NY Daily News Op-Ed

Republicans’ war on abortion rights continues: But we can’t give up the fight for women’s rights

BY ALEXANDER SANGER
Thursday, October 27 2011, 4:00 AM

On Nov. 8, Mississippi residents will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would categorize a fertilized human egg as a legal person. If passed, this measure would prohibit not only abortion, but common birth control methods such as the IUD. While a similar measure was twice defeated in Colorado, in 2008 and 2010, by wide margins, other states – including Florida and Ohio – are considering comparable initiatives.
These attacks are dangerous, but they are nothing new, part of a century-long war on women. While we all know it generally takes two to tango when it comes to sex, women – specifically poor women – have historically paid the disproportionate share of the price when politics and misguided morality triumph over public health necessities.
One hundred years ago this month, my grandmother began her career as an advocate. A recent arrival in New York herself, Margaret Sanger worked as a nurse in the lower East Side, where immigrants lived crowded in fetid tenements and the infant mortality rate was of Third World proportions.
My grandmother was particularly struck by the daily drudgery of mothers. She immediately saw the connection between the dire living conditions and the fact that many births were unwanted, recalling one 72 year-old woman who said “she would gladly have another baby if nature were willing, but her daughters and sons, who had endured poverty and neglect. . .preferred risking imprisonment and death rather than bearing children and have them go through what they lived through.”
My grandmother soon learned that women were routinely denied access to contraception and information about how to prevent pregnancies. It was the attitude at the time that women – and women alone – were responsible for the consequences of marital relations. The draconian Comstock Laws made it illegal to distribute contraceptives or provide educational materials about sexual health or reproduction, as this information was then considered “lascivious.
My grandmother soon discovered that Comstock carried implications far more serious than censorship when she tried to save the life of one of her patients following a botched back-alley abortion. She swore “no more” and founded the birth control movement in America, subsequently opening the first of her clinics in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Her clinic was open less than two weeks before being closed by the police as a “public nuisance.” She went to jail for 30 days, but kept fighting, eventually founding the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Today, IPPF has more service points worldwide than McDonald’s does franchises, providing millions with contraception and reproductive health care each year. In the U.S., Planned Parenthood partners with city, state and federal health agencies to bring healthcare to those who cannot afford it.
But then again, many modern-day Comstocks are seeking to characterize sex as a public threat, trying to pass legislation that will once more burden the poorest of mothers. The proposed amendment in Mississippi – as well as other anti-woman initiatives brewing in other states – compromises decades of hard- won gains in public health, all for the sake of outdated and dangerous ideology. There is, in fact, nothing ideal about denying women the health services and education they need and want: We know from experience that women will risk their lives to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
My grandmother’s cause began a century ago this month in the slums of lower Manhattan; her fight continues today. And like Margaret Sanger, we will not retreat until reproductive rights and health become a reality for all.

Sanger is the chairman of the International Planned Parenthood Council and the author of “Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century.”

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