These doors stay open

Over 20 years ago, in December of 1994, two young clinic workers were murdered and five other people wounded in a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic outside of Boston.

At the time, I was staff writer for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut (now Planned Parenthood of Southern New England). When in early 1995 we began to plan the 1994-95 annual report, and as we took unprecedented steps to secure our own facilities, I thought long and hard about how to incorporate that December’s events into the document. With the support of both my supervisor, Susan Lloyd Yolen, and Patricia Baker, our executive director, I tossed out the usual format of reporting department by department. Instead, while the year’s essential statistical and programmatic information was included, I wrote an essay entitled These Doors Stay Open.

Today, in light of the latest assault on reproductive justice, I am posting excerpts from that report — text that remains heartbreakingly and infuriatingly relevant.

These doors stay open

The final Saturday of 1994 was a winter Saturday much like any other. At Planned Parenthood centers across Connecticut, patients came in for pregnancy tests and birth control, Pap smears and annual exams, test results and information.

But on that Saturday, the predictable routine of opening the health center, answering the phones, and checking in patients, was more than a day’s work. It was an act of courage and defiance. The day before — Friday, December 30 — two clinic workers in Brookline, Massachusetts were shot to death and five others wounded by a dangerous zealot who remained at large for over 24 hours before being captured.

On that Saturday, we in Connecticut honored those two young women in the best way we knew how. We opened our doors as usual, and saw our patients.

Escalating aggression

The Brookline shootings were the most recent example of escalating violence against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health providers nationwide. Since 1993 we have seen the murders of five doctors and clinic workers, and the wounding of several others, as well as countless bomb threats, numerous clinic burnings and butyric acid attacks, and constant threats of violence to clinic personnel.

The attacks against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care providers do not come only in the form of bullets and bombs threats, and are not directed only against abortion providers. An increasingly conservative Congress is engaged in the unraveling of policies and programs that have, for decades, been part of the fabric of American life.

In this 30th anniversary year of Griswold v Connecticut (the 1965 Supreme Court decision overturning state laws that prohibited even married couples from obtaining birth control) family planning is still a political football. Far right members of Congress try to justify defunding family-planning services by linking them with abortion. Unconcerned with facts — that only about three percent of patient visits to Planned Parenthood health centers are for abortion-related services — they have mounted a full-scale assault on Planned Parenthood (the plaintiff in Griswold) in particular and family planning agencies in general.

Flawed contract

Are you concerned about teen pregnancy, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and violence? So is the radical right. But their solutions as outlined in the Christian Coalition’s “Contract with the American Family” include everything from abolishing federal support for the arts to defunding Planned Parenthood, which the Christian Coalition accuses of “indoctrinating America’s children into its ‘safe sex’ philosophy” and “undermining parental authority and the bonds between parents and their children.”

Ludicrous as these accusations sound, they are central to the right-wing agenda. Far from protecting families, this agenda denies America’s rich religious and cultural pluralism; demeans women; narrows choices for all American; and gives powers of moral dictatorship to the very government the radical right says it wants out of our lives.

“I’ll come if you need me”

This past year was not an easy one for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. It was a year that saw staff cutbacks, major reorganizing, and continued uncertainty over health care reform. Our non-Medicaid patients, poorer than ever before, paid less for their care with us, while Medicaid reimbursements continued to be less than the cost of providing care. Significant resources were spent countering physical threats and political maneuvering from the radical right.

There is one place where Planned Parenthood and our opponents come together. They understand, as we do, that being able to control one’s own reproductive life is essential to women’s autonomy. But while we celebrate that autonomy, they are terrified of it. In the political arena they use undefined and charged terms like “family values” to keep us in our place. At reproductive health sites, they are using deadly force.

On the Monday morning after the Brookline shootings a call came in to PPC’s executive director. On the line  was a donor who had contributed generously over the years. Now she was asking, “What can I do to help? Do you need a receptionist? I’ll come to any clinic if you need me.”

We did not need her to serve as a receptionist on that particular day. But the trust of patients, the dedication of staff, the generosity of donors, and the backing of supporters are what keep Planned Parenthood going.

Nothing can protect us more than the outrage of ordinary people.

© Rhea Hirshman 2015











If a word doesn’t work, send it packing

Writing women – Version 2Seeing the tools of language handled deftly by others is one of the great pleasures of my life; for a writer, honing those tools is a process that lasts a lifetime.

