Why I Marched For Choice

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Sometime in the middle of April, I told a man in this congregation that I was going to Washington, DC for the April 25 March for Women’s Lives. His reply was “do you think it will do any good?”

That was one question I didn’t want to think about. For the fight to retain the legal status of abortion has been difficult and has required the ongoing efforts of millions of women and men against a well organized effort to ban abortion. Each year I have lived here in Kansas we have had to make trips to Topeka to lobby, to write letters and make phone calls, to prevent the legislature from chipping away at the possibility of choice here. Some dedicated women and men have worked for thirty years on this same issue. It is sometimes difficult to think we are doing any good, when the immediate threat is contained but comes up again in the next session of the legislature. It was encouraging to run across the Gandhi quote in your order of service today. “Everything is futile but we must do it anyway. Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

Full effort is full victory. What kind of victory is he talking about? Victory over complaisance, over fear, over doubt, over hopelessness? Or victory over all of the above. I often preach about the importance of the efforts we make, about how important everything we do is in so many ways. All the efforts we make for the church in terms of time, talents and treasures make our community possible.
We sometimes forget to take credit for the many ways we contribute to this liberal religious community. Many of us also work on projects in the community, making an effort to effect improvement of the environment, education and health programs, the lives of children. The problems loom large some days and it is important to believe that our efforts, however small they seem, are vitally important.
Gandhi’s assertion is that “satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment.”
At times it is difficult to see how things are going to turn out.

I didn’t know how things would turn out when I moved to Wichita in 2000. During my candidating week, I learned about the summer of 1991, the so-called Summer of Mercy and the work that the members of this church did in support of the women of Kansas. Soon after arriving I joined the Wichita Choice Alliance. I took time out to defend Dr. Tiller’s clinic so that the women seeking health care could get in the driveway. The 10th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy came around and anti-choice activity began again in earnest. They announced they would shut down our clinics. Once again our church and other people dedicated to retaining choice in Kansas worked to counter these anti-choice efforts. I was off in Colorado when the event took place but provided room and board for over a month for a group of women who came to do grass roots organizing for the Feminist Majority.

A new doctor doing training with Dr. Tiller stayed with us on and off the next summer. I’ve been involved in the movement for protection of choice here in Kansas. And that’s a big part of why I attended the April 25, 2004 March for Women’s Lives. I suppose any reason could be given and not be far off. For the things we do today are often shaped by the events of our lives long gone by, and perhaps not even consciously remembered. As I try to understand what my motives were, I realize that I might have predicted that this would be the march that would speak to me the strongest.

Many of us in this room remember when Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Others read the book even though it was published before they were born because this book, more than anything else, exploded on the scene in a way that jump-started the contemporary women’s movement. I had personally received my first taste of discrimination and sexism, a few years before the book hit the streets. I knew why a women’s movement was needed.

In 1965, I moved to Claremont, California and took a job at a small manufacturing company. My office mate was a single mother supporting her 8 year old son and her dependent adult sister. She became pregnant. She decided to terminate her pregnancy since she could not depend on support from the man who was involved. I learned the hard facts about getting an abortion in those days. One drove across the Mexican border alone and left your car sitting in a parking lot. The next leg of the journey involved being blindfolded and taken to an unknown location for the procedure, done without any medication. After an hour or so, the blindfold was put back on and you were ferried back to your car for the drive back to the US.

I could not understand why this procedure was necessary since the man she was involved with was very wealthy. Why couldn’t he find a doctor in California to help? This was my introduction to the limitations of reproductive choice for women. In Billings, Montana in 1972, a college student friend came to me in a dilemma. She needed money for an abortion. She had made contact with the local underground to find a woman who would terminate her pregnancy for $200. Even though I was living on a tight budget, I gave her the money and let her stay at my house for a few days until she stabilized.

After Roe v. Wade in 1973, things were still very difficult for women who made the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Trained medical abortion providers weren’t available in many places. I was involved in a group called “Billings Coalition for Women’s Rights” at this time. Our group included women of all ages and professions, from homemaker/students like myself to one attorney who was a state representative. During our meetings, several of our older members told of women’s health care during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Abortion then was a matter between a woman and her doctor. Women often made decisions based on their ability to care for another mouth to feed. Times were difficult and if you already had three children, well, it was unthinkable to bring another pregnancy to term. “We had to think of our children,” one of these women told me.

And so it is today. Many women who seek abortions are thinking of their children. Regardless of the reasons a woman seeks to terminate a pregnancy, it must remain a legal medical procedure under the care of a trained provider. Anything less than that is totally unacceptable. No woman should have to prove extreme mental duress or poverty or any other life condition. No woman should have to answer to anyone but herself. We are not going back to coat hangars.

