Spring, and danger, in the air

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

I love May. It’s my favorite month — a month of rebirth and sunshine. I especially like the concept of May Day where people around the world celebrate the coming of spring.

But there is another meaning for May Day. Mayday is an international distress signal that derives from the French “venez m’aider” which means “come help me.” It is the equivalent of a Morse code for SOS, and it is always said three times in succession so there can be no mistaking the intent of the message.

This spring, I believe we need a universal distress signal for women’s health and reproductive rights. In the last few months, we have seen the worst attacks on women’s rights since before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. These attacks have come in many guises and from oblique directions. They have been couched in outcries of religious freedom, conscience clauses, cost containment and paternalism. We have seen restrictions on Plan B, the emergency contraception pill, for younger women; a challenge to insurance coverage of contraception for working women; and proposals for required ultrasound procedures (transvaginal or otherwise) for women seeking abortions. The latter has been couched in a mandate for health education and informed consent — as though women seeking abortions do not have an adequate understanding of the procedure, as though they haven’t already agonized over their decisions.

American women and women’s groups have not been silent during this turbulent spring. We watched women challenge the decision of the Susan B. Komen Foundation to defund Planned Parenthood. We took issue with HHS’s decision to limit Plan B to young women over 14. We were appalled by the all-male House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel on the use of contraception, and the fact that Republicans would not let law student Sandra Fluke speak because they felt she was not an expert about contraception. We were further outraged by the personal attack on Fluke by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, and we were puzzled by some of the Republican presidential debates when patronizing and paternalistic candidates felt they needed to save women from themselves.

On the other hand, we cheered with the defeat of the Blunt amendment to allow religious groups to decline insurance coverage they morally oppose. But this was a small win, one success in a larger skirmish. The real battle for permanent women’s rights, especially our reproductive rights, continues. Nearly 40 years after what we thought was the definitive victory, we are still fending off attacks everywhere we turn.

1992 “March for Women’s Lives”NASW joins half a million pro-choice supporters in the 1992 “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, D.C.

Women are mobilizing and using various approaches in opposition to these attacks, including a national petition on “End the War on Women” and raising funds for a “women’s health rapid response fund.”

In response to the Virginia legislation to require a transvaginal ultrasound prior to receiving an abortion, Women’s Strike Force was born. This coalition, founded by former legislators of all political affiliations in Virginia, is dedicated to recruiting and supporting all candidates opposing any elected official who supported the mandatory ultrasound or “personhood” legislation in the Virginia General Assembly. During the first day, they raised more than $10,000.

Similarly, the Coalition to Protect Women’s Health Care was created. It is a diverse coalition of 57 members, including NASW. CPWHC is committed to protecting the current birth control coverage policy, the people who made the policy, and our ability to make good policy in the future. Other women’s groups, such as Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority and the National Organization of Women, have also been active in garnering attention through their advocacy outlets in response to the severe threat facing women’s access to preventive health care.

With this column I’ve included a picture from 1992, when NASW joined half a million pro-choice supporters in the “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, D.C. What is so striking to me are the two young girls on either side of the sign, now both in their 30s. Those of us who participated in the earlier movements did so with the hope that this would be the end of the right-to-choose battles. The young women who are being most affected by the attacks on their rights may not fully realize how hard-fought the battles of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were.

To this generation of young women, I say, “Mayday, mayday, mayday.”