‘This is not the end. The end is when we win’: Thousands rally at the Iowa State Capitol for abortion rights

Mica Doolan speaking at the Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally, July 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

“All of us are here today to stand in solidarity with all of you, as we stand with child-bearing people all over the country,” Luana Nelson-Brown told the more than 2,000 people gathered on the West Terrace of the Iowa State Capitol on Sunday afternoon for the Iowans for Reproductive Justice Rally.

Nelson-Brown is the executive director of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, one of the nonprofit groups that organized the rally. Other organizers included the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, Iowa Abortion Access Fund, the Emma Goldman Clinic, Great Plains Action Society, the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Progress Iowa, One Iowa, the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa and Planned Parenthood of the North Central States.

“I want to really let you know how difficult it was for all of us to come together, and I want to tell you why,” Nelson-Brown said at the beginning of the rally. “It is because this issue affects so many different people in so many different ways that we don’t necessarily all see eye-to-eye, except for the fact that no one has the right to tell us what to do with our reproductive health.”

Because all the organizations are 501(3)c nonprofits, they are prohibited from engaging in campaign activities for candidates, so no politicians were invited to speak at the rally. Some did attend, including Democratic candidate for governor Deidre DeJear.

Sunday’s rally came two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending any protection for abortion access by federal law and rescinding a recognized right for the first time in history, and three weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court also discarded precedent and declared there there is no fundamental right to abortion protected by the state constitution.

Abortion prior to 20 weeks remains legal in Iowa, although there is now a 24-hour waiting period in place as a result of the Iowa Supreme Court’s June 17 ruling. But that may change. Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced she wants to see abortion banned after a “fetal heartbeat” can be detected — typically at six weeks, before many people know they are pregnant. (An embryo’s heart doesn’t usually form until 10 weeks into pregnancy, however; the “heartbeat” recognized in the bill is merely electrical activity in the proto-heart cells of the embryo detected by ultrasound.) The Republican leaders of the Iowa House and Senate both say they support such a ban.

“As a Black woman in this country, I know all too well what it looks like when your rights to reproduce in the way you want, or not, are taken away,” Nelson-Brown said, before introducing the rally’s other speakers. “I know all too well what it looks like to criminalize your body, and then to contribute to mass incarceration because of that criminalization.”

“And today I say: Hell no!”

Video screen at the Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally showing Luana Nelson-Brown speaking, July 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Jean Swenson recalled hearing the news of the Roe decision legalizing abortion when she was a college freshman in 1973. Swenson said her mother, who was apolitical and normally only liked to talk about “happy things,” sat her and her older sister down “and made sure we understood how monumental the decision in Roe v. Wade was for our lives.”

Swenson’s mother talked about the hardships experienced by friends of hers who had to leave Iowa to get illegal abortions in other states. Her sister then related stories about fellow students she knew in college who had tried to self-induce abortions, often ending up in the hospital as the attempt failed.

“I have felt strongly about the need for safe, legal, accessible abortions since 1973, because of the stories my mom and my sister shared with me,” Swenson said.

She led the crowd in chants of, “We can never go back.”

“We can never go back to the way things were before 1973, because people will die,” Swenson said.

Dr. Rebecca Shaw, who has been a practicing OB/GYN for 40 years, echoed Swenson.

“The World Health Organization has solid data showing that more women die when abortion care is restricted,” Shaw, chair of Specialty Medicine Department at Des Moines University, explained. “Like all patients, women obtaining abortion are entitled to privacy, dignity, respect and support from their doctor, free from political overreach.”

Shaw noted that abortion restrictions disproportionately affect people of color in a state in which accessing any form of reproductive healthcare can be difficult.

“Iowa is the state with the fewest obstetricians per capita, so we already have a major problem with access to obstetrical care,” Shaw said. “But in addition to obstetricians and gynecologists, there are family physicians, midwives, nurse practitioners who need to be free to offer patients the standard of reproductive care that is based on scientific evidence.”

People listening to speakers at the Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally, June 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Other speakers placed the right to choose an abortion in a broader context.

“I love that everybody’s chanting ‘we won’t go back,’ but I don’t think that’s adequate,” Sikowis Nobiss said.

Nobiss is the executive director of Great Plains Action Society, a “100 percent Indigenous led, Indigenous run” nonprofit that helps organize and rebuild Indigenous communities throughout the Midwest.

