Not many things could coax me out of my air-conditioned home in July to spend nine hours on a bus — OK, it was air-conditioned and had wi-fi, but still — and then six hours or so in the steamy heat of Washington D.C.
But some things are just too important to forego, even in such torrid conditions.
One of those things is Planned Parenthood — now under threat from proposed health care legislation that would eliminate funding for this widely used, and grossly maligned, organization, which provides essential health services to women and their families.
Planned Parenthood works with more than 8,000 women each day, offering them services that range from mammograms, to STD testing, to counseling on birth control. Sadly, however, although helping desperate women obtain abortions is a relatively small part of its job, the forces that oppose the organization would have us believe that it’s all Planned Parenthood does.
The monster that is the proposed new health care bill seems, like the hydra, to have many heads; so early on Wednesday morning I boarded a chartered bus in Wayne, headed for a Planned Parenthood Day of Action in the nation’s capital. Coincidentally, the news headline streaming at the bottom of CNN that day declared “Trump to GOP: No Health Care Plan, No Vacation.”
About 70 people came on two buses from New Jersey — but even the people who didn’t come, at least the ones I spoke with beforehand, said I should march for them as well. This included my editor, a rabbi recuperating after donating a kidney (see story on page 10), the checkout lady at a Delaware rest stop, and my handyman, who told me that when his wife was pregnant, they turned to Planned Parenthood for help, since at the time they couldn’t afford health insurance.
So who was on the bus? People like me.
“You don’t look like a protester,” said the friend who drove me to the bus. Nor did the old and young women (and man) who joined me on this journey. Which raises the question: What does a protester look like?
All of us had our own reasons for coming. And believe me, this was not just a pleasant outing, as anyone who ever has used a cramped toilet on a rapidly moving vehicle can attest. For some women, this was a reunion, for others, it was a new experience.
One young mother, two young children (one a babe in arms) in tow, said this was a wonderful opportunity for her children to see history in the making. Another woman, a senior in college who had a flexible summer internship, said that because she was able to come, and because she strongly believes that every person has a right to control her own body, she decided that she should come. A second student, who used Planned Parenthood’s services while in college — as did I — said that she would hate to see that resource taken away.
A lovely old-timer, originally from Chicago — who knew D.C., she said, like the back of her hand — has been a supporter of Planned Parenthood for decades. She recalled advising her sister many years ago to visit the organization for counseling on birth control. The sister was pleased with the result. Yet another fellow passenger reported that in the 1970s, she helped cover a hotline for women unable to find safe abortions. She offered counseling and support. “We can’t go backward,” she said.
A young man on my bus revealed that he was there on behalf of his mother and sisters. His mother, he said, had been a victim of statutory rape; fortunately she had been able to obtain an abortion. That, he said, allowed her to carry on with her life and move forward, though she still carries the psychological scars.
An eloquent supporter of Planned Parenthood told me she is insulted that men make assumptions about women’s decisions. Why, she asked, should they decide what she should do? After all, a woman’s decision is heartfelt and based on what is best for her life. “They are so hung up on abortion issues,” she said, noting that while something may not be desirable, it may be the best option for a woman and her family. Why, she asked, are there no corresponding laws regulating paternal responsibilities?
Once we boarded the bus, it was clear that there was work to do. Ten minutes into the ride, we were told that Wednesday mornings are a great time to call our state legislators, so why not whip out our cell phones and call our legislative members to discuss their recent vote on restoring funds for family planning organizations? Fortunately, my calls were easy, since both of my assemblymen, Tim Eustace and Joseph Lagana, had voted to restore funds. Sadly, the measure failed anyway.
On arrival, we were given a crash course in “pinking” Capitol Hill, offering passersby a pink sticker indicating support for our cause. Only one woman growled at me, but we were under strict orders not to growl back. Later in the day, we gathered for our own rally, waving signs and clapping and booing at the appropriate times.
Perhaps my takeaway from the day — aside from the unfortunate realization that you can gain back all the weight you sweated out by noshing free snacks on the bus — was how much activism matters. Our own junior U.S. senator, Cory Booker, speaking at a rally we attended — we corralled him afterwards for selfies and hugs — said it over and over again. Democracy is not a spectator sport. We wouldn’t be where we are today were it not for the struggles of previous generations. Now we have to pay it forward.
And Connecticut’s U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat like Mr. Booker, speaking later at our rally, credited the continued failure of efforts to gut healthcare to efforts such as ours. Still, he stressed, the fight is not over and we have to keep hammering home our message. “We’re here in the heat to turn up the heat,” he said.
Still, I hope it will be cooler next time.