Archive | February, 2012

On genital piercings and assumptions

27 Feb

I probably look like I should teach kindergarten. I’m tall and blonde, and I dress pretty conservatively for work. I have very few visible piercings. I have 3 small tattoos that are hidden by nearly all types of clothing (bikinis aside), and my other piercings are mainly ear piercings. I rarely wear makeup. My personality is, upon first glance, very professional and my sense of humor is a bit dry. I’m sure that I can come off as prudish or stodgy, though neither of those things (I think) are true about me.

So, every time I go to the gynecologist I wonder what they’re thinking when they see my horizontal clitoral hood piercing. As doctors, I’m sure they’ve seen it all, and I’m sure a hood piercing is so blase that they almost barely deign to notice it. I do get nervous though, that they’ll be ultra-conservative and automatically assume that I’m a slut or something because of it.

Similarly, every time I get involved with a new sexual partner, I’m concerned that they’ll jump to conclusions about me. Some, thankfully, don’t. However, some do, immediately assuming that I’m into the kink, and attempt to proceed accordingly (to whatever kink THEY’RE into), typically, without asking consent first. These experiences always leave me quite shocked and dismayed.

What is it about a genital piercing that makes, in my case, straight men think that they can just go for it, whatever “it” is? The answer, sadly, are assumptions and a touch of misogyny. It’s been my experience that the more into porn these men are, the more likely they are to 1) get super psyched about my piercing (repeatedly commenting on it and/or discussing it later), and 2) make the assumption that they don’t need to ask about things like inserting a finger (or attempting a penis) into my anus, slapping/spanking, biting, hair pulling, and other more taboo sexual acts.

I’m very glad to have my piercing though, because it’s an easy gauge of whether a new partner might be worth considering making a habit of, or could be boyfriend material. The ones who ask me questions like “what’s the story behind the piercing?” are less likely to attempt non-consensual sex acts than the ones that are like “man, that piercing is so hot” and move immediately to sucking on it (again without asking if I’m down for oral). We all have our own standards that we judge each other by, and this is one that I’ve found to be pretty accurate and consistent.

So ladies, it didn’t hurt much at all and healed quickly, if you’re wondering. I love mine, for many reasons including the above. And straight males who may want to have sex with me, how about you stop assuming that a genital piercing is a free pass (not a question). Please ask first, and I guarantee you’ll be more likely to get the chance to see it again.

Support a young Canadian activist being targeted by anti-abortion folks

23 Feb

One thing the anti-choice movement seems to do pretty well at is recruiting young people. This is not really surprising, as the anti-choice perspective on abortion can be (and often is) packaged and sold as relatively simplistic: they like babies, and don’t want them to die. It can be very difficult to be a young person, and easy to latch on to a cause that presents the world in easily discernable categories of right and wrong.

Engaging youth in the protection of their reproductive rights has been an ongoing challenge for our movement. Outside of the “second wave vs. third wave” nonsense that is continually dragged out to cause discord, there is a real issue here: the pro-choice view of the world is messier and more complex, and therefore a harder sell, than the nicely packaged anti-choice “I heart babies” view.

One thing the anti-choice movement really sucks at, though, is actually supporting these youth. They love getting them on board in order to trot them out at rallies and use them to score easy political points, but if they cared at all about the actual concerns and needs of youth, well, they wouldn’t be anti-choice. So it was with little surprise that I read about the latest way the anti-choice movement here in Canada is throwing at least two young people under the bus in order to gain a cheap victory.

The Atlantic Council for International Cooperation is running its third annual Active-8 campaign this month. This is a great campaign that encourages youth to present their best idea of how to make a positive change in the world. Allies pledge to act in a way that supports that idea, and the participant with the most pledges at the end of the campaign wins $1000. It’s a great way to support youth living in an oft-overlooked part of Canada, and to encourage them to value their ideas – and learn the skills necessary to turn those ideas into funding.

I have written before about the dismal state of reproductive rights and abortion access on Prince Edward Island. Well, one enterprising young person there, Kandace Hagan, entered the Active-8 campaign to bring attention to the problem, and hopefully to make a difference in the lives of many folks on the Island. Pretty great, right? And pretty bold, too – PEI has the kind of small-town mentality that, while it can be quite positive in some respects, generally discourages this kind of rocking the boat.

This is where the anti-choicers come in. Kandace was doing pretty well and had moved into second place, when suddenly the first place candidate, a young woman named Tara Brinston whose work centres on intellectual disabilities, jumped 100 pledges ahead overnight. Huh. This would have stayed in the realm of vague suspicion until Anne Marie Tomlins (of the PEI Right to Life Association) was found to be the source of an email urging folks to vote for Tara in order to shut Kandace down. Apparently this email was just supposed to go to a few people, but it was “leaked,” and now the antis can smell blood in the water.

