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Convention speech — Nancy Northup: Reproductive rights are critical human rights

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, speaks to the FFRF convention audience on Oct. 18, in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Nancy Northup was presented the Forward Award by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Oct. 18. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Northup holds her Forward Award, which is given annually by FFRF to a person who helps move society forward. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Nancy Northup on Oct. 18 at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

I’m delighted that we have Nancy Northup and the Center for Reproductive Rights serving as champions for reproductive freedom in the United States and abroad. Nancy Northup has served as president of this leading reproductive rights legal center since 2003. Under her leadership, it has performed game-changing litigation work that has transformed how reproductive rights are understood by courts, government and human rights bodies, such as the United Nations. If you look at so many of the major court battles over abortion rights today, you will find the Center for Reproductive Rights defending those rights and cases.

Nancy Northup was the founding director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York at the NYU School of Law. She was a prosecutor, a deputy chief of appeals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and a law clerk for the Honorable Alvin B. Rubin out of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 5th Circuit. She has taught constitutional law as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School and Columbia Law School.

She is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia Law School and she was a Kent Scholar there and managing editor of the Columbia Law Review.

We are pleased to give Nancy Northup this Forward Award.

By Nancy Northup

Thank you so much for the Forward Award. At the Center for Reproductive Rights, we say “fight forward.” So we’re going to be very proud to have this. I was delighted and also a little amused when I was contacted about receiving this award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Delighted, because I am a fierce advocate for the separation of state and church. And amused because, well, truth be told, I’m a church lady. I have attended church all my life. It is where you’ll usually find me on a Sunday morning.

I was born and raised a Unitarian Universalist. It was my mother who brought our family to the Unitarian Universalist faith. She grew up in a small town in Connecticut, where my great-grandparents had immigrated from Sweden. She was brought up in a very strict Swedish Lutheran home, but she was always independent minded. Growing up, my mother was always telling me the story of how “under God” got into the Pledge of Allegiance; how it wasn’t there when she was a little girl and didn’t think it belonged there when she was older. She decided that, despite her conservative upbringing during the Great Depression and World War II, as an adult, she would find a religion that fit her freethinking.

I was born in Kokomo, Ind., which is not really a hotbed of freethinking. My parents decided to join the Unitarian Universalist church. I grew up all over the country because we moved around a lot. I was born in Indiana, but grew up in both western New York, New York City, the heart of Texas, the Sacramento valley of California, and Connecticut. And wherever we went, the Unitarian Universalist Church was the one constant in our lives because it was a place that we could go and find people who were willing to be open-minded and support each other.

When I got to college, I took freely to going to church and I’ve just kept on going. I’ve been a Sunday school teacher, president of my congregation, and, even to this day, a deacon. So, what a surprise to be contacted about winning this award.

But here’s the thing: When you are in a minority religion, you are acutely aware of the critical importance of the separation of church and state. And Unitarian Universalists are definitely a minority religion. There are only about 200,000 of us in the United States. We are vastly outnumbered by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and, yes, atheists and agnostics. Being part of a minority religion, I’m highly attuned to when the government is wielding its power of the state to promote a particular religious view.

And nowhere is it more evident that the government is wielding a particular religious view than in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. I am passionate about the separation of church and state and passionate about the ability of women to lead lives of equality and dignity. Wherever you look, whether it’s in the United States or around the world, you can see this imposition of specific religious beliefs on public policy and law when it comes to sexuality, reproduction, gender and the role of women.

So, again, thank you very much for this award. And thank you for the bedrock commitment to our Constitution that all of you have to equality, to liberty, to freedom of conscience and to the separation of state and church. I’m also deeply grateful to have the privilege of working with my colleagues at the Center for Reproductive Rights. It is our mission to promote reproductive rights as fundamental human rights that every government in the world must respect and protect and fulfill.

