The ongoing fight for reproductive freedom: a conversation with Liz Gustafson of NARAL CT

By: Jackie Nappo and Liz Gustafson

The following is a Q&A with Liz Gustafson, the State Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. They are a small but mighty organization in our state and nationally that has been fighting for reproductive freedom for over 50 years.

They also work with cross movement allies on behalf of proactive pro-choice policies, such as Universal Health Care Foundation of CT, Planned Parenthood, Health Equity Solutions, the YWCA of Greater Hartford, Protect our Care CT, and many others.

Q: In your words, what’s going on right now for reproductive rights in the U.S. and CT?

A: The Supreme Court decided to take up a case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It’s a challenge to a federal court ruling that a 15 week abortion ban is unconstitutional, and it’s a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

It’s incredibly alarming that SCOTUS has agreed to review this abortion ban. This ban goes against 50 years of supreme court precedent. Overturning Roe is a serious threat to our fundamental freedom to make personal decisions about starting a family.

Q: What would happen if the Supreme Court overturned Roe?

A: If Roe were overturned tomorrow, 24 states would likely take action to prohibit abortion outright. Eleven states have a trigger ban, which works to ban abortion immediately if Roe is overturned. With that said, we’re seeing anti-choice, anti-freedom extremists doing everything in their power to chip away at access.

State legislators that are hostile to abortion have introduced or passed a record breaking amount of bills to undermine abortion since 2021 began. There’s over 300 bills that have been introduced or passed in that timeframe, which provides a really clear picture of what they’re trying to do.

Q: With all that hostility, what’s the state of abortion access like for people who can get pregnant right now?

A: With all that said, CT has codified Roe, and abortion still remains legal in all 50 states.

Legality, however, has never equaled access. A lot more people have become really aware of that, because COVID has shone a harsh light on existing barriers and burdens. These barriers disproportionately impact BIPOC, LBGTQ+, folks with lower incomes, and people living in more rural areas.

I always say a threat to reproductive freedom anywhere is a threat to reproductive freedom everywhere. Even though we may not face the same kind of attacks here in Connecticut, we still have a responsibility to take the lead to safeguard and expand access to reproductive health care for all.

Q: How do Crisis Pregnancy Centers fit into this fight?

A: Crisis Pregnancy Centers are the front line of this national coordinated anti-abortion movement. The same anti-abortion movement that celebrated the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The same ones that are writing these bills gutting protections of Roe. It’s our job to stand up and hold anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and other barriers to access responsible.

Q: How does this affect CT?

A: Just because we have safeguarded the principles of Roe v Wade, we cannot be complacent and think we’re safe, because legality has never meant access. And COVID has shone a light and exacerbated these systemic inequities.

But it’s not just about the legality of abortion, there’s so much more to consider. That’s where our proactive agenda comes in. So many people, due to decades of white supremacy and systemic racism, are left out of our current health care system as it is. Not only should we stand up against the new front line of the anti-abortion movement by cracking down on Crisis Pregnancy Centers, but we also need to fight for other policies that are being led by our cross movement allies.

That includes declaring racism as a public health crisis, expanding access to doula care, providing medical assistance to certain individuals regardless of immigration status, creating a better environment for breast feeding in the workplace, extending Medicaid months after a person gives birth, and safeguarding the private health care information of Connecticut residents who share insurance plans with their parents or partners.

Q: Can you expand on that last one, about private health care information? How does that help abortion access and reproductive freedom?

A: The bill was called “Explanation of Benefits” and it’s important for young people who need access to care, for folks who want to get testing and treatment done for sexually transmitted illnesses, for folks who need mental health services, and other protective services.

It allows them to seek that care without having to disclose it to anybody else. It protects their freedom and privacy.

Q: Are there other issues that are connected to reproductive freedom that people may not think about at first?

A: Yes- we’ve also been working with Windham United to Save our Health Care to make sure the labor and delivery department at Windham Hospital doesn’t close. That’s another barrier to access.

Something people don’t think about is that folks who need access to labor and delivery care are the same folks who need access to abortion care. For many folks, the decision to seek abortion is a parenting decision. Then there are folks who are carrying wanted pregnancies, but due to it being an ectopic pregnancy or receiving a fatal diagnosis, they also need access to abortion care. They should be able to access those important options for their health.

There’s no room for political or ideological agendas to come between someone and their provider when they need care. Our reproductive lives and health care is too complicated- and honestly too personal- for legislation. We should trust people to know what the best decision is for their health, their lives, and their futures.

Q: What can we do?

A: Sending emails and making phone calls to legislators is really, really important. What we know, more than anyone, is that those who want to decimate access to reproductive health care are the same people who have time to stand outside clinics and harass patients. They also have time to email their legislators. We have a history of bipartisan support of reproductive freedom in CT, and we have to make sure we remind legislators of that.

I also encourage folks to have conversations and challenge people in their life, pushing back on the stigma or misinformation. The anti choice movement has unfortunately done a number on controlling the narrative around abortion and reproductive health in general.

Stigma is so deeply ingrained in all of us, even in our movement, and we have to challenge that. By not talking about abortion in a compassionate way, by not talking about other reproductive health related experiences, we’re letting those who oppose access to care to control the narrative. We need to normalize and destigmatize all pregnancy outcomes with compassion and understanding. Abortion isn’t dangerous, but stigma is dangerous.