The Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts was proud to have Senator Wendy Davis as our keynote speaker for our Celebration of Choices event this year. After the event, we had the opportunity to ask Senator Davis a few questions.
Despite polls showing public support for Planned Parenthood – politicians at both the state and national levels continue their efforts to take away access to women’s health care. Why do you think out-of-touch lawmakers continue to push for these unpopular restrictions?
Politicians who seek to excite their conservative base have come to understand that an anti-abortion message gets them votes. They depend upon increasing turnout of their voters by making women’s health a pawn in their own self-serving agenda. The most important way for us to combat their tactics in this regard is to demonstrate that voters who care about women’s health and reproductive freedoms will respond in like kind by rejecting candidates who do this.
In November 2015, the Supreme Court announced it would review Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, a case that could have a devastating impact on abortion access in Texas and in several states across the country. You, along with several other lawyers, submitted briefs to the court sharing your own abortion stories in an effort to help educate the Supreme Court at what’s really at stake here for women. Can you tell us a little about the decision behind that? What impact do you think storytelling has on influencing political and judicial outcomes?
The outcome of Whole Woman’s Health will impact women across the country, as we can expect more and more states to “copycat” the Texas abortion restrictions if they are given the green light to do so by the Supreme Court.
In order to best position ourselves for a win, we felt it was important to help the justices understand the real world, the real human impact of this law. We wanted them to see it from the lens of the people who have been and could be impacted by it, not just as an abstract notion. My own abortion story – one in which my former husband and I made a heart-wrenching decision to choose a post 20 week abortion after learning that our much wanted baby girl was suffering from an unsustainable brain abnormality – highlights the need for lawmakers to stay out of these extremely personal decisions.
Other stories that were made a part of the brief provide a view for the justices of the almost insurmountable obstacles that some women in Texas now face because of the closure of so many abortion clinics in our state. I firmly believe that a woman’s access to her constitutionally protected right to abortion shouldn’t depend on the amount of money she has in her checking account or her geography. I hope the court will read these stories and agree.
It’s obvious the advancement of women’s health and rights has always been an important cornerstone of your advocacy agenda. How do you think access to affordable reproductive health care is interconnected to women’s advancement in society?
I often talk about this when speaking to groups about reproductive rights. My own personal journey from poverty to stability depended on access to contraceptive care provided to me by Planned Parenthood. For four years, Planned Parenthood provided my only source of healthcare. I understand, in a deep and important way, the connection between reproductive health care and economic opportunity. They are absolutely linked, and anyone who cares about making sure that women have equal opportunity to rise in this country, should fight just as strenuously for reproductive health care access as they might for access to higher education, increasing the minimum wage and pay equity for women. Our economic destiny is dependent upon our reproductive destiny. Plain and simple.
After your infamous 2013 filibuster, you often contribute the success of the night to many of the activists who showed up to rally at the Texas State House. As a leader on women’s health, what advice do you have to activists, particularly young people, fighting for reproductive health and rights today?
I think there are so many people who look at the landscape of what is happening in women’s reproductive health today and are upset by it. But often, they don’t know what they can do to make a difference. How could their one voice matter? What happened in Texas a couple of years ago shows what can happen when people decided to say “enough!”. Several thousand people made a pilgrimage to the Texas capitol that day. Many of whom did it literally on the spur of the moment. And it was their voices, literally crying out to get a vote on that bill delayed past midnight, that succeeded in defeating it.
Yes, it was put back on the agenda in a second called special session, and yes it ultimately passed. But nothing can change the dynamic that occurred that day – an understanding of the power of our own voices when we speak up and speak out on issues that matter to us. Our involvement doesn’t have to take that same shape. It can consist of donations to candidates and causes that we care about. It can consist of letter writing, volunteering at a center, working to elect someone who you believe will fight for women’s reproductive health care. Each of these actions make a difference. And the more people who engage in them, the more successful they will be.
While Massachusetts may not suffer from many of the onerous restrictions that a state like Texas does, we still have a long way to go before we can be a true leader on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights. In 2016, we’re still working to pass the Healthy Youth Act, a bill that would ensure public schools in Massachusetts are teaching comprehensive, medically-accurate sexuality education. What advice do you have for a progressive state like Massachusetts to transform itself into a national leader with a pro-reproductive health agenda?
Massachusetts has the ability and opportunity to show states like mine that comprehensive sexuality education can have a real world impact on decreasing unintended pregnancy and increasing the opportunity for young women to realize their dreams. The importance of setting and showing that example cannot be overstated. When young women have a chance to thrive, not only do they and their families fare better, our overall economy fares better. What a tremendous impact Massachusetts could have if this was the story it helped to tell?!