So let’s take stock of the situation. Anti-choice folks are pledging their support to a campaign they didn’t give a shit about a week ago, just to make sure a young pro-choice activist doesn’t get $1000. Not only are they essentially sabotaging Kandace’s campaign, they are making a mockery out of Tara’s. Imagine how she will feel if she wins, not knowing if it was because people actually support her work in disability advocacy, or because a bunch of douche-canoes used her to claim a petty victory over reproductive rights. That sucks.

My hope in situations like this is that I’ll be able to take the high road, but really there’s no other way to go here. Anyone who pledges for Kandace – even in reaction to this latest development – is doing so presumably because they genuinely support her cause and want to make the world a better place in that regard. There’s no sabotage (counter-sabotage?) route for pro-choicers to take here, even if we wanted to. We have a candidate. The anti-choicers, if they cared at all about supporting youth endeavours, should have put up a candidate whose campaign was to continue squashing reproductive rights on PEI (what an inspiring dream! Please, take my $1000!). But they didn’t. Instead they crashed the entire campaign and sabotaged two inspiring young women, and for what?

Because that’s the best part: the anti-choicers gain nothing here. Even if Tara wins, her work is in disability advocacy – it doesn’t help their movement at all. The only benefit for them is Kandace losing, and if the anti-choice crowd celebrates every time a pro-choice activist doesn’t get $1000, they must get raging boners every time they look at my bank account. Really, all they’ve succeeded in doing is drawing media attention to three things: 1. the excellent Active-8 campaign; 2. the abysmal reproductive health situation in PEI (which doesn’t get half the media attention it deserves) and the brave activists fighting for change there, and 3. that they (the anti-choicers) are assholes who don’t care about idealistic young people unless they are propping up an exploded fetus sign.

I have already pledged for Kandace (and you can, too!), but I will make this additional pledge: if she does not win this contest, I will figure out a way to personally fundraise $1000 for her and the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization. I hope you’ll help.

Being Prochoice on Instagram

20 Feb

I am obsessed with Instagram. If you aren’t obsessed yet, all you need to know is it’s an iPhone exclusive social networking application used to post and share filtered pictures. The application is a democracy; users can elect pictures to the popular page, and comment freely on public profile’s photos whether or not you are “following” each other.  Like on twitter, you follow/are followed by friends and influencers, and posts can be captioned with hashtags.  Being obsessed with both Instagram and abortion rights activism; I searched the photos for #abortion and #prochoice #prolife images.

#Abortion brought back 555 photos, and Instagram brought up 21 related hashes, only one of which (#abortionrights) was prochoice in nature. The other 20 related hashes were labels such as: #abortionismurder, #abortionholocaust, #abortioniswrong, #abortionisterrible, #abortioniskillingachild. I began looking at the 555 photos that were tagged under #abortion vainly hoping the photos would be a mix bag of positive and negative messages.  But no, the majority of the photos displayed under #abortion are gory fetus porn, pictures of messages such as “abortion is murder”, “reblog if you are against abortion” and “NOT YOUR CHOICE” above a drawing of a fully developed fetus in the mother’s stomach. The rest of the anti-choice tags, #abortionismurder etc., were all photos of the regular ol’ anti-choice hate.  There are 681 photos #prolife compared to 169 tagged #prochoice. The #prolife tagged photos were mostly the same content as the other antiabortion hashes, except the #prolife photos showed more babies and children, supposedly representing the anti-aborion cause. The #prochoice photos are much more diverse, creative and uplifting, than the repetitive #prolife photos (surprise!), but disproportionate representation is frustrating.

I would have left my search unsurprised at that point, but I became infuriated by what I saw next:  In the 21 related hashes to #abortion was #abortiondoctor—it contains one photo.  A user posted a picture of a metal statue of a boy holding flowers, commented “#creepymailbox at the home of an #abortiondoctor.” A commenter asks, “Why are you at the abortion doctor” and the user replies, “it’s on my UPS route.”

Beyond labeling this provider as “creepy” for no reason, the user is, perhaps ignorantly, supporting stalking culture and threatening the safety of the supposed abortion provider.  What if someone who knows this user were anti-choice, and interested in exposing the location of the provider’s house? Given the information provided, it wouldn’t be that hard to locate the provider’s home.

The relative “outspokenness” of the prolife movement on Instagram (169 #prochoice photos vs. 681 #prolife photos) and the hate speak and even (sadly) the threatening of provider’s safety is par for the antiabortion “activism” course.  However, the regularity of hate-behavior towards abortion rights does not make it more acceptable. So, here’s a few things I thought Instagramers can do to counter antiabortion “speak” on Instagram:

1.     Post prochoice pictures under the hashtag #abortion and #prochoice on Instagarm. I posted a photo from an abortion doula meeting I hosted last month, and a picture of my prochoice flare-adorned Christmas tree in December.

