eyes to the power of sexual and reproductive justice as a way of understanding—and changing—the world.
So these days, a lot of issues will make me angry—from prison abuses to anti-choice subway ads. But I think much of my driving anger still stems from that initial moment of outrage—which echoes again and again. I felt it when I read in 2006 that some conservatives opposed the new HPV vaccine because they thought it would make girls “promiscuous”—never mind that it saves thousands from dying of cervical cancer. And again when I learned how the FDA under the Bush administration dragged it’s feet on approving over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception to young women—although there is no medical reason not to and EC could prevent hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies each year. And again just last week when I saw that Minority Leader John Boehner is up-in-arms about a provision in the health care reform bill that makes it easier for states to expand Medicaid coverage for “family planning” services—i.e. contraception—that 98% of women use at some point in their lives and which helps prevent the other thing he hates: abortions. And again when I heard a district attorney in Wisconsin is threatening to charge teachers with “contributing to the delinquency of minors” for teaching students to prevent pregnancy and protect themselves from STDs. I feel that old outrage every time someone closes their eyes very tightly and argues that without access to information and contraception, teenagers will just not have sex. And I feel it every time someone, ignoring literally a world of evidence to the contrary, suggests that without access to safe, legal abortion, women will just decide to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
Young people have sex because they are human—and will whether or not we give them approval or a condom. And women end pregnancies because sometimes they need to—and will do what they need to do, even if it’s illegal, even if it’s risky, and even if they die trying. Willful blindness to these realities not only denies our rights but also endangers our health and lives.