If you follow the wave of anti-choice laws restricting abortion at the state level, you know things look bleak in Texas. Last month, the last two clinics in the Rio Grande Valley closed, leaving women in rural South Texas without access to services. Because of the hurdles providers now have to clear as a result of House Bill 2, which passed in July, the number of clinics in the state has dropped by nearly half — from 44 in 2011 to 24 today. By the fall, just six facilities providing abortion are expected to remain.
Legal challenges are in the works, but for now anti-choice advocates there are winning. So my ears perked up last week at a talk at UC Berkeley on the past, present and future of reproductive justice when I heard these words from someone considered one of the movement's top tacticians:
"If you lead with immigration reform, you might actually get abortion access in Texas."
Heads nodded and tweets were fired off as Sujatha Jesudason, who directs CoreAlign, an organization supporting new leaders in the fight for sexual and reproductive health, offered this take on how to best achieve policy change. But the room was mostly filled with activists and academics who are already acquainted with reproductive justice, a 20-year-old framework for advocacy and organizing that links abortion to other social and economic issues. Reproductive justice gives a more inclusive set of rights — the right to have children, not have children, and to parent with dignity — equal weight with the right to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy. For anyone not already familiar with the concept, the idea that you vote for one issue and somehow end up with a victory elsewhere may feel like a leap of logic, if not a bait and switch.
Not if you understand the barriers a woman in the Rio Grande Valley or California's Central Valley faces when she has an unplanned pregnancy, said Samara Azam-Yu, when I asked her perspective. Azam-Yu directs ACCESS, an Oakland, CA-based hotline that offers reproductive health information to callers statewide. "Abortion is a priority issue for a lot of our callers but it's not the most pressing issue that they're facing in their lives," she said. "When we make strides on the other broader issues, it improves abortion access."
Here's how, she said: An undocumented woman in the Central Valley has a good chance of having a high-risk pregnancy, given high rates of asthma and obesity and other health disparities associated with poverty and inability to access healthcare. She may need to travel to see an abortion provider, but that means taking a bus or a train and chancing a run-in with ICE. A victory on immigration reform would mean removing the fear of deportation that keeps women immobilized, isolated, and away from the services they need. Talking about health access as it relates to reform could be a way to motivate voters who care about immigrant rights but don't feel connected to the abortion rights movement.
A bill introduced in the US House last month — the Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women & Families Act — is trying to do just that by making insurance available to more than 600,000 people who are in the US lawfully but face a five-year wait in some states before they can access benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Connecting the dots in new ways was also an important component of last year's victory over an Albuquerque ballot initiative that would have banned abortion in the city — and effectively the region — after 20 weeks.
In Albuquerque, the goal wasn't to advance immigrant rights while defeating the bill, but to use language that would resonate with Latino voters — typically considered too conservative to be reliable on abortion rights issues — and get them to come to the polls during the November special election.
"We brought the issue out of the ivory towers of reproductive rights conversations and made it about real people experiencing barriers to access health," Tannia Esparza, who directs Young Women United (YWU), told me. "There's a whole generation of young people, people of color who haven't been included in those conversations in the same way."
YWU, a local organization led by women of color, was part of the coalition that opposed the initiative and pushed for a new approach to talking about abortion that would reach beyond the middle class white voters who could be counted on to reject the proposal. The group used language that they knew from anecdotal evidence and from research would mobilize a broader base, language that focused on the importance of women and families making decisions for themselves. One piece of campaign literature read, "We are parents, tías, ninos, brothers and sisters. We are neighbors, friends, people of faith — We are New Mexican families.... Our New Mexican families do not need government interference in our private decisions." It turned out to be key to avoid labels like "pro-choice" and "pro-life," which Esparza calls polarizing. It worked: More than 80,000 Albuquerque voters went to the polls, more than had turned out for the mayoral race six weeks prior. Ten percent more Democrats weighed in on the ban than had chosen the city's mayor, compared to 4 percent more Republicans and 7 percent more Independents. YWU's research and polling showed that their work in Latino communities paid off at the polls. According to Micaela Cadena, the group's policy director: "We won over Latino Democrats. Those who were Independent or Republican, we held their vote to where it was in the beginning [of the campaign]."
It's a strategy that could be useful to abortion rights proponents in nearby Arizona, where legislators passed a law last week allowing health inspectors to make surprise visits to abortion clinics without first getting a warrant, and where a temporary court order is the only thing keeping a new restriction on medication abortion from going into effect.
Moving away from a singular focus on abortion isn't about aligning with one particular movement, it's about creating a big tent that's appealing to progressive Millennials, according to Jesudason.
"How can we bring a gender perspective to discussions around minimum wage or immigration reform, knowing that they're all the same voters?" she said when we spoke after last week's talk. "If people are going to vote progressively on minimum wage or marriage equality, they're just as likely to vote progressively on choice issues."