In this op-ed, writer Kara Lewis explains how volunteering at a Planned Parenthood clinic changed what feminism meant to her.
Imagine living in a place where legislators banned abortion after eight weeks, with no exceptions for rape, human trafficking, incest, or fatal abnormalities. Then, if someone manages to confirm a pregnancy within this period — often, it takes people up to 12 weeks to verify that they are pregnant — they might have to travel more than 200 miles to the state’s lone, persecuted abortion clinic. Along the way, they can expect to see car license plates emblazoned with “Choose Life,” a campaign that funnels money from these plate sales into anti-abortion organizations. They might also stumble upon one of the state’s estimated 69 tax-funded crisis pregnancy centers, which masquerade as real health clinics but peddle religious sentiments and misinformation.
When they finally arrive at an abortion provider and undergo a 72-hour waiting period, it's legally mandated that they're given medically inaccurate information, including a pamphlet that states, “The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”
This might sound like a scenario ripped straight from a dystopian hellscape created by Margaret Atwood, but these real-life policies play out every day in Missouri, where I live and where public defenders are warning that, beginning Aug. 28, people who need abortion services after eight weeks of pregnancy could potentially face prison time if they attempt to perform or induce their own abortion.
It’s against this dehumanizing backdrop that I began volunteering at Planned Parenthood six months ago, as a wave of restrictive abortion laws swept the Midwest. Suddenly, the news alerts that bombarded my phone and my Twitter feed forced me to reexamine my values.
Throughout college, I’d taken gender studies courses that encouraged me to present my womanhood in any way I wanted, to embrace sex positivity and to demand diversity in pop culture. I saw myself as sort of a fourth-wave feminist, committed to a women-heavy reading list and to keeping my last name, but not having to fight for basic equality like the suffragettes. I chanted the c-word on stage in front of my grandma as part of a performance of The Vagina Monologues and wore T-shirts that proclaimed, "The future is female."
But none of that well-intended girl power sufficed when extremist laws encroached on my and others’ bodily autonomy. With a newfound sense of fury and fear fueling me, I signed up to volunteer for the only reproductive rights organization that I knew had a century-long history of defending and advancing women’s rights.
I talked to people who, like myself, supported abortion rights but had rarely taken action.
Just stepping into the back room of the clinic in Kansas City, Missouri, shifted my perspective. I heard a chorus of determined voices transform the day’s headlines into calls for action. Ten phone bank volunteers were calling strangers on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas state line, urging them to contact their senators and express support for abortion rights. I realized that, in 2019, my feminism needed to be something that it had never been before: urgent, inconvenient, and even impolite. Once I began making these calls myself, I noticed that it marked the most times I’d ever uttered the word “abortion.” That alone awakened me to the fact that I needed to do better.
While working the phone bank, I received support from some people on the other end of the line, but also heard curse words, rants, and mansplaining. One woman screamed that I was going to hell and was “personally responsible for murder.” Before, remarks like these would’ve made me hang up the phone or scared me out of making the next call altogether. In college, I once walked across an entire soccer field to avoid protesters holding gory pictures of fetuses, convinced that engaging with them would prove pointless and even traumatic.
However, volunteering showed me that emotionally charged, divisive conversations are instrumental to creating change. I talked to a woman who had an undecided opinion on abortion, and encouraged her to contemplate the level of choice she’d want for her daughter. I talked to people who, like myself, supported abortion rights but had rarely taken action, convincing them to participate in town halls, rallies, and even visits to the state capitol.
This shift from passive to active feminism has rippled into other areas of my life, too. My increased advocacy pushed me to leave my job at a daily newspaper, because when I was asked if I could cover my right to my own body and men who made laws without knowing anything about female anatomy “objectively,” I knew the answer was no. I ended a friendship when a close friend compared abortion to the Holocaust in a Facebook post. I’m now reevaluating whether to shop at retailers like Hobby Lobby, which refuses to cover certain birth control for employees, and CVS, which donated to Trump through its political action committee.
As with all revolutions — both personal ones and on a wider scale — many people have labeled my actions as dramatic. Fortunately, Planned Parenthood’s long history serves as the perfect guide for how to react. Just nine days after it first opened in 1916, police raided the clinic and arrested its founders for sharing information related to birth control. They didn’t back down — while in jail, Margaret Sanger provided the same reproductive education to her fellow inmates. More than a century later, Planned Parenthood now operates without critical Title X funding from the federal government, so they can continue to offer abortion.
Led by these examples, I now refuse to be shut down, even when being vocally pro-choice seems socially unacceptable. When I ask friends, partners, and family members about their views on abortion, I no longer care if it makes them blush. Despite societal conditioning, I’d rather be rude than a human incubator who cannot decide if and when to carry a child. Volunteering for my and others' reproductive rights has helped me embrace one of the most important, radical feminist tenants of all: The personal truly is political.