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Meagan Gallagher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, at a fundraiser for reproductive rights held July 16 at the Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro. Standing to Gallagher’s left are State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro) and Lisa Kuneman of the Women’s Action Team, one of the two organizations organizing the gathering.

Voices / Primary Sources

The conversation

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s president speaks in Brattleboro about the battle raging against reproductive rights at the national level and how Vermont is protecting those rights. A new state law has been passed, and a new effort to change the state constitution is underway, both made possible only by changing the conversation around contraception and abortion.

Meagan Gallagher is president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which is based in Colchester and serves patients in 21 locations across Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. This piece is adapted from her July 16 speech in Brattleboro at a benefit organized by Reproductive Health Advocates of Southern Vermont and the Women’s Action Team.


Thank you for creating this space and this opportunity to talk about this moment. To be a community with all of you is why I do this work.

We’re going to talk about what is happening, what we can do, and how we can ground ourselves in how we get from here to where we want the world to be.

Because I think we can do it.

* * *

This story began more than 50 years ago, in 1965, when the birth-control pill became widely available. Recognizing the power of the Pill to transform women’s lives, people organized and founded Planned Parenthood of Northern New England to ensure that everyone had the information they needed to determine when and if they would have children.

In 1970, the Nixon administration enacted the federal Title X Family Planning Program to prioritize the needs of low-income people who might not otherwise have access to contraception and reproductive health care services.

Three years later, in 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion across the country.

Fast forward to today. The world looks very different.

In the 1960s, women’s participation in the labor force was 38 percent of men’s. Today, it’s 83 percent of men’s participation. We have seen, at the same time, that women’s educational attainment has grown at twice the rate of men’s.

Over this time, we have seen how access to sexual and reproductive health care enables people to achieve their educational goals. It enables economic empowerment. We have seen how it is good for individuals, communities, and families.

For those of us who like this version of the world, we celebrate that progress, but we also know that our work is not done.

Access to sexual and reproductive health care has fallen unevenly, and our work will not be done until everyone can fully exercise their reproductive rights. In particular, we recognize that people in low-income communities, people in rural communities, and people in communities of color have experienced disproportionate barriers to care.

* * *

Now the Trump administration is trying to rewrite this story. They have been maniacally focused on upending the progress we’ve made in three ways:

• Getting an anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court;

• Dismantling the Title X federal family planning programming that has enabled PPNNE to deliver care regardless of a person’s ability to pay for over 40 years; and

• Defunding Planned Parenthood.

Trump successfully shifted the balance of support for abortion rights on the U.S. Supreme Court with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, and states are now racing to get the most restrictive abortion ban decisions heard by the Supreme Court.

The Trump administration has also made progress in dismantling the federal Title X program on a number of levels. Millions of federal family-planning dollars have been awarded to faith-based organizations that do not provide contraception.

They have also enacted a gag order that prohibits recipients of Title X program dollars from giving patients referral information about abortion care.

Imagine a doctor treating a cancer patient being told that they couldn’t give their patients all of their treatment options.

* * *

In partnership with the national office of Planned Parenthood and with the American Medical Association, we challenged Trump’s gag rule in court.

The status of the gag rule is changing every week as our legal challenge works its way through the court system. Today, the gag rule is in effect, and we are not accepting federal funds for the family-planning care that we provide.

We might get a favorable court opinion in the next few weeks that gives us access to the funding again. But to be clear, we will never withhold information from our patients, who deserve to know all their health care options.

* * *

However, the bigger problem today is the incendiary and extremist rhetoric the opposition is using to shame and demonize women.

In the State of the Union address, the president talked about women getting abortions days before they are due to give birth.

That does not happen.

On the campaign trail, Trump talked about women giving birth and then having a conversation with their doctor about whether they’ll execute the baby.

That does not happen.

What is so insidious about our president is that the things that he says have this ever-so-delicate filament of truth in them.

The truth is that pregnancies are complicated, and they sometimes go terribly wrong. When parents are faced with a diagnosis of a pregnancy that is incompatible with life, or with a diagnosis that threatens the health of the mother, they may choose abortion later in pregnancy.

