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The State of Reproductive Rights in America

The State of Reproductive Rights in America

January 21, 2017, was an unusually warm, bright, sunny day despite the chilly air that resides in Chicago. The air felt a little bit fresher, the grass a little greener, and the people a little bit cheerier. Helicopters monitored the chaos from skies above, weaving in and out of skyscrapers to capture the footage of the astonishingly large group of people flooding the streets. Multicolored signs decorated the horizon of the clear blue sky with phrases like “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights” and “Our rights aren’t up for grabs.” January 21 was an unusual Saturday for many people around the world, for they most likely woke up that morning with no idea that they were on the brink of making history.

Just one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, those who participated in Women’s Marches around the globe erupted with a new sense of pride, despite the millions of people in America who feared that their rights were at stake with the new administration in the White House. The Women’s March in Washington D.C. had a crowd which ultimately ended up being three times as large as Trump’s inauguration crowd just the day before.

Similarly, Chicago’s Women’s March was one of the largest in the country. Illinois, a blue state surrounded by red ones, is a major Midwest hub for abortion rights and serves a diverse group of people for things such as transportation and funding. While reproductive rights like the right to choose and access to birth control have may be harmed on a major scale, smaller, local organizations in the city of Chicago also risk losing funding while needing to serve more women whose rights may be influenced by state laws.

Benita Ulisano worked a double shift at her organization so her volunteers could participate in the Women’s March. Ulisano is the founder and president of the Clinic Vest Project, an organization in Chicago run by volunteers who sign up for training that collaborates with organizations who escort patients to abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood. What started as Ulisano’s solo project in 2013 has now grown into a larger organization and officially became a nonprofit organization in 2014.

Ulisano fears for what is next to come from the Trump Administration.

Although she feels inspired by the positive efforts of people who participated in these Women’s Marches, she is “personally concerned” that abortion rights are in jeopardy with the new administration, especially since she has seen firsthand the effects of “Roe vs. Wade being chipped away over the last four decades.”

After fighting for women’s rights for the last two decades, Ulisano founded the Clinic Vest Project after learning that a childhood friend had died of an illegal abortion, and she continues to work for women’s rights in hopes that other women will never have to receive an illegal abortion and that they will have access to contraceptive health care. The Clinic Vest Project prepares volunteers to become escorts and helps them understand the fear that many women have when it comes to choosing to have an abortion. The organization also provides vests for volunteers: The Clinic Vest Project has sent vests to over 100 clinics in 36 states as well as locations in Canada.

Ulisano said that the response has been “unbelievable, and after starting off by sending a group in Indiana vests, word spread through social media which allowed our project to grow.”

“By word of mouth within the reproductive health communities, advocacy groups and social media, we keep growing!” she said with enthusiasm.

The Clinic Vest Project has sent vests as far as the United Kingdom, and even to clients in Belfast, Ireland.

Despite Ulisano’s concerns for the future of reproductive access in America, the positive responses that The Clinic Vest Project has received will continue to motivate her and the rest of the project’s volunteers to help patients feel safe, supported and comfortable. However, taking a look at these viewpoints more specifically, it’s important to understand that the majority of Americans (about six in 10, according to The Pew Research Center), believe that women should have access to safe abortion procedures.

A variety of factors influence a person’s beliefs about abortion. For example, views on abortion have continued to change over the years, according to studies conducted by Gallup. In 1978, just five years after Roe v. Wade (a 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to choose an abortion) was passed, 55 percent of Americans thought that abortion should be legal, only under certain circumstances. To see the shift in these views over time in America, view the graph below.

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In 2015, nearly 40 years later, 50 percent of Americans believed women should be allowed abortion access in only certain circumstances, with 29 percent believing it should be accessible under any circumstances and 19 percent still thinking it should be illegal in all circumstances. These statistics play a crucial role as to how people decided to vote in November’s presidential election: An issue like abortion is not black and white.

62 percent of Republicans believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared to 18 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of liberal Democrats, according to The Pew Research Center. With research representing this divide between political parties for years, it’s no surprise that a major part of Trump’s campaign was run on his position that abortion should be illegal, and that if he were to win the election, he would work on overturning Roe v. Wade. The final debate between Trump and Clinton landed just a few weeks before the election, taking place in Las Vegas (a liberal city in a conservative state). As if it could not be avoided any longer, the controversial topic of abortion was finally being discussed on the stage. Throughout the campaign, Clinton stated her opinion on the matter as pro-choice, a view considered radical among many voters, compared to Trump’s position on the topic.

