Can We Turn Back the War on Women?

Taken from the May/June 2012 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

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 oblivion.

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 models.

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 building towards the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013. The banners and related information can be viewed at

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