These women had to go home and figure out what they’re going to do with this baby’s room in their home, where there’s no baby to bring home.

The opposition is exploiting people’s tragedy. And we need to call them on it.

We’re not going to be able to call them on it with a sound bite in the media. We’re not going to win that game. Trump’s got that game, whatever it is.

The opposition is exploiting people’s tragedy, and we need to call them on it.

There is a long-term game — and that’s the game that we’re going to win.

* * *

As we watch these eviscerating attacks on reproductive rights unfold, nationally and in states across the country, it is nothing short of horrifying. Where are we going as a country? How do we feel about people wanting to take away the rights of those of us who identify as women to control our bodies?

At the same time as we think about the messaging and the confusion and the chaos that the president thrives on, it’s also important to remember that those abortion bans that were passed in Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio are not going to become law. And the people who pass them know that.

Their intention was to create a challenge to Roe. They each hope that their state’s law will prompt the case that results in Roe v. Wade being overturned.

But that has not happened yet.

And so, we are really intentional about letting people know that these laws are not in effect. Because people have been confused — they didn’t know if they could still access abortion here in the state.

* * *

Without question, as we watch this all unfold, certainly the thought that’s occurred to me time and time again is: Why are we still having this conversation?

The bottom line is that we have to fundamentally change the conversation. For the last 46 years, the opposition has made the debate about good and bad reasons for having an abortion.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: Why does the government have a role in our personal health care decisions at all? Why can’t we trust people and their health-care providers to navigate reproductive health care in the same way that they navigate every other dimension of our health?

That is the conversation that we had with the Vermont Legislature this year. H.57 was a bill introduced to codify unrestricted abortion rights in Vermont. In considering that bill and by passing it into law, our legislators determined that the government should not be involved in these health care decisions.

Passing this law was a hard fought battle. Opponents of abortion rights showed up in force to defeat the bill.

The thing that’s important to understand is that this was not easy. We often think, “We’re Vermont! No problem.” And as we were organizing people to support this bill, people were like, “Oh, no problem. Vermont supports abortion rights. This isn’t going to be the issue.”

But on the heels of New York passing a law that codified unrestricted access to abortion, that debate that we heard in the State of the Union reared its ugly head again and got a lot of purchase in the media. And all of a sudden, the conversation that we were having nationally in January was about those abortions later in pregnancy.

And the opposition literally dropped busloads of people in Montpelier. They filled the State House with opponents of the bill, and those folks talked. They invoked images of slavery and the Holocaust. They told legislators that they would be judged by God and described abortion as “killing for convenience.”

But our legislators talked to people who had experienced those abortions; they talked to the doctors who perform these procedures. After careful consideration, they overwhelmingly voted to codify unrestricted access to abortion in Vermont, and the governor signed the bill into law.

In doing so, lawmakers sent the message that they respect people and they respect health-care providers to navigate the ethical questions inherent in reproductive health care.

What made me so proud to be a Vermonter is that we had that conversation.

* * *

The Legislature then initiated the process to amend the Vermont constitution to guarantee reproductive freedom. That process takes four years, and ultimately Vermont voters will make the final decision in November 2022.

It’s exciting to have the process underway, and we are now educating voters about this important opportunity to ensure reproductive rights for all Vermonters.

We have begun the process to educate voters about this opportunity to really codify reproductive freedom for Vermonters in perpetuity. And we need your help. There’s a lot of work.

This conversation that I just described — about the difference between the government being involved in personal health-care decisions or government not being involved in personal health-care decisions and how the abortion debate gets mixed up in that process — is complicated. We’re not going to get it into a sound bite or a media clip, and people aren’t going to be persuaded by that.

But through a project that we call deep canvassing, we have found that if you have conversations one-on-one with people about the values that surround support for abortion rights, you can have really productive conversations.

As a result, Vermont will be the first state in the country to explicitly guarantee reproductive freedom. And you will get to learn how to have a productive conversation with somebody about an issue that you don’t agree with — one that happens to be one of the most controversial issues in our country at this moment.

So that’s what we want to do. And we invite you to join us, because you can be part of making history.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #522 (Wednesday, August 7, 2019). This story appeared on page E1.

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