Reproductive Wars

10.10.134:45 AM ET

Abortion Access For All Our Daughters

Sally Kohn on why she wants safe, legal abortion to be around when her daughter comes of age—and how the right is fighting to shut down that option.

I’m always struck that anti-abortion activists try to frame being pro-choice as meaning you’re anti-family and anti-children. Because when I think about abortion, I think about my daughter.

My partner and I have a five-year-old. Her name is Willa. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will be inundated with adorable pictures of Willa.

Suggesting that because I’m pro-choice means I’m anti-children is crazy—because I’m crazy about my kid. But it’s more than just that—I’m not just pro-choice in spite of being a mom; I’m more pro-choice than ever because I’m a mom.

I want my daughter to live in a world where abortion is safe, legal and accessible to her and everyone else’s daughter, too.

Now, let me be clear about something. I don’t want my daughter to ever have an abortion … because I don’t want my daughter to ever have sex! Seriously, she’s only five and has no idea what sex is. But she does know that she’s not allowed to do it until she’s 30. I call this pre-emptive prophylactic parenting. Which, at the rate of regressive right wing policy in this country, might soon be the only prophylactics any of us can access…

Of course, I’m kidding. My daughter’s actually allowed to have sex when she’s 25!

No really… I am kidding because hard though it is to think about since she’s only five, I do want my daughter to have sex when she’s ready—and more importantly, have a healthy and happy relationship to sex and her own body and sense of self and pleasure. And I realize, if I had a son, I wouldn’t even make that joke about not wanting my kid to have sex.

So much of the judgment and fear-mongering in our culture about abortion and contraception is an extension of the demonization of female sexuality. I want my daughter to grow up in a society where she can be proud of being a girl and proud of her body and proud about having sex—when she’s ready!

But you know to be honest, the other thing is that it’s not really true that NARAL is here for my daughter. That’s only partly true. If my daughter ever needs or wants an abortion, I hope she’ll feel she can tell me and I can go with her and help her. But either way, whatever the circumstances, I want her to have unrestricted access to abortion services provided by a qualified medical professional in a safe and sanitary facility. And NARAL fights to make that possible, all across the country.

But the fact is that economic mobility in America is the lowest it’s been since almost a century ago. Which means that kids like mine—kids with upper-middle class parents—are likely to stay upper middle class. White kids with upper-middle class parents are especially likely to remain financially well-off in life. Which means that, let’s be honest, if my daughter chooses to have an abortion in 20 years or 40 years, she’ll probably have access to the resources to go across the country or even across an ocean to have one—no matter what.

But let’s talk about the little girls growing up in a place like West Philadelphia. Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities in America, and West Philly is one of the poorest parts of Philadelphia.

Philly is home to only 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s population—but 33 percent of the state’s welfare recipients. It has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, with over one in 25 Philly teens getting pregnant before the end of high school. Not unrelated, Philadelphia also has the highest high school dropout rate in the nation. Philadelphia’s unemployment rate has consistently been higher than the national average throughout the economic downturn and even before—and black unemployment, concentrated in neighborhoods like West Philly, is as much as 50 percent higher.

Youth unemployment in Philadelphia is twice the national average. The median household income in the United States is about $50,000. But in Philadelphia, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line—the median house income is $37,000. In West Philly? It’s $26,000.

All of America is struggling right now. But struggling would be a step up for much of West Philadelphia. And somebody else’s daughter is growing up there.

West Philadelphia is where Kermit Gosnell ran an underground, illegal abortion clinic. Thankfully, Gosnell was exposed because of abortion activists, and Gosnell was tried and convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole for each of the three murders. And, as a side note, I feel deeply conflicted about our system of aggressive prosecution and incarceration in America—but I don’t for a second feel conflicted about a Gosnell being locked up forever for his crimes.

Reading about the atrocities in Gosnell’s clinic—it takes your breath away. What he did was monstrous. Monstrous. And thanks to repeated exposure by reproductive justice activists and feminist journalists, Gosnell was exposed and arrested and tried and convicted for his crimes. What Gosnell did wasn’t medical treatment. It was illegal, unethical and criminal. Period.

Kermit Gosnell is not a rallying cry to further limit access to safe and affordable abortion services. Gosnell is a warning sign—of the dire conditions to which women subject themselves when they do not have access to the choices NARAL seeks to preserve.

