Keeping the Spotlight on Abortion Rights
Since her successful tour to benefit Planned Parenthood two years ago, Lizz Winstead has continued to use her unique blend of humor, passion, and truth-telling to bring awareness and resources to reproductive rights efforts. The comedian, writer, and producer, whose comedic chops include creator of and head writer for the The Daily Show and a cofounder of Air America, has harnessed a documentary, websites, blogs, and even a telethon for the cause.
Two years ago, in the midst of an all-out right-wing assault on women’s reproductive health, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. That summer, Winstead, who had just finished writing her book of essays, Lizz Free or Die. launched a road show called “Planned Parenthood, I Am Here for You” to benefit local affiliates. The show is part stand-up (“I chose not to have kids—a couple of times.”), and part sit-down— sharing stories with women of all ages. Winstead got pregnant at age 17—on her maiden voyage. “When you experience injustice around an issue firsthand, it can propel you a little bit more,” she says, referring to a hair-raising scrape with what we now know as a crisis pregnancy center—fake clinics that give women misleading information and pressure them not to have abortions. “I didn’t know it had a name,” she says. “It was advertised on the bus, something that had free pregnancy tests. What did I know?”
She knew to get herself to Planned Parenthood. “I was grateful to have an abortion and not be pregnant,” she says. “At Planned Parenthood, there was no judgment. I felt like someone was giving me credit for knowing about myself. ‘Oh, so it actually matters what I think? Wow, awesome.’”
The tour started as a six-city fundraiser for Planned Parenthood affiliates in Pontiac, MI; Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; Boston; Philadelphia; and New York. It went on to Manchester, NH; Burlington, VT; Frederick, MD; Anchorage, AK; Seattle; Bellingham, WA; and Orlando. Each affiliate keeps totals of the money raised. For Planned Parenthood of New York City, for example, she raised $14,110. Winstead also raised money to fund the tour’s expenses through the fundraising site Crowdwise. As of July 2013, almost $15,000 was raised. By early January the figure was close to $17,000. Though the tour was originally coordinated through Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s national office in New York, any affiliate may contact Winstead to schedule an event.
In August, Winstead released the short film Smear Campaign, which documents that tour. The $5 donation to rent the film goes to the nonprofit project A Is For, a daily blog that “keeps the public informed about reproductive rights news, serves as an ally and advocate for organizations working to protect reproductive rights, and is a unifying forum which utilizes the scarlet letter ‘A’ to spotlight women’s issues and encourage activism.”
The tour was a way for Winstead to give back to Planned Parenthood. The goal of the documentary—and indeed all her efforts on behalf of reproductive rights—is to “remind women that every day in America, someone powerful is working to remove access to safe, affordable healthcare for women” and “to fight against the shame and stigma that have been heaped on women who have had an abortion.”
She says, “We have to start saying the word ‘abortion.’ It’s a medical procedure women need, and it’s safe and legal.”
Among myriad issues threatening women’s health and freedom are the controversy over birth control benefits in the Affordable Care Act, the piecemeal stealth campaign to erode abortion rights state by state, and the extreme right’s contradictory quest to ban abortion and birth control. “That comes from denying science,” says Winstead, who likes to connect words like “science” and “dreams” in the same thought. People who want to criminalize abortion “are killing a woman’s dreams.”
Yet another innovation came in November, in the aftermath of the passage of new draconian abortion restrictions in Texas. Winstead teamed up with comedian Sarah Silverman to host a “pop-up telethon” to raise funds for abortion access in that state. The telethon, live-streamed on Ustream, netted over $50,000.
Winstead is continuing her efforts with a website, ladypartsjustice.com, “a hub that exposes the reproductive rights bad guys in all 50 states, using humorous videos.” With a new initiative, “From V to Shining V,” she plans to take on local legislators and laws with big festivals in state capitals celebrating women. “If there is a big rally in Washington, politicians give it a pass,” Winstead says, “but if it’s in the state capital in Concord, they’ll see people who will vote for them."
Paradoxically, this focus on local and state politics endorses a strategy for pro-choice activists that was popular with—and successful for—the right long before the modern Tea Party began steeping the Republic in its toxic brew. “A lot of stuff is coming from the state level,” Winstead says. She believes that progressives must be elected to school boards, city councils, and Congress.
Winstead’s goal for progressives is “to really elevate them through humor and outrage….I want to combine humor with my political observations in the area of reproductive health,” Winstead says. “If you don’t tell your story, someone will reinvent it for you. My abortion doesn’t define me. It is one part of a large landscape. I’m a comedian and an author and I have a lot of friends.”
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