Thank You, President Obama

Following yesterday’s anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, President Barack Obama prepares today to rescind what has been known as the “global gag rule.” The regulation, in place for 17 of the past 25 years, prohibits health organizations receiving US foreign aid dollars from discussing abortion in any way. In an article on British news website guardian.co.uk, Dr. Gill Greer, director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation affirms:

The gag rule has done immense harm and caused untold suffering to millions around the world …. It has undermined health systems and endangered the lives and health of the poorest and most vulnerable women on the planet by denying access to life saving family planning, sexual and reproductive health and HIV services and exposing them to the dangers of unsafe abortion.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

I hope that this victory is the first of many that women all over the world can expect in the coming weeks, months and years of the Obama administration. For easy and effective ways that you can get involved in working for reproductive choice and justice, take a moment to visit the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice Action Center. A letter or phone call to your representative could make a difference in passing important legislation that supports reproductive health and education.

President Obama’s statement from yesterday. I feel proud and blessed that he is the leader of my country.

The 36th Anniversary of Roe v Wade

Today marks the anniversary of the historic supreme court decision that allowed women access to safe and legal abortion. It is a day to celebrate the success of women such as Dottie Doyle, a former state representative from Maine and a Unitarian Universalist who worked with so many others to help decriminalize abortion in the United States. Read her story here on the UUA website. After learning about Dorothy and her compatriots, I was struck but not surprised to learn that activism surrounding a woman’s right to choose was spurred on and supported by a resolution adopted at the 1968 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly to repeal laws restricting or criminalizing abortion. UUs all over the U.S. and Canada acted on this resolution. In Michigan, for example, many women worked tirelessly circulating petitions and collecting signatures in the face of threats, verbal abuse and ostracism. Without a doubt, Unitarian Universalist efforts contributed to the right to choose when to bear children being upheld as a constitutional right of women in the United States of America.

If a resolution adopted at General Assembly can make such a contribution, I have no doubt in my mind that, with the inauguration of a new administration and a new day dawning in Washinton, our voices as people of faith can and will be heard. As the new Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues at the Washington Office for Advocacy I am grateful to those who have worked for justice before me. Together we can have faith that we can help to change the laws of our country so that they reflect our values to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. I can have faith that I will see such changes not in some far-off dreamed future, but in the next year or two. I draw joy and strength and courage from that faith.

While celebrating and anticipating successes, however, I remain cautious, and I feel compelled to point out that Roe v Wade still needs our support and protection on all fronts. In most states, access to abortion is still restricted by mandates for parental notification and/or consent. In many states, women can barely seek information about abortion due to legal bans on counseling, biased counseling, and mandatory delays for abortion care. In all but the three states of Alabama, New Hampshire, and Vermont, health care providers can refuse care entirely to a woman seeking an abortion (see naral.org). These barriers to access continue to disproportionately affect poor women and women of color who have long struggled not only to gain access to quality and affordable health care but to be allowed to make informed choices about their own fertility. A woman living in a rural, northern county of my home state of Wisconsin would probably have to pay for her own abortion as well as travel for 6 to 8 hours, if she had access to a car and could drive, in order to reach a clinic that would perform the procedure.

In short, we still have a lot of work to do. True reproductive justice means that our societies protect girls and women from rape and sexual assault by teaching all children and adults that each person the right to make decisions about the sacred boundaries of their bodies. Reproductive justice means that no woman anywhere in the world is forced or coerced into bearing children when she does not choose to do so. Reproductive justice means that all women have access to safe and legal means of birth control and accurate information about possible side-effects and how to use them. Reproductive justice means that women and men undergo medical procedures that may affect their ability to have children only after giving their full and informed consent. Reproductive justice means that poor women and women of color are not denied or restricted from accessing any form of reproductive health care, nor from making an informed decision about any medication or procedure.

Access to safe, legal, confidential and affordable abortion is a right and a milestone along to path to achieving Reproductive Justice for all. I am proud to be part of an organization that has been working to this end for over 40 years, and I hope to do my best to continue in the footsteps of those who have walked this path before me.

