Category Archives: National politics

The Right to Choose for All? Abortion Access for Low-Income Americans

As patients shuffle in and out of the Planned Parenthood health center in Boston, 69-year-old John Russo paces outside the Commonwealth Avenue clinic. Around his neck, a black sign hangs; it reads, “PRAY TO END ABORTION.”

Russo, a retired engineer from Norwood, Massachusetts, is in the last week of a biannual 40-day campaign protesting Planned Parenthood. He has been been doing this for three and a half years, along with his wife, for the Boston branch of 40 Days for Life, an international organization that aims to end abortion with prayers, vigils and community outreach.

“I’m hoping that by being out here, I can raise enough awareness to make people not want to have an abortion,” Russo said. “So we’re here to make it unthinkable versus illegal.”

For many women, though, what is unthinkable is being forced to remain pregnant when they do not want to be—for health, financial, emotional or other personal reasons. Though the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide more than 40 years ago, the procedure continues to be stigmatized, and American women face increasingly strict regulations to abortion access.

As Russo protests outside Planned Parenthood, scholars gather at Boston University less than a mile down Commonwealth Avenue for a roundtable event titled, “Legal, Structural and Stigma-Related Restrictions on Reproductive Justice.” Bayla Ostrach, an assistant professor in the Boston University School of Medicine, says that abortion stigma is especially harmful for marginalized groups—in particular, low-income women—who already struggle with access.

“If you also layer on a lack of race and class privilege, poverty…anything else that is going to make it harder for them to access resources, [abortion stigma] is just going to compound that,” said Ostrach, who studies reproductive anthropology and abortion access.

Roe recognizes reproductive control  

The constitutional right to abortion stems from Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that criminalizing abortion in the early stages of pregnancy was unconstitutional.  

Left, Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, stands on the steps of the Supreme Court with her lawyer Gloria Allred in 1989. Photo courtesy (cc) Lorie Shaull

Jessica Silbey, a Northeastern School of Law professor, said Roe was the first time that the court recognized the importance of a woman’s right to control her reproduction. Silbey studies constitutional law with a focus in reproductive justice, and represented the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts as a full-time litigator.

“Roe v. Wade was a case that basically confirmed what most women who engaged in heterosexual sex, whether by choice or not, knew to be true about their life—which is that controlling whether or not you are a parent was essential to freedom,” Silbey said.

When asked about whether he wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, Russo said he was less concerned with shaping laws and more focused on changing people’s minds.

“I think you have to be careful when you think about laws. Laws don’t govern morality. It’s the other way around,” Russo said. “Our morality generates the laws that we have.”

At the roundtable event, Ostrach also used a morality argument—but in favor of abortion access.

“Denying someone a wanted abortion is clearly unethical,” Ostrach said. “It exposes that person to increased risk for reproductive harm, and increased risk for ending up in poverty and increased risk for being in an abusive relationship years later.”

Hyde restricts federal funds

Though he is less interested with the legal side of the debate, Russo said he did not believe the government should support and pay for abortions.

“If we live in a society that says, supports and pays for a woman, encourages a woman, to bring her child here to have its life ended, then what does that say about the rest of our culture?” Russo said. “It doesn’t say anything good.”

Russo’s implication that the government pays for abortions, however, is misleading. Ostrach said similar calls to defund Planned Parenthood and pull taxpayer money out of abortion services were a distraction technique meant to drum up abortion stigma.

The Hyde Amendment already prevents people from using Medicaid—a federally-funded health care program for people in poverty—to pay for their abortions. There are exceptions if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or if it was conceived as a result of rape or incest, but Ostrach emphasized that even cases that fall under those exceptions are sometimes denied.

People in poverty can only use Medicaid to cover their abortions if a state provides its own funding—17 of which currently do.

This map from 2009 shows 16 states that provide Medicare funding for abortions. Since then, South Dakota has also joined the list. Dark blue represents states that provide it through legislation, while the others are through court orders. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2009 American Civil Liberties Union, Wikimedia Commons

“Most people in the United States, if they’re in poverty, still have to come up with money to pay out of pocket for an abortion,” Ostrach said. “And that’s because of the Hyde Amendment.”

