Can We Turn Back the War on Women?

The Virginia woman’s hand-made sign summed it up: “I Can’t
Believe I’m Still Having to Protest This Shit!” The pro-choice majority is
astounded by the tidal wave of vitriolic attacks on reproductive health,
rights, justice, and on women’s dignity, that constitute the War on Women.
These include legislative proposals mandating intrusive and humiliating vaginal
ultrasounds with no therapeutic justification before permitting abortion; Rick
Santorum’s advice that rape victims should celebrate a resulting pregnancy as a
blessing; and debates on covering contraception, which is used almost
universally. Transforming outrage into decisive policy and political victories
requires understanding what is coming at us (and why), and new approaches to
seizing the initiative.

Right-wing corporate interests provide generous financial
support to organizations and candidates that advance their minority views
through powerful institutions, from judicial appointments to gerrymandered
state and federal legislative districts. The policy goal is to undermine the ability
of government and popular movements to constrain corporate power and profits.
Campaigns on so-called “social issues” divide people into competing and
hostile constituencies by gender or religion, although they may, in fact, share
economic interests. The campaigns also recast as “tyranny” government
actions that protect human rights and challenge corporate power. Fundamentalist
religious groups, allied with the Catholic Church, provide an institutional
base for crafting and disseminating policies that advance these divisive views,
which find fertile territory during economic and social transition.

Demonizing abortion has been a winning card for the
right, which has stated its intention to use abortion as a wedge issue in the
2012 election. Until now, mainstream women’s groups and progressive politicians
have struggled to find a winning constituency and effective messages, since
most voters say they care more about the economy than reproductive rights.
Changing the discourse will require intentional solidarity across age, class,
and race. Generations have come of age assuming the legal right to birth
control and abortion, and the related rights to self-determination, while
attacks on access have targeted vulnerable and disenfranchised women, who are
less likely voters. Absent an affirmative strategy, attacks on abortion from
strident opponents like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have achieved
incremental erosions in access to abortion. The 2010 Affordable Care Act was
both an example and a wake-up call. While offering women many benefits,
coverage for reproductive health care was compromised.

The Trust Women/Silver Ribbon Campaign (TW/SR) is one of
several groups that have emerged to increase the visibility and voice of
advocates for reproductive health, rights, and justice. TW/SR organized a
display of banners with pro-choice messages that flew proudly along San
Francisco’s main street in January, 2012, designed to project solidarity and
power through visibility, and to commemorate Roe v. Wade’s anniversary. TW/SR
also brought together 81 groups (including NWHN) to send pro-choice messages to
Congress via a massive online virtual “march” from January 20-27. The
banner messages ranged in tone and generational appeal and included: San Francisco
is Pro-Choice
, Her Health Her Decision, Fix the
Economy, Support My Autonomy,
and US Out of My Uterus.
Online messages with links to background information included: I trust women
and I vote
, Contraception Is Prevention, Keep abortion safe and legal,
and make it accessible and affordable
, and We are the
99%. Fix the economy, and stop the war on women.

The base-building has burst into action. In January,
Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) revealed that the Susan G.
Komen Foundation would no longer fund PPFA’s breast cancer services, due to
Komen officials’ opposition to PPFA’s abortion services. The dam broke, as
women erupted in outrage. Finally, women elected officials are now campaigning
openly for and with women. While the bewildered right wing continues to march
backwards on auto-pilot, we stand a good chance of hastening its path to

Online and virtual advocacy are proving to be powerful
tools for spreading news, articulating opinions, and generating unity. We’re
still exploring how to use these tools to create and sustain connectedness and
engagement among organizations and their members, and to motivate effective
action. Recognizing that organizations will continue to compete for media,
resources, and policy influence, we must aim to develop better collaborative

Going forward, we can claim our democratic heritage of
freedom from religious persecution. The Bishops are campaigning for the power
of Catholic-owned corporations to deny contraceptive coverage to millions of
employees in its hospitals, schools, and charities. Giving the Church and state
legislatures the right to invade couples’ privacy and women’s bodies is
offensive to many. The link to oppressive and anti-democratic maneuvers like
voter suppression rules is notable, including by its intended victims.
Mississippi’s fetal personhood ballot initiative lost decisively by 42% to 58%,
and the highest percent of “no” votes came from Black men and
pro-choice voters at 80%, followed by Black women at 70%. This suggests the
possibilities for cross-cutting alliances in the interest of freedom.

While the opposition has a game plan, it’s the wrong one.
It doesn’t represent the majority, and it’s on the wrong side of history. As
younger generations shed social prejudices and constraints, the influence of
attack dogs like Limbaugh is destined to shrivel. In response, pro-choice
advocates can build power by increasing our ability to mobilize our majority
base and collaborate with allies for social and economic justice.

Ellen Shaffer is the Co-Director of the Trust
Women/Silver Ribbon campaign, which is
towards the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013. The banners and
related information can be viewed at

See this article
also in The Women’s Health Activist, May 2012:

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