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The great American sex scandal: US activist Sarah Sophie Flicker discusses the country's threat to reproductive rights

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An introduction from Lena Dunham:
"Reproductive rights are such a big issue for women in the US and when I talk to my friends in the UK, I realise  they have different things on their mind because you have a more evolved system. I think it’s really important  for women to understand some of the threats to reproductive rights that exist in the US. As part of my book  tour, I’m going around my country with [reproductive health care charity] Planned Parenthood, promoting  their work. For me, it’s the most important thing I’ve got to do, outside of my work.”

US activist Sarah Sophie Flicker explores America’s shame.

Sarah Sophie Flicker

I had an abortion when I was 18. No big deal, right? For you in the UK, this probably isn’t that shocking a revelation. And up until recently it probably wouldn’t have been in the USA either. But these days, we almost have to come out of the abortion closet. Our rights are in danger, and yet 35% of American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45.

All you women in the UK must be looking at America thinking, “What the heck is going on over there?” Because for you, contraception is free on the NHS. If you want the pill (and are over 16) you go to your GP. Abortions, too, are free. How in the world did the US fall so far behind? From where I stand it feels as though we are fighting for issues we thought were resolved in the Seventies.

Things were going fairly well in the area of reproductive freedom until the 2010 election, where Republicans took hold of the house. In the US our President can be a Democrat, but the house can still be Republican, which means it can block a lot of what the President is trying to accomplish. In the past four years, more than 200 laws curtailing abortion rights were put into practice in the US. Our country has become completely polarised in regards to everything from birth control to equal pay. The right wing, religious arm of the Republican party has been very successful in making its voice heard loud and clear, and that voice is firmly anti-equality when it comes to women’s rights.

I have three kids, I’ve been a card-carrying feminist since I was a teen, and have always assumed that reproductive rights were a battle I wouldn’t have to fight, for myself or my children.

The truth is that choice and reproductive freedom are a huge part of why I am (hopefully) a good mother today. I was 18 when I fell pregnant. It was my first year of college and I was in love with my boyfriend who was 11 years my senior. We had financial stability and he was at an age where it wasn’t crazy for him to think about having kids. I, on the other hand, was horrified. I felt like my body had been invaded. I felt dirty, irresponsible and frightened. I felt so much shame I couldn’t tell my parents, my parents who are left-wing, progressive and pro-choice and who would have been 100% supportive. But I was firm in my resolve. I had an abortion and my experience was easy, comfortable, good. I never regretted that decision. But I was lucky.

My heart aches for all the women who don’t have the ability to make this important decision with ease. As it stands, in the US it is becoming more difficult for women to have abortions, to have reproductive care or even to acquire birth control. The right wing is throwing roadblocks up left, right and centre. Oregon is now the only state that hasn’t reneged, to some degree, on the stipulations set out in the landmark 1973 Roe Vs Wade case, which ruled that a woman has a right to an abortion until viability (24 weeks).  

A demonstration outside a branch of hobby lobby

A demonstration outside a branch of hobby lobby

My freedom to choose when I was 18 was something I took for granted. And that was a good thing. We have (rightly) taken our long-held rights for granted, such as the right to contraception, the right to an abortion, the right to equal pay, the right to vote. These safeguards to our health and well-being that have been firmly in place for decades are suddenly up for grabs. What we take for granted as ours is, once again, on the chopping block.

Put simply, the facts are this: prices for birth control pills vary from $15-$150 per month in America, depending on your medical insurance cover and where you live. The Affordable Care Act means under some insurance plans birth control is free, but if your plan falls under any religious exclusions or is associated with a non-profit organisation, this won’t apply. The same price disparity affects abortion services, too. Dependent on insurance, Medicaid funding [social healthcare for low-income families] and location, prices can vary from $300-$950. If your pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or if you pass certain low-income requirements, Medicaid should cover your costs, however there will be legal hoops to jump through, and in some states under 18s require parental consent. For the most part, if you can’t raise the funds to have an abortion, you cannot have one.

There are more crappy facts about the state of womanhood in the US today: 31 American states allow a rapist to sue a woman for custody and/or visitation of the child birthed from that rape; 87% of all US counties have no abortion provider; in 13 states, a pharmacist can legally refuse to dispense birth control even if you have a prescription; 26 states have waiting periods for abortion while only 11 have waiting periods for guns and in 35 states, the government force women to go to counselling before they can have an abortion. Just last month, every Republican senator voted against a bill to help women get equal pay. Looking at the above paragraphs makes my head spin. Women are 51% of the US population for crying out loud.

Take a stand

So, along with the incredible Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show, comedian and activist) and a slew of formidable women, we’ve created a campaign and media juggernaut called Lady Parts Justice (ladypartsjustice. com). We’ve been working for a year on this as our mid-term elections – the less sexy cousin to the presidential elections – are coming up. Mid-terms are critical because most of the regressive, anti-women laws are being passed at state level. In the first six months of 2014, Republican state houses introduced 468 bills to regulate women’s bodies. How many for men? Zero. In fact, in the entire history of the US there have been ZERO bills regulating men’s bodies.

We wrote a manifesto to explain why what we do is important, including the following points:
 

  • Because women decide elections [In 2012’s presidential election, 10 million more women voted than men] and if we get together and blow this sh*t up in a smart and funny way, we just may get folks to sit up, take action and reverse this erosion of rights.
  • Because neanderthal politicians are spending all their time making laws that put YOUR body squarely into THEIR hands.
  • Because you use birth control.
  • Because we need to tell these politicians that we’ve had enough so gather your friends, a bottle of wine and say, “F*ck this sh*t”.
  • Because your body is yours and you should be in control of it.

Plain and simple: if it ain’t your body, it ain’t your decision. I can’t think of a case where this isn’t the truth for women or men.

the truth for women or men. In addition, these laws and sentiments are being framed as women having outrageous, uncontrollable libidos. If we want birth control covered by health insurance, it’s because we are easy. If we are raped, we must have been drunk, or wearing something inappropriate. If we need an abortion, we should have thought of the consequences beforehand. This attitude springs from the idea that women may not have sex unless it results in a baby. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult in the US to raise that baby if you aren’t wealthy, privileged and white.

In our history

This is all so hard to combat because it is so deeply ingrained in culture. We have millennia of socialisation to push back against. As a mother, I beat myself up for blindly slipping into stereotypical parenting roles with my husband, but I try to remind myself this is the ingrained, widely held belief system of thousands of years. It runs a lot deeper than my and my husband’s arguments over who changed the last diaper. And not only that, when a certain group of folks (ie, white men) maintain privilege by a certain way of thinking, it’s not crazy to assume that they will fight tooth and nail to hold onto it.

Countries, such as yours, with stronger welfare systems produce more children and happier parents (as discussed in Jennifer Senior’s All Joy And No Fun). In my mind, this piece of information is key to why we have to fight for women’s rights. In the US, the push back on reproductive rights is connected to a push back on the accessibility of birth control, which is connected to a push back against affordable healthcare for all, which is connected to a push back against welfare, childcare, maternal/ paternal leave and so on. It’s all connected. When abortion rights are curtailed, it’s a slippery slope. How a country treats women’s health is a huge indicator in the general health of a country.

Pro-choice activists outside the US supreme court in January

Pro-choice activists outside the US supreme court in January

As a mother I think about what this backlash teaches my kids. For my daughter, I worry she will internalise messages that she doesn’t have control over her body, that her body is a battleground and that she has no right to dream of a selfdetermined future. That she will absorb the message that she is worth less than her male counterparts; that her work and her ideas are worth less. I worry that she will take it all to mean that her sexuality is dirty and that her main function is to bear children. For my sons, I worry that this climate enforces not only their privilege, but also steals their right to be vulnerable, that they have the right to control women’s bodies, that equal parenting is uncool. That anger and violence are more acceptable emotions than kindness and gentleness. I worry that my efforts to raise feminist boys is being thwarted.

Just this summer, in what was known as the Hobby Lobby case, the US Supreme Court ruled the owners of closely held, profitmaking corporations [such as Hobby Lobby, the chain of retail craft stores] cannot be forced under the Affordable Care Act (Obama’s health care act) to provide their employees with certain kinds of contraceptives that offend their religious beliefs. This basically makes the religious beliefs of our bosses more important than our right to birth control! As The Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti points out, “The underlying values that drove this company to sue – and spurred a national debate – is the belief that women having pre-marital or non-procreative sex is wrong.” This is what the US looks like from where I stand and this is why we fight. For our daughters, for our sons, for the women who don’t have a voice due to voting restrictions, economics, time and privilege. I fight for the 18-year-old in me who knew she wasn’t ready for parenting. The choice is personal and different for everyone, but we all deserve the right to make the best choice for ourselves.

Reproductive rights in the US and UK

Lena Dunham is the guest editor of this week's issue of StylistDownload the full issue to your phone, tablet and Kindle here.

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