”I think that we need to move forward,” she continued. “And what is moving back for us, for Indigenous peoples? It means a lot of fucking shit is what it means. It means a lot of stuff for BIPOC, LGBTQ, Two-Spirit, disabled and migrant folks who have not had access to abortion since Roe.”

In the case of Indigenous people, the Hyde amendment has blocked access to abortion care. Attached to every annual federal budget since 1976, the amendment prohibits federal funds from being spent on abortions, except in very limited cases such as protecting the life of a pregnant patient. Because most healthcare on tribal lands is provided through the federal government’s Indian Health Service, the Hyde amendment has effectively served as ban on abortion on those lands.

Nobiss said people who think the elimination of Roe created circumstances that haven’t been seen in 50 years should “think about the Black and the Indigenous and the migrant women that have been living that,” because they have long been denied the right Roe guaranteed.

She said that at the root of the issue is “the white Christian problem.”

“This issue is not about abortion, it’s about reproductive justice,” Nobiss said. “It’s about Christian-induced colonial capitalism” continuing to deprive people of the freedom they should have.

The right to an abortion is “not just for women,” she said. “It’s for trans folks, it’s for nonbinary folks, it’s for all the people that have a uterus that may or may not get, and may or may not choose to get, pregnant.”

Protesters gathered on the West Terrace of the Iowa State Capitol for Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally, July 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Julie Russell Stewart talked about how the importance of the right to choose to people with disabilities.

“Disability advocates often talk about ‘paternalism.’ The paternalistic viewpoint that says ‘you are not in charge, someone else is in charge of your body and life’ is very familiar to us,” she told the crowd. “The fight for bodily autonomy and the right to make medical decisions ourselves are fights we have been having for a very long time.”

“In other words, disability justice is, and has been, reproductive justice, too.”

Stewart said people with disabilities often face difficulty getting even basic reproductive care, because their own doctors assume they have no interest in sex.

“That’s discrimination, not to mention ableism,” she said. “And if you don’t know this already, disabled people do have sex and deserve reproductive healthcare. We all deserved to be treated as people who could live full lives.”

“Abortion for the Black community and the question of access for the Black community, means yet another mile to clear on the unforgiving path to free existence,” Buffy Jamison said in a poetic speech at the rally. “One free of restrictions on our bodies, minds and spirits.”

Jamison concluded by telling listeners that working to ensure abortion remains legal is “another opportunity to fight together.”

“It’s another chance to actualize the idea that none of us are free, until all of us are free.”

Buffy E. Jamison speaking at the Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally, July 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

There were also speakers who shared their own experiences with abortion. Mica Doolan, who hosts a podcast on reproductive rights, Repros for Iowa, discussed her three abortions. And the Rev. Lizzie Gillman related how an abortion saved her life when she miscarried the second time she was pregnant.

Gillman, an Episcopal priest and member of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, also called on people of faith “to stand up and speak out for reproductive justice, especially access to safe and legal abortion.”

“Do not let the voices of one set of limited beliefs drown out your faithful voice, speaking out for the respect and dignity of all people, all pregnant people and all people able to become pregnant,” Gillman said.

Rev. Lizzie Gillman speaking at the Iowans from Reproductive Freedom Rally, July 10, 2022. –Paul Brennan/Little Village

Throughout the two-hour rally, speakers emphasized the importance getting educated about what is being done to keep abortion legal and protect reproductive choice, and supporting groups leading that fight. All of the host organizations had information booths set up during the rally. But it wasn’t until the afternoon’s final speaker that one of the biggest threats to abortion in Iowa was discussed.

Gov. Reynolds and Republican lawmakers are advancing an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would eliminate any protection for abortion in state law, beyond whatever the Legislature chooses to allow. The amendment has already passed the Legislature once, if it passes again next year, it will go to the voters for approval in the 2024 general election.

“We need to organize folks all over Iowa” to oppose the amendment, Becca Eastwood of the ACLU of Iowa told the people gathered on the West Terrace. “The ACLU Reproductive Rights Action Team will be knocking on doors, calling our fellow Iowans, in every part of the state, in all 99 counties.”

People seated on the West Terrace of the Iowa State Capitol during the Iowans for Reproductive Freedom Rally, July 10, 2022. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Eastwood called on everyone to get involved in the effort to defeat the amendment.

“While politicians may have the upper hand right now, here in Iowa, we the people get the final word,” she said. “This is not the end. The end is when we win.”

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