Abortion Access Event Celebrates Triumph in Face of Adversity

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Editor’s Note: This article contains language pertaining to abortion rights, and personal stories from women who have received abortions.

It’s hard to be optimistic about abortion access. Clinics are at constant risk of being defunded and have to jump through arbitrary hoops to remain open. Patients have to navigate barriers of distance, cost, stigma and legally mandated misinformation. Watching new access-denying laws appear as fast as they are struck down can feel like watching a heartbreaking game of legislative whack-a-mole with profound consequences for all those who seek access to their legal right. Few people hold neutral positions on abortion, and abortion rights organizations like All Access are fighting an ugly PR battle against labels like ‘baby killer.’

However, the narrative is not entirely bleak. As those who braved the torrential rain and the inevitable protesters to attend Saturday night’s All Access concert in Cleveland — one of many such events around the country — were reminded, the fight for legal abortion access should also be celebrated.

The event interspersed moving personal narratives about abortion with brilliant comedic and musical pieces, including performances by Leslie Jones, Teyana Taylor and Sia.

For Mallory McMaster, who works in an abortion clinic, it is critical to have events like All Access that are celebratory and optimistic. With the focus so often on legislative and judicial failures, it’s important to highlight reproductive health movements and their broad-ranging support and many successes.

“The most important takeaway is that we’re bringing such a large group of people together,” McMaster said. “People young and old, people from all across the gender spectrum, all across the country and even internationally. I want [people] to know that we may be outnumbered in the legislature, but we are definitely not outnumbered on the ground. This is a great moment for the movement, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Comedy Central’s Jessica Williams, who hosted the event, agreed, emphasizing how important it is to recognize the triumphs along with the ongoing battles.

“The theme for tonight is so, so simple,” she said. “We are going to celebrate our successes and build our movement to ensure abortion access for all, which the last time I checked — five seconds ago — has been a legal right for 43 years, upheld by the Supreme Court of these United States of America. And yet, it is still not available to all of us, depending on who we are, where we live, how much money we make and how much bullcrap we can put up with.”

This is a sentiment especially resonant with many young people nationwide, who are statistically more likely to hold more progressive views than older generations, and for whom an unplanned pregnancy could disrupt college or career prospects or exacerbate difficult financial or emotional situations.

“Young people are driving social justice movements, including the abortion access movement, and that’s who was in the audience at this concert,” Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, wrote in an email to the Review. “Not because of the celebrities, but because abortion access is such an important reproductive option to have during a transformative time of their lives — for college students choosing a path ahead or for young people who are struggling financially or who aren’t starting a family at this time in their lives. For young people who haven’t joined the abortion access movement yet, this concert inspires a realization that although abortion isn’t an everyday occurrence in an individual’s life, it is an indicator of all of our reproductive freedom.”

MJ Flores, the event’s first storyteller, opened by sharing her experience of becoming pregnant in a foreign country and returning to her home state of Texas with one day left to legally obtain a medical abortion.

“During [a] layover, I found a corner in the airport, sat down, and called a doctor thousands of miles away just so the clock would start ticking on the waiting period,” she said. “Although abortion is a common procedure, the doctor was mandated by the state to read me lies about made-up and long disproven risks and complications. I was afraid the travelers around me would hear my conversation. I should never have had to go through that. … I am grateful that I was able to access an abortion in the end, but it shouldn’t have come with so many hurdles.”

Another speaker, Renee Bracey Sherman, shared what telling her own abortion story has meant to her.

“Everybody loves somebody who has had an abortion,” she said. “You might just not know it yet. … The most beautiful thing about sharing my abortion story is that somebody always shares theirs back. I refuse to be ashamed. I refuse to wear the veil of stigma. I had an abortion and it was the best decision for me.”

McMaster reflected on her work, and the negativity that often surrounds the discourse on abortion access, which inspired her to get involved with All Access.

“It seemed like a great way to celebrate what we do for a change, rather than always being on the defensive,” she said. “We want to be proud of the care we’re giving our patients in the community and give people who had had an abortion something to celebrate.”

College sophomore Devin McMahon, the Oberlin liaison for All Access, described planning the event and the anticipation of seeing it all come together.

“I was so pleasantly surprised,” she said. “I watched it almost not happen because a lot of performers couldn’t take a stand on this issue, which was depressing to say the least. And it ended up being so incredible. … It was so much fun, very moving, very inspiring, … and I hope it happens more than just once. I think it was a really important event, especially in the same city that the RNC was held in just this summer.”

One of the night’s more spectacular highlights was a speech by former Nevada State Assemblywoman Lucy Flores. She spoke about growing up in poverty, dropping out of high school, being arrested and having an abortion when she was sixteen, explaining in moving detail how she grew up seeing the impact teen motherhood had on her sisters’ lives and those of others in her community.

“As much as I loved my sisters, nieces and nephews, I saw how they struggled,” she said. “I saw how they worked so hard every day and couldn’t afford food and couldn’t afford healthcare. I saw how it was normal to get pregnant and immediately apply for public assistance,” she said. “That’s how you feed your kids. … And I myself only knew struggle for my entire life, and I didn’t want to keep putting myself or my kids through that. … And I did one of the hardest things that I had ever done in my life, and I went to my dad and explained to him that I wanted to give myself a chance. … but I needed the money to do it. And I don’t know how he did it, but my dad did what he always did and figured out how to get me the $200 I needed.”

Flores’ story was a call to action. Her message is especially important here in Ohio, where earlier this month a proposal to amend the state’s constitution to classify abortion as aggravated murder was brought to Ohio’s attorney general, Republican Mike DeWine. The proposal could be brought to the ballot as early as 2017.

However, laws like this are not exclusive to Ohio. During one of the breaks between speakers and performances, Jessica Williams took a straw poll of the audience to see how many people were aware that every single state in the U.S. currently has laws in place to make abortions more difficult to obtain.

“Can y’all guess how many states have some form of abortion access restriction on the books?” she asked. “I hear 50 — like, literally every single person in this room said 50. Now I don’t know about you, but I am so sick and tired of being told that because I have a [vagina], I’m supposed to put up with inconveniences of any kind.”

Williams also pointed out that Medicaid is already banned from using federal funds to cover abortion, and that 87 percent of United States’ counties have no abortion provider, to the disproportionate detriment of low-income women who might not be able to arrange or afford long-distance transportation.

“If you live in one of those [counties], you might as well be living in the 1950s,” she said. “Now do you see why we had to put together this big-ass event to shout this out? In this country, where abortion is a legal right and many people feel like it’s settled law, one in four low-income women who seek abortions cannot get one and are forced to carry their pregnancy to term. … A right in theory is not a right at all unless we all join together and demand that our rights be carried out.”