Defend Our Gains, Move Forward

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

Ann Menasche interviews Helen Grieco & Debbie Greg

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW occurred on April 19, 1986, in San Francisco. Participating were Janet Cooke, past president of Palo Alto National Organization for Women (NOW) and Western Regional Coordinator for the March for Women’s Lives that took place on March 16 in Los Angeles; Debbie Gregg, staff member, Feminist Women’s Health Center and member of the Clinic Defense Committee, a coalition of community activists supporting reproductive rights and defending the clinics; and Helen Grieco, president of the San Francisco chapter of NOW and member of various boards dealing with the issue of reproductive rights. The interview was conducted by Ann Menasche, a longtime activist in the women’s movement.

Against the Current: Prior to these NOW demonstrations it appeared to many of us that there was little public response by the feminist movement against the attacks on abortion rights. Do you agree, and if so, why do think this was the case?

Helen Grieco:I think there was some denial going on. Once we realized the severity of the situation, and how intense the attacks by the fundamentalist movement were getting, we realized we needed to get into the streets again.

Just look at the fact that abortion rights are under more severe and significant attack than they have been in the past thirteen years since abortion has been legalized. We need to recognize that we haven’t won these things for the be all and the end all. They are not secure.

Janet Cooke: I think part of it was because of the environment, and the legitimacy that our President had given the anti-abortionists. Women are seeing their clinics bombed, they are seeing no recognition of that terrorism, they are feeling this oppression, they are feeling, “My god, am I weird that I want to control my own body” in an atmosphere that says, “Yeah, you are weird because you want to control your own body.”

Women look around and say, “Well, what can I do about all of this?” and the answers are not automatically forthcoming–“Oh, I can go vote for so-and-so.”

I think there had to be something massive, there had to be something that people could plug into and I think the marches fit that need.

Debbie Gregg: I think it is true that there has not been much outpouring of sentiment and activity around reproductive rights. We felt that pretty painfully in Los Angeles when our LA clinic got burned essentially to the ground a year ago. Some people came out in support, but people weren’t banging on our doors asking how they could help. And I think it’s been true in a lot of places.

I think it’s been true partly because there hasn’t been an overall movement for progressive social change. People don’t feel they have the power to do it themselves. We’ve been moving to the right and not to the left.

I think it’s been the times more than anything else. I don’t think it’s individual women’s faults–that we don’t care enough.

So few people in this country realize that more than ninety clinics have been bombed in the last three years. It is not brought out as an issue of terrorism while Libya is all across the front pages.

At the rally today [Peace, Jobs, & Justice rally], there were maybe ten of us who talked about terrorism against women and the government’s complicity in encouraging amnesty to convicted clinic bombers.

Cooke: We have not had either the confidence or the power to get up and point fingers at places and people. From a single woman’s standpoint that may be out in Youngstown, Ohio, it’s a little hard to say, “I’m going to take on the Pope and the Catholic Church this week.” It’s big and it’s embedded and it’s so accepted and it’s so hard to fight that.

Now we have begun to do that. We are saying, you are responsible, and it’s an extremely empowering activity.

The march also had a legislative effect. National NOW office reports that suddenly everyone has “discovered” the Civil Rights Restoration Act, an act that restores nondiscrimination in educational institutions. The Grove City decision knocked out protection by saying that they could discriminate in one program of the schools and still get government funding in the other programs.

The act says, if the institution got any government money, it couldn’t discriminate, period. Because of the march, we will see movement on the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1986. This is something that before the march was not even conceivable.

ATC: Why do you think the right wing has focused on the issue of abortion? Or, to ask it another way, What significance does the availability of safe, legal abortion have for women and for feminism?

Grieco: It’s important to recognize that abortion rights-being able to control your own body-is a  baseline feminist issue. I see it as a bread and butter issue. For women, if you an’t control your body and decide when and if you’re going to have children, that is a bread and butter issue for you because that changes the character of your whole life. Being able to get an abortion and have it free on demand would mean tremendous power for women. And if we don’t have that, we cannot control our lives.

Gregg: What they’re saying is sex and sexuality must be bound to reproduction so they are attacking lesbians and gay people also. They only thing that’s natural and good for them is what “Ladies Against Women” [a political theatre group that satirized the “moral majority”] says in their little chant: “Hell no, I’m not queer, I have a baby every year.” They are trying to make all women live like that–either that or get sterilized. And it does fall down around race and class lines.

Cooke: To me it’s a basic economic issue. I don’t think it’s a moral issue for them. The right wing has pushed for years and years the philosophy that the way to economic success is to have a docile work force. What is a better way to get a docile work force than to create a situation where women are forced to have children?

ATC: What is the next step forward for the abortion rights movement? What tactics do you think will be most effective to defend the clinics, safeguard safe, legal abortion, and win adequate funding?

Cooke: Part of that is empowering women. Kathy Spiller, the march coordinator in Los Angeles, told me recently that, as a result of the march, LA-area clinics report that clinic staffers are feeling a whole hell of a lot better because they know the support is out there. She also said that the percentage of women who called to make appointments for abortions and then actually followed through had increased tremendously.

In other words, women are feeling better about making the choice and are not feeling as harassed. Part of that is knowing that there are a lot of people out there who are going to support that choice.

Gregg: I think that is an important point. The Feminist Women’s Health Center rented a bus and we went over to the march with the LA Feminist Women’s Health Center and the Federation of Women’s Health Centers which includes Chico, San Diego and Atlanta.

We got to the rally and I know I started to cry. There were people who supported women’s rights as far as I could see and there were more people coming from every direction.

It’s important to point out that women are going to get abortions. The question is how safe they are and how supportive the process is.

A lot of born-again Christians are playing into women’s guilt and are using that to enslave us and to take away our power.

When you make abortion inaccessible either through cutting funding or through bombing clinics, a lot of poor women and women of color goes and get sterilized. The right wing is focusing on the abortion issue to get women back into a traditional role. It’s a way of keeping women who are having children off the streets. It’s hard to go demonstrate against the invasion of another country if you can’t find childcare.

The more support that’s shown out there, the better women are going to feel.

Grieco: I think we need to keep a strong watch on legislation and develop better networking to get the word out and to put people on the alert. We also need to continue to stage demonstrations and marches to raise public awareness. We shouldn’t give that up until abortion is totally secure. And I don’t think that’s possible under the capitalist system.

The significance of the march was to show the country that we have overwhelming support for abortion and birth control. The only way you make social change in this country is to get out into the streets and make a go of it.

Gregg: I think it is important to provide ways so people feel they can do some­ thing. The Clinic Defense Committee has tried to organize specific actions, a vigil here, and a demonstration there. We recently picketed an anti-choice “clinic.” We’re thinking of picketing a church that actively sends carloads to picket women’s clinics.

Cooke: One of the options we have to take is the option of law suits, like the one Ann Menasche is dealing with in San Francisco where we are taking to task people who are doing things such as setting up fake clinics and bringing in women under the pretext of having a free pregnancy test when in reality they are an anti-choice, anti-abortion group. I understand that there are also lawsuits being filed for the same type of things across the country.

NOW will be doing a lot in the coming months. We will be organizing on campuses, initiating lawsuits,  working on legislation-all of these arenas will be used in a public, visible way.

Gregg: We would love to take one of these holidays like January 22 or Mother’s Day and really claim it as a women’s holiday and picket the Lourdes Foundation which funds a lot of these anti-abortion groups. Really go on the offensive.

May-June 1986, ATC 3

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