In his book, “Sacred Choices, the Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions” Daniel C. Maguire makes a case that all of the major religions of the world have within them teachings that can be interpreted to offer room for “family planning.” Writing on Hindu teachings he says:

“Religious traditions are never seamless garments, though the faithful like to think of them that way. They are patchwork quilts, and not all the patches match. Alongside the prohibitions against abortion, ample evidence exists in the ancient medical tests of India that contraception and abortion were going on…These all attest to the fact that there has always been a human need to control or mitigate the consequences of sexuality, and that this face was recognized, with sympathy, by at least a section of the religious-medical teachers at various times.”

In the best of all possible worlds, such a human need to control the consequences of sexuality would be unnecessary. Until this happens, we live in a world where we seek new approaches to an age old problem. Abortion is now legal, but certain forces in our country are well organized to try to make it illegal once more.

Abortion clinics still exist here in Kansas, but a large group of conservatives introduce legislation each year designed to thwart both the providers of health care for women and women who need to receive care. Many people here in Wichita try to provide financial help for women unable to pay for their care, but public health care for people in poverty rarely provides support for either contraceptives or abortions. The two remaining clinics here in Wichita have been under siege by a small group of radical religious people who devote their lives and their children’s lives threatening all who enter. They have upped the ante and are now sending letters to the neighbors of all of the people working at the two clinics pointing out what terrible people they are. And apparently there is no way to get them to stop.

Sexism and patriarchy and authoritarianism are still abundantly found in religion and politics, and they continue to create a situation where women must constantly be on guard against encroachments on their freedom. The Bush administration has more women on board than any previous administration. Can anyone explain to me why the Bush administration does not therefore have a strong program for women? In fact, it seems to me that this administration has assaulted women’s programs from the very first full day President Bush was in office with his reimposition of the Reagan-era global “gag rule,” badly hampering international family planning and the fight against sexually transmitted diseases.
The most recent assault involves the so-called morning-after pill, which actually works during the 72 hours following unprotected sex.
The NY TIMES of May 9th writes in an editorial:

“The arrival of an over-the-counter morning-after pill in American drugstores has been delayed by a disappointing, politically motivated decision by the Food and Drug Administration. Wider availability of the pill would make it easier to avert unwanted pregnancies and reduce the rate of abortions. But once again, the Bush administration seems determined to make things difficult for women in America.”

It is reported that the FDA did not listen to the opinion of their expert advisory panel, which voted 23 to 4 in favor of making this treatment available over the counter. In addition the FDA also received the same kind of favorable support of more than 70 medical and public health organizations. The FDA said their reason for their denial was that they needed to be sure nobody under 16 had access to this treatment, because they might not know how to use it. One wag responded that the FDA considers a 16 year old woman old enough to have a baby, but not old enough to take an over the counter medication.

In 1986 Margaret Atwood wrote the Handmaid’s Tale, a story of what might happen if modern society learned that fertility had been compromised by exposure to chemicals and pollution present in the 20th century. Women’s bank accounts are closed by the clever use of computers, and women are reduced to several classes, those capable of giving birth and those not. It is a well written satirical tale, that frightened quite a few feminists who had been working for equality under the law in the form of the equal rights amendment. Could something like this happen? Probably not. But who do you think would have imagined that something like the Third Reich could have happened. The German people themselves didn’t understand what was happening as their Jewish neighbors and friends disappeared.

Reading the Handmaid’s Tale scared me since it wasn’t really science fiction but something that could theoretically happen. Then the Taliban took over Afghanistan and women were all sent home from work. I received almost daily email notices asking for letters to our government to intercede for these women. Articles appeared citing the high suicide rate of women in Afghanistan as a result of the loss of their freedom. That frightened me.

Today several religious groups are determined to take back Roe v. Wade. We have a fragile 5-4 balance on the Supreme Court that might be changed in the near future. That frightens me.

In Saturday’s Eagle, an Associated Press article outlined the stark warning of the bishop of Colorado’s second-largest Catholic diocese that voters should not receive Holy Communion if they back politicians who support abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia and gay marriage. An archbishop is quoted as saying he would not give communion to democratic presidential candidate John Kerry because the senator backs abortion rights. That frightens me.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1933 “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It would be easy to let history just happen around me. But the possibility of converting retreat into advance is tempting. And Gandhi’s words have given me satisfaction after returning home from an experience like no other in my life. Being part of a one million one hundred fifty thousand member flowing river of humanity with the same cause in mind was truly awesome. Full effort is full victory. Many of us who attended the march were there because it was something we could do to at least make a statement. And at best to alter the course of history. May it be so.