I made the mistake of making this point on Twitter recently. I have a lot of right-wing “fans” from being on Fox News. They were outraged. What did I mean these women didn’t have other choices?

Well, first of all, thanks to the advocacy of anti-choice activists, the number of abortion providers across the state is quickly declining. For instance, there isn’t a single provider in the several hundreds of miles between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Eighty-two percent of Pennsylvania counties have no abortion provider at all.

And if you can find a clinic in Pennsylvania, you have to get counseling that shames you and discourages you from having an abortion and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. Minors need their parent’s consent.

If you make it through those hurdles but rely on insurance paid for with public funding—whether because you’re on Medicaid or maybe you work for the government—then your abortion isn’t covered, except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

At a Senate hearing, Tyhisha Hudson, a woman who had obtained an abortion at Gosnell's clinic, was asked why she went to him. You know what she said? That everyone in the neighborhood knew that Gosnell was the man you saw for the cheapest abortion.

In fact, according to Grand Jury testimony, Gosnell had a separate, clean waiting room for white patients. He treated white patients better because he thought they were more likely to file a complaint. Kermit Gosnell preyed on poor black women who are the first people left desperate by the right wing’s deliberate erosion of economic opportunity and quality health care for all.

These women had no other choices? What about birth control, I was yelled at on Twitter. Well, $15 to $50 a month for oral contraceptives seems like a drop in the bucket to some people. But let’s say you’re on food stamps, which in Pennsylvania comes to about $128 a month per person—less than in other states. You have to feed yourself and your family on just $128 per person per month! And now those benefits are being cut. You’re really going to have 15 or 50 bucks lying around for birth control?

So, what then? Then they shouldn’t have sex! That’s what the anti-abortion folks told me on Twitter. And what that really translates to is: Poor women shouldn’t have sex.

You don’t have a job, or your job pays crap wages? You don’t have a loving partner with a job? You rely on public assistance to feed your family and are already barely getting by? How dare you find an ounce of pleasure in a moment of passion! How dare you cross your fingers and uncross your legs and just use a condom or worse, nothing at all because the right doesn’t want them given out for free either… How dare you try to control your own body, your own destiny, your own life even for a second!

In a society that commodifies everything to package and sell to elites, sex is a luxury good that poor women can’t afford.

You know, I’m amazed how we don’t judge the choices that rich white men make. Look at how we don’t prosecute bank executives who illegally foreclosed on middle class families and rigged international lending rates. Look at how we defend mutli-million dollar pay packages for CEOs running their companies into the ground and yet scrutinize even a 10-cent increase in the minimum wage. Look at how we make excuses for male politician after politician who drop their pants and then make comebacks (pun intended!).

But poor women, especially poor women of color, immigrant women—we judge every choice they make. We judge them if they have children. We judge them if they get abortions and don’t have children. We don’t care that General Electric doesn’t pay any taxes— but we care that poor women of color collect public assistance AND have too nice of a cell phone.

In fact, the same people who want to restrict access to abortion services also want to cut Medicaid and food stamps and public housing funding and Head Start and basically anything and everything that would make it possible for poor women of color to support themselves and their families. How dare we criticize poor women for the choices they make when we leave them with so few choices!

After all—reproductive freedom is economic freedom. Reproductive justice is economic justice. Reproductive liberation is economic liberation.

I want my daughter to grow up in a world where her potential is defined by her talent and hard work, not her gender.

But just as important, if she succeeds more than someone else’s daughter, I want it to be because she tried harder—not just because at 16 my daughter can get an abortion if she needs one and go on to graduate high school and college and achieve her dreams while someone else’s daughter cannot make the same choice and ends up condemned to the cycle of poverty. NARAL Pro-Choice America is here for my daughter—and everyone else’s daughters, too.

I want everyone else’s daughters to have the same choices my daughter will have—including the power to make their own choices with their bodies and their lives. Because whether we like those choices or not, those are their choices to make.

We need a vibrant pro-choice, pro-family, feminist movement created by the daughters and sons of the last generation, all of you here today, seeding a generation of leaders and voices for my daughter and your daughters and everyone else’s daughters—and sons. A movement that must continue to safeguard reproductive choice and promote sexual autonomy and economic liberation for all women and families worldwide.

We need the pro-choice movement today more than ever—a movement that hopefully my daughter will join. Which she might need to do, at least to fill up all her free time … if she’s not having sex!


This originally appearead a speech to NARAL in Chicago this week.