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Ellen R. Shaffer Headshot

Celebrating Women's Day, Winning on Reproductive Rights

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Silence equals death.

California AIDS activists taught the world the power of plain and direct talk about gender bias and sexuality to save lives.

The ability to control whether and when to have a child are key to the physical, social and economic health of women and families, and access to legal, safe and affordable birth control and abortion are essential to guarantee that ability.

Currently, a barrage of extreme and punitive laws restricting these rights are streaming out of state legislatures and the House of Representatives. These shockingly offensive departures from the American mainstream demand bolder leadership by our elected officials, and concerted organizing by pro-rights advocates that engages and mobilizes the majority of the American public who are appalled by these assaults but will otherwise remain stunned into silence. Polling and politics as usual are not turning the tide.

Draconian restrictions on facilities that provide abortions in Texas have reduced their number from 44 in 2011 to 24 today. The number is expected to drop to 6 by September. Reports are already surfacing from Texas of women returning to desperate -- and deadly -- measures of self-abortions, like coat hangers and bleach.

Part of the problem is that the health consequences of the attacks are graphically real but have been surgically isolated to the most vulnerable in our society, by income, race and education. Unintended pregnancies and unplanned births are 5 to 6 times higher among women with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and also higher for women of color and those without a high school degree.

The odious Hyde Amendment, a congressional measure, prohibits federal funding for abortions. 35 states choose not to supplement Medicaid with state funds for abortions.

But its insidious effects extend to California. Although we use public funds to pay for abortions, and a range of family planning services, California's rate of unintended pregnancy is among the highest in the nation, on par with Mississippi and New York.

We must fund abortions. But we can't just can't just slip the money under the table. We need to inform and empower women and men to claim our rights to determine our futures. That includes understanding both our biology and the language we need to stick up for ourselves. The reality is that gender bias has repercussions for all of us, and that procreation involves both sexes.

In case we needed further motivation, opponents are now using the club of funding sources to threaten coverage for everyone. This year the House passed HR 7, that would prohibit private health insurance plans that get a drop of federal funds from covering abortions; this includes virtually all employers who get a tax break if they contribute to the cost of employees' health insurance.

In California two Jesuit universities unilaterally cancelled coverage for abortions in 2013 for their faculty.

The Supreme Court will hear cases on March 25 that could authorize your boss to cut off covering your birth control.

Some are genuflecting to the strategic wisdom of keeping a low public profile on the subject. They claim they can't campaign on abortion and birth control in 2014 because it's an election year. But 2015 will be the run-up to the presidential election. And then 2016 -- well, you know.

In other words: Chances are 100 percent that if political leaders refrain from taking action on this issue in 2014, we are doomed to live in the present for the foreseeable future.

The fact is, voters have demonstrated solid support at the state and local levels for access to legal, affordable reproductive health care services:

Florida voters defeated a state ballot initiative to prohibit public funding for abortions.

Mississippi voters defeated a statewide initiative to declare a fertilized egg a person, with 80 percent of black make voters leading the opposition vote.

Voters in Albuquerque defeated a proposal to outlaw most late-term abortions.

Otherwise vulnerable Democrats won in 2012 against challengers who revealed their Mad Hatter theories about rape and incest.

Virginia voters chose a machine Democrat as governor, defeating state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, an originator of rules forcing women to get -- and pay for -- invasive ultrasounds before proceeding with an abortion they've already decided to have.


We have the chance to do a solid: unite all of us to defend both the funding for reproductive health care, and the rights of all of us to enjoy it if we choose.

We can also prevent poor women from being forced by politicians who hate them to bear children they decide they don't want and can't afford, and then subjected to the further indignity of suffering cuts in their food stamps. Or worse, to die from self-induced abortions.

Leaders. muster up your moxie and campaign on women's rights and human rights. Opposing the Hyde Amendment would be a good start. We'll support you. Chances are good, we'll all win.