Mass leaders speak on the threat to a woman’s right to choose
The contention surrounding abortion rights in the United States is hardly new to Americans. Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, there have been several cases challenging the landmark ruling, all of which have failed to overturn the SCOTUS precedent.
Despite recent polls reflecting overwhelming support for Roe v. Wade among Americans, a new wave of restrictive abortion bills has come into play from 20 states. As these legislative motions have gained momentum, and as a national uproar has ensued among advocates for choice, Massachusetts politicians introduced their own legislation in an effort to, among other things, protect abortion rights here in the event that Roe v. Wade is challenged or worse.
Earlier this year, Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester, along with other lawmakers, introduced the ROE Act, formally An Act to Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access, in the legistature. The bill spurred hundreds to attend a hearing held on Beacon Hill by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Monday, including advocates from groups that continue protect Roe and that have endorsed ROE.
I spoke with Sen. Chandler and Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, a physician and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, about ROE, the rhetoric surrounding the abortion debate, and what Commonwealth residents can expect to see on the state level in the wake of these hurdles to access.
You both have experience working with the healthcare system, either as an advocate or a practitioner. How has this experience informed what changes you want to bring to the Massachusetts legislature in regards to abortion access?
HC: In my case, I began before I ever came to the legislature. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, at a time when there were back-street botched abortions, done by anybody who would do an abortion, which is just about anybody. And young women often lost their lives, or were maimed for life and couldn’t have children—the sensationalism of it was always picked up by the newspapers. I just remember growing up and thinking to myself, “This is wrong. Why can’t health care take care of this in some way?”
One of the first things that became apparent when I came into the legislature was [the question of whether] Roe v. Wade [would] stand, and where was I on that subject. And in the intervening years, I think we’ve come into our own as women, and we understand that we are capable of making that decision for ourselves. Yes, it shouldn’t be made by the government, and it should be made by women.
JC-R: I think the senator and I share a lot in common in terms of our passion for this, for this simple idea that every woman should have their own ability to make their own decisions about their body, about when they are ready to parent, just like everybody else makes decisions about all sorts of things, and abortion is just a part of health care. I was a practicing family doctor for over 20 years, and I think the elements of the ROE Act that really speak to me are the ones about the young people. As a family doctor, I saw a lot of young people under 18 who either were raped or had a birth control failure, or were coerced, or had all sorts of reasons for why they were having to make some decisions, and the fact that they had to leave the state or go through judicial bypass is really challenging.
I started off working for the UN fund for population activities right out of college. And it was very apparent from that perspective that access to reproductive healthcare, birth control, education, all of that was really a critical thing. So I cannot help but think that some of the statistics that we see now about maternal mortality and morbidity in the United States being the same as some third world countries have a lot to do with access to healthcare, access to the ability to make decisions, including whether or not abortion care is right, for women.
There is great concern about how these abortion restrictions would affect low-income individuals and marginalized groups. How has this influenced the creation of the ROE Act?
HC: There are lots and lots of women who come from marginalized groups as it is. And the cost of abortion is not inexpensive. It’s very important that women who have come from a lower-income family have the same rights to determine their reproductive health as anybody else.
JC-R: We’re not talking about an extraordinary unusual thing, we’re talking about basic health care. We talk about abortion, we talk about access to birth control, and I think that’s one of the things that’s so just disturbing. What’s happening in other parts of the country with these abortion bans is very clear. It’s about limiting access to certain types of people. And part of it is because abortion care has been stigmatized. It’s this other care, as opposed to just being something that is included in your health insurance.
Considering the recognition that movements like Me Too and Time’s Up have received in recent years, why do you think that the push for abortion restriction has escalated in contrast to the efforts of these movements?
HC: With the development of the pill, women came into their own, because they can plan their lives now. They could figure out when they want to have children; they do not have to stay home and have babies. They also, perhaps, were able to do other things as well. That made a huge difference in people’s lives. Women were able to get jobs, the kinds of jobs that perhaps only men held in the past. You can hold women down by keeping them barefoot and pregnant. And to not even acknowledge incest or rape, I mean, I find that really shocking. That says a lot about the people who are making those kinds of laws.
JC-R: I’m not an evangelical, but I was raised in a very religious family. And the whole idea that the Catholic Church or the evangelical church, which doesn’t let women participate fully even in their faith community, are telling women that you can’t have access to birth control, and you can’t have access to abortion. It’s all about one thing: keeping certain people in power. And you look at the White House, I mean, there’s the epitome of privileged white male anxiety trying to stay dominant in a world that is changing around them.
If the ROE Act is signed into law, how do you see it setting a precedent for any challenges to Roe v. Wade that are taken as a result of opposing abortion bills in other states?
HC: I’ve always felt very proud of Massachusetts, and I’m very proud that we have such incredibly fine health care services here. Yes, we’re first in the nation, and we really have always been. And I would hope that Massachusetts would be sort of a light unto these other states that have taken a different direction. Because I think that history is on our side, this is the right thing to do.
JC-R: You think back to the roots of our country, and this nation was born out of Massachusetts, out of people standing up to tyranny, being shoved down into servitude, and not being able to choose. So the idea of individual autonomy is so important, coupled with the priorities placed on healthcare because if you have good healthcare, you have freedom and liberty. And making sure that those two things stay connected is critically important.
What I would say to people is get activated. Don’t feel comfortable that the way things are going will be a protection for you and your children and future. What we’re trying to do here in Massachusetts is to protect, enforce, and expand access so that everyone has the ability to act on their choice. Make sure that the leaders who represent your values are sitting in this place here on Beacon Hill, and eventually Capitol Hill.