2.     If you’re on Instagram, make and effort to bring new hashes. I could see #ihadanabortion or #provoice tags coming onto Instagram, with positive messages and images.

3.     Comment on people’s photos that you find hateful like you would respond to misguided comments on Twitter or Facebook. You can do so with relative anonymity on Instagram, and starting a conversation is better than being complacent.

Women want to know: Does using hormonal contraception increase HIV risk?

17 Feb

Women everywhere want, need, and deserve to know if their contraceptive method increases their risk of acquiring HIV.  This question is not new; for years, there have been equivocal studies on the topic, some pointing towards a potential association, others showing no association.  The topic got new attention in July 2011, when results were presented at the annual AIDS conference in Rome that indicated a potential two-fold increase in HIV infection rates among women using an injectable form of contraception, DMPA (brand name Depo-Provera, a kind of contraceptive that uses a hormone called “progestin”) compared with women who used no hormonal contraception and again in October 2011 when it was published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. (The study failed to show a significant increase in risk of HIVamong women who used oral contraceptive pills, but it’s not clear if that has more to do with a lack of effect or was simply because so few women in the study were using pills).

In response, a meeting was convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) from January 31st – February 2nd, 2012 to reassess the state of the evidence and to determine if recommendations about the utilization of hormonal contraceptive methods should change for women at high risk of HIV.  Currently, there are no restrictions on the use of any hormonal methods for women at high risk of HIV.

At the meeting, the expert group determined that there was insufficient evidence to change who is eligible for using all methods of hormonal contraception, including “progestin-only” methods like DMPA, although they did add a strongly worded clarification statement reminding health providers and programs that women at high risk of HIV must use condoms consistently and correctly in order to decrease their risk of acquiring the virus.

So, does hormonal contraception, and specifically DMPA, increase HIV risk?  Unfortunately there is no clear answer to that question.  There have been studies in animals that have pointed to potential biological mechanisms for an increased risk of getting HIV while using injectable progestin contraceptive methods like DMPA, so there is a plausible reason to expect an effect.  However, many animal studies of HIV have led us astray in the past.

Looking at the research that has been done looking at humans, some studies show a connection, some show none.  Further muddying the water is that all the studies are observational, not randomized controlled trials (Wikipedia has a good explanation of what a randomized controlled trial is here, but for our purposes it’s a study where people are randomly assigned to a treatment group, in this case either DMPA or oral contraceptives, or an IUD, or condoms.  The main strength is that all the many variations in behavior and biology that can impact results should be equally distributed between the groups and in a way cancel each other out).

When we rely on observational studies, it is much harder to feel confident that we’ve taken into account all the individual factors that can affect the results.  For instance, perhaps women who choose to use DMPA as their contraceptive method are less likely to use condoms than women who use only condoms as their contraceptive method (in fact, we have good evidence that this is true).  When you compare the two groups, you may find more HIV infections in the group using DMPA, but it could be because they are less likely to use condoms than the group of women who rely solely on condoms to avoid pregnancy. There could also be other factors of which we are unaware that are different between the two groups and explain the difference.  The researchers often try to “control” for factors like this statistically, but it is extremely hard to know whether data on condom use (or other sexual behaviors, like number of sex partners or frequency of sexual activity) has been accurately reported.  Just like I exaggerate how often I floss my teeth every time I go to the dentist, and my diabetic patients don’t always spontaneously report the cookie they ate right before coming to the office and having their blood sugar checked, women who are seeing medical staff may not give an accurate description of how often they use condoms and with how many partners they have sex, especially if they have been told over and over how important condom use and having fewer sexual partners is to reduce their risk of HIV.

So where does this leave us?  The disappointing news is that, in 2012, science still doesn’t have a clear answer for us on whether use of hormonal contraception, and specifically DMPA, increases a woman’s risk of contracting HIV, although the experts at the WHO were reassured enough by the evidence that we do have to continue to recommend unrestricted use of hormonal contraceptives for women at high risk of HIV.  Also on the bad news front, many women in high HIV
prevalence settings have few or no other contraceptive options, so they can’t simply hedge their bets and switch to something else with a more clearly established safety profile (like oral contraceptive pills), or to non-hormonal methods (like copper IUDs or sterilization).

However, there is lots of good news.  What we lack in clear answers regarding injectable contraceptives and HIV acquisition is made up for in knowledge of other ways to impact the epidemic of sexually transmitted HIV.  We know that people who know they have HIV are more likely to use condoms, so we need to work on getting voluntary testing for everyone, everywhere.  We know that people who are on treatment are much less likely to transmit the virus to their partners, so we need to get everyone access to treatment; shockingly, less than half of people in need of treatment worldwide currently get it.  And we know that consistent, correct use of condoms greatly reduces the risk of HIV transmission, so we need to work much harder at helping people get over the many barriers that exist to using condoms all the time.