Though the Hyde Amendment poses a significant challenge for low-income women, it has not qualified as an undue burden—which the Supreme Court ruled states cannot impose on women’s access to abortion in the 1992 case Casey v. Planned Parenthood.

What the court says is that inability to exercise your choice is not the state’s doing. The state didn’t create that hurdle, that hurdle can from someplace else,” Silbey said. “I find this incredibly troubling and a twisted way of understanding how class and poverty work to restrict women’s choices.”

The real costs of abortion

What affects low-income women more than the cost of the abortion procedure, which Silbey said ranges from $250 to $500, are the costs associated with traveling to the clinic—some of which are up to 300 miles away.

Restrictions have tightened around the country, with some states now requiring multiple visits days apart for an abortion. This means women are tasked with taking more time off work, paying for nights in hotels and spending more money on childcare (as more than 60 percent of women who terminate a pregnancy already have at least one child).

“For women in parts of the country where clinics are not easily accessible, within an hour or two drive for example, and where the states require multiple visits, those women who tend to be non-urban working-poor or poor are deeply affected by (these regulations),” Silbey said. “And they often don’t have abortions.”

Even in states that provide Medicaid funding, low-income women worry over basic costs associated with accessing their abortions, Ostrach said.

“People have said to me, ‘You know, I knew I was going to have that Medicaid coverage by the time it finally came through…I knew the abortion would be paid for. What I didn’t know was how I was going to eat while I was there,’” Ostrach said.

Victimization in abortion access   

When it comes to abortion access, Russo said he sees multiple victims.

“There’s the unborn child who loses its life. There’s the mother,” Russo said. “And there’s also the family.”

But for people who have worked closely with women trying to access abortion, they see health care barriers and abortion stigma as the causes of victimization. Ostrach and Silbey understand that abortion access is the difference between freedom and second-class citizenship.

“A legal or high-quality abortion is one of the safest and most common medical procedures performed,” Ostrach said. “That’s why it’s ridiculous that it’s not on this list of sort of essential services provided by all health care plans.”

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As US tightens abortion regulations, Canada makes abortion more accessible

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The Canadian province New Brunswick will soon offer an abortion pill for free. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2006 Alex Indigo

The Canadian province New Brunswick announced last week that it would start providing the abortion pill Mifegymiso—typically valued at $300—to women in the province for free.

The move is an effort by the Canadian health department to reduce financial barriers to abortion and to make abortion more accessible for women who live in rural parts and cannot make the trip to clinics. Surgical abortions are already covered under the provincial health plan.

“By making Mifegymiso available free of charge for all New Brunswick women, our government is ensuring that financial barriers do not stand in the way of a woman’s right to choose,” Health Minister Victor Boudreau said.

This moves stands in stark contrast to how American states have taken to regulating abortions in their jurisdictions. Instead of making it more accessible, it seems conservative U.S. lawmakers have tried to implement every barrier imaginable—especially for low-income women. These include but are not limited to: mandatory waiting periods, mandatory counseling and required ultrasound viewings.

Coverage for abortion varies across provinces, but the Canada Health Act generally covers the cost of abortion for Canadian citizens, with some clinics implementing their own additional fees.

Meanwhile in the United States, Medicaid—which provides health insurance for those under the poverty line—cannot be used to pay for abortion. Yet every day, conservative Republican lawmakers and evangelical activists fight to “Defund Planned Parenthood”—which, in practice, would really look like stripping funds for cancer screenings and tests and treatments for sexually-transmitted infections including HIV.

It’s worth noting that as American state governments do everything in their power to put up obstacles for women trying to exercise their constitutional right to choose, the Canadian government has gone in the opposite direction, doing everything in its power to make sure women can practice that right if they choose to do so.

A small victory for reproductive rights: GOP health care bill defeated

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House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the GOP health care bill from the floor Friday. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2011 Gage Skidmore 

The GOP health care bill that threatened to repeal the Affordable Care Act and strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding was pulled from the House floor Friday without a single vote being cast.

