SCARLET LETTERS

11.05.12

Martha Plimpton on Women’s Rights, Sandra Fluke, and Organization A is For

Ahead of tomorrow’s presidential election, actress and advocate Martha Plimpton writes about why women’s rights are actually human rights in 2012.

A long, long time ago, back in February of this year, a young woman named Sandra Fluke was invited to testify before Rep. Darrel Issa’s hilariously banana republic-style hearings on the contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Fluke was the only person called to testify who was prepared to defend the provision. The rest of those called were all opposed. They were also all men. Charmingly, she was denied the opportunity to speak before the full committee. Justifiably angered, female House Democrats on the committee walked out in protest, and America was once again forced to face its bizarre refusal to accept the reality of women’s right to even speak on the subject of physical autonomy.

“We will not be told how to interpret our physical freedom by legislators who don’t even know how the human body works. We will not be silent. We’re not going away.”

Fluke was called a barrage of disgusting names by Captain Class, Rush Limbaugh, and the wretched underbelly of what truly lies at the heart of our disdain for women’s bodies in this country was exposed for what it is: an ideology based entirely on the magical thinking that says if you can just shut a woman up, whittle away her right to control her own body, make it harder for her to compete in the workplace by denying her fair and equal pay, and tell her what rape “really” means, you will stop her from making an ass out of you and your friends. Nice try.

It didn’t work. It didn’t shut Sandra Fluke up. In fact, it only turned up the volume. She’s since become one of the most highly visible and articulate spokeswomen for women’s right to comprehensive health care. She even spoke at the Democratic Convention, y’all! I mean, whatever that genius Darrell Issa was hoping he’d accomplish that day, he failed. Miserably. And Rush Limbaugh only served to help turn her into a model of responsible activism, engagement, and political poise. Well done, Sandra. Well done. You didn’t shut up. You kept going.

The magical thinking I’ve described above has taken hold of an entire political party that is hell-bent on either ignoring or denying the fact that access to contraception, abortion services, and comprehensive reproductive health care actually reduces abortion rates and helps women to lead better, more happy lives. But, when you don’t have a serious scientific, economic, or social policy argument against allowing women control of their own bodies, you resort to magical thinking. You resort to extremism. You resort to rhetorical violence. You resort to lying. (Abortion causes cancer and major depression now? Huh. Well, the AMA will be surprised to hear that.) You end up calling women sluts because they want their birth control covered under the same umbrella as your precious Viagra. (Please, do not tell me every man who takes Viagra is doing it to have babies. Stop it. Just stop it right now. I thank you.) Then, when your base is all riled up, you start proposing and enacting insane, religion-based legislation that shows a blatant disregard for American women’s Constitutional right to physical autonomy.

It was in response to the increase in hateful language aimed at women like Sandra Fluke that inspired a few women, myself included, to get together in anger and frustration and amazement. We all wanted to talk about what we could do, now, to stop this lunacy. The reality is that Roe v. Wade, the somewhat murky decision that granted women the right to abortion, is quickly becoming a Right In Name Only, and it’s under serious threat in a very real way. You see, when states have the ability to curtail the applications of a Constitutional right, you get into choppy waters. Slowly but surely, over the last two decades, women’s right to determine when, if, or how they carry a pregnancy to term has been chipped away through one piece of carefully crafted legislation after another. When you discover that only 12 percent of counties in the entire United States have an abortion provider, you realize pretty quickly that a right is only a right if you can exercise it. A huge number of women in this country do not have access to a Constitutionally protected—for now—medical procedure that one in three of them will have at some point in their lives. Whether it’s legal or not.

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We were all big fans of Larry Kramer, Act Up, and the revolutionary impact that both had in making the AIDS crisis a national priority. It was aggressive, it was unapologetic, it was necessary, and it was effective. The red AIDS ribbon subsequently became a unifying symbol for engagement and solidarity. When you saw people wearing them, you knew what it meant. It meant they had a loved one, a partner, a brother, or a Mom who had died while our nation’s leaders looked the other way and prevented real progress out of fear, bigotry, and ignorance. Before long, all kinds of people wore them to show that they cared, that they stood with those people, whether they knew someone who was directly affected or not. The red ribbon turned what had been an untouchable (literally) subject into something you had to be a jerky ignoramus not to care about. The shame and isolation that were used to segregate and silence the gay community during the AIDS crisis were met with a loud, consistent, and highly visible anger. If you did not share in that anger, you were not on the right side of history, or justice.

And so, today, the idea that an employer or doctor could deny an HIV/AIDS patient medical coverage or care on the grounds of “conscience” or religious “objections” is rightly seen as a laughable absurdity. Anyone who might attempt such an egregious act of discrimination would be justifiably sued within five seconds. Yet the Blunt Amendment, proposed earlier this year, would have made that very thing possible. Of course, it was proposed under the rubric of denying women medical coverage, ergo: medicine, as a way to undermine Obamacare, so it was OK to entertain such an insane piece of legislation. Somehow, still, women don’t rate. Luckily, that bill was voted down. But by only three votes. Yes, you read that right. Three. Are you getting what I’m laying down here? Women’s right to fair and basic medical treatment was three votes away from being annihilated. That’s not “Sit Back and See What Happens” information. That’s “Get Up and Fight Now” information.

You see, women’s rights are human rights. The laws curtailing those rights are not so far removed from your right to, say, marry who you love. Or to have a vasectomy. Or, I don’t know, vote? You—man or woman, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat—need to care about this.

While it’s been a long time since women were dying from back-alley abortion in this country, or were being prevented from receiving medical attention for miscarriage before being subjected to interrogation, the truth is, lest we forget, that was the reality for women before Roe. And in many states, Roe is disappearing. TRAP laws are shutting down clinics all over the country. Defunding of Title X is closing down clinics that serve poor women, even if they don’t provide abortions. In Mississippi this year there has been an ongoing battle—brilliantly fought by the intrepid lawyers at the Center For Reproductive Rights—to keep the one remaining clinic operational. So-called “Personhood Amendments,” which would essentially make an actual person subject to the legal primacy of a potential person, are being proposed in state after state, despite a profound lack of popular support. It’s long past time we put a stop to it and asked, “Where’s MY Personhood Amendment?”

So, we founded A is For, an organization that uses the scarlet letter A as an instantly recognizable symbol of defiance and unity. A is For is dedicated to challenging the stigma, shame, and isolation that is the key tool in the conservative arsenal against women’s fundamental human right to control our own physical lives. We’re reappropriating that brand, and we will decide what it means from now on. We own our own lives.

Our inspiration comes not only from the women who fought for equality from the 1880s through the 1970s, but the gay men and women and their families who stood up and said “Enough!” in the ’80s. And those who are successfully working for marriage equality now. They all offer up a lesson we should not ignore. It’s a lesson in persistence, in being unapologetic and unashamed in our demand for equal protection. Women know what it means to have their right to control their own bodies taken away from them, whether it’s through an act of physical force, or an act of law. And neither is acceptable. We will not be told how to interpret our physical freedom by legislators who don’t even know how the human body works. We will not be silent. We’re not going away. And we are loved by too many others who are willing to stand up and be counted with us.