By: Virginia Delegate Jennifer Boysko, North Carolina Senator Valerie Foushee, and Georgia Representative Park Cannon
As progressive southerners, we’ve given birth to social justice and civil rights movements, marched, sang, and voted. But as state legislators in the South trying to turn the tide, we know that it can be exhausting always fighting back – especially when it comes to reproductive freedom. Nationally, 401 restrictions on abortion have passed in states since 2011. For women living in the South, this has meant fewer clinics available to provide care, mandated waiting periods, biased counseling from providers as scripted by anti-abortion legislators, and numerous additional barriers that can make abortion too expensive and too logistically hard to obtain. The relentless drive by some elected leaders to make their Southern state “abortion-free” and to promote and fund deceptive and misleading crisis-pregnancy centers have led to a high degree of stigma and an infusion of shame and guilt into a common reproductive health care decision. Nearly one in four women will experience abortion in their lifetime.
Even without the context of rural hospital closures in the South, a lack of comprehensive sex education in schools, and roadblocks to effective contraception, this landscape hurts women. Not only does it mean women in the South have fewer health care options, but it adds to the already tragic reality that more American women die of pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country. Worse, black women in the South are dying of pregnancy complications at even higher rates. We could prevent many of these tragic deaths if all women—regardless of age, race, and zip code—had access to quality, comprehensive health care.
To advance access to reproductive freedom and comprehensive health care, the four of us have banded together with over 200 colleagues from across the nation to create the first-of-its-kind Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, a national cohort of state legislators committed to leading on reproductive rights, health, and justice by embracing the role that state lawmakers play in protecting and advancing those rights.
We have come together because for too long, anti-abortion politicians have controlled the debate. It’s time to focus the debate on what we know and value: that reproductive health and self-determination are essential elements of human freedom and necessary to a life of dignity and opportunity. We know that Southern women and our communities at large are harmed by disparities in access to reproductive health care. We agree with the nearly seven in ten Americans who believe that the Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, should not be overturned. We know that policies at the state level will be even more crucial for women’s health should Roe ever be overturned—and women in the South would be most at risk of living in an abortion desert. We believe every woman should have access to the safe and comprehensive care she needs, and that her health should be respected and supported if and when she chooses to plan a family.
We created this Council because we believe in a future where—instead of constantly fighting back attacks on access to health care—we work together to improve the lives of women and families across our country. We know that if we change the debate, we can get to the day when we all work together to ensure more children have healthy childhoods and healthy mothers.
We hear from our constituents—our neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends—that they want policy-makers to address real health concerns and stop seeking political gains at the expense of women’s reproductive rights. We will listen to our constituents and advance measures to improve women’s health and rights across the nation, and especially in the South, including expanding Medicaid, expanding access to paid family and medical leave, removing economic barriers to contraception, and requiring reasonable pregnancy accommodations in the workplace. These are the types of policies that will lead to improved health outcomes, lower poverty rates, and better educational outcomes for our communities. These are the types of policies that ensure each of us can make our own decisions about our reproductive health, pregnancy, and parenting, free from political interference.
We promise to use the privilege of public office to fight for state policies that advance reproductive health, rights and justice, and invite our colleagues in state legislatures and allies to do the same. We know that our voices are stronger together and hope that you will join us as we start to change the debate and fight for reproductive freedom.