We need to keep offering women as many options as possible for family planning.  Women can safely continue to use DMPA.  The bottom line is that, whether DMPA increases HIV risk or not, condoms are an absolute necessity for all women at high risk of HIV, whether or not they are using hormonal contraceptive methods.

A Thoughtful Journalist’s Guide to Covering Abortion

16 Feb

How do you write about a topic that is both the third rail of US politics and also one of the most common medical procedures in America? There are many things to be mindful of when writing about abortion. This is the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about writing about abortion with integrity. Let’s dive right in.

Language matters.
Are you using the words “pro-choice” and “pro-life”? Typically, the pro-choice movement prefers “anti-choice” to “pro-life,” since the latter implies that the pro-choice movement is “anti-life,” which is preposterous (not to mention false).  Another alternative to “pro-life” is “anti-abortion rights.” And what about using terms like reproductive justice and pro-voice? If you’re writing about women’s personal abortion stories, you may want to investigate exactly what pro-voice means, and if you’re looking at abortion from an intersectional lens, reproductive justice is your best bet.

Science matters.
Who can you trust to tell you if a certain piece of legislation is based in medical evidence or ideological bullshit? Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, for one (full disclosure: I used to work there and can say with confidence that the doctors affiliated with PRCH are fantastic). Other potential sources of medical information include the clinician/s or medical director at your local clinic and the National Abortion Federation. The best reason to ask clinicians if a piece of legislation is medically necessary or makes scientific sense? Most legislators aren’t doctors.

Planned Parenthood is not the only abortion provider in the United States.
While they’re certainly the most high profile abortion provider, they are far from the only ones. In fact, there are entire organizations composed of independent abortion providers, such as the Abortion Care Network and the Feminist Abortion Network. In covering only Planned Parenthood, you’re getting a small piece of America’s abortion story. Most abortions are done at free-standing (non-Planned Parenthood) clinics. Independent providers have a long and proud history of providing women with compassionate care–why not call them in addition to your local Planned Parenthood?

Be wary of abortion stigma
No one could argue that there isn’t a stigma associated with abortion, whether it’s with the women who have them, the clinicians who perform them, or anyone remotely associated with the topic. The last thing you want to do is perpetuate the notion that abortion is a gruesome procedure performed by badly trained doctors that only slutty, selfish women have (see what I mean by stigma?). Many people perpetuate stigma without even realizing it. How?

  • “Only 3% of our services are abortion!” Planned Parenthood pulls out this statistic every time they get attacked by a politician. They do so to try and emphasize the fact that they are primarily family planning providers, not abortion providers. By doing this, however, they distance themselves from abortion, as if abortion is shameful, as if abortion is something that should only be 3% of their services. Are they proud to provide abortion services? Of course. But you wouldn’t know it with this talking point.
  • Talking about rape, incest, and life threat situations as acceptable instances of when a woman can have an abortion. What woman deserves to have access to abortion care? A woman who was raped? A woman with a fetal anomaly? A woman who can’t afford to have another child? A woman who didn’t use birth control? A woman who’s had an abortion already? Every woman, no matter her circumstance, deserves to have access to abortion care. We stigmatize abortion when deem certain abortions as moral or some women as deserving to have abortions, while others are “bad” or unworthy of legal medical care.
  • Later abortions: Define your terms. When you say “later abortion,” what do you mean? In research land, it usually means abortion after 24 weeks. Some people use the medically innocuous “late term abortion” to signify anything from an abortion in the second trimester to an abortion into the third trimester. Make sure you know which one you’re talking about. Read the literature on second trimester and later abortions. Accept the fact that there is nothing inherently, morally wrong with later abortions. Learn about why women need them, that there’s no medical consensus on viability, and no agreement on “fetal pain.” Check your language–are you somehow implying that later abortions are morally wrong, or that a woman should’ve just hurried up and made a decision earlier? That’s stigma in action.
  • For more on abortion stigma, see ANSIRH’s research.

One woman’s abortion story isn’t every woman’s abortion story.
One in three US women will have an abortion by the age of 45. It follows, then, that one in three US women will not have the the same reasons for having an abortion, or the same reaction afterwards. Who has an abortion? Every type of woman, it turns out: women of every class, race, ethnicity, and education level.  We also know that women seek abortion care for every possible reason: they can’t afford another child, a birth control mess up, a health condition, or simply not wanting to be a mother (whether for the first or sixth time) at that point in her life. Whatever the woman’s reason for an abortion, it’s a valid one, and not your job to make a judgment call on it. Similarly, many women feel relieved after their abortions, some women feel regret or sadness, others feel a mix or something completely different. If you’re writing about women’s reactions to having abortions, make sure you talk to a variety of people who can give you multiple perspective on the experience. If you need to talk about abortion stories in broader strokes, talk to organizations like Exhale and Backline that support women before and after their abortions.

