Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reproductive rights advocates: 'Reclaim that moral high ground'

P. Ellen Parsons was a scientific researcher and a champion for women’s health and public health. It only makes sense, then, that Parsons is remembered with a session that reminds public health advocates that her work is not done.

At Tuesday’s “P. Ellen Parsons Memorial Session: Stirring the Pot to Defend Women’s Rights in New Orleans and Nationally,” representatives from four organizations spoke of their work to defend reproductive health access for women, especially poor women, in Louisiana and beyond.

Louisiana is a particular microcosm of the ways reproductive health access, and especially abortion access, has been restricted. In Louisiana, many laws are designed to restrict providers from offering abortion care: a mandatory 24-hour waiting period; mandatory counseling and ultrasound (done 24 hours before the abortion, requiring two separate trips to the clinic); and a 20-week gestational limit. Similarly, laws are also designed to restrict women from getting abortions they want: Medicaid does not cover abortion in Louisiana; women younger than 18 must have parental consent or a judicial bypass (requiring young women who are not able to talk to their parents about needing an abortion to talk to a court instead, often without legal representation); and there are only five clinics that provide abortion statewide.

And despite the fact that by age 45, one in three women will have had an abortion, women who do seek the procedure still face stigma.

“Despite all the restrictions and stigma, our phones keep ringing,” said Jessie Nieblas, a board member of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that offers some financial assistance to women who cannot afford their abortions on their own. The fund's clients are mostly women of faith, women of color and women who are either in school or working, but need financial help. Most already have an average of two children they are caring for.

In New Orleans specifically, disparities in health, access and vulnerability are painfully clear, according to session presenters.

“We know what happens after disaster,” said Lisa Richardson, director of research and evaluation at the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. “We know there’s heightened vulnerability.”

And it’s not just women seeking abortion who are affected. Amanda Dennis, an associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, pointed out that across the country, as the number of abortion restrictions in a state increase, the number of policies that support women’s and children’s well-being actually decrease.

So what can public health advocates do? Stand for the facts and be vocal about them, for one thing. Renee Carter, chair-elect of APHA’s Medical Care Section, told session attendees that it’s the responsibility of public health leaders to be advocates for reproductive health. We need to remind lawmakers that when women’s right to abortion was legalized with Roe v. Wade, deaths related to abortion decreased dramatically. Session presenters urged: Tell policymakers that abortion restrictions do not eliminate abortion, but that they do encourage unsafe abortion.

“What is our responsibility," Carter asked. "We need to feel obligated and take action."

And advocates must also “reclaim that moral high ground,” Nieblas concluded. “Because we are right. We are the ones advocating for better outcomes and better access.”

— L.W.

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