Brenda Siegel: I trust women to have agency of our own
I felt a hand whip over to mine and grab on tight. This was the hand of my friend and colleague Jubilee Mcgill. I had been turned slightly away from her taking deep breaths as we were listening to a man yell in rage about the bill codifying a woman's right to choose, H.57, currently being decided on in the Vermont House. This was the tail end of two hours of testimony where we heard religious man after religious man condemn women to hell for having abortions and lawmakers for allowing them. This man's voice was terrifying, he was screaming in a clear belief that his authority was greater than the women in the room. People have yelled their beliefs at me many times in the last year and it rarely bothers me, but, there was something about this time that was different.
There were more men than women among those against the bill and their voices boomed in authority to which they expect women to listen. Rhetoric, that the right wing has used to further the white male christian control of our laws and women's bodies, was in front of me in the Vermont State House. I felt fear. We heard warnings that babies would be dismembered (this does not happen), that people would willy nilly abort "late term" pregnancies ("late term abortion" is not a medical term). Also, a clear belief that there is something different in this law that has not been there before.
According to the Vermont Medical Society, 69.3 percent of all Vermont abortions were for pregnancies of less than 9 weeks duration; 91.7 percent happen within the first trimester (12 weeks or less); 1.3 percent in 2016 occurred after 21 weeks and almost always for medically necessary reasons for either the mother or child. H.57 will not change those current federal laws. It merely puts into one cohesive place the laws that already exist in our state.
When we were in line, a few pro life folks were in front of me and they said, "do you know, are they separating the lines or are we all together?" I said "we're all together, that's OK right? We can be in the same line even if we believe differently?" He shook his head and said "well, I don't know." He was serious, not sarcastic. These were not the Vemonters I got to know this summer or have known throughout my life, the ones who believe differently than I, but, are willing to sit at the same table. They viewed me and people who think like me as the product of evil.
At the age of 24 I became pregnant while in an abusive relationship. Many of the choices leading up to this pregnancy were not my own and I was extremely grateful that the decision whether or not to become a mother was mine and mine alone. While I ultimately made the choice to have my baby, my experience in Vermont Planned Parenthood clinics were nourishing. The caregivers fully supported the choice that I did eventually make. It was extremely important to my life as a mother to have had full agency of the choice to become one. The choice to parent a child or not is personal and should always be personal and protected. We should all stand up and protect women from ever experiencing a forced birth. Having a baby is a beautiful thing, but, only when you want to.
Scenes from "The Handmaids Tale" played through my head as I listened to arguments that reduced women to conduits for which to bear and raise children, to increase Vermont's population, with no agency of their own. We know that the ability to choose is directly linked to the economic freedom of women. It is also linked to our ability to be safe in our bodies and our homes.
I sat directly across from my niece Audrey's best friend, Kira Boucher. She and I looked at each other for comfort, to have something to focus on other than what we were hearing. We sat quietly, we listened and did our best to not make facial expressions. Three generations of strong women got up and told stories of their own as well as their friends, families, daughters and more. People spoke of the time before Roe V. Wade, of access or lack of access to abortion, of the death of their mothers and friends, of the joy of birth, of the pain of not having choice. I listened to Kira testify for the first time ever about the need for her generation to maintain their bodily autonomy. I listened to Jubilee insist on inclusive language and speak strongly about the need to pass this bill. One by one, women laid bare their souls in between being told that they were evil for those beliefs.
To the folks who have strong religious beliefs, I see you and respect you. Those beliefs can not dictate our laws though. The firm and clear separation of church and state must always remain, so that we can believe freely as we choose. What I know is that my choice to have a baby was difficult, personal and challenging. It came with safety risks and economic sacrifice. It was the right choice only because it was mine to make. To the strong powerful women who spoke up on Wednesday, for the first time, or the hundredth time, thank you. Thank you for your powerful voices and strong political advocacy. Thank you for standing up and speaking out even if your voice shook. My voice does not often shake, but, it did on Wednesday. I felt a fear that I don't often feel here in Vermont. To the legislators who created a fiercely safe and respectful environment, thank you.
Women's reproductive freedom is connected to women's freedom period. To take that freedom away would put women in potentially dangerous situations and would eliminate that freedom. Most importantly it would take away a woman's ability to control her own body or decide when and where they want to start a family. This choice needs to be left firmly up to the person who is pregnant and their doctor.
As I sat ready to testify and looked at the two committee chairs, Representatives Maxine Grad and Ann Pugh, two strong powerful women directly across from me, I felt safe. I noticed their strength as they prepared to listen to every person regardless of their opinion. I believe that here in Vermont we trust women and we know that women are the right people with whom to give agency over their own bodies. We can not and must not let the Handmaid's Tale become reality. On the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, enshrining this protection in Vermont law is exactly what we need to do.
Brenda Siegel is a former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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