The Bush Administration and Birth Control Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Secretary Leavitt’s proposal that broadly defined abortion to include some types of birth control. Many of you immediately responded to my request to tell Secretary Leavitt to reject the proposed regulation. Leavitt responded, and the definition of abortion was removed; however, the proposal still moved forward in its new form.

On August 26th, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed the new regulation which would allow health care providers to refuse to perform services they deem morally objectionable. Although abortion is not defined in this version, the regulation remains open to interpretation and allows employees to refuse to conduct or assist research activities. A full text of the proposal can be found here.

This regulation could severely affect a woman’s access to reproductive health care, including, but not limited to, abortions. The regulation does not include patients’ rights, and federal funding can be taken away from clinics that do not comply. This is particularly damaging to low-income women who may not be able to visit multiple clinics to receive the healthcare they need.

Currently, there is a 30-day comment period for the regulation. Act now and send your comments to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt expressing your opposition to the regulation!

The Bush Administration and Birth Control

The Bush administration has just drafted a set of regulations which would widen the definition of abortion to include various types of contraceptives, including birth control pills. In the administration’s proposed definition, abortion would include, “any of the various procedures — including the prescription and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.”

The regulation would deny federal funding to any health center, hospital or clinic that does not allow health care employees to opt out of providing services that would violate the employee’s moral beliefs. This would include the dissemination of birth control.

As reported by The Washington Post, the regulation also mentions that “many states have recently passed laws requiring health plans to pay for contraception, pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control, and hospitals to offer Plan B to women who have been raped.” The administrations inclusion of these facts indicates a belief that health care for women, including survivors of rape is something that is wrong with the current health care system.

States requiring health plans to cover contraceptives is a big step for feminism and reproductive health activists, but now we have an administration that wants to limit these plans. By not funding health care that dispenses contraceptives, the Bush administration is putting thousands of women, specifically low-income women, at risk.

Allowing members of the medical community to decide when or if they should give women reproductive health treatment puts women at risk of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and psychological harm.

This is not only an issue of reproductive choice, it is also an issue of the rights of women in general, and even how we respond to domestic violence.

You can protect a woman’s access to birth control by telling Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to reject this harmful regulation.

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

And the woman who made it all possible was Kierstin Homblette.

Kierstin was the Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues/Clara Barton Memorial Intern for the Washington Office at the time of the march. Much of her time was spent helping to plan and organize for this huge event. She is now finishing a tour in the Peace Corps in Senegal. When I asked her for her reflections on that day, she had this to offer:

It was so much more than a gathering of people in support of a cause. The March for Women’s Lives was something different for each of us. For me, the March and the months of planning that led up to it were an education in the power that I possess as a liberal person of faith. Organizing thousands of Unitarian Universalists to travel to Washington DC and worship and march together was the most difficult and time consuming part of my time at the UUA Washington Office. But the feeling of marching, singing, and witnessing with my fellow UUs on the Mall that day was also the most rewarding and fulfilling moment of my two years there.

By marching that day, we as Unitarian Universalists witnessed for what we believe and for what makes up the core of who we are. We didn’t just talk about it, or write about it, or even sing about it. We got out there and said it with our presence, with our bodies and feet and loud voices. And I marched next to my mother, who traveled all the way from Florida to raise her own voice with mine. Four years later, this remains a seminal moment for me – a turning point in my faith and in my confidence in the importance of our collective voice in the public discourse.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. On this International Women’s Day, one area of conversation that I hope will re-open for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Greens, is reinstating funding for the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities).

As you’ll recall, President George W. Bush de-funded the U.S. commitment to this program in the early days of his Presidency, on the grounds that Chinese programs sponsored by the UN coerced women into having abortions. Though his own State Department sent a delegation to China which concluded that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, U.S. funding for this program has been eliminated ever since.

In fall of 2003, I was privileged to be part of an interfaith delegation to China to scope out the situation. I joined Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in an extensive tour to remote areas to meet with U.N. sponsored programs. We divided up into subgroups, and between us we met with over fifteen U.N. sponsored family planning programs in 9 provinces.