The move was a crushing defeat for President Donald J. Trump, who requested that Speaker Paul Ryan remove the bill after it became apparent that Republicans did not have enough votes to pass it. A portion of the bill sought to bar patients from using Medicaid payments to access a range of services offered by abortion providers, including contraceptives, cervical and breast cancer screenings and tests and treatments for sexually-transmitted infections including HIV. It is already illegal for American women to use federal funds to pay for abortions under the Hyde Amendment of 1976.

The bill’s failure was a small, temporary victory for Planned Parenthood and women’s clinics across the country. Unfortunately, the health care bill was just one of many legislative proposals targeting women’s rights and bodily autonomies.

Just a day before the bill’s defeat, a photo tweeted by Vice President Mike Pence managed to simultaneously capture the issue with the GOP’s health care bill, while enraging a number of Twitter users.

The photo shows Pence meeting with the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative House members, to encourage the passing of the bill. The issue that the Twitter world was quick to point out? There is not one woman in the room to discuss proposed legislation that would significantly infringe upon women’ reproductive rights. It also doesn’t appear that a single person of color is present.

It seems that the Grand Old Party has already tired of health care reform, but staffers at Planned Parenthood likely aren’t breathing any sighs of reliefs. After all, it’s not a matter of if there will be another attack on women’s health and rights, but when.

And when the next challenge does come, it will probably come from a room looking a lot like the one our vice president proudly tweeted out.

Canadian prime minister stands up for women’s health

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves a gay Pride flag. / Photo (cc) 2011 Justin Ling

International women’s health organizations received a helping hand from everyone’s favorite prime minister earlier this month.

Throughout the semester, I’ve been writing about the Mexico City Policy—an executive order that President Donald J. Trump signed just three days after his inauguration that cut off federal funds to nongovernmental organizations that perform or provide information on abortions.

Since the Mexico City Policy—also known as the “global gag rule”—was enacted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, it has been repealed by every successive Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican president.

The policy is expected to cause a shortfall in NGO funding of $600 million over the next four years. Earlier this month, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, held a last-minute international conference to raise money for the NGOs that would be affected by Trump’s executive order. They raised $190 million—still less than half of what was needed to bridge the gap.

That’s where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swooped in. Trudeau pledged $650 million over the next three years for women’s reproductive health and sex education worldwide.

Thankfully, NGOs now won’t be too affected by the Mexico City Policy. While our president aimed to sever women’s health rights abroad, condemning millions to unwanted motherhood and sometimes even death, Trudeau stepped in and proved that he is the progressive hero this world needs right now.

The GOP health care bill is a serious danger to reproductive health

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican, champions the GOP health care bill. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2012 Tony Alter

In the wake of a damning report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the U.S. House of Representatives moved forward with a Republican health care bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) and gut Planned Parenthood of its federal funding.

Specifically, the bill would bar patients from using Medicaid at Planned Parenthood to receive contraceptives, cervical and breast cancer screenings and tests and treatments for sexually-transmitted infections including HIV. American women already can not use federal funds to pay for abortions under the Hyde Amendment of 1976.

The bill narrowly passed the House Budget Committee with a vote of 19-17 on Thursday. The next step is for the bill to be voted on by the House Rules Committee. The vote came just three days after a report by CBO, a nonpartisan analysis office for the U.S. Congress, found that 24 million fewer Americans would be insured by 2026 under the GOP health care plan.

Planned Parenthood is not taking the bill lying down.

“The fact is, one in five women in America has relied on Planned Parenthood, and their health care shouldn’t get caught up in Republican leadership’s’ extreme agenda,” Dana E. Singiser, the vice president for public policy and government affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Thursday. “There’s a reason so many members of Congress have faced angry town halls back at home: The American people do not want to see their health care taken away.”

The passage of the bill specifically targeting abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood is the only part of the bill that deviates from tackling the Affordable Care Act directly.

It should go without saying that having 24 million less people insured would be disastrous for the country. Access to affordable health care should be considered a basic human right. No one should be dying from easily preventable diseases, and the situation is especially mind-boggling in a developed, industrialized country such as the United States that clearly has the resources to treat its people.

The pointed attack of Planned Parenthood by GOP lawmakers is equally egregious. For many Americans, Planned Parenthood may be the only way to access reproductive health services. In addition to its affordability for low-income patients, 54 percent of Planned Parenthoods are in areas where there is a shortage of health care professionals, namely in rural areas. Additionally, Planned Parenthood provides sexual and reproductive health care and information to nearly 5 million women, men and teens annually.

