Abortion rights and the ballot box

Leela Yellesetty discusses the struggle for abortion access for poor and working-class women--and whether donating to political campaigns helps that struggle.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile RichardsPlanned Parenthood President Cecile Richards

RECENTLY, THE feminist website Jezebel.com ran an article titled "How Planned Parenthood's Political Team Aced the Elections." The reason for celebration was that "nearly 100 percent of its spending went towards races that ended with pro-choice politicians in power."

The secret to their success, according to the author of the article, was first of all, that the Republicans came out with so many vile statements and positions that Planned Parenthood's job amounted to simply drawing attention to them.

By this standard, it would seem that any candidate who did not make a horrible statement about rape or come out in favor of completely obliterating funding for Planned Parenthood was considered a "pro-choice" candidate. I'll come back to that.

The second factor in Planned Parenthood's success, according to Jezebel, was to water down the message: "Abortion access wasn't the most pressing issue for women voters this election season: reproductive health was." Leaving aside the fact that by any logical standard abortion access is reproductive health, the strategy is clear enough. Don't talk about abortion.

In other words, since the anti-choice movement has moved up its offensive line from attacks on abortion rights to attacks on all reproductive rights--including access to contraception--the pro-choice side should accordingly move back our defensive line to accommodate.

The last three points of the article really boil down to the same thing: spend, spend, spend. "The group spent about $15 million this year, way, way more than the $4 million it spent in 2008," Jezebel reported.

It was this last point that really sent me over the edge.

I spent the past week volunteering for the Community Abortion Information and Referral (CAIR) Project, an organization which provides small grants to help low-income women in the Northwest pay for abortions. I can say with absolute certainty that that $15 million would have done immeasurably more to help the cause of reproductive rights if it had been donated to organizations like the CAIR project than to the already cash-fueled congressional campaigns.

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WHILE THEY may have upped their ante this time around, dumping money into political campaigns has been the central strategy of the main pro-choice organizations for decades.

What exactly has this gotten us? Abortion access has been steadily chipped away. Eight-seven percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider. Every year since 1976, Congress has voted to reauthorize the Hyde Amendment, barring women from using federal Medicaid funding to obtain abortions. This has passed regardless of whether the "pro-choice" Democrats were in the majority or not.

Our "pro-choice" President Barack Obama ensured that this practice would continue under the new health care law with his promise to issue an executive order prohibiting the federal government from using federal funds "to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion" except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.

Every election, the alarm bells are sounded that if we don't elect "pro-choice" candidates, we'll lose Roe v. Wade. Well, I can tell you, for millions of women in this country, it may as well not exist already.

In my week volunteering for the CAIR project, I spoke to between 30 and 40 women. Despite their tremendous diversity, they had in common the conviction that having an abortion was the right decision for them at this time.

For most, it was a matter of cost--many already had kids and knew what the financial burden of adding another would mean for their family. For others, it was a matter of taking care of their own health. For some, carrying a pregnancy to term would mean being locked into an abusive relationship.

Incidentally, nearly all the women I spoke with had been using birth control. This gives lie to the idea concocted in the main pro-choice organization's public relations departments that if we just talk about expanding knowledge of and access to contraception, the issue of abortion will go away. The fact is that even the most effective forms of birth control can sometimes fail.

Depending on how far along you are and the rates at your nearest clinic (which could be several hours' drive away, adding on transportation and lodging expenses) the cost of an abortion can range from $500 to $3,000 or more. For many women, that number might as well be $1 million given the funds they have available to them.

I was able to partly assist a Wal-Mart worker, who made $9.50 an hour, who already had three kids and whose husband was unemployed. While she most certainly qualified for public assistance (like many Wal-Mart employees), there was no point in even applying. In the state she's from, along with 34 others, the state Medicaid system does not cover abortion. She also lives in a state, along with 25 others, that requires a mandatory "informed consent" visit, followed by a 24-hour waiting period--meaning two separate trips and days off work.

In my home state of Washington, we are lucky enough to have a state plan that does cover abortions, but I soon discovered a loophole. If you are lucky enough to have insurance, you don't qualify for Medicaid--but what if your insurance provider doesn't cover abortion? Or it does, but you have a $2,000 deductible? What if you're under 26 and still under your parents' insurance, but they would disown you if they knew you had an abortion? These are just a few of the situations I encountered.

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IT FELT good to be able to help out some women--to know that along with their own resourcefulness, I was able to play a part in ensuring their ability to take control of their bodies and their future. Much harder were the many women I could not help. I had $850 total to spend for the week and, as I mentioned, over 30 women calling in looking for assistance. This meant I had to make some very difficult calls.

I had to ask women who weren't as far along if they could delay their procedure another week or two. I counseled one woman to put a $3,000 procedure on her credit card--even though she was unemployed and had no way of making payments--because most of the women I spoke to were not even able to access credit. One woman got a payday loan at a 322 percent annual interest rate. I had to ask women if they had any valuables they could sell to the pawnshop, or if it was possible to put off paying some bills for the month.

I never asked a woman to tell someone in her life if she didn't feel they would be supportive, but I had to ask a lot of them to swallow their pride and ask for help from friends and family.

The problem with being poor, though, is the people in your life are likely to be poor as well. Many of the women I spoke to were already relying on help from their family to make ends meet--or else they were the ones supporting other family members.

I'm willing to guess that none of the "pro-choice" politicians who received so much money in the past election have ever had to confront the agonizing choices these women are facing. If we're going to "spend, spend, spend" for reproductive rights, let's send that money to the people who actually need it. Please consider donating directly to funds like the CAIR project or individual clinics, rather than political funds.

Beyond that, though, I think what we need is something money can't buy, something that was essential to winning abortion rights in the first place: a fighting women's rights movement in the streets that makes it impossible for the politicians, "pro-choice" or otherwise, to ignore us. A movement that says clearly and unapologetically that free access to abortion is fundamental to women's health and equality--and should be a basic right for all.