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During the debate, Clinton stated, “I do not think that the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions…so you can regulate, if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account.”

Trump’s response was as follows:

If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.”

According to numbers from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than two percent of all abortions are performed after the second trimester. 91.6 percent of abortions occur before 13 weeks into the pregnancy, and only 7 percent of abortions took place after 14 weeks. These statistics were compiled during 2013, the most recent year of data on the CDC’s website. Abortions may happen after the third trimester if the mother’s health is at stake or if the baby is not going to survive after birth.  An example of this can be linked back to a story published on Jezebel last June, which describes a woman who decided to have an abortion at 32 weeks pregnant after finding out that her child would not be able to breathe outside the womb.  

Many Americans were left wondering how our country, one that once celebrated diversity, elected a person who ran his campaign on fear, racism, sexism and the phenomenon of “Fake News.” After an election night that left nearly half of Americans speechless, wondering where the future of America was headed, people of all races, socioeconomic status, gender and location were organizing to fight back to protect those whose rights would be at risk under new laws passed by the White House.

Schyler Horton, a 19-year-old student at DePaul University, expressed that participating in the march felt like a “no brainer” after being stunned by the outcome of the 2016 election. Horton was inspired by a former high school teacher, who traveled from South Carolina to Washington D.C. to participate in the capital’s Women’s March.

“I wanted to do something that was so much bigger than myself, but also for the women in my life. One of my mentors from high school left her three little girls to go march in Washington with her husband, and I remember thinking that if this woman could something so selfless, then so could I. I marched for her, her girls and for the future generations,” she said.

Just days before the election, The Economist and YouGov conducted a survey of more than 4,000 registered voters with results showing that 5 percent of voters were still unsure of whom they were going to vote for. 10 percent of these voters planned to cast their votes, but “not for either of the two major-party candidates.” On Election Day, Google was bursting at the seams with search terms like “Clinton’s views on” and “Trump’s views on” various issues that were at the forefront of the race.

Amazingly, the most Googled search term on Election Day was “Trump on abortion,” according to an article in The Washington Post. The same article states that by the late afternoon, that specific search had spiked more than 4,000 percent, taking precedence over search terms like “immigration,” “economy,” “ISIS” and more. To those who believe that women should have the right to access abortion, years of progress for women’s reproductive rights may unravel over the next four years (or in less time) with the new administration in the White House.

Newly inaugurated Vice President Mike Pence has been notoriously hard on the issue of reproductive rights and abortion while serving as the Governor of Indiana. Pence “signed the most abortion-restrictive regulations in the nation, banning abortion even in cases where the fetus has a ‘genetic abnormality’ such as Down Syndrome.” The law also would have required women to view an ultrasound just hours before receiving an abortion. Fortunately for women’s rights activists and supporters, a federal judge blocked the law from being implemented in June 2016. Pence is also a co-author of the “Life at Conception Act,” which would “implement equal protection under the 14th article of amendment to the Constitution for the right to life of each born and preborn person,” and defines “legal personhood” as the beginning of fertilization.

Georgia Congressman Tom Price became Trump’s pick for Department of Health and Human Services in late September. In 2005 and 2007, Price co-sponsored bills titled “Right to Life Acts,” which “would have granted zygotes full legal protection under the Constitution from the moment of fertilization, effectively banning both emergency contraception and abortion. The bills were introduced but never voted on.” On top of these views, Price also opposes free birth control, even though studies show that more access to birth control reduces abortion rates. He also believes that employers should fire workers for using birth control or having an abortion.

For nearly 40 years, organizations like Planned Parenthood have been the subject of violent attacks made by people who oppose their work. The National Abortion Federation reports that there has been “more than 176,000 instances of picketing at clinics (and nearly 34,000 arrests) since 1977…more than 16,000 reported cases of hate mail or harassing phone calls, over 1,500 acts of vandalism and 400 death threats…there have been more than 200 bombings and arson attacks at facilities that offer abortions services,” according to a CNN article. The same statistics found by the NAF shows that the “first reported clinic arson occurred in 1976, three years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.”

With the fear that many women face when it comes to choosing an abortion also brings the worries of finding access to a clinic, getting there, and of course, being able to afford the procedures. The Midwest Access Coalition, based in Chicago, is a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 that helps fundraise for patients who travel to the Midwest to access safe and legal abortion. MAC started working with clients in January 2015. The funds that the organization raises go towards food, lodging, transportation or other expenses.

