Oregon has achieved something that seems impossible in the Trump era: With one single piece of legislation, Oregon has protected abortion access, lifted a ban on abortion coverage, and ended restrictions on health coverage based on immigration status. How did the state achieve this? It wasn’t an easy road — but the journey may be helpful for others looking to advance reproductive health in their home states.
As the Gender Justice Program Director at the Western States Center, I know that on a federal level, the landscape for abortion rights looks bleak. The United States has a president who has vowed to appoint anti-abortion judges (who would overturn Roe v. Wade) and has said that women should be punished for having abortions. In the states, a tidal wave of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion have been passed — 438 new restrictions since 2010 alone — and politicians are not letting up.
Yet despite these challenges, there’s a movement afoot to introduce legislation to advance a proactive policy agenda that strengthens reproductive health care access. In the first six months of 2017, legislators in 49 states and the District of Columbia have introduced 581 pieces of proactive legislation to advance access to reproductive and sexual health care, including abortion.
In some states, these bills face an uphill battle, and it might take years of building power or an electoral shift to see them made into law. But in Oregon, the Western States Center and our coalition partners did more than just dream big — we made our dream come true.
Any day now, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign the Reproductive Health Equity Act (RHEA). RHEA ensures that most Oregonians, regardless of income, citizenship status, gender identity, or type of insurance have access to the full range of preventive reproductive health services, including family planning, abortion, and postpartum care. No one should be forced to pay out of pocket and be pushed to the economic brink by having to pay for necessary care.
We refused to compromise our values or leave people behind.
The journey to this moment began in 2015, with a bold vision and a small but mighty group of advocates. Over time, the Western States Center helped build a diverse coalition united around shared values — like putting the communities most affected by reproductive oppression at the center of our work. At the heart of RHEA is a deep belief that no one should be denied health care just because they are low-income, or transgender, or undocumented.
To some, it might seem politically expedient to exclude certain communities in order to pass a “compromise” bill — but we refused to compromise our values or leave people behind.
Part of the success of the Western States Center and our coalition partners' work can be attributed to the leadership of those living with the harms of reproductive inequity. Women, people of color, immigrants, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people played key roles in informing and executing our strategy.
The political challenges were real, but so was our resolve to stay together.
Leading with race helped us to confront racism and white supremacy. Doing so made our coalition stronger, helped to build our power, and ultimately contributed to getting the bill passed. It was hard work — lots of deep and difficult conversations, but we built relationships that will last a lifetime.
Our definition of success was clear from the start. Improving reproductive health equity in Oregon meant that we had to lift the ban on abortion coverage, so that low-income people could meaningfully access abortion care. It also meant that we had to include undocumented people, who for decades were unfairly singled out and denied health insurance. The political challenges were real, but so was our resolve to stay together.
And we learned something amazing: When you ask for what you want, and refuse to let others drive a wedge to privilege one community over another, you just might win.
My advice for others who have a bold vision for proactive policy in your state? Dream big. Define success by sticking together and seizing on the opportunity to envision, challenge, and fight for reproductive freedom. Ask your communities what they want and need. Confront the dynamics of race and gender within activist spaces. And keep fighting, because the moment requires us to rise up and fight for our values and the world we want to live in.
What's next for Oregon? Now that we’ve won, we’ll have to fight to keep and effectively implement RHEA. If the attempts by congressional leadership and Trump to repeal Obamacare teach us anything, it’s that we must be ever-vigilant. There are always those who will want to tear down good policies for political points or personal gain.
And our proactive work continues. The Western States Center's vision for health equity in Oregon is a future where all in our state can get the health care they need and where our families can thrive.
We’ll keep working until we get there, but in the meantime, I’m taking a moment to celebrate this win.