When I tell people that I work on reproductive rights, most immediately assume I'm engaged in partisan election battles. "Nope," I respond, "I'm working to get reproductive rights out of politics."
The idea that this issue could ever be extricated from the heated political debates currently on display strikes most people as improbable, if not downright unrealistic. It shouldn't.
Consider some of the other bedrock rights and liberties that, despite the battles that have been fought to secure them in the past, most Americans do not regard as matters of political controversy. We do not, for example, wake up the day after an election and worry that the government will censor our Facebook entries, or that we'll find our houses of worship shut down. We don't fear that the results of one election will mean that we will never be able to cast another ballot.
And we should not wake up the day after an election worrying that our doctors will be driven out of practice or prevented from using their training and best medical judgment to provide the care that's right for us.
But for woman of every age, this last point is a matter of serious concern. Changes in the political landscape bring with them a veritable avalanche of state and federal laws aimed at curtailing reproductive rights and choking off access to reproductive health care, often by targeting those astonishingly few doctors who still offer a full range of services. (As of 2012, almost 90 percent of America counties do not have a single abortion provider.)
During the first three weeks of the 112th Congress alone, 19 different pieces of legislation aimed at restricting reproductive freedom were introduced nationwide -- including multiple efforts to strip Planned Parenthood of funding and three so-called "personhood" amendments, which would grant every fertilized human egg the full legal rights and protections of a person and, as a result, not only outlaw abortion but also ban some widely used forms of contraception entirely, and threaten fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization. On the state level, more than 60 laws damaging women's access to reproductive health care were passed last year. And in just the first six months of 2012, 15 states passed approximately 40 additional laws making clear that animosity toward women and their doctors remains unbridled. Even birth control has become a political football, as ferocious arguments rage around a new and much-needed requirement under U.S. health care law that contraceptives be covered by insurance without co-pay.
In many cases, courts have stepped in to ensure that shifting political winds don't sweep women away with them, holding fast to the principle that fundamental rights are not subject to a vote or determined by whichever party happens to be in office. And the places in which these rights have been protected most fiercely may come as some surprise.
Take North Dakota, for example. In February of this year, a state judge there blocked a law aimed at banning drugs that serve as a critical alternative to surgical abortion on the grounds that, under North Dakota law, "women's fundamental rights include the freedom to have an abortion."
Likewise, the Oklahoma Supreme Court voted unanimously in April 2012 to strike a "personhood" initiative from the state ballot this fall, ruling that its implicit threat to reproductive freedom was impermissible under the state constitution and "repugnant to the Constitution of the United States."
These are hardly states -- or judiciaries -- known for their radicalism. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that among the many judges across the country who have struck down reproductive health care restrictions, there isn't one who harbors some personal misgivings about abortion. And yet they have found a constitutional right to autonomy in reproductive decision-making that surpasses such misgivings, and that they have deemed worthy of safeguarding against politicians' attempts to curtail it.
This is how Americans, at our best, have long regarded the fundamental rights of our fellow citizens. I can disagree wholeheartedly with what you are saying and still cherish our common right to free speech. We need not share one another's dogmas to value freedom of religion, and we need not support the same candidates to be united in our appreciation for the right to vote.
We would be wise to follow the example of our independent judiciary and adopt a similar stance toward reproductive rights -- and to call on our political leaders on both sides of the aisle to do the same.
Only when these rights are protected as the fundamental rights that they are will women be able to set aside our fears and rest assured that as elections come and go, our rights will not come and go with them.
Follow Nancy Northup on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReproRights