•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Reproductive justice victory in Alabama

Published Jul 26, 2007 9:58 PM

The local reproductive rights and justice community in Alabama declared victory on July 21 after a week of defending women’s clinics against the onslaught of “Operation Save America” (OSA), a rightwing hate group.

Rev. Jack Zylman and Minnie Bruce Pratt
on clinic defense.
WW photo

Local organizers, with leadership from the Alabama National Organization for Women and staff assistance from National NOW and the Feminist Majority, mobilized Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer from July 14 to 22 to withstand OSA. The week included clinic defense, rallies, an interfaith forum, community outreach and an abortion speak-out.

The speak-out on July 20 in an open area near the Five Points South fountain gathered over 60 participants. Some spoke about their own abortions, both legal and illegal. Some were obtained through the medical system by women who could scrape up the money; others involved alternative methods used by women who couldn’t afford a doctor.

Many spoke passionately about their commitment to defend women’s access to reproductive choice, including accurate sex education, safe and reliable birth control, comprehensive health care and support for child-rearing, as well as abortion.

Peggy Bridges and daughters
Sarah Bridges and Colie Gilbert
at abortion speak-out.
WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

Cheryl Sabel, Alabama NOW President, told of the doctor who counseled her when she was a pregnant middle-aged and divorced single mother. He performed the abortion and then urged her to speak out and stand up for abortion access for all women. She revealed that the doctor was David Gunn, who was fatally shot in the back by an anti-abortion protester in the parking lot of a Pensacola women’s clinic in 1993.

The first of several abortion providers murdered by the ultra right wing, Gunn had dedicated his life to providing ob-gyn services to women from rural north Florida to central Alabama, including Birmingham. Reproductive rights activists campaigned after his death for Congress to pass the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, prohibiting physical force or intimidation from being used to prevent people from gaining access to a reproductive health facility.

Sabel stated that with Gunn’s death she immediately began clinic defense at the Montgomery clinic where he had practiced, and had dedicated herself to the struggle for “each woman to decide for herself whether or when to bear a child.”

WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

‘This clinic stays open’

OSA descended on the Planned Parenthood and New Woman All Women clinics on July 14. Some OSA members stated they would “not allow these places to remain standing” but would “turn them into rubble.” Anti-abortion forces had placed city clinics under siege in 1988 and 1994 campaigns. In 1998 the New Woman facility was bombed by Eric Rudolph, who allegedly had ties to white supremacist, homophobic and anti-woman ultraright groups, including Operation Rescue—now renamed OSA.

The bombing killed the clinic’s security guard and seriously injured clinic nurse Emily Lyons, who has since had to undergo 22 operations to regain her health and mobility.

After the bombing, the clinic reopened within a week with a sign out front saying, “This clinic stays open.” It has remained open since, including during the current OSA attacks. Emily Lyons still works at New Woman, as a registered nurse doing the state-required counseling of women seeking abortions there.

Spirit of resistance

The tenacious spirit of resistance shown by Lyons and Sabel was apparent as supporters defended the clinics during Reproductive Freedom Week, standing their ground all day, every day in the broiling July sun and through torrential thunderstorms. People came from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee; from Albuquerque, Atlanta and Mexico City; from Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

In addition to NOW and Feminist Majority, organizations whose supporters were present during the week included the ACLU of Alabama; Georgians for Choice; Equality Alabama, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group; Feminist Outlawz, an artist activist group that does clinic defense; GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida/Information Group on Reproductive Choice); Medical Students for Choice; National Women’s Fightback Network/International Action Center; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Socialist Workers Party and Workers World Party.

New Woman clinic owner Diane Derzis was clear on the need for struggle to keep women’s access to a full range of reproductive care. She said to supporters, “It was you, not the police or the law, that kept the clinic open.”

Many passersby offered support: office workers on lunch break; an African-American woman in her late teens walking to her high school equivalency class nearby; a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alabama who hailed from Ivory Coast. Local workers in the Five Points area, many of them from the lesbian/gay/bi/trans community, were furious at the OSA invasion and eagerly took flyers. They also turned up the music at their restaurants to heavy metal and loud alternative rock to drown out the OSA preaching in the area.

During the week at least one-third of the defenders were young people, from their late teens to late twenties, and about one-third were male-identified.

