We Need a New Pro-Choice Movement

Feminism ought to be more relevant than ever. Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortions. Young women's reproductive rights are at stake, so you'd think we'd be worried. But at a panel last week on … Read More

By / April 23, 2007

Feminism ought to be more relevant than ever. Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortions. Young women's reproductive rights are at stake, so you'd think we'd be worried. But at a panel last week on family planning organized by Americans for UNFPA (the U.N. women's health organization), the small audience consisted mostly of women like the gray-haired sixty-something knitting in front of me.

Americans for UNFPA chose Jessica Valenti from Feministing to moderate because she represents a "young voice." Ms. Valenti just published Full Frontal Feminism, a book that aims to explain to my generation why we should be concerned about women's rights. Her messageand the messages coming from all the panel's speakersmakes perfect sense to me, but I'm not sure she's picked the most effective way to deliver it.

The panel began with a sense of urgency when the event planners informed us that one panel memberPlanned Parenthood president Cecile Richardshad left for Washington upon news of the partial-birth abortion ban. The president of Americans for UNFPA, Anika Rahman, then stepped in to put this moment in US history into global context. Her statistics were jaw dropping. Women are discriminated against in every country, she said. Women own one percent of the world's resources. Every minute a woman dies during childbirth, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. These preventable deaths amount to 529,000 each year.

Next Carolyn Makinson, executive director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, outlined the refugee crisis. Of the 35 million refugees and displaced persons in the world, 80 percent are women. One in four of these women is pregnant. In Sudan, women are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than graduate from secondary school. "Imagine what that's like," Ms. Makinson said. "To be in Darfur and be eight months pregnant with no resources." Ms. Makinson's life's work is visiting these women to ask them what they need. Family planning and reproductive healthcare are their number one requests.

The UNFPA can and does help with all this. It provides 500 million women150 percent of the U.S. populationwith contraceptives each year. But 201 million women in low-income countries still go without the birth control they want and need.

Naturally, the UNFPA relies on funding from governments worldwide. Two years after Bush took office, the U.S. cut their funding. We are the only country in the world that does not give money to the organization-and that's counting such bastions of women's rights as Afghanistan and Sudan.

Since 2002 the UNFPA has lost $161 million-money that could have prevented 130 thousand maternal deaths. Ms. Rahman called it "one of the most insidious things Bush has done."
But we're not doing so well at home either. The U.S. has the second highest teen pregnancy rate in the world, said Claire Coleman, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley. Abstinence-only education isn't helping. It teaches schoolchildren that they can only preserve their sexual health by delaying sexual activity until marriage. There's it's first failing: The average US marrying age is 26. But most kids have had sex by the time they graduate high school. Another failing: Abstinence-only educators may only teach these kids about contraceptives in term of their failure potential. So although condoms are highly effective in preventing pregnancy and HIV/AIDS when used correctly, by the time they graduate high school, kids only learn that condoms don't always work.

Ms. Valenti asked the panelists if this was systematic misogyny in Congress. All three panelists said no, it's about politics.

Indeed, the administration and pro-lifers use abortion as a political outlet to attack family planning. But a majority of Americans support reproductive rights at home and abroad. Bush says our women's rights initiatives have been successful already, so we don't need to fund UNFPA. "I don't know what he's talking about," Ms. Rahman said. "I don't know how he defines success."

It's hard to say. Is "success" the partial-birth abortion ban? Or the state laws it will soon inspire aimed at stripping women of more rights? Can the long-awaited Democratic Congress finally start to turn things around? Only if it's in their political favor to do so, the panelists said.

But this should be a bipartisan issue. Losing the reproductive rights a majority of us supports indicates the comedown of the feminist movement. One reason for this decline may be that its founders have begun to pass the torch on to women like Ms. Valenti, who lacks the broad appeal and political sophistication to wield it effectively.

Until Ms. Valenti brought up misogyny, I forgot my biggest pet peeve about Feministing: Its bitter and negative tone. Heavy male-bashing is not the key to mobilizing young, progressive women. We like menwe put a lot of effort into impressing, attracting, and pleasing them. And we pay far more attention to women who behave similarlyjust look at any gossip or fashion magazine.

Though my friends would have been equally compelled by the discussion, none of them attended. The movement is so stale it hardly motivates us. "Pro-choice" no longer resonates. But does bitterness like Ms. Valenti's?

Yes, we have more and more to feel bitter about. But when I discuss the abortion ban with my friends, the emotions that come up are fear and disbelief, not bitterness. Young women won't be mobilized by negativity and male-bashing. It's going to take something else.

Valenti is a start. Her blog is a great resource, and I admire and respect its founder. But I wish Feministing could capture the way the middle-aged panelists approached their disheartening statistics. They spoke out of compassion and concern more than anger. They still have great knowledge and wisdom to impart to the next generation of women in this country and abroad who will be most affected by the rollback of reproductive freedoms.

But this rising generation will still inherit the responsibility to protect itself. And it needs savvy and charismatic spokeswomen who will persuade us to fight for universal access to contraceptives, up-to-date medical information, and doctors who are free to perform their duty to protect patients' lives. Snarky blogs can only go so far. We need leaders who will make these issues resonate, and I don't think we've found them yet.

[This post has been edited since publication.]

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