Posted March 12, 2022
This is a talk that Dianne Feeley gave at an International Women’s Day forum on reproductive rights at Wayne State University. She was speaking on a panel as a representative of the Reproductive Rights Group of Michigan. The group worked with student organizations including the Young Democrats and YDSA and was endorsed by the AAUP-AFT Local 6075 and GEOC, the graduate student union.
More than 50 years ago the New York State legislature realized that the class action suit to overturn the law criminalizing abortion was being heard in the NYS Supreme Court and might be ruled unconstitutional — similar to how the Mexican and Colombian high courts recently ruled. Realizing there would be no law, they hastily passed a very progressive one and abortion became legal in NYS. After a year the statistics collected showed that abortion was a very safe medical procedure. Maternal mortality dropped 45 percent.
This reality, along with the other realities of a feminist movement that picketed, spoke at legislative hearings, held speak outs where women openly talked about abortions they had, marched on state legislatures and Congress, filed class action suits challenging the restrictive laws, built networks so that those who needed abortions could find them or they actually performed abortions themselves as the Jane Collective did. We set up feminist clinics and wrote articles and books, including Our Bodies, Our Selves. We publicized cases where women who had abortions were arrested, tried and sentenced — such as Shirley Wheeler who in 1971 was convicted of manslaughter or Detroit’s Dr. Ed Keemer, an African American doctor whose clinic was raided, both staff and patients arrested and jailed.
Our demand was to end anti-abortion laws. We needed, and we still need, accessible, affordable abortion, provided in a way that is neither “humiliating nor discriminatory” Most people don’t realize that when the US Supreme Court heard Roe v. Wade and announced their decision, they rejected a second case, Doe v. Bolton, which argued that even the reform abortion laws on the books, those that allowed abortion under some circumstances, were discriminatory. If they had ruled in that case, they would have been taking up issues involving class, gender and race.
The 1973 decision ruled that women and their doctors should have access to abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. That ruling swept away many restrictions and it is certainly a decision we defend today as new laws place further restrictions on those who need to terminate their pregnancy. After all, over the course of their life 25% of all women in the U.S. have an abortion and abortion is also important for transgender and non-binary people. The majority of people getting abortions are already parents. But keep in mind that Roe v. Wade was flawed from the start and over the years has been limited by hundreds of state and federal laws and regulations found to be constitutional. Just four years after THE Roe v. Wade decision, we mourned the death of Rosie Jiminez, the first woman to die because she was denied Medicaid financing for her abortion and died from septic poisoning.
The case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, challenges the Mississippi law that cuts off abortions at 15 weeks. By May or June the Court will issue its decision, which will either overturn Roe and allow state laws to prevail — which in Michigan would mean the 1931 law criminalizing abortion would be in effect once more — or it will uphold the Mississippi law and further undercut Roe, similar to the method the Court employed to tear the heart out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In either case, the Reproductive Rights Group of Michigan is calling for an emergency demonstration the evening that decision is announced. We’ll meet at the Federal Building at 5PM.
This decision will undoubtedly have a chilling effect, but it also makes clear that we need to fight for what we need. Eighty-eight percent of those obtaining abortion do so within the first trimester. One line of the right wing’s strategy is to delay the procedure — denying funding to poor women, saddling clinics with unnecessary and financially burdensome requirements, claiming that having an abortion will lead to emotional trauma, forcing teenagers to obtain parental consent, harassing clinic staff. However even in Texas, with a ban on abortion after six weeks, as many as 90 percent of those who seek abortion get to clinics in other states or use the internet to get medication abortion pills through the mail and safely self-abort. Good for the 90 percent who are able to jump through hoops, but none of this is necessary and no one should be left behind. We deserve accessible, affordable and non-judgmental care.
We also know that under these new limitations the 18% of the pregnant people who miscarry may face arrest. Already there are women in prison for manslaughter because their miscarriage was judged as a deliberate attempt to end the pregnancy. As you can imagine, these women are primarily women of color.
After the right wing’s attempts to whittle down the number of pregnant people able to secure an early abortion, the second line of attack is to vilify those forced to seek a late abortion. This group is only 11-12 percent of the total number seeking abortion, although this percentage may increase as access is squeezed and this vulnerable group is humiliated.
Of course what the right wing really desires is a constitutional amendment that guarantees the fetus rights. Majority opinion is not on their side. That’s why the idea of a statewide referendum to put reproductive rights in the Michigan Constitution makes a great deal of sense. It will require us to gather 425,000 valid signatures between now and June. The referendum’s wording is broad and encompasses a range of reproductive issues. But this is the right time to be talking to friends, relatives, neighbors, classmates, those you work with and those you can meet about why it is necessary to actively support a range of reproductive rights. We encourage you to get involved! The first mobilization for the petition will be Saturday, March 19 at 10 AM. Mark it on your calendar and be sure to sign up on the sign in sheet so we can remind you!
On this International Women’s Day, let us rededicate ourselves to demanding what we need to live and flourish.