Backtalk: Why Choice Matters
OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS, I HAVE ORGANIZED AND participated in rallies in support of women’s reproductive rights. As a Catholic woman, I have tried to explain my strong support of reproductive freedom by telling the stories of women I know and love. With the new Republican anti-choice majority, abortion-rights supporters must prepare for one of their toughest battles. It’s imperative that the pro-choice movement reeducate and empower the masses to go on the political offense.
Frances Kissling, the well-known and respected leader of Catholics for a Free Choice, recently sent me an interesting letter in which she shared her thoughts on the fight to save Roe v. Wade. Kissling, like other pro-choice advocates, is right to proactively frame the political debate— redefining the frayed strategies of our movement and devising a long-term vision of what reproductive freedom means for all Americans.
Kissling needs the support of pro-choice leaders to initiate this important national dialogue on the accessibility to a full range of reproductive-health services in a way that captivates the majority of Americans—especially those in support of reproductive rights.
Most Americans continue to believe that abortion is a matter of privacy. But with impending legislative and court battles, this message must be articulated in a way that will resonate with the greater masses.
The Bush administration has played politics with women’s lives, from reimposing the global gag rule to seeking medical records of women who have sought reproductive-health services. They have been successful in packing the federal courts with anti-choice judges and they will try to do the same in the Supreme Court when there is a vacancy.
With more vocal conservatives now in firm control of Congress, brave Democrats will begin to work with the anti-choice majority to seek some middle ground. Before this occurs, we must proactively stake our claim to the principle of freedom, and hold firm to our values. We must define the issues this time, instead of remaining on the defensive. We must control the dialogue and message.
The language used in defending our support of abortion rights makes some pro-choice supporters uncomfort-able in discussing the issue. I know why many of these lawmakers have become weary.
As a black woman and abortion-rights activist (and former board member of Voters for Choice), I have found myself standing alone in church looking for ways to bridge the informational and cultural divide. Leaders of the reproductive- rights movement must work with civil rights leaders to help educate all Americans before it’s too late. Now that the right-wing extremists have entered our houses of worship, at the invitation of several black clergy, we must speak up.
Reproductive rights, as embraced by many black women leaders, means “the right to the full range of contraceptive services and appropriate information about reproduction.” It means the right to “choose not to have a child or the right to choose to have a child.” The bottom line is we believe in the right to reproductive health and to make our own reproductive choices. This is something our parents and grandparents understood because they did not control their own bodies.
The best way to stop the religious right from moving into our pulpits and pushing their agenda to restrict and overturn abortion rights (as well as civil rights) is for women leaders to work more aggressively in defining our values and speaking with conviction on matters involving our own bodies.
For starters, it’s time we retell our stories. One of my friends in Oregon recently wrote me a letter in which he recalled growing up in a small town in the days of back-alley doctors and coat hangers. Billy wrote about the women who died and those who were scarred for life. “I never want to see women treated like that again,” he said. Billy is right. No one wants to go back, but unless we tell our stories now, the enemies of choice will continue to “own the story” that is being told to the American people.
We can win the battle over words. We can win the battle for the courts. We can win the heart and soul of the American people on the issue of reproductive freedom. All of this can be accomplished in a manner that will not allow our message to be misinterpreted and construed by anti-choice extremists as further evidence in support of their unwavering position. Let’s renew our commitment to fight and, this time, to win for the majority.
Donna Brazile is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Ms. Magazine.