Last Thursday Jessica Luther and I attended a panel put on by the Texas Observer called “POLITICS BECOMES PERSONAL: The Fight for Women’s Health in Texas.” Jessica is a reproductive rights activist who maintains the tumblr blog “Keep Your Boehner Out of My Uterus” and tweets under the handle @scATX.
After the panel I asked her if she’d consider gchattin’ with me about it and she agreed. So here we are.
GARLAND: So, this Texas Observer panel we went to on Thursday…
GARLAND: What did you think? Generally? No pressure.
JESSICA: I have mixed feelings. I was glad that it took place. It’s very important that local communities are having discussions about the rollback of reproductive rights. I also thought that some of the ground covered was excellent. At the same time, I had problems with some of the rhetoric that was used, the way generations of activists were pitted against one another, and no real discussion of what to do moving forward.
GARLAND: I remember there were points during the talk that you looked as if you were internally screaming. Like when people would talk about having already won this particular battle during the 70’s.
JESSICA: Yes. I found that particular refrain of “We thought everything was fine in 1973 with Roe and look it all now” tiresome. Especially because the Hyde Amendment passed just years later and has had devastating effects on access to abortion ever since. It’s not as if it is our generation alone who has lost important political battles.
GARLAND: Also the sort of, I guess, silly questions about whether or not there would be a popular feminist uprising in support of choice like there was before Roe, when legislators have been careful to disproportionately attack the reproductive rights of marginalized populations, populations that Feminism doesn’t typically rise up in any number to be supportive of.
JESSICA: There was a problematic moment when the woman moderating the panel said something about how Feminism back in the 70s was simpler because it had a single focus. And she said it in such a way that implied that the movement was better for it, that Feminism then was more agile and able to get things accomplished. Of course, that kind of history of the movement denies the massive problems of intersectionality that historians and journalists have since drawn attention to – namely, the fact that it was a movement primarily of middle- and upper-class white women looking out for their own interests.
GARLAND: I know that you have a personal distaste for the “war on women” language that was flying around the room that evening, with one woman raising her hand to praise the language based on hearing a Republican strategist comment on how effective it was. It seemed like it underscored the false dichotomy of that earlier statement: we can either care about everyone or we can win. Which totally worked for the 2nd wave because here we are, in this gender utopia.
JESSICA: Even the woman who spoke about the importance of intersectionality spent a fair amount of time praising the term “war on women,” which is a term that actively excludes people who aren’t cis women but are just as (or more so) deeply affected by anti-choice legislation and ideas. I was glad that there was discussion about doing intersectional social justice activism (in this case, specifically in reproductive rights movement) without diluting the message. Yet, I feel that even the idea that intersectionality dilutes our message is false and plays into conservative beliefs about how the world works. When we use the language of “war on women” because it is politically expedient in talking to conservatives about these issues at the expense of denying the existence and struggle of trans* and non-binary people, what social justice activism are we actually doing? And why are we watering down the reality and lived experience of other people in order to make conservatives feel more comfortable in this conversation? I can’t get behind the “War on Women” because that is simply too narrow a term for who is actually being affected. But I’m also not sure how to talk about this at a local meeting about reproductive rights rollbacks.
GARLAND: The most important part of the evening, I felt, was Carolyn Jones’ retelling of her experience with the abortion restrictions set in place by the Texas Legislature. I actually saw my vision narrow to a pinpoint while she was speaking as she described having medically inaccurate information forced on her, having to endure the description of the fetus, and being forced to be traumatized and humiliated and then wait 24 hours with a private decision she had already made. I think we tend to compartmentalized abortion when fighting for reproductive rights, thinking about abortion restrictions and patient harassment and TRAP laws as if they were separate and forget that for the people seeking abortions this is a continuous experience with a very real and malicious gauntlet designed to make them feel powerless and give up.
JESSICA: Jones’ story is so important and she is so brave to not only write about it but to speak about it publicly. Late-term abortions are still so incredibly taboo. My friend wrote a piece for my blog over a year ago about her late-term abortion and it is easily the most widely-read post on my site specifically because people who have second-trimester abortions have no way of knowing what that experience will be since we, as a society, never talk about it. So those going through it search out other people’s stories on the internet. And while Jones’ case may be the extreme in terms of when in her pregnancy she got the abortion, her experience under the anti-choice laws is one that a large amount of people in this state will face in order to get a legal medical procedure. These laws drive up cost, make access very difficult (especially for low-income Texans), and are designed to make patients feel ashamed of their decision every step of the way. Yet when you hear someone tell their abortion story, it immediately complicates the picture, makes it harder to judge people who get abortions, and shows how these laws serve no purpose other than to emotionally punish a very specific population of people (a population that many of us could easily be a part of).
GARLAND: There was that moment when someone in the audience began to speak about intersectionality and the moderator mentioned forming alliances, which sort of puts the onus back on each individual group, and Dr. Smith talked about how alliances can only happen if both parties are on equal footing. I don’t really think the majority of the audience understood the point she was making — a think a lot of them think that the end of the process of inclusion in Feminism is for there to be a person of color on the panel, whether or not they get as much time to speak as their white counterparts, whether or not they are treated as a niche or specialty voice.
JESSICA: Dr. Smith’s presence on the panel was interesting. The other three panelists were white women as was the moderator of the panel. And there was a strange moment when after the three white women had each talked and the moderator threw out a question to the entire panel. I felt a moment of panic because I thought perhaps they were not going to give Dr. Smith time to talk as well. That turned out to not be true and my panic was premature. And while I loved what Dr. Smith said about intersectionality (I enjoyed her comments the most), it is disheartening that the burden of introducing and pushing that topic fell onto the shoulders of the single woman of color on the panel. It’s not enough that she was there. Her presence on the panel was treated as a token in many ways which made it seem like what she was saying was not a concern except for people of color and others who are not typically included the larger conversation – that intersectionality is not a major issue. I fear that people in the audience who aren’t as familiar with discussions of intersectionality would not see her contribution as central to the discussion. It was amazing and sad to watch those racial dynamics play out subtly on stage.
GARLAND: I loved what she said about the attack on reproductive rights being an attack on marginalized and oppressed bodies, especially bodies of color. I also loved the woman who stood up in the back to talk about religious communities, although when she said she represented women who were prochoice but would never have an abortion themselves a sad emoticon blinked into my soul for a few seconds. There is just something about that qualified support that a) makes me really, really happy because frankly we need all the help we can get and b) makes me equally sad that the other side has moved the moral fulcrum of the debate so far that some people can only support a private medical procedure by distancing themselves from the people who would choose to make it. And in the process, place themselves somewhat above those people, which ignores that fact that you can’t cleave the world into smart, conscientious people and reckless abortion-seekers and that what they’re actually saying is “I know I have a right to a choice, but would never exercise it, even if it were in the best interest of myself or my family.”
JESSICA: Yes. That language of “I support abortion but wouldn’t get one” is part of the conservative agenda to make abortion shameful and each time a pro-choicer participates in it, it simply reifies this anti-choice idea. While one can personally feel like that (though no one – NO ONE – knows what will happen to them in the future), saying that out loud serves two purposes: 1) to show that you do think there’s shame in abortion and 2) to position yourself higher on a moral hierarchy than people who get abortions (and, of course, that woman said that in a room where Carolyn Jones had already told her abortion story). That language does not help the pro-choice movement in any way. I will say that I appreciate how many people spoke up as pro-choice supporters and as active members in their religious communities. One of the panelists remarked that the reproductive rights movement does not do enough to include those voices in their protest and I think that’s true. I did love your intervention in the discussion of the morality of abortion, Garland. I think what you said about how necessary it is for pro-choice advocates to stop ceding the moral ground to anti-choicers and to say vocally that what we do is moral and is about saving and protecting lives is vitally important right now.
GARLAND: Like I said that evening, that was the tack that finally brought me around from milquetoast support of choice to demanding abortion on demand without apology. I think as long as a person is going around and around about “when life begins” it can seem like a distant philosophical question and as long as they’re clinging to the idea that there are babies that they are courageously saving, they are intellectually pliable. Yes, there are some people who think that if a person dies during an abortion procedure and their children are left orphans that that person was a dead slut who got what they deserved, but I don’t think that describes everyone who currently identifies as “pro-life.” I think there is a large portion of the movement that is moveable on this issue, if we could shift the conversation away from fictitious magical unicorn babies to the consequences of blocking abortion access for real people.
JESSICA: Right. One of the problems with the current pro-choice movement is that we have ceded the moral argument. Therefore, we are always working from the defensive, trying to skirt around the “kill the babies” argument because we are fearful of answering for it. It seems to me that for many former anti-choicers, when they discuss why they moved positions, it involves hearing someone’s personal tale. When someone, like Carolyn Jones, tells their abortion story, it forces the reader/listener to acknowledge that abortion is not uncomplicated or that the people who get them cannot be painted with a broad brush. It is in the telling of these personal stories when the morality of the pro-choice position speaks for itself. Dr. Hopkins talked about that moment in her class when, after showing the Frontline piece about abortion, a young male student said, “I’d never thought about abortion from the woman’s perspective before.”
GARLAND: I think one of the most important things we could do is to continually find ways to make pro-choice people proud and forthright about their beliefs, to puff them up with moral superiority and FACTS and send them out into the world with the conviction that abortion isn’t shameful, not even a little, that supporting abortion is not merely the right thing to do but opposing abortion is morally obscene, and that anyone who questions these two premises is more invested in self-righteousness than they are in human lives. I think if we could drain the residual shame from the movement and create activists who aren’t simply pro-choice but who understand that being “pro-life” is a symptom of not knowing what the fuck you’re talking about and not giving a damn as long as you can think of yourself as morally superior, we could move this fight toward a decisive victory.
JESSICA: What you just wrote is part of why I feel frustration at events like this panel we attended or at the War on Women rally this past weekend at the state capitol, which I also went to. Even as people are getting mad, and vocally so, we aren’t moving the discussion in any way that will help long-term in winning this so-called war. It’s not enough to be having a discussion; we need to be having serious conversations about what is next, where we go from here, how we become the offense in this fight instead of constantly operating from the defensive. Yes, voting matters, very much so. At same time, things are so bad right now that we are simply voting for people who won’t deny us access to birth control, not those who will truly fight for our reproductive rights.
GARLAND: I’m actually really glad we went to that meeting, because it sort of relit my pilot light on this issue. I remember that thing you said a while back about reproductive rights activism sometimes feeling like you’re shouting in a soundproof room, especially since we’re sliding backwards as a country on reproductive rights and this bullshit is being exported to other countries, and it is so, so true. It can become overwhelming very quickly, and it helps to be reminded of how completely the argument for choice crushes the other side.
JESSICA: I agree. Attending the panel and the rally make me more aware of the general discussion outside of my activist cocoon. I look forward to the next conversation about this.