I got involved in the pro-choice movement after college at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the mid-1990s, when a teen very close to me faced an unexpected pregnancy. I hadn’t really thought about abortion in a personal sense at all until that time, and then I couldn’t believe the beautiful child I’d known most of my life actually wanted to “throw it all away” to have a baby at 17. But it wasn’t to be – it was a molar pregnancy and ended in the first trimester. My friend didn’t become a mother until many years later. Still, the experience left a mark that changed both our lives.
I was devastated that abortion was an option my young friend felt she could not even consider. When the pregnancy turned out to be unviable, I thanked my lucky stars that the universe had saved her from her predicament. I also did what many of us do when emotionally overwhelmed, I found a group to blame and demonize: the pro-life movement, which had “poisoned” my friend against what I then viewed as the only sane choice under the circumstances.
My friend didn’t become a mother until many years later. Still, the experience left a mark that changed both our lives.
After that heartbreaking episode, I developed an interest in my local Planned Parenthood in Urbana-Champaign. I went there a few times for women’s health services after graduation. I found the few, lonely protestors who kept trying to talk me out of going into the building so otherworldly; who were these people, in this sleepy, mostly empty downtown area in semi-rural Illinois, and why were they trying to prevent me from getting a PAP smear and birth control? I was trying to be responsible, and I felt like I was being treated as a criminal.
In 1997, I packed up all my belongings in the back of my parents’ minivan and moved out to Boulder, Colorado for graduate school in biochemistry at the University of Colorado. I began volunteering in my spare time, phone banking and knocking on doors for NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado. I attended rallies and direct actions for pro-choice candidates, wrote lots of letters, and even dabbled in lobbying my state representatives.
For years, I was basically a one-issue activist, but my conception of feminism broke apart in the aftermath of the huge life wake-up of having my first daughter in 2007 (I’m now the proud mother of three little ones, an 8-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy/girl twins). As I entered the proverbial next phase, I had a trial-by-fire expansion of my understanding of the social, cultural and economic complexities that affect reproductive choice.
If we, as a society, want women to have true, viable choices, we need to support women who want to keep their pregnancies.
I realized that choice is really about a whole range of issues. It means offering evidence-based reproductive education in schools, access to effective contraception, all-options counseling, and yes, the right to choose an abortion.
And it doesn’t end there. If we, as a society, want women to have true, viable choices, we need to support women who want to keep their pregnancies. That means universal paid family leave and health care, including mental health care, for all new mothers. With my first pregnancy, I actually had no health insurance past the first two weeks of maternity leave, without even knowing my coverage had lapsed until after I was back at work. Real choice means having high quality pre-natal and post-natal care, and it means having the birth you want that is safe for mother and baby whether it’s at a birthing center, at home, or at the hospital.
It also means offering accessible, affordable quality daycare and after-school care so parents can support their families. I was shocked when I found myself paying annual daycare bills that rivaled college tuition costs (Colorado has the 5th highest tuition by state at a whopping $12,900 per year average for full day care in 2012).
Real choice means ending wage discrimination, and raising the minimum wage. We still make $0.79 for every dollar white men earn, and for black women, that’s $0.63. Women who find themselves pregnant – because 45% of pregnancies in the US are unplanned – need to find raising a baby a financially viable decision.
Real choice means reversing the shrinking middle class piece of the pie, so families can afford to have one parent stay home with their babies and young children if they choose.
All these issues are inextricably linked to the reproductive choices women make. And we have so much more work to do.
Gwen Murphy is a PhD biochemist, medical writer, blogger and activist. Visit www.murphymedicalwriting.com for more information.
- Tran AB. Map: The average cost for child care by state. Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/07/02/map-the-average-cost-for-child-care-state/LN65rSHXKNjr4eypyxT0WM/story.html. Published July 02, 2014. Accessed May 3, 2016.
- American Association of University Women. The Pay Gap Is Even Worse for Black Women, and That’s Everyone’s Problem. http://www.aauw.org/2015/07/21/black-women-pay-gap/. Published July 21, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2016.
- Guttmacher Institute. Unintended Pregnancy in the United States Fact Sheet. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-united-states?gclid=CjwKEAjw0pa5BRCLmoKIx_HTh1wSJABk5F_4ToQKG1Ss1-qG0065VMQSdl-xZTk-rDPf660ucsm6SRoCqBPw_wcB. Published March 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016.
Stock photo by adamr from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.