‘We won’t go back’: Reproductive rights advocates rally on the Pentacrest

Demonstrators gather on the University of Iowa Pentacrest for a pro-choice rally on Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Parents, grandparents, college students, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ individuals, Christians, women’s health clinic workers and more gathered on the University of Iowa Pentacrest Friday, May 17, in support of abortion access.

The demonstration, titled We Will NOT Go Back — Rally to Protect our Reproductive Rights, was organized by Liana McGowan Reimer and Nicholas Schnerre in response to a highly restrictive abortion ban passed in Alabama on May 15 (which has received criticism from some prominent Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Senators Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton), as well as legislation threating access to reproductive health services and education in Iowa, Georgia, Missouri and other states.

Despite rainy weather, some 70 locals attended Friday’s rally, with more than a dozen of them — including Reimer and Schnerre — giving testimonials. A few said it was their first time wielding a megaphone; others told stories they said they’ve never shared publicly before.

Demonstrators delivered personal testimonies at a May 17 rally on the Pentacrest in response to the passing of restrictive abortion legislation nationwide. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Young women and men discussed relying on Planned Parenthood and similar clinics for screenings after being sexually assaulted. A mother who became pregnant at 15 and decided not to terminate the pregnancy expounded on the importance of that choice.

“In deciding to keep her, I didn’t resent her for the last 18 years,” she said of her daughter. “And she’s about to graduate high school, and I am still pro-choice because every single person should be able to make that decision for themselves.”

Another mother shared a similar sentiment, explaining that she had an abortion, then went on to have two planned children. One woman said she’d “probably be dead today” were it not for her abortion, while an older woman admitted to receiving an illegal abortion decades ago, and remains childless by choice. “I would have been a crummy mother,” she said.

Threats to birth control and abortion access are a source of anxiety, one young speaker shared. “As a genderqueer person who still has a female body and is in a heterosexual relationship, it really sucks running the risk of pregnancy,” they said. “That’s my main source of dysmorphia.”

A young man gave an impassioned speech about the global economic impact of empowering women, citing Linda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift. An older man confessed to being “pro-life” before clarifying he is “pro-life from the standpoint of birth to death, cradle to grave,” saying the anti-abortion movement “isn’t really about abortion, it’s about power.”

(No counter-protesters demonstrated at the rally, though a woman did mill about the crowd handing attendees pink information cards for “the Planned Parenthood Project,” an initiative of the nonprofit Students for Life of America, which supports the defunding of Planned Parenthood.)

Demonstrators gather on the University of Iowa Pentacrest for a pro-choice rally on Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Another man recalled the story of a former peer at the University of Iowa who became pregnant before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 effectively legalized abortion in Iowa and the rest of the country. A freshman in 1969, the woman traveled to Chicago for an abortion, the man said. “This is what she got.” He waved a coat hanger. “Later that same day, she went into septic shot, came to the University of Iowa hospital and was treated like a criminal for what she had done. And for all the love there should be in this world, that should never, ever happen to anyone again. I’m a grandfather, I have four granddaughters and don’t you ever tread on my ladies.”

“What they’ve done in Alabama is put more regulations on women, put more regulations on doctors than they have their damn guns,” he added.

The fact infant and maternal mortality rates among U.S. women of color are 3-4 times higher than their white counterparts was referenced by several speakers.

Schnerre, a teacher and political activist who drove in from Des Moines Friday to attend the rally, emphasized intersectionality in his speech.

“I’m tired of people saying they’re pro-life, but they won’t show up to a Black Lives Matter rally,” he said. “I’m tired of being told that I’m radical for saying people deserve equal rights and privileges that white people get on a daily basis. If you’re pro-life, why are you OK with all the children that are in cages? If you’re pro-life, why are you OK with people dying of something they shouldn’t be dying from, which is HIV and AIDS?”

Emma Goldman Clinic Executive Director Francine Thompson gives a speech at a pro-choice rally on the UI Pentacrest. Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

One of the more formal and well-received speeches came from Francine Thompson, executive director of the Emma Goldman Clinic. “It really seems like people are starting to believe that the shit is getting real,” she began. “I want to say that the shit has been real.”

All the recent rabid anti-abortion legislation is being passed really in the hopes that the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. But even if Roe is never overturned, it may not matter, because so many states are working to make abortion inaccessible. … People are already having to travel to other states where abortion is more accessible. They’re having to leave the comfort of their communities and local and trusted regional clinics, even if Roe is never overturned. They need transportation and housing often offered by strangers — friendly and supportive, but strangers nonetheless — even if Roe is never overturned. They’re putting their health and their lives in the hands of healthcare clinics and providers that they’re unfamiliar with. They’re taking the chance that if they present at the emergency room with heavy bleeding, that they won’t be charged for fetal homicide, even if Roe is never overturned. And they’re continuing pregnancies that they don’t want to because they can’t afford an abortion or navigate the challenges of getting one, or they’re taking matters into their own hands with self-induced and self-managed abortions, and these things are already happening, even if Roe is never overturned. You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like pre-Roe to me, even if Roe is never overturned.

A demonstrator holds a sign referencing the Iowa state motto during a pro-choice rally on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Thompson recommended some courses of action: becoming aware of who your elected officials are, and analyzing their stances on reproductive health services; donating money, time, transportation, lodging and other support to local clinics and the patients seeking services there; and having “courageous conversations” about the issues, including sharing personal stories, fighting myths about abortion and demanding action from prospective representatives.

“This is not just about abortion — abortion is just one of the current vehicles being driven to oppress and control marginalized folks, including people with a uterus and especially black and brown and gay and trans folks,” Thompson said. “So 2020 wannabe candidates need to be put on notice: we won’t go back.”

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