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Why We Must Put Our Bodies on the Line to Fight Against the Right-Wing War on Women's Rights

Is it time for a reproductive rights revolution? We've done it before; the climate may be right again for occupations and actions to save our bodies from state control.
 
 
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A sticker at NYC's SlutWalk.
Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer

 
 
 
 

In case you haven’t noticed, pro-choicers are getting pissed off. 

In the halls of power, we’re not making progress. As Sarah Jaffe discussed earlier this month, in the wake of the Plan B disaster there’s an escalating sense that all the hard work abortion-rights supporters do making donations, phone calls and signing petitions hasn’t convinced most Democratic lawmakers not to use women as a bargaining chip. 

Despite some modest gains, overall there’s a steady chipping away of abortion rights and access to contraception, no matter who’s in office or what he or she pledges to do.

In the cities and towns of America, the effects of that chipping are showing. Austerity budget cuts, the absolutely brutal legislative war on women and the further stigmatization of abortion mean that clinics are shutting their doors, costs and travel times for procedures are rising and the back-alley abortion (now more commonly done with a pill obtained over the Internet than with a coat hanger) is very much back with us. But of course since the passage of the now "accepted compromise" of Hyde Amendment banning funding for low-income women to have abortions, the truth is it never really left.

Here’s the reality that many feminists know: As the income gap in America has grown, another gap has grown along with it. Women are divided into two classes. With each small law that has been passed requiring parental consent, mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods, with each guarantee that we will never reconsider allowing Medicaid-funded abortions, the divide between the women who will always be able to have abortions and those who are now living in a pre-Roe era keeps growing--and the number of women in the latter category expands along with it.

It may not be the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent just yet, but the class, race and privilege gap over who has reproductive rights is turning into a chasm, with a smaller and smaller number of women on the side that allows them freedom over their bodies. 

It’s been hard not to think this about new reality as I’ve watched the spunky protesters of Occupy Wall Street, through old-fashioned street-level organizing and people power, dynamically push our national economic discussion out of its tired "deficit" rut. Suddenly the poor, the homeless, the youths of color being beaten and frisked by the police, those being foreclosed upon and losing their jobs, people no one seemed to want to hear about before, are a subject of national discussion. 

While it is a travesty that it took so long to happen--and that it took relatively privileged college kids getting pepper-sprayed to accomplish it--the power of the visual images of the Occupy movement has been undeniable, as has power of activists literally occupying space that was previously verboten. The reality may not have changed much yet, but the conversation has.

As for the issue of reproductive rights, which has been stuck in its own rut with a squeamish population and an even more squeamish power structure approving every abortion restriction on the book, it’s beguiling to wonder what we could do with that power to change the conversation.

If we had the bodies on the ground, might we stake out some ideological territory that would enable those mainstream organizations to push harder? Could we spread a new message that would make our fellow citizens--who as a rule are so indifferent about the reproductive freedoms of women who aren’t themselves or their families--think twice? 

Our opponents have been beating us at this game. We hold rallies and marches while they do cruel but effective things like blocking clinic entrances and stalking and harassing women (and resorting to unspeakable violence, it should never be forgotten). This ranges from reprehensible to criminal to psychotic, but it indicates a level of moral surety and confidence that should be ours,that is ours.

Any kind of direct action that challenges the notion of shame and secrecy around reproductive health and abortion and garners media attention would be a victory. Whatever SlutWalk's flaws, it did a quick and effective job of educating the media about victim-blaming, using a basic level of street theater and clear messaging. We can all do the same thing without the exclusionary aspects that dogged some SlutWalks--and to do that, we absolutely must include in our push for a new paradigm the messaging and resources of the reproductive justice movement, which has been advancing the framing of reproductive rights in a human-rights framework extremely effectively. It also has to be clear that since we're dealing with a violent, often paranoid opposition, we need to strategize about ways to act without endangering the safety of women and workers at clinics--but of course, shifting the conversation away from clinics to CPCs, to right-wing funders, to bureaucratic office might make strides to that end.

So as the year comes to an end and we shake ourselves off from bruising battles over our bodily autonomy, it’s worth thinking about next year and asking: why shouldn’t we put our bodies on the line for the sake of our bodies being on the line? And why shouldn't those of us who will always be able to borrow the money and make the trek to a clinic at least consider risking arrest for the rights of our sisters who can't take that risk?

There are so many woman who are throwing their hearts into this work already, on the policy level, in courtrooms, in the grassroots, in the media and in the streets.  Dreaming up bold new actions is in no way a condemnation of their work, but rather the beginning of a conversation amongst ourselves about how we can change the larger, national conversation.

This isn’t new--feminist direct action has a strong tradition. And it seems to me that 2012 is the year to make it happen.

