Anyone who has liked the same Facebook pages as I have ( e.g. Feministing, SPARK) or gets their news from similar media sources (Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, Mother Jones, Ms Magazine) wouldn't think there is much silence on the issue of reproductive rights. But people who get their news from other sources (or not at all) are probably not aware of the number or depth of the measures being taken in the US to whittle away at women's reproductive rights. Bills that would place restrictions on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Bills that create impossible to meet requirements for clinics that offer abortions. Bills that force women to have medically unnecessary and invasive procedures. All have been proposed. Some have passed. Some of these measures faced intense opposition and inspired protest (Moral Mondays) and brought champions to the surface (like Sen Wendy Davis). Thankfully, some of these measures have been successfully challenged, like House Bill 2800, which the Arizona Legislature passed and Gov. Jan Brewer signed in 2012. The Bill, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down, would have halted Medicaid reimbursements for contraceptives, cancer screenings, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and annual women’s exams at the state’s more than 80 hospitals and clinics that also perform abortions. So, even if you are opposed to abortion, take a moment and think about how you feel about cancer screenings, wellness exams and treatment for STDs.
Other measures have received little attention--possibly because they have been sneakily attached to other bills. Possibly because of other, more complicated, reasons.
I spent a few weeks in Hawaii this summer (yes, lucky me) because the American Psychological Association held its annual convention in Honolulu during the first week of August. During one of the discussion sessions, someone posed a question about the lack of presentations about reproductive justice. Given the amount of action happening on this issue legislatively, she wanted to know why there were not more psychologists doing/ presenting research on the topic. In fact, earlier that week a psychologist who studies reproductive justice told me she only found two presentations on the topic (out of hundreds listed in our program).
In trying to answer the question, I considered my own recent hesitance to discuss this issue--whether it is in the classroom, among my friends/family, and here on this blog. I can not say that I am silent about reproductive rights, but I do catch myself holding back more on this topic than on any other potentially "controversial" issue. Why is that? Is my own hesitation linked to the lack of recent psychological work on the issue? And maybe most importantly (and most frighteningly) what are the potential consequences of my own (and others') hesitation?
The answers I gave during that discussion still ring true to me. Why is my generation of women (and men) holding back from conversations about reproductive rights? Honestly, I think we are afraid to talk about abortion and have taken some reproductive rights for granted. Despite the landmark decision of Roe v Wade in 1973, a woman's right to make decisions about her own reproduction has certainly not been widely embraced. I grew up in a time when abortion was technically legal, but in a state (Utah) where it was impossible to get. I came of age in an era when people claiming to be "pro-life" bombed women's health clinics and murdered doctors who were willing to provide abortions. I was raised in a Catholic family and went to Catholic school from 4th grade-12th grade. The message was clear: anyone who had ever had (or even considered having) an abortion was an evil sinner. It didn't matter if she was a 14-year old. Or if she was raped. Or if she didn't believe life began at conception. There was no room for conversation.
But I never had to watch my friend bleed to death after having an illegal abortion performed on her in a seedy motel. I had comprehensive sex education (yes, in Catholic school) and knew how to access and use contraception. And when my friend in college was raped at a fraternity party, I was able to take her to Planned Parenthood to get a rape kit and Plan B (what we used to call "the morning after pill").
So I learned to be grateful for the reproductive rights I did have access to (so much more than generations of women before me) and that many conversations about reproduction turned into debates about abortion that didn't really lead anywhere productive. That is not to say I didn't engage in those debates. In fact, I was far from silent about reproductive health and education. I worked for Planned Parenthood and tabled events at health fairs, passed out condoms at night clubs and worked as a sex-educator. As a resident advisor, I was nicknamed "mom" because I was warm and kind and I was willing to talk to my residents about sex (many of whom were raised in Mormon families and had never had any type of sex education). I confronted a priest who was tabling an event on campus where students had placed hundreds of crosses in the free-speech zone to protest abortion and shame women on campus. There are probably more stories--but you get the point.
But as I attended graduate school and later became a Psychologist, I grew more aware of the consequences of engaging in conversations about controversial topics. As a TA for Introductory Psychology, I was told by a tenured faculty member that it was "too dangerous" to talk about anything controversial in the classroom. I anxiously watched the events unfold as a faculty member at a neighboring institution lost his job for an essay he wrote opposing the War in Iraq. I love my current job as a university professor and want to keep it. So I hesitate. And I have become more worried about the personal consequences. I have close friends and family members who are adamantly anti-choice (all for religious reasons) and I worry about the costs to my relationship with them if we talk about reproductive rights. So I hesitate. I believe that having an abortion is an intensely personal decision that some women may not want to talk about. So I hesitate.
But as I have learned to be less vocal on this issue, the world has changed. Women in many states are discovering that most of the clinics that once performed abortions have closed because of TRAP laws.The window during which a woman may legally have an abortion is shrinking. The measures taken to delay women's decision, to shame them or to challenge them have increased. Personhood amendments would make abortion (and many forms of contraception) murder. The ripple effect of these changes impacts so much more than just the right to have an abortion. All reproductive rights are at risk. Most of the students who show up in my classroom today did not have any exposure to sex education because they went to schools in districts with abstinence only policies. Women seeking wellness exams or breast cancer screenings are finding services are no longer as affordable as they had been at Planned Parenthood because of intense efforts to defund the organization. Some politicians have called for states to outlaw birth control. This is quite a slippery slope we have found ourselves on, and our silence is like melted butter.
It is time to have some courageous conversations.
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