Why do Republican congresspeople seem to be on a mission to strip their constituents of life-saving health care? If politicians truly cared about the health and well-being of American women and men, then they would leave the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood alone.

Planned Parenthood supporters, elected officials to rally in the Common

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Stickers from a Planned Parenthood rally in New York City / Photo (cc) 2011 Women eNEws

Health providers, patients and supporters of Planned Parenthood, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III and City Councilor at-Large Ayanna Pressley, will rally in the Boston Common Saturday morning against nationwide efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers.

The rally was planned by the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts after a leaked draft of the U.S. House bill set to repeal the Affordable Care Act also included a provision to revoke the use of federal funds toward institutions that perform abortions. The Hyde Amendment already prevents federal money from funding abortion services, but, if passed, this new law would prevent patients from using Medicaid to pay for any services any Planned Parenthood–including breast and cervical cancer screenings, contraceptives and tests and treatments for sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV.

According to a press release from Planned Parenthood, 9,300 patients currently rely on Medicaid to pay for those services at Planned Parenthood health centers each year. Those disproportionately affected would be low-income people of color and people in rural communities, according to the release.

“The majority of Americans and Massachusetts voters support Planned Parenthood and do not want patients blocked from care,” Planned Parenthood said in a statement. “Massachusetts residents will make their voices heard at Saturday’s rally and make clear they are prepared to stop these attacks, protect Planned Parenthood and defend access to reproductive health and rights

The legacy of Norma McCorvey

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Left, Norma McCorvey with her lawyer Gloria Allred on the Supreme Court steps in 1989. / Photo courtesy (cc) 2017 Lorie Shaull 

Norma McCorvey, better known as the anonymous plaintiff Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade (1973)died Saturday at 69 years old from heart failure. McCorvey is a controversial figure in the abortion rights movement at best: She was the impetus for the national legalization of abortion, yet she would end up working the rest of her life to overturn the landmark Supreme Court case.

Whether you love her or hate her, there are two indisputable things about McCorvey: one, she did not have an easy life and, two, she was used by pro- and anti- abortion activists alike.

McCorvey’s obituary in The New York Times expanded more on some of the hardships she faced throughout her life:

Her early life had been a Dickensian nightmare. By her own account, she was the unwanted child of a broken home, a ninth-grade dropout who was raped repeatedly by a relative, and a homeless runaway and thief consigned to reform school. She was married at 16, divorced and left pregnant three times by different men. She had bouts of suicidal depression, she said.

Ms. McCorvey gave up her children at birth and was a cleaning woman, waitress and carnival worker. Bisexual but primarily lesbian, she sought refuge from poverty and dead-end jobs in alcohol and drugs.

She was 22 and pregnant when she joined the abortion rights struggle, claiming later that she had not really understood what it was all about. When she emerged from anonymity a decade later, strangers shrieked “baby killer” and spat at her. There were death threats. One night, shotgun blasts shattered the windows of her home.

After the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision—which was three years after she birthed a child she gave up for adoption, the pregnancy at the center of the court case—McCorvey worked in women’s clinics, joined pro-abortion marches and was the center of countless documentaries and newspaper articles.

In the late 1990s, McCorvey was baptized as a born-again Christian after striking up an unlikely friendship with a reverend who protested the clinic she worked at.

“I am dedicated,” McCorvey said in a 1998 Senate hearing, “to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” In a 2012 Florida TV advertisement, she urged Americans not to vote for Barack Obama because he “murders babies.”

Truthfully, McCorvey was never the ideal spokesperson for either side of the abortion movement. But that’s because McCorvey was more than a perfect symbol to be paraded around by feminists or the religious right. She was a human being who was flawed and contradictory

And no one knew that better than McCorvey herself, who wrote (pre-conversion) in her 1994 book “I am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade and Freedom of Choice”:

“I wasn’t the wrong person to become Jane Roe. I wasn’t the right person to become Jane Roe. I was just the person who became Jane Roe, of Roe v. Wade. And my life story, warts and all, was a little piece of history.”