The chants of “Si se puede!” that reverberated through the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter halls on Friday might have brought nostalgia of 1960s activism to passersby, but as the leader of the chant – civil and women’s rights activist Dolores Huerta – reminded those gathered in the hotel’s banquet hall, even in 2016 the fight for women’s reproductive rights is nowhere near over.
“We’ve got a challenge here in Texas,” a state that prides itself on being “number one,” she said. “We’ve got to think of how we can organize, so that Texas can be number one in terms of social justice … It’s incumbent upon all of us to think of what (we can) do to move our agenda forward in a political way, in an electoral way.”
The 86-year-old activist, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in the ’60s, maintains fervor and determination in her efforts to bring the pro-choice movement to communities all over the nation. Significant strides have been made, but we must keep going, she said.
“We can celebrate what we’ve done in the last 100 years, but let’s look forward to the next 100 years.”
Huerta, along with Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, spoke to a group of 1,000 at the sold-out Planned Parenthood South Texas’ annual luncheon. Both Huerta and Richards have received numerous honors for their advocacy in safeguarding women’s rights to an abortion, and their rights to accessible, affordable healthcare services that places like the nonprofit Planned Parenthood offer.
“That is such a basic human right that a woman should be able to decide her own reproductive choices,” Huerta said. “How could anybody even challenge that or take it away from us?”
According to a Planned Parenthood South Texas report, along with providing sexual education and physicals, the organization’s Texas clinics gave 2,244 pap tests, 14,076 clinical breast exams, 5,982 pelvic exams, and 21,459 STD and HIV tests in 2015. Planned Parenthood has also been integral in providing these services and more to Latinos and other minority groups across the nation whose access to affordable healthcare is limited.
However, the organization is widely known – and often criticized – for providing abortions, and many don’t realize that Planned Parenthood also provides healthcare for men and children.
“When you see these attacks on women’s health … you have to wonder, ‘What kind of people do this?,’ she said. “What kind of people are out there trying to deny the most basic thing that we need in our society, to have the healthcare that we need for our women, for our men, and for our children?”
Richards, former deputy chief of staff for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, often wonders the same thing. She recently spoke before Congress in opposition of policy like Texas House Bill 2 (HB2) that would put strict regulations on the clinics that provide safe abortions, like Planned Parenthood, affecting millions of women. The “common thread” in achieving progress, especially in the face of great opposition, she said, is resilience.
“We have to continue and we have to take on hard fights,” she said. “We have to stand up to people who would keep our patients from care and who would keep women down.”
At least in Planned Parenthood’s case, opposition has led to great strides. According to Richards, the organization gained 850,000 new supporters last year “just because of the fights against Planned Parenthood.” And the accomplishments don’t stop there.
“Even in this period of extraordinary political pushback nationally, at the state level, we did get emergency contraception over the counter, we did get 55 million women covered with birth control, and today we have a 40-year low in teen pregnancy in America and a 30-year low in unintended pregnancy in America,” she said to applause. “It’s important to remember that when you are resilient, you change peoples’ lives.”
While the road ahead in bringing the pro-choice movement to the White House is uncertain, both Huerta and Richards are hopeful.
“I think we are getting there in terms of the whole political intelligence of our country that (women) need to be respected,” Huerta said.
For Richards, a mother of three who publicly shared her own experience with abortion last year, simply sparking discussion about a woman’s control over her reproductive destiny – whether in personal settings or in mainstream media – is a start.
“(It’s) incredibly powerful,” she said. “It is healthy, it is good, and I think it is that culture change that ultimately is going to change the politics in America.”
Whether enacting change takes sharing personal abortion experiences, bettering education in our nation’s schools, or increasing voter participation, Huerta is optimistic that the pro-choice movement can only go up from here.
“Sometimes things have to get so bad before they can get better,” she said.
Top image: United Farmworkers of America Co-founder Dolores Huerta speaks about the importance of empowered feminists. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.