The right-wing forces spewed non-stop hate, including anti-Islam, anti-LGBT, and anti-woman diatribes. Speakers also gender-baited abortion supporters, accusing them of not being “real” men or women. Another tactic was the right-wing forces’ claim that their hate campaign against reproductive choice was in the same tradition as the heroic Black civil rights struggle of the South.

The aim of the hatemongers was clear: not only to close the clinic, but to break down unity among oppressed peoples.

But reproductive justice advocates exposed their cynical ploy. The Rev. Jack Zylman of the Unitarian Universalist Church, a longtime civil rights activist, spoke of his conversations with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in which King made clear his belief that abortion was an acceptable choice for a woman. King had recounted that abortion referral to a reputable doctor was part of his pastoral counseling for a congregation member with a problem or troubled pregnancy.

Michelle Colon, MidSouth Regional Director for NOW and a woman of the African diaspora, said that the civil rights struggle was when “this battle began” and how the struggle for reproductive justice was its continuation. She exhorted supporters: “We must continue fighting for choice in the South. If we lose in the South, we lose everywhere. If they can’t win here, they can’t win anywhere.”

High stakes unity

The stakes for unity have always been high in the South. The tactic of plantation slave owners and corporate steel mill owners of the past was to foment racism in white workers to prevent them from uniting with Black workers, and also to segregate jobs rigidly by sex and gender to keep women’s wages low and men vulnerable to inhuman job demands.

In this context, the struggle for reproductive justice can look like a relatively isolated fight for “women’s rights” against religious fanatics.

But the women who spoke out during Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer made it clear that their need for reliable birth control, access to abortion, and affordable health care and day care were all part and parcel of their need to be able to support themselves and their families, financially and emotionally.

Two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions can be linked to show the tightening grip of the capitalist state on women as workers and as women who bear and rear the children of the working class.

In April, for the first time since its original Roe v. Wade legalization of abortion, the court ruled against a specific abortion procedure, upholding by a 5-4 majority a 2003 federal ban on certain late-term abortions.

The OSA forces actually denounced this decision as “wicked” because the court did not completely outlaw abortion.

In May, the court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter, a worker at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala. She had sued the company for wage discrimination on the basis of sex, using Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court’s decision set virtually impossible time and procedure limits on workers’ ability to file against discriminatory companies, ruling that pay inequity and discrimination against women workers and all workers of color is legal for employers under most circumstances.

Women add strength to working-class struggles

Working women, documented and undocumented, are central to industrial development in the “new New South,” particularly in Alabama as it experiences powerfully accelerated industrial growth and low unemployment rates. They contribute to the potential for increased strength in the working-class struggle.

The Alabama Development Office in 2006 was named the top state economic development agency in the U.S. for attracting new capital investment, with 568 companies locating there, adding almost 25,000 jobs and over $3 billion in capital investment. (ado.state.al.us)

The state is home to three major automobile producers: Honda, Mercedes—which has doubled its plant size over the last 10 years—and Hyundai, with one plant of 400 robots that is one of most technologically advanced in the world. A second plant is in the works.

In the last two months National Steel Car of Canada announced it was locating a huge rail car factory in northern Alabama, while ThyssenKrupp of Germany decided to bring its new steel plant to the Mobile area, creating almost 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. (al.com)

The high stakes for unity within the working class, especially among women, are greater than ever.

And unity was demonstrated during the week of clinic defense, when a call came down to the clinic from undocumented Latina women workers being held in the Etowah County immigration detention center in Gadsden, Ala. Many had been transferred there from Georgia, where they had resisted their arrest with a 1,000-person hunger strike in March. (Huntsville Times)

The women had received virtually no gynecological care; one was bleeding extensively and in desperate need of assistance. Helen Rivas, a local Alabama immigrant rights organizer, and Olga Vives, NOW national vice president, left the clinic defense line to rush north to try to arrange medical care.

At the closing rally on July 21, Vives called on a breadth of struggle that unites care for poor women with universal health care for all, that combines an end to the war in Iraq with reallocation of funds to assist Katrina and Rita survivors. She said of all the struggles, “We will not go back. We will continue to be in the streets of the U.S., fighting until justice is ours.”