There’s a lot to think about when covering abortion. As much as we want it to be, abortion isn’t just a medical procedure; it’s tied up in political and cultural battlegrounds that demand thorough exploration. You need to make deliberate decisions to seek out medically and scientifically accurate information if you want your article to reflect the reality of abortion in the US.

Do the Catholic Bishops Trust God?

14 Feb

The Catholic Church, through its Bishops, is currently fighting tooth and nail to deny women access to contraceptives- birth control. The Catholic Church believes that contraceptives are immoral, and that women should never ever use them. With the new concept of no-copay birth control, the Catholic Church wants the right to refuse to provide women with access to this basic healthcare- and they want to extend this ability to refuse to any business. This is a dangerous situation for women all across the United States.

There are many arguments against the Catholic Bishop’s position. I’m sure you’ll hear them all over the feminist blogsphere. But I think there’s one idea you will not here shared everywhere: The Catholic Bishop’s position on denying women access to birth control shows that they don’t trust God.

If you’re a Christian, you believe that God is all powerful. He is capable of anything, and He can change our world however He wants to. If the Bishops truly believed this, why would they be so worried about birth control?

If God willed for a specific woman to have a child, then no earthly measures could prevent that (this might sound terrifying for some people, but for Christians it’s usually combated with “God has the best of intentions”). Birth control can fail, even when taken correctly. This wouldn’t be God interfering with free will, but interfering with biological reproduction- just like He did when Mary became pregnant with Jesus, even though she never had any sperm in her
uterus/fallopian tubes, ever. Some methods of birth control may, possibly, somehow, sometimes make it slightly more difficult for a zygote to implant in the uterus (the science on this is still being questioned and debated). Even if this is true, more difficult isn’t impossible- God could ensure a zygote burrows happily into the lining of the uterus without a problem. The same is true for emergency contraceptive, which works by preventing ovulation. If God absolutely wants a specific woman to have a child, He could just ensure she ovulates before she has sex. Again, this is control over biological functions.

If a woman does become pregnant, despite using birth control, the choice of whether or not to carry the pregnancy is then between her and her God — and again, we must trust that the all powerful, all loving God will lead her on the path that He has planned for her, having brought her to this point.

Knowing that God is all powerful, and His will can’t be stopped by using birth control pills, I have to wonder why the Bishops are so worried about including access to birth control. Do they not trust God? Do they not believe He is powerful enough to overcome birth control if He wants to? Do they believe God’s Will can so easily be avoided just by swallowing a daily pill?

I trust in God’s ability. There is absolutely no reason for the Bishops to deny women access to contraceptive. Matthew 18:15-17 says that if someone sins, you should tell them alone, then with some friends, then tell the church- if he still refuses to listen, treat him as a person who does not believe in God or a tax collector. It does not say, “refuse him access to whatever he used to sin.” So if the Bishops think birth control is a sin, they should treat people using it as non-Catholics- still human beings- and not deny them access.

If the Bishops believe in the power of God, they should allow women access to contraceptives, because God’s will is stronger than anything on Earth. However, if they do not believe in God’s power- if they cannot trust God to do what is right, then perhaps they should continue taking this issue into their own hands.

Silencing Men

13 Feb

As a feminist I fight every day to demonstrate that I am not a misandrist. As any feminist knows, that is an uphill battle. It seems that feminism and misandry are synonyms for much of the population, and that really upsets me. In fact, my partner held the belief that feminist hate men before he met me. He quickly realized that is the furthest thing from the truth, but that was only because he met me. When I meet new men I like to get them to like me (as friends of course!) and then “drop the bomb,” so to speak, that I am a feminist. Many of them are usually shocked to hear that I have serious concerns with the family justice system too. Because I so strongly feel that the patriarchy hurts men, and that I love my feminist boyfriend, this next sentence hurts me.

I want to silence all the male voices in the abortion discussion.

Trust me, it hurts for me to write that. My partner is one of the biggest supporters of abortion rights there is. I know a great many men who are huge supporters of abortion rights and I so greatly appreciate their support. But I still want to silence their voices.

Abortion, as I have previously blogged, has become a hot topic in Canada recently. The major voices from the government for the anti-choice camp are Stephen Woodworth, Brad Trost, and Rod Bruinooge (there is one more but for the life of me can’t find the correct spelling of his name so we’ll leave it at 3). I’m sure you guessed what they have in common: they’re all MEN! The main anti-choice voices for the U.S. are also all men. In fact, the majority of persons in government who are anti-choice, are men. And none of them can get pregnant. The people who are making decisions that affect the lives of women, CAN’T EVEN GET PREGNANT!

