Citizens Fight Back Against Assault on Women's Health

Not In My Backyard! As Local Government Attacks on Women's Health Increase, Citizens Are Fighting Back

The vicious attacks on women's health to which we've grown so accustomed on the national and state stages are trickling down to the local level, as municipal and county governments get in on the action. Thankfully, time and again, local citizens have mounted fast and furious responses, resulting in the type of swift and satisfying victories that sometimes feel unimaginable on the national stage.

Local officials around the country have been using the "no taxpayer-funding for abortion" mantra to quietly turn away money for family planning programs that provide vital services for their neediest constituents. These attacks tend to follow a pattern: a program that has been funded without debate for years is suddenly pegged by a politician as "controversial." Fellow politicians fall in line and vote to defund the program before residents and public health officials have time to react.

But in a few instances, community members are stepping in to stop them once word gets out.

Last year, in Ravalli County, Montana, County Commissioners challenged the approval of $39,000 in Title X funding to the local family planning clinic. The clinic provides services such as pregnancy & STD tests, contraceptives, and nutrition education to over 450 clients, the vast majority of whom are uninsured and live below the poverty line, and a third of whom are teens. The clinic had never before faced a problem receiving funding.

Wherever you are, the message is clear: women are ready to defend their health care no matter where the battle takes place.

At a July meeting, County Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher raised three objections to the clinic's funding based on his personal beliefs: its mission of preventing unplanned pregnancy implied that pregnancy was a "disease state," its provision of emergency contraception was outside the proper role of government, and its promise of confidentiality for services offered to adolescents violated the "sacred relationship" between parent and child. For good measure, he added that it was "easy to debate" whether or not EC causes abortion.

But Ravalli County residents caught wind of the plan and quickly organized to support the clinic. An op-ed in the The Missoulian urged the commissioners "to choose prevention over crisis management, pragmatism over rigid ideology, and, most importantly, a woman's right to control her own body over the government telling her what she has to do with her body." More than 100 residents packed the August Commissioners' meeting, the majority in favor of the clinic, moving the Commission to grant the Title X funding with the caveat that the clinic find a new source of funding for the next year. But when the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services contacted the Commission later that year to inquire if they were interested in receiving ongoing funding, they decided to ignore that caveat and accept the funds with no strings attached. Ravalli County's show of support clearly made a lasting impact on the Commissioners.

In Hamilton County, TN, another misinformation-induced funding decision took place in May 2011 and led to a similar spontaneous community response. The Hamilton County Commission voted against providing a $581,700 contract to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, claiming a need to cut costs - even though only $40,000 of the funding came from the county - and the belief that the Health Department funded abortions. Health Department Director Becky Barnes testified that the Health Department provided emergency contraception, leading the Commission to vote against the contract for the time since its inception in the 1970s. Commissioner Joe Graham stated "I don't believe God makes a mistake when he creates a baby" and Commissioner Fred Skillem admitted he didn't want to vote for anything controversial in a tough budget year. Realizing the Commissioners had conflated EC and RU-486, she implored them to learn more about the crucial difference between these two drugs. The Commissioners voted to table their final decision until a later meeting.

A strong community response quickly coalesced. published three letters to the editor in support of the funding in contrast with only one against. Chattanooga Organized for Action coordinated a Rally to Support Family Planning. More than 100 people attended the next Commission meeting in support of family planning, and many more voiced their opinions through calls and emails. At the re-vote, Ms. Barnes corrected the Commissioners' misconceptions about emergency contraception -- demonstrating once again why politicians should leave medical decisions to medical professionals. The funding for the health department was then reauthorized. What makes this victory all the more exciting is that the panel had a 7-to-2 Republican majority.

In March 2012, County Commissioners in New Hanover County, North Carolina, unanimously voted to deny funding for IUDs for low-income women. Commissioner Davis explained his position by saying, "If these young women were responsible people and didn't have the sex to begin with, we wouldn't be in this situation." An outpouring of public rage resulted in a re-vote on April 8th, where the funding was reinstated. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Barfield apparently got an earful from his wife on letting women make their own decisions about their bodies, and posted an apology on Facebook. Commissioner Davis even learned a lesson, announcing at the close of the meeting "I now realize that a woman is being responsible when she seeks contraception from the health department."

Also in March of this year, in Miami County, Kansas, the County Commission voted not to apply for an $8,000 grant to fund contraceptives for low-income women, even though it meant losing all $32,000 in Title X funding allotted to the county. Commissioner Jim Wise (we can only assume his last name is ironic) said:

"If these people want contraceptives, then they need to purchase them. If they get pregnant, then they need to take care of the child."

More than 100 people protested the vote, countered by a smattering of anti-choicers, and the local paper published an editorial criticizing the decision. But the Commission chose not to re-vote on the issue, and so local residents raised more than $9,000, enough to cover the contraceptive costs for needy women this year. While presenting the check to fund the clinic to the Commission, organized Denise German said "To be absolutely clear, this is an emergency gesture to provide for next fiscal year's contraception needs only. It is not a way to remove your responsibility as commissioners to reverse your position on contraception for the health department in the future."

These cases serve as strong reminders that while we keep our eyes on the state and national stages, it's important to be vigilant in our own backyards. These battles show that attacks are taking place at the local level - and advocacy here can have a direct and powerful impact. Regular people who don't have the time or energy left over at the end of their day to focus on the national battles become energized and angry when the war on women comes to their city. Wins like the ones discussed above show the power that activists have when dealing with local leaders who don't have the luxury of tuning them out.

The National Institute for Reproductive Health strongly believes that the struggle to protect reproductive rights and health is not just in Washington and our state capitals, but in city governments, town halls and at dinner tables across the country (remember that Facebook apology prompted by Commissioner Barfield's wife). Through the National Institute's Urban Initiative for Reproductive Health, we partner with local organizations and public health officials to achieve crucial gains for reproductive rights by providing support, technical assistance, and Promising Models of successful pro-choice initiatives in cities like Austin, New Haven, and Detroit.

Wherever you are, the message is clear: women are ready to defend their health care no matter where the battle takes place.

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