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Nancy Northup answers your questions

Here is an edited version of some of the questions to and responses from Nancy Northup following her speech on Oct. 18 at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis. Northup is president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. For background on some of her responses, please read her speech on the previous two pages.

Mark Shults from Wisconsin

I read an article recently that was very disturbing. The writer was citing rapid increases in STD (sexually transmitted disease) rates in the country and I suspect this is because the availability of health clinics for women is being taken away. Do you have any figures on this, or are you tracking this phenomenon?

Nancy Northup

It is very disturbing. It’s like a 50 percent increase in the last year or two, but I don’t have those figures specifically. I think the Guttmacher Institute, which has done tremendously good research on reproductive health care issues, probably does. I’m sure that it’s a combination of the loss of clinics and the lack of importance put on sex education. We are a very funny country about sex. We’re funny because, on the one hand, it’s everywhere and it drives advertising and so forth. On the other hand, we have this religious backdrop in the country that doesn’t allow us to have full sex ed in the schools. That’s another factor that we should be looking at.

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Cheryl Kolbe from Oregon

What specifically can we do to influence people about the need for abortion rights?

Nancy Northup

I always feel like starting local. Start with your family, start with your friends. But then, of course, please support the Center for Reproductive Rights, support Planned Parenthood, support other organizations that are out there doing the fight.

Contact your state representatives and your elected officials in Washington. You have a champion in Wisconsin. I know you’re not all from Wisconsin, but Sen. Tammy Baldwin is one of the lead co-signers of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would be a fix if Roe were to be overturned. It’s to attack the kind of laws like Texas and Louisiana have. We are up to 212 co-signers in the House, so we ought to be able to get a hearing and get it passed in the House this year.

We need new congressional legislation to back up the Constitution. Educate people and advocate around that. And make sure you also say “thank you” to your pro-reproductive rights representatives at the state level and federal level, because they often say that when they go to Washington, they don’t hear from our people. They hear from the other side all the time. So, don’t underestimate the power of saying “thank you for standing up” to your elected officials.

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Pam Schaar from Wisconsin

My question is in regard to Justice Brett Kavanaugh. I’ve seen a little information, but there’s not been a huge movement to impeach Kavanaugh. I don’t know if there’s any weight to that or how fearful we should be of the power he might have. I’ll listen to whatever you feel comfortable commenting on regarding him and reproductive rights.

Nancy Northup

We’re gonna be arguing before every single justice on the Supreme Court. I don’t want to characterize any of them individually. The Center for Reproductive Rights did take a position for the first time in our history opposing then-Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court because we felt that he had a record on ruling on abortion rights issues and other reproductive rights issues that was not consistent with strong protections.

But we are still going to be arguing to every single justice about why they need consistency with their opinion from 2016 [Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt]. Chief Justice John Roberts needs to know that the integrity of his court is on the line if it were to change a ruling that is so clear cut that there is absolutely no way to distinguish it from a case three years ago. At a time when we do not need more of our institutions of government undermined, our faith in the Supreme Court rests on this decision.

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Kim Newton from Virginia

I’m also a Unitarian and a facilitator for Our Whole Lives, which is a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. I’m also executive director of Camp Quest, which is a national secular freethinking camp network. Sex education has been an increasingly important conversation in our camp communities. I wonder if you could speak to the work of the Center for Reproductive Rights around increasing sex education in schools. Could you share a little bit more on how we can help encourage our local school boards to change their curriculums?

Nancy Northup

During the Bush administration, the curriculum was based on abstinence-only. We looked at ways that we could sue on that. Those classes are so discriminatory because these abstinence-only programs basically tell people “don’t have sexual intercourse and you won’t get pregnant.” That’s not a full semester’s worth of education. I spent time reading these programs and they’re unbelievable what they have to be built upon. It is a very thinly veiled promotion of a religious view of the role of men and women in the family, where the husband is head of the house and where women need financial support.

They literally had slides in that class where the teacher was supposed to bring in cold spaghetti and frozen waffles. And they talk about how girl’s brains are the cold spaghetti because they are more interconnected and the boy’s brains are frozen waffles because they are more compartmentalized. They teach gender ideology and how that affects your heterosexual marriage, which you’re going to wait for before having sex. These classes are terrible and they fail.

I think sex ed is such a great issue for everybody to get involved in in their own communities. There are lots of entry points to be able to be involved in reproductive rights issues. And I think the sex ed one is great because you can start programs like the Our Whole Lives sex ed program that can be done in community centers and elsewhere.

If our kids have healthy ideas about sexuality, if they have the facts that they need to know, and if they figure out their own standpoint, it’s kind of like religion. Everyone has a right to come to their own standpoint about what they think about sexuality and the role it will have in their lives. It’s like having your own standpoint about a religion. I think it’s actually a great issue for everybody to get educated on.

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Cynthia Nelms-Byrne from Iowa

I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the 2018 film called “Ask for Jane.” It’s an independent film telling the story of a group of young women in college who started an underground network to provide abortions to women in need. And they just call this anonymous phone and ask for Jane and Jane would give them the name of an abortion provider. But their abortion providers kept getting arrested and thrown in jail. One of them, before he went to jail, taught them how to perform abortions. And they did and they never had any fatalities of the pregnant women. I would recommend the movie to anybody, if you can find it.

Nancy Northup

Thank you for sharing that. And it does remind me of another thing that you can do. About 17 states cover Medicaid abortions from their state coffers. But many states do not. And there are abortion groups around the country that raise money. You’ve got several here in Wisconsin that raise money to help pay for low-income women’s abortions or pay for their travel. And that is a very good way to get involved with other activists who are doing something in their communities. It helps build a really strong community around this.

Mark Shults from Wisconsin asks Nancy Northup about the rise in STD rates. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Kim Newton from Virginia wonders about sex education curricula. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Cynthia Nelms-Byrne from Iowa tells Northup and the audience about an abortion-rights movie called “Ask for Jane.” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)