"We [Are Still Not] the People"

July 3rd, 2014

Statement by Stephanie Poggi, Executive Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds

Who counts as a human being? Who deserves freedom to exercise basic rights? Whose “burden” matters?

At the National Network of Abortion Funds, we know how we answer these questions. Our work is to stand up for the humanity of women and girls seeking abortion care, and for all marginalized people. The Supreme Court gave us a starkly different answer over the past week, demonstrating indifference most particularly to the rights and dignity of low-income women and women of color. In three major rulings – 
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, McCullen v. Coakley and Harris v. Quinn – the Court reaffirmed a worldview in which the experiences of women are barely considered.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the 5-4 majority ruled there is no contest between the beliefs of religious corporations and their relatively low-wage women employees when it comes to contraception. The religious private employer who doesn’t want to be “implicated” in his employee’s reproductive health care has the right to deny her family planning. Her own views, whether religious or otherwise, are beside the point. This refusal of coverage will mostly affect women struggling to make ends meet who cannot afford the cost of many forms of contraception. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, "It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage." At NNAF, we see every day how denying coverage is the same as denying a right altogether. Many poor women are unable to use contraception consistently precisely because they can’t afford the high price. This is also the case with abortion access denied through the Hyde Amendment ban on coverage, which means that every year at least 1 in 4 women enrolled in Medicaid who would have an abortion are unable to carry out their decision.

Writing for the majority, and barely including reference to “women” in his 49-page ruling about corporations and religious liberty (just 13 mentions, according to The Washington Post), Justice Alito claimed that the decision would not lead to other religious claims to opt out of coverage, such as bans on vaccinations or blood transfusions. Contraception stands alone. It is, after all, almost abortion in the opinion of the Christian employers who brought the case, only women need it, it’s not really health care . . . So we don’t need to worry that an important precedent is now set that could lead to serious infringements. It’s morally repugnant to the religious employer, but it’s just contraception after all, and in fact “not that important” in the words of Justice Kennedy during oral arguments.

Similarly, in its decision to overturn buffer zones around abortion clinics in McCullen v. Coakley, the Court ignored the aggressive tactics directed at women seeking abortion care and the history of violent attacks on doctors and clinic staff. In Massachusetts, where the buffer zone was in operation, it had finally ended the dangerous anti-abortion activities at clinics where women were routinely physically prevented from entering and where clinic personnel lived under constant threat of violence. The Court did not acknowledge that in Massachusetts alone, according to The Nation, anti-abortion action has led to eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 550 incidents of stalking, in addition to harassment of doctors, women seeking health care, staff and advocates. Instead of understanding the intimidation of such actions, the Court classified them as the free speech rights and “sincere” beliefs of anti-abortion activists who simply want to “counsel” women at the closest possible range. There is in this decision a certain acceptance of “burden” on the woman who needs an abortion. Often young, most often lower income, a majority women of color. While the High Court enjoys its own large literal buffer zone and while interference with doctors and patient care would hardly be tolerated outside other health centers, abortion clinics and women trying to get inside them are treated differently.

And finally, there was the Harris v. Quinn case decided on the same day as Hobby Lobby, not about reproductive health on the surface, but concerning the rights of the same group of women most affected by the other two decisions. The Court turned back the gains of recently unionized home health care workers paid through Medicaid in several states, who are largely women, primarily low-income, people of color and immigrants. While they are among the lowest-paid workers in the U.S., usually making about $20,000 a year without health benefits (when they don’t have a union), the Court described them as unlike other workers and only “partial public employees,” because they work in the homes of people they care for. Work in a home . . . is not really work? Home health workers do some of the most difficult and important labor there is for the most vulnerable people in our society: children, elderly people, those with disabilities. But the majority accepted the view that the “home” is not “a union workplace”; therefore, the standards regarding union fees and the resources such dues provide the union and the workers represented don’t apply. The ruling re-entrenched the historic denigration of home health work, and of low-income women of color workers in this sector, who will now face more barriers to higher wages and their own health care, reproductive and otherwise.

As we organize to win back the gains these decisions attack, we need to challenge the worldview the Court is upholding, as well as counter the material losses. Whose freedom counts? Whose speech? Whose burden matters? Our opponents are hoping that many of us won’t see ourselves immediately affected by these rulings, that we’ll accept the decisions as “narrowly” decided. Our opponents hope they can advance by going after those they believe have less political power. But we are already proving them wrong. The response from the reproductive rights and justice communities has been swift and fierce. The Supreme Court has thrown down the gauntlet and we are prepared to fight back at all levels.

NNAF will continue to work for rights and dignity for low-income women and women of color and for increased access to contraception and abortion care. We’ll expand our work with allies to support campaigns for the rights of low-wage workers, as well as efforts already under way to prevent harassment at abortion clinics. And we’ll keep building a movement that can reach farther, care for and with each other, for all of us.

Stephanie Poggi is the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds. NNAF and its over 100 grassroots member Funds across the U.S. and in other countries provide direct financial assistance and help with travel and lodging to over 28,000 people each year who would otherwise be unable to obtain an abortion. NNAF is also the co-chair of All* Above All, a national coalition campaign fighting for reproductive justice and to end the coverage bans that deny abortion care and deny important decision-making to women of color, low-income women, and young women.