A long-time soldier and sometime general in the battle for reproductive freedom, I have marched, organized rallies, served on boards, testified before legislators, sent letters, signed petitions and founded organizations. Yet, when I look at this field, I’m neither bolstered by our victories nor galvanized by our vision.
According to Gallup, over the last three decades there has been a modest increase in public support for abortion and, paradoxically a decline in number of people who identify as “pro-choice.” But the proof of a movement is in the social conditions it creates and cements: we’re barely keeping our heads up in the wave of anti-abortion legislation proposed and passed in many states.
The Guttmacher Institute reports that in 2010 anti-choice state legislators introduced 950 measures, among these 89 are now law in 32 states. In 2011, these lawmakers got even busier, introducing 1,100 restrictions; 135 of these passed in 36 states.
Fights over women’s reproductive healthcare nearly torpedoed the Affordable Care Act and continues to plague its implementation. At the same time, angry white men called a law student “slut” for desiring contraceptive coverage and prominent presidential candidates seemed ready to embrace a return to the barefoot and pregnant era. Any guarantee of reproductive choice seems increasingly precarious.
In the midst of this meltdown, my colleague, Tracy Weitz and I started asking ourselves, what did we want our lives’ work to become? After our combined 50 years of agitating and advocating, what did we seek two generations past Roe and beyond? Informed by our expertise and experiences, we defined our ambitions as creating the conditions for all people to have the resources, rights. and respect to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions.
I dream of the time when all forms of love, sex, family and community will be celebrated, respected and resourced in an ever expanding variety of arrangements. In the words of Michael Franti, in his song Stay Human, “all the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”
As a brown-skinned, Indian, immigrant American, a middle-aged woman in a committed relationship with somebody denied the right to exist in this country, I hear society deliver the message that who we are, how we behave, what we desire, and who we love is wrong, and bad, and shameful. And so I fight for myself and for this movement, for the freedom and facility for all of us to love, create, and grow as fully human, in relationship with our fellow women and men.
But these ambitions are a far cry from what our movement currently proposes. Reproductive health advocates focus on the medical techniques, teaching, and research needed to improve delivery of abortion and contraceptive services. Reproductive rights promoters wage battle in courtrooms and statehouses for the “right to choose” abortion, rather than a “right to use.” Reproductive justice activists push to expand our agenda to include a right, particularly for women of color and poor women, to parent with dignity. In all of this necessary complexity, still no one is talking about sex and few are including men and boys, as if their sexuality and reproduction are somehow separate from women’s and automatically granted respect and dignity.
In 2011, Tracy and I set off to discover whether the pro-choice movement was really as divided in vision and strategy as our experiences indicated. We interviewed 41 leaders nationwide, surveyed more than 200 stakeholders, and convened groups of advocates in 13 cities to uncover their perceptions of where we stand. Beyond examining current conditions, we wanted to gauge interest in developing a strategy for the next 30 years.
During this process, we made three notable discoveries about the current state of this field. First, our activists, advocates, actors, and agents comprise a diverse, highly-connected network of mostly white females over 30 who are working at the national level; never mind that ours is increasingly a nation of color and young people are considered a pivotal demographic.
Second, there is no unifying vision, cohesive strategy, or inspiring narrative. The movement is dominated by large, well-known organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the ACLU; institutions that excel at communicating what they do (provide reproductive health services, fight political battles, or protect civil liberties), but not so clear at conveying why they do it. When we asked, our colleagues in the movement more often described the work they do and recited their organizational mission statements. Rarely did they speak to what inspired them or their vision for the future.
Strategies pursued by different camps are too often at odds. For example, proposed legislation for mandated transvaginal ultrasounds in Virginia drew outrage from reproductive rights groups as an intolerable violation of women’s privacy. Meanwhile, reproductive health advocates had been working to increase what their would-be allies had now branded as “medical rape,” a vetted practice for early abortions. Reproductive justice advocates stayed mostly out of the fray, focused instead on preventing the shackling of women inmates in labor.
Finally, we found our field struggling to develop new approaches to advance our agenda. Forty years ago, we found relative success in the courts. Today, we continue to invest heavily in this strategy, at the expense of building and mobilizing our base. Younger activists do seek to shape the debate online, but most expressed feeling dismissed and discounted. The professionalization of the field and its rigid institutional structure have become obstacles to innovation. Organizations prioritize protecting their brands and their budgets, rather than creating social change or disrupting the status quo. Crouching so long in a defensive posture, we’ve ossified into an endless loop of deconstructing our failures and staving off further policy harms. Rarely do we stretch and look forward in a positive, proactive, solution-oriented stance.
If we seek to not only stem the tide of anti-abortion legislation and enable people to love, have sex, build families, and create the communities we yearn for, we need to face our own challenges and offer up a shared vision and strategy for getting to this desirable future. This work needs to begin now if we want the next forty years to look different, and more hopeful.