And so, I want to silence the voices of all men. I am so tired of men giving their opinion about abortion. I am so tired of it that I am willing to sacrifice the voices of all the men who support women. I truly believe that if men were no longer allowed to speak on the topic of abortion, every country would be pro-choice. Anti-choice women get abortions too. Abortion crosses every religious, cultural, and political line. The only line it can’t cross is biological sex, and that is where the problem lies.

Of course there are anti-choice women, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann being the two most prominent ones. I dislike them just as much as I dislike male anti-choicers, but something about a man, a person who could never fully appreciate the terror upon seeing a positive pregnancy test, a person who could walk away from a pregnancy if he so chose, a person who will never DIE in childbirth, something about him telling a woman that she should be forced to keep a pregnancy sends me into a rage.

It is that rage, that sense of complete and utter anger at a man telling me what I can and cannot do with my body that causes me to write that sentence, that causes me to want to silence all the male voices in the abortion discussion.

I know not everybody will agree with me, and that is okay. Some people view the male allies as more important than the male antis. I just happen to believe that if we take away the male voices, we will take away most of the antis. Our patriarchal society is based upon male control of women, and control of their bodies is key. I have decided that it’s time to take away male control. It’s time to silence male voices.

Can We Choose to Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? — And How?

10 Feb

A guest post from Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian. Cross-posted from On the Issues Magazine.

As current staff members at Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), an organization that has advanced the health and human rights of women and girls over four decades, and longtime reproductive justice activists, we continue to hope that safe and affordable abortion care will, someday, become a reality for everyone. With increasing attacks and restrictions on abortion access worldwide, we have our work cut out.

Here, in the U.S., the debate around abortion has become especially polarized. Right-wing and anti-choice groups bombard young people with messages that stereotype and stigmatize those seeking abortion services — both individuals and entire communities. Think: billboards have popped up around the country equating abortion to the genocide of African-American children, who are further described as an “endangered species.” These — and other — oversimplified messages mock a personal and often complex decision, not to mention the right to a constitutionally protected and medically safe procedure. They influence how people, especially young people, articulate and align themselves on abortion. They drive our activism — our tireless commitment to alliances across aisles and opinions, and to conversations that move beyond “pro-life” and “pro-choice” rhetoric to focus on the individual, her needs, rights and circumstances.

Engaging, mobilizing and building alliances on an issue like abortion can be an uphill climb. But as 2012 rolls in, we want to take a few minutes to remind you about why it is important and suggest a few ways you can go about this challenge.

Building Up Our Friends

Our allies are our greatest strength. We especially need to appeal to the hearts and minds of people “on the fence,” by connecting abortion rights to principles that they hold valuable — equality, privacy, dignity, security and more. We must show how these principles will be affected if we do not have the fundamental right to reproductive freedom. We believe that we can even engage anti-choice people in conversations about how restrictions on access to abortion affect women and girls — especially those who are uninsured, under-insured, socially or ethnically marginalized and isolated.

We need to take a few minutes to contact the judges in our communities and ask them to defend the rights of women and girls. Monica Roa, the lawyer who argued a case before Colombia’s Supreme Court that liberalized that nation’s restrictive abortion law in May 2006, identifies judges as a key audience: “Judicial bias is a major conflict throughout the world.” She proposes a highly effective “court targeting” approach that includes getting better acquainted with specific judges and their position on issues.

And we must not forget our friends, our existing allies — an activist neighbor, a local abortion fund or a provider — on the forefront of the abortion rights movement and under threat because of it. Supporting them is critical and we can do so in a number of ways. We can donate money to local abortion funds which provide financial and logistical assistance to women that need abortions, or simply volunteer our time to their activities — a list of abortion funds is online. We can also volunteer at clinics, in roles that range from administrative to serving as clinic escorts that guide staff, providers and clients in and out of clinics and shield them from harassment and pro-life demonstrators. If these options seem daunting, we can help tremendously by just talking — with family and friends at home, with our community via blogs and local newspapers, and with our political representatives on the phone.

Listening and Engaging Listeners

In our bid to build alliances across the table, those of us involved in the struggle to preserve abortion rights must develop new tools of moral suasion. How? For a start, we need to be good listeners, good storytellers and patient communicators, and to create safe spaces for respectful dialogue, either one-on-one or in groups.

Judy Norsigian:

I remember an eye-opening conversation many years ago with a priest – a family friend – who had regularly sermonized about the evils of abortion. He described how one year a woman came to him afterwards and described WHY she had had her own abortion and why what he had said in church was so wrong and hurtful to her and many other women. A thoughtful and compassionate person, he decided to cease such sermons, but his comment about this encounter was instructive: “Don’t get me wrong, I still think of abortion as killing life in some form…I have not changed my mind about that. But what I realize now is that an abortion can be the RIGHT and moral thing to do.”

