Author Melissa Harris-Perry, a former professor of political science at Princeton University, is not Margaret Sanger, the legendary reproductive rights champion who established the American Birth Control League (precursor of today’s Planned Parenthood). But to the packed crowd at last Friday’s Spring Benefit Luncheon for the Planned Parenthood Association of the Mercer Area, she was the next best thing.
An outspoken intellectual who received her Ph.D. from Duke University, Harris-Perry hosts her own news show, Melissa Harris-Perry, on MSNBC. She is also a professor of political science at Tulane University and writes a monthly column for The Nation. Her most recent book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, received rave reviews.
Although Sanger and Harris-Perry never met, the two would have been soul sisters. Both unapologetically believe that women’s reproductive rights are fundamental to a free society. At the benefit, Harris-Perry spoke about some of the recent assaults on women’s reproductive freedom, including the Personhood Amendment that came before Mississippi voters last November. According to the Huffington Post, had it become law, it would have conveyed all the rights of being a person to a fertilized egg.
Calling it “a step too far,” Harris-Perry said that defeating the amendment was a considerable victory, given the state’s conservative population. But she added that similar amendments have been introduced in at least five other states and may be on the ballot this coming November. This threat to women’s reproductive freedom is still alive and well.
Harris-Perry also spoke about transvaginal ultrasound laws, which require a woman to have a probe inserted in her vagina for an ultrasound before she gets an abortion. The New York Times reports that due to national public pressure, Virginia’s governor did not sign the bill requiring women to have the noxious, invasive procedure, but Harris-Perry said that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had no such hesitation. He signed this intrusive bill in 2011. Texas women in need of abortion services are forced to be vaginally penetrated.
Harris-Perry’s talk covered other national news about women’s reproductive health, including the recent Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood funding controversy. She believes that it damaged the goodwill that had existed between these two women’s health organizations.
She also spoke of her concerns about Planned Parenthood’s funding, which was removed and then reinstated in the battle over the federal budget, and the administration’s decision not to allow the emergency contraception Plan B One-Step to be sold over the counter to young women under 17. She disapproved of President Obama using his own daughters to make the case for his administration’s negative decision.
“It is not your daughter that this decision concerns,” she said about the reason the president gave, “but daughters of others who are not so well-resourced.”
Margaret Sanger would have applauded Harris-Perry’s honest approach to talking about not only women’s reproductive rights, but her own personal history. Harris-Perry spoke about being sexually assaulted by an adult when she was young (”but didn’t tell anyone for a year”).
She also spoke about becoming a mother (to a daughter, Parker), having an abortion and a hysterectomy (that “saved my life”), and her desire to have another child through a surrogate.
Harris-Perry said that she felt comfortable talking about sex because of her mother’s work for an underground abortion railroad that helped women who needed abortions before Roe v. Wade.
Using the same honesty, Harris-Perry said that sexual choices, including her own, can “come with regrets,” and that knowledge should keep women on both sides of the abortion debate from demonizing each other. She added that there are people of “great good conscience on the other side,” and that is why “the law must remain silent” in the debate.
“The right to privacy without infringement of government should be fundamental in our society and should not depend on who is in office,” she said.
Harris-Perry’s words made me realize that political allegiances should melt away in the struggle over abortion. Instead, we need to help all women get the health and sexuality education that they need, particularly in school programs, and work together to make abortion remain safe, legal and rare.
Harris-Perry sees the current battles over women’s reproductive rights more about “shaming women,” than a “war on women”-the terminology used incessantly by politicians and the media. Rather, she believes that women can unite around the idea that “patriarchy is always our enemy,” but not that “men hate women.” Our common goals should be to reduce poverty, racism and gender discrimination. Toward that end, she said that we should help our children (and grandchildren) understand that the two most important actions one takes in life are “brushing your teeth and voting.”
She left the podium on a wave of applause. I left the luncheon thinking that Margaret Sanger can rest in peace. Melissa Harris-Perry is carrying her torch and holding it high.