The Center for Reproductive Rights works in the United States, but also around the world in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and at the U.N. We work on issues ranging from access to contraception, access to essential obstetrics care, safe and legal abortion, and addressing gross violations like child marriage and forced sterilization. We bring strategic litigation into state and federal courts, into national courts outside the United States, and to human rights bodies. We build legal networks with partner organizations to ensure that there are a cadre of lawyers around the world working to ensure that every person has the dignity and right to decide about their reproductive health and lives.

And, I’m proud to say that, in the last year, we had over 870 lawyers from 55 countries who were working with us to make sure that reproductive rights were advanced as fundamental human rights. And we’re gonna keep building that.

Some basic facts

There is so much politics and partisanship around reproductive health that we forget that at the heart of the matter there are some basic biological and medical facts. I know this is a group that loves facts.

Here’s the first fact: Women and men have different reproductive systems. Women risk their health and their lives to give birth and bring new life into this world and men do not. Think about it. We are so busy talking about the politics, we don’t get back to basics for men to genetically contribute to the birth of a child. They need to contribute sperm, and I’m told it’s not very painful!

For women to contribute to the birth of a child, they need to contribute an egg, which may just be part of their monthly process, or by in vitro fertilization. It may be a much more elaborate and painful process once a pregnancy is established. A woman then undergoes nine months of gestating an embryo, then a fetus and eventually, hopefully, a full-term baby. Every step of those nine months carries physiological, biological and hormonal changes and risks to the woman’s health and life.

If all goes well and she carries that baby through to term, she still needs to deliver that baby, either through the birthing process or through Caesarian section surgery. Many things can go wrong: hemorrhage, infection, dangerously high blood pressure, obstructed delivery. Maternal deaths can happen during pregnancy and labor and they can happen during delivery. They can happen in the weeks following childbirth without access to prenatal and lifesaving obstetrics care. Women can and do die. Even with access to care, some maternal deaths will happen.

That women die in pregnancy and childbirth has been true throughout history. And it’s still true today. How high that risk is depends on access to health care and social determinants of health. In Nigeria today, one of every 21 women will die in connection with pregnancy. In Italy, that risk is one in 50,000. Think about that difference. There is nothing biologically different about women in Nigeria than women in Italy. What’s different is their socio-economic circumstance and their access to health care.

In the United States, we rank at the bottom of the developed world in terms of our maternal death rates. One in 3,000 is the risk of maternal death in the United States. And those numbers are much worse for women of color in New York City, where I live. African-American women have 12 times the risk of maternal deaths as white women, so the bottom line, wherever you live, is that pregnancy carries risks to health and life.

That is one reason why contraception was so revolutionary for women. Without access to contraception, the average sexually active heterosexual woman would have about a dozen children. She would go through the pregnancy experience with those risks to health and life again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again, which is why access to contraception is so fundamental to women’s health and lives.

Women’s control, rights

So, not only is contraception essential, but so is the ability to access safe and legal abortion. In this country before Roe vs. Wade and throughout the world today where abortion is not legal and they don’t have access to care, women will die. Those facts tell you that for people who can get pregnant, the ability to control one’s fertility and make decisions once pregnant is necessary. Women’s control of fertility is not just about life and health. It’s also about our right to bodily autonomy, dignity, conscience, equality, non-discrimination and the right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has won cases in human rights courts ruling that the denial of abortion can be cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. It’s also about our ability to further our education and to participate fully in the economic social and political life of the nation. And it is for all these reasons that, since 1973 here in the United States and in nations around the world and in human rights bodies, courts find that reproductive rights are, in fact, critical human rights. Yet, as everyone knows, reproductive rights and abortion rights in particular remain a contested issue here in the United States.

We are still fighting for access to safe and legal abortion. We are still fighting about whether employers can raise objections to including contraception in their health plans for their employees. We’re still fighting about comprehensive fact-based sex education in schools. And, for heaven’s sakes, we still hear politicians objecting to having obstetrics care covered in basic health programs. In recent years, states have passed hundreds of restrictions on access to abortion.

