While the big tent of reproductive freedom obviously includes abortion rights (even places them in the center of the tent), abortion rights have been watered down in many political circles to a vague concept -- "choice" -- that isn't very tangible, or some say, useful. Abortion rights proper imply two concepts that choice often skirts: access and funding. Longtime reproductive rights activist Marlene Fried is a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College and director of its Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program (which works with student activists across the country and holds a large conference each year, "From Abortion Rights to Reproductive Freedom") and is one of the founders of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). Through discussing the leap from choice to access, she describes why abortion funds and grassroots activism are essential for turning the tides back towards women's reproductive freedom.
"So many different trends make abortion funds more important than ever these days," says Fried. The list Fried cites is long: not simply poverty, but an increase in women's poverty; the increasing number of immigrant women -- documented or undocumented -- without access to health care; restrictions on access to insurance -- 9 million women of childbearing age have no insurance -- and a continuing assault on abortion. "The right wing is leading the charge against abortion rights, but the middle ground has shifted far to the right. Even the left's support of abortion rights is receding. From the right, the party line is that abortion is bad so we have to get rid of it regardless of circumstance. From the left, the line is that abortion is bad and of course we want to make it go away, but we have to have it."
It's that apologetic tone about abortion from its supporters that Fried sees as most menacing. "Does everyone want to work to make fewer abortions necessary?" she asks. "Of course, but that doesn't mean that abortion will disappear. Even if we had adequate access to birth control and every woman used it, sometimes, it would fail. Not every pregnancy -- the ones women desire included -- goes exactly right. In New Orleans, for example, some women set up an abortion fund right after Katrina. People told them no one would be seeking help for abortions; they'd be looking for rent and food monies. One woman who called for help, though, exemplifies this point about how unpredictable even a planned pregnancy can be: before Katrina, she'd gotten pregnant by choice, and then lost everything including her partner, who disappeared in the storm. Sometimes what's wanted becomes untenable. That's an extreme story. The truth, though, is that for some women, often under less dramatic circumstances, having an abortion is the first moment she's taken control of her life."
When a form of health care is inadequately funded, then it becomes marginalized. The apologists contribute to this phenomenon, says Fried, another reason that strong support for abortion rights is so necessary and that NNAF plays such a critical role in terms of advocacy. "To have to scramble to pay for an abortion -- be it making a tradeoff of not paying rent in order to pay for an abortion or contacting an abortion fund run by strangers and having to ask for money for health care -- that's undignified, demoralizing. To do so reinforces a sense of blame. When women are left alone to advocate for themselves -- when a woman has to find the money for that individual procedure -- it's easy to blame each woman personally. An individual woman is poor, but poverty -- on a large scale not focused upon each individual woman -- poverty is a problem that belongs to society. So does lack of adequate health care." NNAF tries to bring out into the mainstream those voices silenced by poverty, says Fried, those voices unable to access health care.
Initial organizing to found the NNAF began in 1992. Much of the original interest in establishing this national effort occurred in Western Massachusetts through its local abortion fund, the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts. The coalition organization was created with the hope of pooling resources between local abortion funds and more so establishing a strong, unified voice to advocate for abortion access and funding. In gearing up for its initial May 1993 conference, 28 Funds were located, and 50 people representing 22 Funds from 14 states attended the founding conference in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Today, NNAF has 110 member funds. Along with assisting funds to better provide direct support to women, NNAF has increased its outreach and advocacy efforts. In 2006, the organization mounted an initiative called "Hyde - 30 Years Is Enough!" The goal was to force states and the federal government to pay for those abortions that are currently legally covered and to advocate for full public funding of abortion. Campaigns like this one have also allowed NNAF to build broad and diverse coalitions with organizations outside the traditional abortion rights community including those working on welfare rights and economic justice, women of color, labor, prisoner rights and immigrant rights.
Fried believes the importance of NNAF and also of local funds has a great deal to do with presence and advocacy. "When you have a local abortion fund, you are saying to your community that abortion is a form of basic reproductive health care. It's the most basic way to break the silence about abortion. You're not asking people whether they feel it's right or wrong; you're asserting its existence and its essential importance in women's lives." While it would seem to some that access to health care shouldn't be a radical notion, Fried says that these days thinking of the community first -- not the individual -- is a politic "far from our current times." She feels this resurgence of grassroots activism -- as she describes it, a sense of, "Here's a problem we can address" -- harkens back to a times with more direct action: "In Michael Moore's Sicko, that 'me versus we' message was the film's most radical message. People are drawn to working with abortion funds because of the direct nature of this work. We aren't setting up funds like these across the country because it's right that private charity supports health care for individuals. In providing the direct care, the services, though, we are doing grassroots organizing and can then extend our voices toward a vision that actually supports all women better. By helping women gain agency in their reproductive choices, we as advocates gain agency to speak to the importance of reproductive freedom and access to health care as a basic right."
The demographics of the abortion funds vary, according to Fried. "Initially, most groups skewed older -- 40 was young -- mostly women from Roe or pre-Roe generations. Young women have since founded funds, using this as a form of grassroots activism. At some of our conferences, we have these funny discussions in which the younger-skewing groups ask the older ones, 'How do you get older people to join?' while the older-skewing groups ask how to recruit younger members." Within NNAF, the board has worked with intentionality and diligence over time to become truly diverse. Its chair is Toni Bond Leonard, co-founder and head of African American Women Evolving, a grassroots reproductive rights organization based in Chicago and Board Chair of SisterSong, a national grassroots reproductive justice organization for women of color. While this doesn't assure that each individual fund has a particularly diverse makeup, it does mean that at the level of advocacy issues of race, class and inclusion are addressed; in other words, one thing NNAF is not: another "pro-choice" organization comprised mainly of middle-class white women. What unifies the coalition of members in NNAF is its collective commitment to advocating for public funding for abortion. Says Fried, "When you think it's been decades since there was public funding for abortion, you can start to feel really defeated. Abortion rights have taken many hits over these years. And yet, there is incredible energy building for public funding now -- those of us in it forever had gotten so cynical -- but here is congresswoman Jan Schakowsky ready to introduce an amendment to repeal the Hyde Amendment (which eliminated public funding for abortion)."
One thing Fried hopes is that with strong voices including NNAF's in the mix, when this current round of discussions about health care reform heat up -- as all indications signal they are--reproductive rights won't be dropped first. "Seeing abortion and reproductive health care as more than legal rights, but ones women require access to, that's what we are bringing to the table." Put another way: NNAF is determined to reorganize that big tent.
Mmo : august 2007