Kadida Kenner, a progressive activist, leads a crowd in chants in front of the Pennsylvania Capitol in support of abortion rights Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Capital-Star photo)
(*Editor’s Note: The name of the woman, Ashley, mentioned in the below op-Ed, is a pseudonym. The Capital-Star agreed to a request for anonymity to protect her privacy.)
By Mary Gay Scanlon
As an attorney, you never forget your first client – that’s when the power and impact of our justice system becomes real, in ways a textbook or lecture cannot convey.
Ashley, not her real name*, was my first client.
I had just started representing children in the abuse and neglect system when I met Ashley. She was only 10 years old and had been abused by her parent. Her grip on my hand grew tighter with every step as we walked into the courtroom.
That gesture, I came to learn, was one you grow accustomed to as a lawyer. It’s a form of non-verbal communication that represents the complex emotions a client feels while awaiting justice: a grip of hope and fear, and a need for reassurance.
Ashley and I remained close over the years; she knew I was always a phone call away. And she did call to let me know how she was doing in school, when she made honor roll and got her first job. But, when the phone rang nearly a decade later, I heard the fear of that 10-year-old girl. Ashley had been raped by an abusive boyfriend and learned that she was pregnant.
She gripped my hand as we walked into the clinic, sat in the waiting room, and waited for the doctor.
Ashley chose to terminate that pregnancy, a choice that was hers alone to make.
Over the years, I have represented women denied that choice by the states where they live, and the tight grip that others have exerted over their reproductive rights.
That grip is getting tighter as state legislatures and the Trump administration have renewed efforts to criminalize reproductive healthcare and strip women of autonomy over their own bodies.
This renewed assault on the rights of women to make difficult decisions reflecting their own medical needs and religious beliefs has reminded me not only of Ashley, but of the inextricable relationship between reproductive rights and voting rights — and the direct consequences that elections have for the most vulnerable members of our society.
And, it is no accident.
From real ID laws to closing polling places and purging voter rolls, it is no surprise that the states actively working to strip women of reproductive rights are the ones who have turned back the clock on voting rights.
Many of these extreme efforts are possible because of partisan-gerrymandering. When districts are heavily gerrymandered, legislators escape accountability at the ballot box – leaving these extreme measures unchecked at the ballot box.
In the last six months, Alabama, Georgia, and my home state of Pennsylvania, have put reproductive rights on the legislative chopping block, ignoring the protections of Roe v. Wade, and sending shockwaves across the nation. This debate is not just about abortion. It’s about access: to free and fair elections, and safe reproductive healthcare.
Voter suppression tactics disproportionately suppress the voices of women and minority voters, discouraging participation in our democracy at the voting booth and on the ballot.
When women and people of color feel excluded from this most basic form of participation, there is no incentive to put their name on the ballot.
When our elected officials do not reflect the people, the issues most important to women and our communities most at risk are less likely to be discussed, let alone addressed. This is how state legislatures, occupied predominantly by majority Republican white men, clear the pathway for turning back the clock on reproductive health care.
This issue is systemic, with racist roots that have only grown stronger, and deeper, following the 2013 Supreme Court Shelby case, which resulted in a decision that overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool in fighting racial discrimination in voting.
Following that decision, states such as Alabama and Georgia have moved to restrict voting.
For example, Alabama first passed a strict voter ID law; then, in the following year closed 31 driver’s license centers across the state. While the state disputed that the closures were not “racially motivated,” of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of African-American voters, eight lost centers.
Once Alabama was a target of a federal investigation, they reopened the polling places, but subsequently passed a “proof of citizenship” requirement to register to vote shortly after. This trend of restricting access to voting continued, leading to the purging of 340,000 registered voters in 2017 alone.
Georgia is no stranger to this fate either. Over the last six years, the state has become a focal point in the voting rights debate, as their former secretary of state, and now governor, Brian Kemp, leveraged the Shelby decision to block the ballot box from poor, rural, and minority voters.
Following the 2018 election cycle, women make up 28.9% of our state legislatures: 70% of the women in those positions are Democrats.
But when we look at the states actively working to ban abortion and other forms of reproductive health care, the under-representation of women is striking. Women only make up 15 percent of the Alabama state legislature and 26 percent of the Georgia legislature. And we should note that 72 percent of the women serving in those state houses are Democrats.
This war on reproductive rights is not new and neither are the tactics. But, the greatest threat to reproductive healthcare may not be renewed challenges to Roe v. Wade; but rather the systematic effort to suppress the votes of those most impacted by such laws.
The Guttmacher Institute conducted a study in [year] on the accessibility of reproductive healthcare in the United States.
In 2014, 93 percent of the counties in Alabama had no clinics that provided abortions and 59% of Alabama women lived in those counties. In Georgia, roughly 96 percent of Georgia counties had no clinics that provided abortions, and 58% of Georgia women lived in those counties.
The future of reproductive healthcare depends on our efforts to improve and protect the right to vote. It is more than ironic that if states like Alabama are successful in criminalizing abortion, the effort would lead to even further curtailing of the right to vote.
In Alabama, for example, voting rights are denied to those who have committed a “crime of moral turpitude”, the very classification that would apply to someone seeking an abortion, having an abortion, or providing an abortion were the abortion ban to be upheld.
Women in Alabama needing abortion care would find themselves having to make a decision that would either mean they have lost the constitutional right to abortion or the constitutional right to vote.
When I decided to run for office, Ashley was one of the first to volunteer for the campaign.
In the years since we met, she has married, raised a family and become an advocate for children and families in her community. Mobilized by her own story, Ashley went door to door to get out the vote, eager to change our representation from local government to Congress.
So many of us take the right to vote for granted. When we ignore this responsibility, or deny this right to our most vulnerable communities, it is impossible for our government to reflect the people.
And, at this critical time in our history, we must vote to elect representatives who will fight to protect the sanctity of our elections and the will of the people.
Our reproductive rights—and voting rights—depend on it.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat, represents the Delaware County-based 5th Congressional District. She writes from Washington D.C.
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