By Cynthia L. Cooper
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Georgia passed one of the earliest laws on equal insurance coverage for contraception in 1999. But a political shift has since made the state a national emblem of imperiled reproductive rights. Sixth in "The Memo" series on the status of U.S. women.
ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)--Pro-choice activists braced for weeklong demonstrations in mid-July that were supposed to celebrate street actions staged here by the anti-choice group Operation Rescue 20 years ago.
Amanda Atwell, an intern with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW! (formerly Georgians for Choice), kept in touch with the police about where protests were being organized by the Dallas-based Operation Save America, an offshoot group of Operation Rescue. A small group of other activists made pro-choice posters in a church basement in case counter demonstrations were called.
In the end, however, there wasn't much of a stir. About 120 protesters showed up, many wearing red T-shirts with slogans like "Abortion Is Murder," "Homosexuality Is a Sin," "Islam Is a Lie," "Feminism Is Rebellion." But their downtown rally didn't even disturb the meditative mood of the chess-playing regulars nearby.
Rev. Flip Benham of Texas, a key organizer of the demonstrations, held a press conference but no media showed up.
But the fizzle doesn't mean Atwell has no reason to be fired up about the status of reproductive justice in Atlanta, the city at the commercial and progressive heart of the South.
Atwell, a 22-year-old senior at Georgia State University, got sex education in a junior-high abstinence-only-until-marriage program in nearby Smyrna. "They were definitely trying to use scare tactics," she said. "They said that condoms couldn't be trusted because they had microscopic holes that were too big to prevent against HIV. My dad assured me it wasn't true."
Georgia is among 27 states that continue to use abstinence-only programs, for which the federal government allocated $176 million in fiscal 2008, despite a congressionally mandated scientific review that found them ineffective in delaying sex. Georgia does permit its more than 180 school boards to choose "abstinence-plus" education, which may describe contraception.
Information is not the sole issue. Money is also a prime concern for Atwell, who is among the 22 percent of Georgia women of reproductive age--and 18 percent nationally--lacking health insurance.
At 17, she got a prescription for birth control pills, but at $42 per pack could only afford them for one month. When she began living with a boyfriend in college, she heard that the local Planned Parenthood had discounted pills and went there.
But that solution isn't available to every woman in the state.
Publicly funded family planning clinics in Georgia provide contraceptive care to 200,000 women, including 56,000 teens, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization in New York. But that helps less than half of the 490,000 women who need the services, Guttmacher estimates.
In its most recent analysis, the Guttmacher Institute found that 92 percent of Georgia counties had no abortion provider in 2005, compared to 87 percent of counties in the United States. Nearby Mississippi has only one abortion clinic.
In 1999 Georgia adopted one of the earliest and best laws on equitable insurance coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices. Twenty-six other states now have similar contraceptive equity laws.
But as of January 2008, the Washington-based abortion rights lobby NARAL Pro-Choice America marked Georgia with "D" on its state report card. The nation as a whole earned a D-minus.
"What's really changed in the past 10 years is the political landscape," said Nancy Boothe, executive director of the Atlanta Feminist Women's Health Center.
Since 2000 the state's political leadership has shifted to the right. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house are all Republicans endorsed by Georgia Right to Life. Majorities in both houses of the state legislature are anti-choice, as are both Republican U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
A law passed four years ago requires women to undergo 24-hour waiting periods before an abortion, "which affects their comfort level and ability to access care," said Boothe, whose clinic provides 3,400 abortions each year, along with an array of other services to 6,000 women, including special gynecological care for refugees, transgender people and rape survivors.
Other Georgia restrictions require clinicians to read women a script designed to discourage abortion, notify parents about a minor's abortion and offer fetal image viewing if their facility uses ultrasound. A refusal clause favored by anti-choice groups permits medical personnel to refuse to provide reproductive services.
"We're a blue city in a red state," said Loretta J. Ross, national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective that operates from a restored mansion in Atlanta's West End. "But reproductive health is not decided by the city. Outside the city limits, it's redneck hell."
The most recent devastation to city services occurred in April, when the state legislature insisted that abortion services be eliminated at the city's public hospital, Grady Memorial, before it agreed to bail out the financially troubled institution. "You're looking at services for poor, black and increasingly Latino populations. You can't ignore racial politics in the South," Ross said.
Nationally, state legislatures have been flooded with thousands of proposals intended to limit abortion access. From 2000 to 2007, 293 abortion restrictions have been enacted across the country, according to NARAL.
Pro-choice Georgians did manage to block a legislative attempt in 2007 to get a "personhood" ballot measure, asking voters to declare that life begins at conception, considered a tactic for instituting complete abortion bans.
Georgia records about 34,000 abortions each year, or 16 abortions per 1,000 women, compared to 19 per 1,000 women nationwide.
Kay Scott, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Georgia, which operates five health centers in the state, one of which offers abortion, is most concerned about the lack of basic resources.
In June, a report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Georgia 40th among the states on 10 key children's indicators. Georgia ranked seventh worst in low-birth-weight pregnancies, eighth worst in teen pregnancies, ninth worst in infant mortality and 10th worst in high school dropouts.
"Our profile is really poor in how we do health care and what we do in education," said Scott. "For a state that prides itself on being the real powerhouse of the South, a more progressive state of the South, our policies and resources are not utilized in a way that reflects that. The problem in these conservative states is some of the focus is on being the sex police. We've not come together to say that every child should be planned for and wanted."
Ideology is making broadly popular goals such as reducing teen pregnancy harder to achieve, said Michele Ozumba, president of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, founded by Jane Fonda.
In both Georgia and across the nation, teen pregnancies rose by 3 percent in 2006, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. "Reproductive health is in the back of the bus as a priority," said Ozumba. "We need to remove the politics."
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who writes frequently about reproductive justice.