Women’s health care should never be a political game. And yet, any time there is a contentious election around the corner, that is exactly what it becomes. Never has that been more true than right now in Michigan.
As a woman, a mother and a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, I watched with horror as people who want to restrict access to women’s health care options attempted to fast track a package of anti-abortion bills through the state Legislature in the past month. A package of three bills – known as the abortion omnibus – was introduced on May 31. Lawmakers seeking to score points with conservative voters pushed these bills to the head of the line, taking them up for consideration ahead of other waiting proposals that deal with job creation, tax relief for the middle class and restoring funding to our public schools.
The first bill, House Bill 5711, sought to slap so many restrictions on doctors and clinics that perform abortions that many would be forced to close their doors. The restrictions included requirements that doctors and clinics buy a prohibitive and unnecessary amount of insurance and that clinics be fully equipped as hospital operating rooms. Doctors would be prohibited from prescribing abortion drugs over the phone, creating a real hardship for women who live in rural areas or who don’t have a car. And a woman would have to be screened to make sure they aren’t being coerced into having an abortion – even though no screening would be done to make sure a woman isn’t being forced to continue a pregnancy against her will.
Its companion bills went further yet. HB 5713 would prohibit any abortion after 20 weeks unless the life of the mother is at stake. It would have required women carrying a fetus that had stopped developing to go on carrying it until a miscarriage occurred, and made no exemptions for rape, incest or the health or future fertility of the woman. HB 5712 provided sentencing guidelines that threatened doctors with 15 years in prison if they violated the proposed law.
In response, hundreds of people rallied at the state Capitol the day the House had planned to deliberate passage of the bills. But when legislators saw a sea of pink-shirted Planned Parenthood supporters on the Capitol lawn, they opted to postpone it for a day.
When the debate finally took place, the anti-choice proponents backed away from the most glaring attacks on women’s health. They ditched support for the 20-week law and the sentencing guidelines, and instead moved ahead with just one bill, HB 5711.
That’s when I spoke up.
In my floor speech, I challenged the bill’s proponents for pushing a religiously based law on the people of Michigan, many of whom don’t share their views. I am Jewish and I explained that while I strongly value my faith, I would never suggest they adhere to my beliefs. I asked for the same courtesy in return. Then I said that while I was flattered for their interest in my vagina, no means no.
If that was a shocking thing to say, you wouldn’t know it by looking at their reaction. There were no gasps of horror, no looks of alarm. I said what I wanted to say and the debate moved on.
The next day, however, I found out that I was banned from speaking in the House. The reason for my silencing was a moving target. First, they gave no reason. The next day, I was told I had violated decorum. Then, it was because I had said vagina, which another representative – who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology – said was so offensive that he couldn’t repeat it in “mixed company.” Days later, they claimed that my error was saying “no means no.”
They were trying desperately to come up with any rationale for my censoring that would stick, but the people of Michigan – and then the nation, and then the world – didn’t buy it. When news of my silencing spread, thousands of angry people called House leaders to tell them what they did was wrong.
It was wrong to silence me on the House Floor, keeping me from speaking up on behalf of the 90,000 constituents I represent. It wasn’t just me they muzzled – it was all of them, too.
It was wrong to manhandle an abortion debate by trying to silence women who dared speak up against the legislation. It only made thousands of us speak more loudly.
And it is wrong to try and rush through a package of anti-abortion bills so overreaching that they have been described as the largest single assault on reproductive freedom in the nation.
This fight isn’t over. The House only voted on one of the three anti-abortion bills so far and sent it to the Senate and the other two remain waiting in the wings. There is still time to kill all of these bills. I believe the outrage of men and women – first on the Capitol lawn, but then across the nation and around the globe – made anti-abortion proponents back down from the other two bills for now. But as soon as they think we’re not paying attention anymore, they can pick them back up and run with them.
The other side isn’t about to stop attacking women’s health and reproductive freedom. We can’t stop fighting for them, either.
For more information visit www.ReproHealthWatch.org.