In the years that followed, I found a number of people who resonated with this kind of thinking and who could find a way to support a woman’s right to choose, while, at the same time, holding on to the concept of abortion as an act that destroyed life in some form. They noted that society does, at times, sanction even the killing of human beings (during war, in self defense) and, thus, could envision abortion as a moral choice and one to be preserved for women needing to make that choice.

Ayesha Chatterjee:

Active in the grassroots abortion access movement in the Boston area, I am also expecting my first baby in the spring of 2012. While I see absolutely no dichotomy in my activist and parenting roles, I have been asked a few times whether becoming a mother has softened my position on abortion rights, made me more empathetic to pro-life reasoning. My response: Far from it! My decision to have children is situated within my unique context and personal needs and capacity. If anything, the hands-on experience with the ongoing physical, emotional and financial commitment needed to nurture another human being has only deepened my understanding of an incredibly complex and personal issue, as well as my appreciation of why some decide to terminate their pregnancy and others, despite the many and different challenges, carry theirs to term.

When we are at a loss for words, drawing on other eloquent voices in the reproductive justice movement can help get the discussion started.

For starters, here are a couple such individuals:

Dr. Garson Romalis, a Canadian abortion doctor, whose speech on January 25, 2008 at the University of Toronto Law School Symposium is well worth reading. Dr. Romalis had been physically attacked — shot and stabbed, on two different occasions six years apart — and remained deeply committed to providing abortion services throughout his long career. At the close of his speech, he wanted to describe “one last story that I think epitomizes the satisfaction I get from my privileged work.” He continued, “Some years ago I spoke to a class of University of British Columbia medical students. As I left the classroom, a student followed me out. She said: ‘Dr. Romalis, you won’t remember me, but you did an abortion on me in 1992. I am a second year medical student now, and if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here now.'”

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, offers many compelling insights in, for example, Missed Opportunities in McCorvey v. Hill: The Limits of Pro-Choice Lawyering, in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change in 2011, or Long Term Policies, Long Term Gains in Conscience in Winter 2006-2007. In the latter, Paltrow writes: “those who defend the right to choose abortion often frame their defense in terms of protecting Roe v.Wade and access to abortion services. But far more than Roe and abortion is at stake. The health, dignity and human rights of all pregnant women are threatened by anti-abortion and fetal rights laws. Such laws create the basis not only for outlawing abortion but also for forcing women to have unnecessary Caesarean sections, for banning vaginal births after Caesarean sections and for treating pregnant women with drug, alcohol and other health problems as child abusers before they have even given birth.”

It also helps to be prepared for contentious conversations with compelling arguments and facts.

Anti-abortion advocates often use dangerous and misleading approaches to restrict access to abortion and birth control, and having a counter argument ready goes a long way. This misinformation runs the gamut — from claiming that the emergency contraception or morning-after pill (Plan B) is the same as the “abortion pill” to asserting that feticide laws, now existing in about 38 states and on the federal level, protect pregnant women, when in reality they are frequently used against pregnant women, especially those who may have used drugs during a pregnancy. So, staying abreast of facts to counter their fiction is critical and there are innumerable on-line and off-line resources. Here are two: The Guttmacher Institute and Ipas.

Converting Our Energy

When we gain ground by changing hearts, minds or policies, we have to ensure it translates into action — securing real and affordable access to birth control and abortion for women and girls.

While we have a long way to go before reproductive justice is a reality for everyone, the looming possibility of an anti-choice administration (and all that this would entail) has serious implications for women and girls in the U.S. and, through policies that restrict the use of U.S. development aid overseas, women and girls around the world. Your voice is important.

Our goals are substantial and clear. We need to become involved — to educate one another and ourselves on the nuances of abortion rights and access; defend the fast dwindling numbers of abortion clinics and abortion providers nationwide; express our outrage when they are attacked and vilified; demand greater and equal access to all reproductive health services including affordable and safe birth control and abortion care; counter misleading and dishonest anti-abortion propaganda and hold the people behind these tactics accountable for their actions.

Doing this effectively will require creativity, tenacity and abiding respect of all women’s realities and circumstances. We’re up for the challenge — are you?

Struggle is not necessarily failure: on the importance of self-care

8 Feb

As a blogger with the Abortiongang, we are compelled to write about current events surrounding reproductive rights. This usually involves cultivating an anger or, at the very least, a frustration of some sort that provokes a post. But what happens when, as an activist, you become so overwhelmed that your activism stalls?

I’ve been trying to write a new post for a month and half with no success. I have a copy of said post saved in my “Drafts.” It still doesn’t say what I want it to say and I’m not sure it ever will. In and of itself, this is disheartening because I have a passion for words. When they don’t come out right, I feel like a failure. Combine this with my currently evolving life, and I’ve found myself with less and less motivation to tap into that passion that is so utterly necessary to activism. The rest of my life has been too exhausting to expend my anger here.

