Letter to a Young Activist: Do Not Drop the Banner

Letter to a Young Activist: Do Not Drop the Banner

by Barbara Santee

I am 74 years old. When I was 18, I had an illegal abortion that nearly killed me. I ended up in the hospital where I underwent surgery to save my life. That event put me on a trajectory I never dreamed possible.

In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, I started the first pro-choice group in my home state of Oklahoma, and have been a fervent pro-choice activist ever since. I have learned a few things that I believe would be helpful to young people to help them become actively engaged in this fight.

First of all, understand that the anti-choice movement has been with us nearly 40 years, is not going away, and probably never will. Young people must prepare themselves for a lifelong engagement in this crucial war to protect women’s reproductive autonomy. If we don’t consider ourselves soldiers in a war, we are living in a dream world because the anti-abortion extremists do consider themselves to be warriors. If side A is prepared at any cost to take away side B’s freedom, and side B is saying, “It can never happen,” it will happen. Trust me. It is not hyperbole to say that abortion hangs by a thin thread.

I encourage you to incorporate some aspect of reproductive freedom into your career plans, not as a peripheral issue of occasional interest, but as a central piece of your life’s work. Your energy, intelligence and skills are desperately needed.

Anti-Abortion Infiltration is Everywhere

The average American has no idea of how deeply our social fiber has been infiltrated by anti-abortion extremists. The constant bombardment of political and religious extremists affects not only our judicial and legislative institutions, but the areas of education, medicine, bioethics, military, the media and “research.”

Here’s one example of how successful the anti-abortion forces have been at flying under the radar and picking the taxpayer’s pockets to further their agenda. The federal government’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives has lined the pockets and enabled thousands of evangelical churches and fundamentalist religious groups to spread anti-abortion propaganda. Many of the groups are Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) that deceive women seeking abortions into coming to their facility for “counseling,” even though their sole purpose is to prevent abortions and to push religious proselytizing. Most of these centers receive government funds for abstinence-only programs. By 2008, the federal government had spent more than $1.5 billion on such programs. This amount does not include the amounts granted by the 20 or more U.S. states that provide funding for CPCs.

Congress continues to provide $50 million each year for these programs, despite a 10-year Congressional evaluation showing these programs do not work. Most CPCs do not provide contraception, do not supply Plan B after rape and won’t make a referral for these services or for abortion. Public funds are being used by these anti-abortion propaganda mills to further their religious agenda and to mislead and lie to young, vulnerable woman. Only recently pro-choice activists have started challenging these deceitful practices through city council regulations. But we need national legislation because there are thousands of these places in the country — over 60 in Oklahoma alone and 4,000 nationwide — and to stop pouring millions into them.

There’s more, of course. Since Roe, thousands of anti-abortion organizations have sprung up designed specifically to eliminate abortion and birth control — Evangelical Christian law schools are dedicated to training attorneys to oppose abortion, and phony think tanks grind out “research” filled with lies, using methodological and scientific distortions that anti-abortion extremists can quote to legitimize their attacks.

These extremists have managed to eliminate federal funding for elective abortions under Medicaid, the Indian Health Services and federal employees insurance plans. Neither military funds nor facilities may be used for abortion anywhere in the world. This means, those women fighting in a hostile country can’t use a military hospital for an abortion but must risk their lives going to a local hospital and pay for the procedure out of their own pockets.

Nothing Short of Christian Theocracy

But most troubling of all, the religious extremists have infiltrated our military all the way from the ROTC and the military academies up to the Pentagon, from privates to generals and everywhere in between. This is an ominous sign because the power behind most anti-abortion activities comes from a fundamentalist faction called the Dominionists. Their aim is to take over the government of the United States and turn it into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. They are convinced that if they can’t do this peacefully, they will do it by force; hence, their wooing of the military.

“We desperately
need young,
intelligent people
to commit their
lives to this fight”

Over 20 years ago, I became aware of the Dominionists’ game plan when I attended the first meeting of the Christian Coalition in Tulsa, my hometown. They began the meeting with a prayer followed by the flag salute. But it wasn’t the American flag. It was the Christian flag, complete with a pledge of allegiance to Jesus that gave “life and liberty” only to those who “believed” in” him”! (“I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior, for whose kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.”)

The implications of this horrified me. I immediately called a progressive minister friend and together we founded the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, a group of mainstream people of faith who have served as a counter voice to the religious extremists — not an easy task in the home town of the fundamentalists’ Oral Roberts University.

Domionism’s goal is a nation governed by Christians and their version of biblical law; this goal drives conservative Christians to seek control over secular government. Thus, the legislative deadlock and open hostility toward anyone who disagrees with them. They bring their fundamentalist binary thinking (black/white, good/evil) to the legislature. Those who disagree are not just wrong; they are “evil.” Domionists feel they are the rightful rulers and those who don’t agree are standing in their way of doing God’s bidding. They truly are waging a holy war and they are funding it on the backs of women, raising millions with their anti-abortion crusades.

Pro-choice supporters must face this threat in every institution in our country because it is there in every institution. We desperately need young, intelligent people to commit their lives to this fight, because thousands of young people are being groomed now on the opposing side.

We need attorneys to fight for reproductive freedom in courts. We need a professor in every law school. We need Students for Choice on every campus in this country. We need judges who will make decisions not based on politics, but on justice and the law. We need legislators to counter anti-abortion, anti-woman legislation. We need doctors who will teach abortion procedures and who will take over when the aging doctors in our abortion clinics can no longer practice. We need research and social scientists to counter the bogus anti-abortion research. We need informed leaders in the military to counter the religious proselytizing.

“Now it’s your
generation’s turn”

We need more pro-choice ministries that do all-options and pro-woman counseling. We need historians to record our experiences so they won’t be rewritten by the extremists who even now claim few women died or were injured when abortion was illegal. We need supporters in the arts — writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, musicians — who can tell the truth about choice and touch people’s hearts. We need administrators to lead activist organizations. We need professionals in the news media to make sure the reporting on abortion is timely, thorough and accurate. We need philanthropists to give generously to the cause.

In other words, we need you!

Over the last 40 years, I have seen how the concerted and determined efforts of these anti-abortion extremists have eroded our basic right to reproductive autonomy until we are now on the brink of losing Roe. If we lose abortion, birth control won’t be far behind.

The suffragists stood in front of the White House with their banners demanding the right to vote. One-by-one, they were arrested and dragged off by the police. Before being taken to jail, each woman handed her banner to the next woman who continued holding it until she, too, was dragged away. The women changed, but the banners remained because the next woman was willing to step up and accept the burden. Just as it took 70 years and complete dedication for women to win the vote, we must have that same determination in this fight.

And now it’s your generation’s turn. Don’t drop the banner!

Dr. Barbara Santee holds a Ph.D from Columbia University and three Masters degrees. She has been the director of evaluation for International Planned Parenthood Federation and the executive director of NARAL ProChoice Oklahoma. She currently is a consultant for the Abortion Access Project and moderates several pro-choice lists for her state.

Also see: How Anti-Abortion Protesters Got Me: Letter From a Young Activist by Sarah Flint Erdreich in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Can We Choose Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? — And How? by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Read the Cafe for new and updated stories.