MAC was “founded upon the idea that individuals who are coming to the Midwest have needs for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy,” according to Marie Khan, who is the Director of Outreach. Khan is in charge of interacting with people who are interested in volunteering with the clinic or for those looking for more information about MAC to access abortions themselves. As a board member, Khan also helps make decisions about potential changes to policy.

Khan, a financial aid counselor at University of Illinois, Chicago, grew up in a  conservative town in Wisconsin. She didn’t spend her teenage years thinking about inequality or activism because she had a privileged upbringing. As she attended college and entered the real world, she started seeing more of these inequalities in her day to day life and in her career .

“For my first few decades of life, I wasn’t as involved. As the world has changed with political activities that had been occurring, I started paying more attention. I have volunteered before but this last year with everything that occurred, I wanted to be more involved,” she said.

There are many people in surrounding Midwest states that live in areas with more restrictive abortion laws, forcing them to reach out to organizations like MAC. People as far away as Alaska have reached out to the organization in hopes of utilizing their services. The most common states that patients travel from are Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. Regions of the United States where laws on abortion are restrictive like the deep South are other common areas where people are traveling from.

“Chicago is this hub that folks in surrounding states can come to,” Khan said.

Khan is concerned that reproductive rights and access to safe, legal abortions are at stake. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as Trump and his colleagues have publicly discussed attempting, there will be “real consequences for states that have abortion options and measures in place,” Khan said.

The more that organizations like Planned Parenthood are at risk, the more that these changes will “quickly trickle down to organizations like MAC.” These changes will be “detrimental for women’s health,” she said.

“Our client needs are going to ramp up. What’s going to happen when surrounding states become even more restrictive?” Khan asked.

Although Khan believes that access to safe abortion is a human right, she is aware that MAC does exist in contrast to a large population who does not support their mission.

“We are political in the sense that what we are doing has turned into a political issue.”

So, what happens if a person wants to receive access to reproductive care but cannot afford it? Organizations like the Chicago Women’s Health Center allow patients to pay what they can afford. Since the Chicago Women’s Health Center (CWHC) opened its doors in 1975, the organization has existed in the belief that “financial ability should not define anyone’s access to healthcare” and has “offered all services on a sliding fee scale…no one is denied services, regardless of ability to pay.”

CWHC was created with hopes of providing contraceptive health care to people who were often unable to afford expensive visits to doctors and monthly health care bills. Scout Bratt, the Outreach and Education Director, oversees “all of the educational programming that is taught in Chicago Public Schools and other community based organizations.” Bratt also “helps people connect with a variety of different health educators” and “ensures the curriculum being taught is medically accurate and feminist.”

Bratt is proud that the CWHC was one of the first counseling services in Chicago that embraced a feminist relational model.

“Feminist theory is an approach that seeks to involve the larger context of someone’s life in their analysis…we empower individuals who visit us to set their own goals while taking into account the oppression that inevitably weighs on them,” she said.

The Chicago Women’s Health Center stands out compared to other organizations because they will never turn a patient away because of their inability to pay. Since 1975, medical advances like advanced birth control methods and acceptance of gender identifications outside of the binary have helped the CWHC “meet more client needs in more of a direct way,” but Bratt believes we are still “working in a system that only values certain bodies.”

In regards to what lies ahead for reproductive rights, Bratt believes that limiting people’s access to comprehensive healthcare will bring “the demise of our society” and is concerned that education will not be as accessible to all types of people.

Bratt believes that “women should have the right to choose what is best for their bodies” and hopes that viewpoints on reproductive rights will improve, despite the turbulent era that is the Trump Administration.

“We need to make sure that we’re approaching healthcare from an intersectional lens…we need to ensure that reproductive justice and education is something that all people get a concept of in terms of education health and body awareness,” she said.

“Restricting one person’s potential in their life is detrimental to our larger society.”

As new laws are proposed in the White House that are potentially dangerous to the well-being of millions of people around the world, it’s important to look at how proposals are going to affect not only major organizations, but also smaller organizations like these three that operate in Chicago. The future of their work is not clear. As history shows, perceptions of controversial issues such as abortion change over time, and organizations like Planned Parenthood are prepared to fight to continue to serve millions of people, through trying times and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

 

Header image: Schyler Horton at the Women’s March in Chicago


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