Now, most of these restrictions fly under the public radar, but this year it was hard to have them escape notice. Alabama banned abortion all together, criminalizing doctors with fines and with imprisonment up to 99 years. It’s been enjoined, and it is not enforced. I always think it’s important to remind people of that, because if you live in Alabama, we want you to know that clinics are open.

Other states also banned abortion as early as six weeks in pregnancy. Georgia is an example that hit the news again. They’d been enjoined and, while they are clearly unconstitutional, what these states are trying to do is to get a test case back up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As you may have recently heard, the court announced that it is taking an abortion case from Louisiana. But before I tell you about that case, I’m going to take you back just three years, to June 27, 2016. The Center for Reproductive Rights won the most important abortion rights case in a generation. The name of that Texas case is Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. It was whether states could pass unnecessary and unjustifiable and burdensome regulations on abortion clinics that masked as health and safety regulations, but was really an underhanded attempt to close the clinics.

One such regulation in the Texas case would have required that every abortion provider have admitting privileges in a local hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. That requirement was very effective in the state of Texas because it was almost impossible for doctors who provide abortions to get admitting privileges. The Supreme Court looked at the law. They found it had no basis in advancing any health reason and it had a huge burden on women’s access and they declared it unconstitutional.

Identical law

Now, the Center for Reproductive Rights is again before the Supreme Court on the exact same issue. Louisiana has a law that is identical to the one in Texas, that doctors must have admitting privileges within 30 miles of a local hospital. The name of this case is June Medical Services v. Gee. The law is identical. It’s identical in language, it’s identical in impact and it’s identical in not having any medical basis. In fact, Louisiana lawmakers admitted that it was an identical law to Texas when it thought Texas was going to win that Supreme Court case. Louisiana lawmakers modeled their very law on the one in Texas after they saw the effect that the law was having closing clinics. 

Louisiana, with this law, is trying to sneak around the Constitution’s guaranteed right to abortion by using an underhanded means to gut abortion access in the state. Louisiana’s admitting privilege law was designed for one purpose: to shut down the clinics, so that even if Roe v. Wade stays on the books, there will be nowhere for women in Louisiana to go. What was proved in the Texas case (and we proved it again in the Louisiana case) is that hospitals can deny admitting privileges to doctors who provide abortion care for any reason, even for reasons related to ideological opposition.

Louisiana women will be devastated if this law is allowed to go into effect. There would be one doctor in the state to provide care for the 1 million women of reproductive age. Low-income women, women of color and rural women will be the most impacted. The overwhelming majority of women who seek abortion care in Louisiana are low income, and 70 percent are women of color.

The state of Louisiana is just flat-out in open defiance of the Supreme Court’s 2016 precedent. The facts, the law, the Constitution have not changed in the last three years. Two justices of the Supreme Court have changed in the last three years, but a change in who sits on the Supreme Court should not mean a change to our constitutional rights. 

These admitting privileges laws do nothing to improve the health and safety of women who seek abortion care. Abortion is one of the safest procedures that a person can have. It has a complication rate near zero. The Constitution demands that our fundamental rights cannot vary from state to state. A law declared unconstitutional in Texas has to be unconstitutional in Louisiana.

So, that’s what’s at stake in this case. And we need to be sure everybody knows about it. And that’s where you come in. We need you to be talking about this case. We need the Roberts court to know that people are aware that it’s the same case, that it can’t be distinguished. We want to see that the Supreme Court is not going to be playing politics with our fundamental rights. One in four women in the United States will have an abortion. Seven in 10 Americans support Roe vs. Wade and believe that abortion should be safe and legal.

We just need to make that support visible. There is so much stigma, harassment and even violence around this issue that it can be hard sometimes to share one’s own experience or to even share one’s views. I know that this group knows all about stigma and I know that you are all about standing up to stigma and standing up and being clear about your values and clear about what you stand for and clear about what you believe.

Together we can build a nation where people are able to make decisions about their reproductive lives without coercion and discrimination and with dignity and with their own conscience, not someone else’s religion. Your partnership and collaboration in this effort are critical.

Thank you for this award and thank you for everything that you do.