by Crystal A. Proxmire
Remembering what life was like for women before Roe v. Wade is one way to teach others about the importance of safe and accessible health care for women seeking to terminate their pregnancy. On Jan. 27 over 200 people gathered at Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills for an event hosted by Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, National Council of Jewish Women and the ACLU that discussed the past, present and future of the pro-Choice movement.
The historic Supreme Court decision that protected a woman’s right to an abortion was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Although the right technically remains intact, states have found ways to regulate it so that access is a challenge for many women who need it. Beyond that, Pro-Life groups do all they can to deter women from going to abortion clinics, including protesting, arson, bombings, threats and even murders. One example is when Dr. George Tiller was shot dead in 2009 while he was volunteering as an usher in his church. Those in the audience familiar with the case were glad to hear that the clinic owned by Tiller has finally been re-opened and is back in business.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman shared clips from her film trilogy From the Back-Alleys to the Supreme Court & Beyond. Fadiman was a grad student at Stanford in 1961 when she flew down to Mexico for a back alley, blindfolded, unanesthesiatized abortion. She recalled the flight home, saying “even though it was painful and humiliating, my strongest feeling was gratitude that somebody could help me.”
Soon after she was taken to the hospital at Stanford with a high fever and uncontrollable bleeding. The same gynecologist who had turned her away before came in to save her life. “I became silent for 30 years,” she said. “In 1991 when it looked like they might overturn Roe v Wade I thought that those of us who had lived through it and survived had to speak up, so I made the first film in the series.”
The clips told tales of women who lived through abortion or who were unable to get one. They also looked at people, including religious leaders, who risked everything to help women connect women in need with illegal abortion providers.
Oakland County Clerk and former Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown also spoke at the event, discussing the recent wave of anti-women legislation in Michigan, including HB5711 which put severe limitations on abortion clinics. She explained how no women had been allowed to testify at the committee hearing where the bill was discussed, and how she was banned from speaking for a day because she used the word “vagina” when talking about it.
“Women and men were very upset about the way the committee was run, and rightfully so. One woman stood up and said ‘Why are a bunch of old white men making decisions for me,” Brown said.
She explained that in her speech she had focused on the religious freedom aspect of choice. “The day before one of the bills we’d voted on was the Julea Ward bill. Julea Ward was the student at EMU who was in counseling. She wanted to be a high school counselor but she refused to counsel a student because he was gay. And so there was legislation about that, protecting her, not the student. The sponsor of that bill kept talking about religious freedom.”
Brown said that she focused her speech on the religious freedom of women who may not have a religious objection to abortion, including herself as a Jewish woman who believes that the life of the mother is a priority. After being banned for using the word “vagina,” HB 5711 got plenty of national attention.
“The good thing that came out of it was that a spotlight was put on this legislation because they were ready to just ram it on through. Well now we had people around the country talking about it,” she said. “Although it did pass in lame duck…it was different than originally introduced. Still terrible, but not as terrible.”
She said that because of “pressure” and the “sea of Planned Parenthood pink shirts,” other abortion legislation did not make it to the floor, and the contentious objection bill did not make it. She warns, however, that “everything that was vetoed or got cut out of the bill, they’ll reintroduce again until they get what they want.”
“Never doubt the power of your own voice,” Brown said, noting that legislators know how many form letters and emails they receive, and how much popular push there is behind something.
Fadiman also stressed the importance of change and activism in the general society. “Of the people I know who shifted and opened their mind to the possibilities, have done so because they heard a first person story,” she said. “That’s one of the ways you can begin to reach these people who are somewhat entrenched.” She recommended talking to elected officials and bringing people who have been personally touched by the issue. She also recommended sending thank you notes to clinic workers who often face harassment and danger on the job.
Upcoming events on women’s health issues include a March 21st “It’s Not an Easy Choice” presentation at Oakland University. On April 9th the ACLU is hosting Equal Pay Day. And an April 21st “War on Women” event that will be hosted by the ACLU. For more information check out the ACLU Michigan website and sign up for email reminders at https://www.aclu.org/secure/mi-email-updates.
There are also a series of events across the state called One Billion Rising, which will take place on or around Feb. 14th to bring attention to the issue of violence against women. For more information visit http://onebillionrising.org/page/s/join and search for the event nearest you.