When it comes to the world of feminist writer/activists, I definitely fall on the “writer” side of the line. Most of my life is researching, conducting interviews, pitching pieces, and, of course, staring at my computer, trying to think of a verb that’s dynamic but not pretentious. I love giving speeches, but they’re usually of the 20-60 minute long variety meant to educate, analyze and entertain (and there’s always a Q&A), and I’m always on a roster with journalists and academics. So how was it that Saturday afternoon, I found myself standing outside with feet growing numb in the cold amongst actors, musicians, organizers and oodles of politicians, trying to think of what I could say in 120 seconds that would be meaningful to the crowd of thousands of people waving signs and periodically erupting into chants?
Well, mostly I was there because Planned Parenthood of New York City graciously asked me to speak at a rally in support of Title X funding, which has been zeroed out by the House of Representatives in the continuing resolution to fund the government, a move that can be stopped by the Senate and President. I said yes because while drum-beating and sign-waving is really outside of my comfort zone, I consider this issue too important not to grab opportunities to speak out. For years I’ve been writing about something that most of the media tragically ignores, which is the growing radicalism of movement conservatism regarding women’s sexual health. Anti-choice is also about resisting birth control and any other health care that relates to sexual activity, on the grounds that women who have sex should face “consequences”, i.e. be punished. (As a good example, I saw my friend Katie Halper fighting some guy on Twitter over whether or not Planned Parenthood offers breast exams, something anti-choicers are trying to deny because, as Katie put it, “I guess even the most heinous distortion of punitive conservatism can’t make breast cancer a woman’s fault.” Notice that they’re not trying to deny that Planned Parenthood does a million cervical cancer screenings a year, but I guess they don’t care about those lives, since cervical cancer is usually caused by HPV, and they can convince themselves those women brought their deaths on themselves.) Even though we’ve seen evidence of the anti-choice movement pushing for abstinence-only education and fighting the HPV vaccine and emergency contraception, in most of the media, the discussion is still incorrectly framed as fetus-centric.
And now the anti-choice has scored a major victory in the war on women’s health, amongst many other programs that help people that conservatives disapprove of, such as people who want to have more energy-efficient homes and women who have to work for a living and therefore can’t play unpaid preschool teacher to their kids. So I had to speak out. Conservative activists are dropping the word “abortion” a lot, because it performs well as a conversation-stopper that allows them to continue working against women without suffering too much investigation into their real aims, but this time, people aren’t fooled. Pap smears and condoms aren’t abortion. The anti-choice resistance to them makes it clear that the concern for fetuses is actually a concern that women are having sex without facing sadistic punishments that, in the past (and sadly still today) left them traumatized, mutilated, and often dead.
That era isn’t far enough in the past that women today really can take for granted all that we have, but I thought the best way to speak out against the encroachments on women’s rights was to talk about all the ways our lives have been quietly saved by doctors, nurses, and educators who give us the tools to be, as women always have been before us, sexually active without giving up our health and dreams. For most of us, having to live without birth control would have meant drastically different, sadder lives. How better than to highlight the radical nature of this move against Title X than to instigate a speak-out about how the biggest target—Planned Parenthood—helped us, usually in ways that the vast majority of the country finds completely non-controversial?
For this purpose, I started the Twitter hashtag #thanksPPFA, where people could talk about how Planned Parenthood had improved their lives. And for this purpose, when I stood up at the rally Saturday, what I did was tell a (very short) story: I had gone to a Catholic university, and the health center didn’t offer birth control. (Boooooo!, said the crowd, surprising me and then making me laugh.) So I went to Planned Parenthood, where I could afford it, and that clinic basically was my doctor for the next five years. And I spoke briefly about the stories that came out on Twitter, 140 characters at a time: women who finished school, married the right guy, had kids when they were ready, all because of Planned Parenthood. Women who are still with us, because their cervical cancer was caught by Planned Parenthood’s routine screening. Lives are saved every day, and it’s usually not remarked on, because most of us expect it will always be there.
But if the conservative movement gets its way, it won’t be there.
While Planned Parenthood is the touchstone for this outrage, people are standing up for more than just this one large organization. We’re standing up because we believe that women, gay people, poor people, people of color, young people, and people who fall outside the gender binary are just as much people as the rich straight white guys that dominate the ranks of those trying to shut down access to sexual health care. And as people, we have the same rights as those rich straight white guys to our health, to our hopes and dreams, to our relationships, and yes, to our sexual pleasures as they do. Planned Parenthood offers substantial services that save lives every day, but they’re also a symbol in this war over who gets to decide if The Rest Of Us are people, too. In the 21st century, are we going to expand the rights of man to all of us, or are we going to slide backwards to a time when only the few got access to what we all deserve?