My group, which primarily toured rural areas, popped in on tiny villages and walked the streets chatting with women home from the rice paddies or cornfields. (Ever since, I have imagined what it would be like if I opened my door one day to a delegation of Chinese women, come to interview me about my own life history related to birth control and abortion. I kind of doubt that my neighbors would offer the immediate and warm hospitality which we received universally, or welcome the open discussions of the pros and cons of IUDs versus the pill!)

Nowhere did we see evidence of the UN supporting coercion. Indeed, the UN used its funding to leverage family planning clinics NOT to coerce abortions! Swamped by many more requests for assistance than they could provide, they only worked with groups who agreed to extensive and detailed contracts related to subtle and nuanced ways in which abortions might be coerced. Any UN program where this was discovered had its funding suspended immediately.

Every time we met with a clinic staff, we would ask them dozens of questions, probing to learn if there was any validity to the rumors of coerced abortion, as well as asking them about their clientele and services. After we were done talking to them, we would always ask if there was anything they wanted to ask us.

In each setting, with clear desire not to offend but also with clear bewilderment, they asked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in the United States. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the U.S. carrying out the recommendations of the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994? Their clear and shining pride in China’s recent admission into the U.N. shone throughout these meetings. They clearly did not understand how we could dismiss our own responsibilities so lightly.

How did it happen they wondered, that teens were so often getting pregnant in the US? Didn’t they have the access to birth control which the conference in Cairo had agreed was essential? Were they getting good education about the implications of the decisions they made? Didn’t teen pregnancy hurt the young parents’ ability to have a good life, and diminish their ability to be good parents?

The humility I felt grew by the day as I saw these remote Chinese villagers holding up an expectation of international cooperation and accountability. It took a number of days for me to realize that I had learned, despite my professions to the contrary, to dismiss such international agreements as optional or secondary. My humility grew as I listened in on conversations of peasant women discussing the pros and cons of birth control options with far more knowledge and thoughtfulness than I had heard among college educated women in my life. It turned to something akin to shame as I began to recognize how deeply I had internalized American superiority; U.S. Supremacy in the world.

On this international women’s day, I’m going to do two things, in which I invite you to join me: First, I’m going to contact my candidate of choice for U.S. President to restate the importance of UNFPA funding. Second, I’m going to check out materials provided by the planning group for the UU International Women’s Convocation, now posted on the web at www.icuuw.com. Happy International Women’s Day, one and all!

Rev. Meg Riley

Thirty-Five Years of Choice

Blog for Choice Day

Today marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v Wade. Thirty-five years ago today the Supreme Court determined that abortion is legal until the fetus is viable outside the mother’s womb or if necessary to protect the health of the mother.

People across the United States are blogging about the importance of choice, specifically why it is important to vote pro-choice, while others are picketing and decrying the landmark legislation. Here at the UUA we are celebrating. The Unitarian Universalist Association has been a strong proponent of abortion rights since the 1960’s and has stood beside numerous organizations in support of Roe v. Wade. Many of our congregations and members have worked tirelessly to help women obtain safe abortions. Stories will be posted on the UUA website throughout the next few months; make sure to check www.uua.org and read the remarkable stories about UU’s and choice.

On this historic day, let us not take for granted all that has been accomplished for abortion rights. Year after year Roe v Wade and other abortion legislation is threatened. Both the appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court and the harmful decisions about access to abortion in individual states are real threats to Roe v Wade. We must continue to support abortion rights and let people know why we are pro-choice.

I am pro-choice because I feel a woman has a right to have control over her body. I am pro-choice because I feel women are strong and capable of making good decisions. And most of all I am pro-choice because I believe a child’s life is sacred and that children should be borne into loving and open arms.

Today, share your reasons for being pro-choice and listen to women that have made the tough decision to have an abortion. Reflect on what it means to you and what it means to others.

And remember, today is a day for celebration! Celebrate in support of a woman’s right to have control over her body. Celebrate thirty-five years of struggling to keep this protection in place. Celebrate those that continue to fight for access to abortion and an end to restrictive parental notification laws. Celebrate to give us hope and strength for the next thirty-five years.