Reproductive justice matters to our cultural sector

Philadelphia rally speakers warn that the battle for abortion rights is coming to Pennsylvania

6 minute read
View from the middle of a crowd of hundreds, facing forward with the crowd. They wave signs at the base of City Hall.
An October 2 rally for abortion rights drew hundreds of protesters to City Hall. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Roe v. Wade is already dead, lawyer and longtime women’s rights activist Kathryn Kolbert warned a crowd of hundreds rallying for reproductive rights at Philadelphia City Hall last Saturday. “It’s very, very likely that the Supreme Court will allow states to ban abortion. All 50 states,” she said.

After attending Saturday’s rally myself, I quickly interacted with three people who were understanding Kolbert’s warning for the first time. They didn’t realize the battle over abortion access in Texas is not merely a troubling curiosity to folks living in more liberal states. The speakers at City Hall, including health-care workers and elected officials, took a grim but energizing tack: especially as gubernatorial and state judicial elections loom, people in Pennsylvania who need abortion care may soon face barriers as serious as the ones in Texas (and many other states)—unless voters act.

We’re marching now because the Supreme Court convenes this week and will soon hear a case that could overturn the long-established constitutional right to abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb. Next year, if and when the stridently conservative Supreme Court majority rules that people do not have a right to abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy, dozens of states are poised to enact laws that will effectively eliminate abortion access in huge swaths of the US.

Beyond today’s battle

Especially when I remember that the vast majority of the crowd at City Hall last Saturday were women, I realize that we must take a broader lens to the current abortion-rights struggle, a lens including the cultural sector that BSR serves. Many people don’t understand that the battle over abortion access is probably coming to every state, and they also may not understand that the principles underlying abortion rights apply to everyone’s lives.

The 1973 Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of a woman’s right to abortion were working within a venerable constitutional framework: the right to privacy. The term “privacy” doesn’t appear in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but these founding documents do guarantee that the government can’t force us to billet soldiers in our homes, search our bodies or our houses without cause, or arrest us without due process.

The ongoing extrapolation of these constitutional protections (in legal parlance, called the “shadow” or “penumbra” of the amendments) underlies landmark court cases throughout the 20th century. If you or a partner use contraception, or you have a living will specifying your end-of-life decisions, thank court cases like Roe v. Wade that continued to specify our constitutional right to privacy. Many important current and future controversies will test these principles, including the use of your online data, or whether insurance companies can see your genetic blueprint.

“The right to privacy is about defining the proper relationship between the individual and the government,” concludes an excellent explainer from Philly’s Annenberg Classroom. That question affects all of us, and reminds us why we need to pay attention when abortion access is in the news—even if we think it doesn’t affect us.

Abortion bans in practice

Another way to take a broader view of this controversy is to learn what extreme abortion restrictions actually do in practice. One speaker at Saturday’s rally shared her experience as a health-care provider navigating laws that allow abortion only for people whose lives are at stake. She described turning seriously ill women away from her office, leaving them to search for care hours away, or wait at home until they became even sicker. In the name of preventing abortion, that health-care policy forces pregnant people to wait until they’re “on the brink of death” before they get necessary care.

The same speaker also described what often happens to her Pennsylvania patients, who are barred by law from using their Medicaid or Affordable Care Act insurance to pay for an abortion. They skip a month’s rent, sell their scarce belongings, or cut back on food to afford their abortion.

In the big picture, that’s part of why we know abortion bans aren’t about religion or morality. “This is about political power” in an increasingly diversifying America, said Kolbert, who’s also the coauthor of Controlling Women: What We Must Do Now to Save Reproductive Freedom.

Restrictions like requiring patients to risk death or pay out of pocket despite having health insurance do not prevent abortions. They merely force delay and suffering—sickness, hunger, the threat of homelessness, or death—on people who need abortions. And this gets even worse when you consider that many people seeking abortions already have children.

Speaking without shame

Parents who have had abortions include City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who also spoke at Saturday’s rally. Her story as Philly’s first Working Families Party councilmember also reminds us that reproductive justice demands everyone’s attention.

“I saw a sign out here that says stop shaming women,” she said of why she decided to share her story with the crowd. Brooks had her first child at 17, and after that, spent five years attending the Community College of Philadelphia while working full-time as a nursing assistant. She became pregnant again, and knew that she couldn’t afford another child while working and going to school. Determined to preserve her future, she chose to have an abortion and is grateful she had that choice.

“I made the right choice for me. I made the right choice for my family,” she said. “And I’m not ashamed of it … As women, we cannot be ashamed of the choices we make to make our lives better.”

Justice movements and the cultural sector

As Brooks demonstrates, storytelling is a critical part of the movement. More than anything else, that’s what helps us realize reproductive justice affects all of us—just like disability justice, economic justice, and racial justice (gender and reproductive justice intersect with all of these movements, and can’t advance without them.) And, in the spirit of an expanded view on abortion rights, that brings us to why it’s essential to comment on these movements as part of Philly’s cultural life.

Yes, strict abortion laws directly affect thousands of Philadelphia cultural-sector workers (including yours truly), but that’s not the only reason local arts lovers should care. Speaking up for human rights demands and showcases our creativity (dancers, singers, musicians, speakers, writers and storytellers, organizers, art-makers, to name a few). Powered by our creativity, this activism shapes and strengthens our identities, as well as demanding that everyone is able to enter our city’s spaces, join its conversations, and live healthy lives regardless of race, income, disability, or gender. That’s why we encourage all BSR readers to pay attention to the battle for reproductive rights, along with every intertwined movement for justice.

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