It’s fierce Faye Wattleton who helped turn stuffy Planned Parenthood into a reproductive rights fighting machine in the ’70s and ’80s. After resigning in 1992 she took time out to study the growing menace to reproductive rights from the religious right and subsequently helped start the New York–based Center for the Advancement of Women.
Less than 60 days before Supreme Court justice nominee Samuel Alito is scheduled to go before Congress, the Voice talks to her about the rightward drift of public opinion since Roe v. Wade.
Q. In the early years of your nursing career in the late ’60s you encountered women at Harlem Hospital who’d been forced to have back-alley abortions.
A One young woman I cared for eventually died—she and her mother had infused a mixture of bleach and Lysol into her uterus in an effort to make it contract and empty.
Q. And thirty-five years later women who’ve grown up with the protection of
Roe v. Wade are ambivalent about their own reproductive rights?
A Well, yes! And some have grown up without it, and still seem ambivalent. And I’d like to say, parenthetically, that a lot of women around the world do not have the benefit of Roe v. Wade, and a couple hundred thousand of them are estimated to die each year from illegal abortion. That’s the heart of the issue. While there may be personal ambivalence about [what] choice [to make], there should be no ambivalence about the right to make that choice.
Q. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito was portrayed as brilliant and dispassionate in a recent New York Times profile.
A I’ve been amazed in my life at how form can trump function in American perception! But the Trojan horse was very attractive as well. Perhaps it’s the obliqueness of his opinions—they are not as virulent as Scalia’s, but no less dangerous to abortion rights. His dissenting opinion in Casey [Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey—the 1992 case that came before the Court of Appeals that challenged a series of state hurdles to abortion] compared a married woman’s relationship to her husband to a parent and child’s. The impact of judges’ decisions are the burdens we carry in our individual lives. If there’s a disconnect or an idealized view of people’s various circumstances, what may be an intellectual argument can have devastating effects.
Q. Do have any doubt that he will side against Roe v. Wade if confirmed?
A Roe v. Wade as enunciated in 1973 no longer exists, and ironically, the justice he will replace, Sandra Day O’Connor, significantly reduced the standard [by voting for legislation that began the erosion of Roe v. Wade].
Q. Pharmacists at certain chain stores are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and emergency contraception.
A It’s part of a larger trend we’ve observed for decades. People who are against reproductive rights have adopted a strategy of patience and endurance—they chip away. Perhaps now that it has come to contraception there will be an awakening among women that this is much broader then the issue of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.
Q. You’ve been vilified by a vocal minority of African American anti-abortion preachers. Why is it that black women make up only 6 percent of the nation’s population but account for nearly a third of the nation’s abortions?
A We also account for a disproportionate share of the country’s poverty and lack of opportunities. There is a larger proportion of unintended pregnancies; the reasons for a woman making that decision are complex. The contribution I’ve made and continue to make to this movement is to give voice to the women who have few choices in their lives—not to have this choice lost. Poor women will suffer the most if this choice is lost.