So what do you do when you find yourself deleting, en mass, calls to sign petitions in your inbox? Or not attending protests in your area? Or ignoring your deadlines for the blogs that you write for? (Well, before it gets to be too depressing and embarrassing to acknowledge that you’ve been slacking…?)

Recently, Serena wrote about self-care, and how we need all need to take better care of ourselves within the movement. Obviously I agree with her. Self-care is extremely important because burnout is all too real. But I don’t feel that I am at the point of burnout, necessarily, just trying to deal with a case of the “laissez-faire’s.”

After struggling for some time, I gave myself permission to acknowledge that my life is kind of screwed up right now and I’m doing the best that I can, and that is OK. My friends and my community have certainly all been there, and they will understand.

By simply giving myself permission to be in the place that I am, I was able to take the next step: taking off my blinders and shifting my focus. Instead of agonizing over a post that may never be, I’m writing this one. Cathartic, to be sure, because I’m actually doing something, just not the thing I originally intended. Will this post have as great an impact as the one I intended to write? I don’t know, but right now, I don’t care.

Finally, I got together with some other activist lady-friends and spent most of the time NOT talking about activism. We drank lots of wine and played with some puppies and talked about life, just not the activist life. It was refreshing and necessary and I love those ladies for spending the time with me as friends.

The moral (if there is one)? Stopping to rest isn’t necessarily stalling. Struggle isn’t necessarily failure. Life happens; having the support of your friends and community is important, but what may be more important, motivating and successful is to make peace with yourself where you are.

NARAL: Stop Talking to the Press about Engaging Youth

7 Feb

Guest post by Abortion on Demand.

Is there an advocacy organization more ham-handed about talking about young supporters than NARAL Pro-Choice America? I opened the Washington Post Outlook section on Sunday and found yet another bunch of completely stupid quotes coming from both NARAL’s President Nancy Keenan and Communications Director Ted Miller. To wit:

  • “These are people that we haven’t quite crossed their radar screen,” NARAL President Nancy Keenan explained in a recent interview. “They share our values, they’re pro-choice, but the question is: How do we talk to them?”
  • For many women who have grown up in an era of legal abortion, that mentality has persisted. NARAL’s Keenan often refers to the graying heads of the major women’s groups as the “menopausal militia.”
  • NARAL has begun dividing its e-mail list between its younger and older supporters, testing different messages on about 10 percent of its subscribers. The group saw response rates double when younger people received a message from a NARAL staff member their own age, rather than one from the group’s president.
  • “Much of our list consists of people who are baby boomers,” says NARAL communication director Ted Miller. “With Millennials, we’re trying to be more strategic and communicate in a different way.”

Dear Keenan and Miller, guess what great communications strategy is for either selling widgets or organizing people: NOT TALKING ABOUT YOUR TARGETS IN THE THIRD PERSON. Also maybe not talking about HOW you are going to SELL TO THEM. Cause everyone loves to know how they are marketed to, like they are a piece of meat.

You want to talk amongst organizations about successful campaigns that seemed to resonate amongst college-age kids? Great. Do it privately. You gain NO BENEFIT TALKING TO A WASHINGTON POST REPORTER ABOUT THIS.

And please stop, stop, STOP publicly talking about the “intensity gap.” (That 2010 study you commissioned should have NEVER been a document you shared with the press).

The “intensity gap” absolutely exists amongst non-activists. Let’s get something straight, voter does not equal activist. Voter just means you go out and vote. Activist means you do something (anything) other than voting on Election Day. But what you’re voting on Election Day is often determined by what activists were doing leading up to Election Day.

Of course there are lots of under 30 activists in the pro-choice movement. Some of them write for this blog even. But here’s my message to NARAL. Shut up about the intensity gap. First of all you don’t know about the “intensity diminishment” as all those young supporters you see bused to Washington, DC by their parents on Roe Day grow up. Guess what? A lot of them will end up drifting away from their church and their anti-choice positions. Not all of them, of course, but usually what you feel at 12 you don’t feel quite as intently about in your 20s or 30s or I would still get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


“I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had about 1,300 attendees.

You want to garner more teenagers and 20-somethings Keenan, then why not just do it and stop telling the press HOW you’re going to do it. Stop talking about the fact you don’t have as many “youth supporters” as you’d like (all it’s going to do is piss off everyone who is a young supporter of Choice).

Maybe another piece of advice is Keenan (and Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards who’s a tad better at talking about what they do) need to just stop spilling their guts to reporter Sarah Kliff. Not because Kliff is misquoting them. Because the first rule of communications strategy is that if you don’t have a good message when talking to the press THEN DON’T DO IT.