So, purely for the purposes of imagining--and keeping in mind that for actions like this to work, coalitions need to be built, numbers needs to be confirmed, and the commitment needs to be strong--I went on the Internet and asked my fellow feminists to imagine what a new or innovative big feminist direct action, piece of street theater, or protest would look like in their minds.

Would thousands of women get together to symbolically surround and protect an abortion clinic with our bodies? Or borrow a page from ACT UP and do a die-in with hangers and lots of visualized despair the next time there’s a meeting of the Conference of Catholic Bishops?

Should we set up our own temporary public clinics? Should we--and I give major upsparkles to this idea--do some sort of direct action at a Crisis Pregnancy Center that involves myth-busting, disseminating medically accurate information, and offering directions to a real clinic (without harassing women)? Or should we occupy the offices of a CPC funder?

Here are some of the other answers I found while seeking input from allies.

Symbolic actions and street theater. Sonia, a friend, suggested on Facebook that we stage “some kind of protest where each woman present wears a T-shirt commemorating a woman who died from an illegal abortion in the '50s or '60s...a photo and a name.”

Denise Ginley, a young OWS activist suggests a march at which every third woman wears the same color T-shirt to demonstrate how common abortion really is (one in three American women will have one), and how it affects every type of women.

Nicole, another mom, suggests "a mom campaign -- women speaking up for reproductive rights for their daughters.” 

Public sex ed. Many women I spoke to liked the idea of rogue clinics or networks that were an homage to the "Ask Jane" networks in the pre-Roe era--or even a day in which feminists distributed Plan B at low cost, in public, to demonstrate how it should be available.

Nancy Schwartzmann, a feminist filmmaker, suggests parents and children coming together to advocate education and access to contraception, pushing against Obama’s “As the father of two daughters” line and emphasizing, in her words, “this is not teens 'sneaking around' behind their parents' backs: this is about basic science, basic public health, basic harm reduction and basic rights. Maybe a massive sex-ed sit-in?”

Leah Berkenwald, a feminist writer and public health student in Boston says, “I think the key is occupying rather than marching or organizing a one-time protest event. I just screened Left on Pearl, an almost-finished documentary about the 1970 occupation of 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge by feminists to create a women's center. Let's physically occupy some spaces and teach sex-ed out in public!”

Our version of mic-checking officials: 'coat-hangering' them. Linda Hirshman, who is working on a book on the history of the gay rights movement, had two ideas inspired by that movement. One is to for women to hang coat hangers on the White House fence along the lines of Dan Choi and his allies; fight for the repeal of DADT.

Hirshman also suggests, ”Get [HHS secretary] Sebelius' schedule and coat-hanger her at every appearance” in the spirit of glitter-bombing, the constant gay-rights advocates who are dogging Michele Bachmann, and the new tradition of mic checking Newt Gingrich and other politicians. She notes: “Gays are driving Michele Bachmann insane. They send their children to ask her why she wants to ‘fix' their mommy. Why are we not doing that every time Sebelius leaves home?”

Occupations. As Leah Berkenwald noted, the power of a physical occupation or sit-in, even a short-term one, is hard to overstate. Some of the women who contacted me suggested, in the style and spirit of ACT UP, feminist stage occupations of the HHS offices or the FDA to demand cheaper and better access to contraception. Or that we maintain a presence at courtrooms or legislative offices where these decisions are being made to make decision-makers aware of the people they're affecting.

The idea of a constant presence is crucial, because when we leave, our opponents come back. They have been occupying our clinic entrances for years.

Build the support network. Several women responding to my request for ideas discussed coordinating personal, social media and Internet actions to go along with any massive mobilization, so that people can participate from afar and those who witness the actions can go home and look them up.

Web sites, Twitter hashtags, petitions, talking points for the dinner table, a kind of mass declaration like the OccupyWriters.com Web site, gathering names and support: these kinds of virtual and at-home actions would support any direct actions we undertake.

Occupy our wombs. None of these ideas are new--civil disobedience has been part of this conversation since the beginning.

I was inspired recently to read Merle Hoffman's account of what she calls "the first pro-choice disobedience action in history"--particularly its parallels to both ACT UP and OWS.:

Cheering exuberantly and waving coat hangers, hundreds of pro-choice supporters who had been waiting across the street surged to the steps of the cathedral. They began chanting slogans in support of our proclamation.

I made my way up the church steps with the six-foot hanger I had commissioned for the occasion. It was a symbol of potential terror and aggression against all women, but it was also the symbol of our future. And taking my place in front of the doors to the cathedral, I knew that it was also the ultimate symbol of both defiance and gentle desecration.

As I lifted the hanger above my head, the crowed throbbed and screamed with new energy. Police officers showed up on the scene, pushed our people back across the street, and arrested nine activists for trespassing on church property, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The first pro-choice disobedience action in history. We marched after them with Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union to the precinct to rescue our activists.

The media could not ignore this one.

The path to this movement's future may lie in our own history. 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter at sarahmseltzer.com.