This weekend, more than 250 marches, rallies, and actions are planned to mark the first anniversary of the January 21, 2017, Women’s March. That post-Inauguration rally saw millions of people from countries around the world take to the streets to protest the sexism, racism, and xenophobia bolstered by Trump’s election.
In the United States, events are being planned by the organizers of the Women's March under the title, “Power to the Polls,” with a focus on getting more women into elected office and more people voting in general.
For all the apparent unity and motivation drummed up by the Women’s March, what progress—especially on the theme of reproductive justice—can we look to as a sign of the power of mass action?
Last year was certainly a mixed bag in regards to reproductive rights, but there were gains: 2017 saw a surge in the number of pro-choice bills introduced and even passed at the state level. Some 645 bills were introduced to protect access to reproductive health care, either by introducing new protections or reforming laws that criminalize abortion care. Of those, eighty-six were passed into law, according to a report from the National Institute for Reproductive Health. These numbers represents major increases in pro-choice measures considered in state legislatures: 191 such bills were introduced in 2016.
"Last year was certainly a mixed bag in regards to reproductive rights, but there were gains."
Part of the focus has been to get pre-Roe v. Wade laws that criminalize abortion off the books, a critical move if that landmark ruling is overturned by a future Supreme Court decision. According to the Guttmacher Institute, eighteen states still have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion if that happens, including ten states that have retained unenforced, pre-Roe abortion bans. In one somewhat surprising recent victory, the Republican Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill that expanded insurance coverage of abortion care for people with low incomes and repealed a law that would outlaw the medical procedure if Roe were to be overturned. Anti-abortion groups attempted to sue to block it from being implemented, but a judge denied the request.
Sadly, efforts to strip away reproductive rights continue unabated. In several states, so-called “trigger laws” have been passed that would automatically criminalize abortion if Roe were overturned.
Planned Parenthood, the largest single provider of reproductive health care in the country, faced constant attacks. As a congressman in Indiana, Mike Pence introduced legislation in 2009 and 2015 to strip the organization of all federal funding, claiming that, despite a long-standing ban on federal funds being used for abortion services, any money going to the group was suspect.
That attitude persists, with the result that abortion foes have successfully ended state funding for the organization, causing the closure of several clinics (even those that didn’t provide abortion services). In Wisconsin, for instance, Planned Parenthood was forced to close five rural family planning health centers after Republican Governor Scott Walker stripped them of state funding.
What does that mean? Planned Parenthood spokesperson Iris Riis tells The Progressive, “Together, the centers provided over 18,000 health services to more than 3,000 patients each year. No other provider has opened to serve patients in these communities.”
Opponents of Planned Parenthood have claimed that other health centers will fill in the gap in reproductive health coverage. House Speaker Paul Ryan made just such a claim about federally qualified health centers at a town hall meeting in early 2017.
But in many areas of the country, especially rural ones, that simply isn’t true. Such health clinics are not required to provide services to low-income patients, for example; nor are they required to offer a sliding-fee scale or to offer family planning services. According to the Congressional Research Service, while providing more health services overall like dental and behavioral, federally qualified health centers in total provide less than half the number of contraceptive services than do Planned Parenthood clinics.
Which means people—especially lower income and uninsured folks—just don’t have access to basic (and often life-saving) care anymore.
“Public health officials have been clear—reducing access to basic reproductive health care increases poor health outcomes,” Riis adds.
Data and testimony from health care workers in parts of Wisconsin and Texas most impacted by the funding cuts and clinic closures bear this out, too.
“They’ve never replaced the services of Planned Parenthood,” Gail Scott, director of health in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, said in an interview with the Guardian. Her county lost a Planned Parenthood in 2013. “I’m not pro-abortion or anything,” she added. “But I can tell you nothing ever replaced those services for uninsured people.”
"Parts of Wisconsin and Texas impacted by clinic closures saw spikes in STDs, teen pregnancies, and a loss of care for thousands of people with spotty or no health insurance."
The parts of Wisconsin and Texas impacted by clinic closures, the Guardian article documents, experienced spikes in sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancies, and a loss of care for thousands of people with spotty or no health insurance.
Attacks on reproductive health care by and large have the most negative impact on low income women and families, and people of color. Planned Parenthood alone claims that more than a third of its patients are people of color, with 56 percent of its health centers located in areas with health professional shortages.
It can be too easy to get lost in facts and figures and forget that these changes represent threats to real human beings. And perhaps this is where large-scale demonstrations have an important role beyond voicing mass protest and unity. It’s a way to remember the actual flesh and blood that’s on the line in the efforts to strip away our rights.
The Women’s March focus on voting and elections may well be the best way to push back against the anti-choice anti-equality effort. The increase in pro-choice legislation in 2017 matches the rise in the number of pro-choice elected representatives now serving in statehouses and nationally. More women, LGBTQ people, and people of color than ever before were elected last fall, a growing rebuke to a conservative agenda that impedes progress toward civil rights for all.