Some people have better ears for music than others (my mother, a normally tolerant woman, emphatically dissuaded my tone-challenged father from singing in the house). Some have more natural athletic talent (one of my highly accomplished college buddies can still relive the trauma of having come perilously close to failing our college phys ed requirement). Some seem to know instinctively Continue reading

Women’s bodies more dangerous than guns

imagesOriginally published in the New Haven Register about three years ago, this piece is still, unfortunately, highly relevant.  So here it is again, with updated statistics. 

These days, any American not living under a rock would have to conclude that women’s reproductive organs are considered more hazardous than assault weapons.

To quote our own Declaration of Independence: “Let the facts be submitted to a candid world.” Just a few of these facts will suffice to show that tens of millions of us live in states whose legislators believe that access to assault weapons is a God-given right, while concurrently holding the conviction that our lady parts are a threat to the Republic, and therefore require close supervision by elected representatives. Continue reading

Rebellious Lilith embodies Passover story

passover-clipart-jixa8aGiELater this week, Jews worldwide will begin the celebration of Passover. Grounded in the ancient story of oppression, liberation and renewal, Passover, like all Jewish holidays, marks an event in the life of the community rather than the life of any individual. The Passover observance centers in the home at the seder, the ritual meal at which we remember and retell the story of 400 years spent in slavery in Egypt, “strangers in a strange land,” and the terrifying, transformative journey through the parted Red Sea towards the Promised Land and redemption.

The seders of my early childhood were interminable affairs, made by and for men who mumbled their way through Hebrew texts that seemed to have as much to do with me as the men had to do with the kitchen from which the bountiful food materialized.

But the Old Testament is full of strong and righteous women, including those without whom the passage out of slavery in Egypt could not have happened. The central message of Passover is Continue reading

Women have power of auto-emancipation

women drivingLike many New Yorkers, I grew up without an intimate relationship with an automobile. Some of the aunts and uncles had cars, so you might say that I had a sort of in-law relationship of the automotive variety.

And then there was Betsy, the chubby, used, navy blue Ford that was attached to our household very briefly.

I was so enamored of Betsy the moment I laid my eight-year-old eyes on her that my parents let me  Continue reading

Why humanism isn’t feminism

imagesSometimes, feminists will hear comments like this: “I support women’s equality, but I am not a feminist — I’m a humanist.”

This topic comes up in class discussions from time to time.  Last semester, one of my students asked how to respond to a co-worker who saw a book she was reading for class, and dismissed it — and the idea of women’s and gender studies — with a similar comment.

So here is the reason that, if you are committed to gender equity, humanism is not the point.

One generally acknowledged definition of humanism is this: “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek rational ways of solving human problems.”

As you can see, there is nothing in that definition about equality between women and men. 

Humanism is not a political/social movement; it is a philosophical stance (although, as with any philosophical stance, it may lead to political action).

Feminism is not only a stance; it is also movement with a long history, many variations in how it has been expressed and experienced, and a strong political component. That political component has worked and works to change systems and cultures in order to improve women’s and girl’s lives, and to break down gender stereotypes for both women and men.  

Also: feminists may be people of faith, while the definition of humanism from the American Humanist Association states: “We strive to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life….Humanism encompasses a variety of nontheistic views while adding the important element of a comprehensive worldview and set of ethical values” 

So one can certainly be both a humanist and a feminist; there is no contradiction whatsoever. But one does not equal or substitute for the other.  

© Rhea Hirshman 2015

The frying pan and the lightning bug

images“Why,” I used to ask my introductory composition classes as I held up an ordinary writing implement for their perusal, “do we who speak English call this a pen and not a frying pan?”

Panic-stricken looks appeared on the faces of two dozen first-year college students who were struggling to navigate those early days of classes, and who were now looking at each other and wondering whether there was a secret campus code that no one had bothered to inform them about.

We sat in silence until eventually someone called out, “Uh, because that’s what we were told?”

“Exactly!” I said. Two dozen students breathed sighs of relief.

But I was not finished with them. Continue reading

On the D train with Tillie

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, a significant rite of passage for my friends and me was being allowed to ride the New York City subway for the first time without the presence of any of our parental units.

Among the intricacies of subway riding, eagerly dissected by our adolescent set, were the rules associated with subway reading. One had always to consider the impressions created by the selection of reading material, and to choose items that showed one in the best possible light while not drawing too much attention.

But one day, some years later, I inadvertently broke that rule. I took Tillie Olsen with me on the D train, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably on the subway. Continue reading