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The Resource Train
Fighting for Women's Lives

By Sarah Biel-Cunningham, M.S.W.

July/August 2004

Sarah Biel-Cunningham, MSW

"March for Women's Lives" has been considered one of the largest and most diverse demonstrations in U.S. history. On April 25, an estimated 1,110,000 people descended upon Washington, D.C., as a collaborative effort to focus attention on women's rights, organized and supported by the seven leading national women's rights groups: American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women's Health Imperative, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. With all of these organizations playing an integral role in the advancements of women's reproductive rights, it seemed like the best coordination of efforts to organize hundreds of thousands of advocates to demand that legislation guarantee a woman's right to privacy, therefore allowing her to make her own health care decisions. In the past, this collaborative effort was called the "March for Choice," signifying efforts to uphold the precedent set through the decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973 regarding a women's right to privacy, therefore providing a way for women to finally access legal abortions. Although women are still fighting for reproductive freedom, the issues now extend beyond a mere pro-choice focus. This year, the demonstration name was changed to "March for Women's Lives" in order to embrace a broader and more comprehensive agenda of women's health and sexuality issues. And with this refocusing of efforts, an overwhelming need developed for the voices of women and men living with HIV to impact women's health, right to choose and access to care movement.

"Why do we march?" is the one question often asked when involved with demonstrations involving the rights of women to govern their own health care. A simple answer: "Our body, our choice." Our choice to make informed decisions for our health care: access to doctors, medical treatments, the ability to partake in one's own family planning -- it means the choice to become educated, to understand our bodies and to be given the opportunities to make our own choices. For women living with HIV, it is just as crucial to have a presence in this fight for women's lives. In 2003, according to the World Health Organization, 19.2 million women were living with HIV. It is time for women living with HIV to organize to protect HIV-positive women's right to choose, access to health care and a right to privacy. This is a crucial component to the fight. Unfortunately, there was a time when pregnant women were forced to be tested for HIV, and if a positive test result was received, these same women were highly influenced -- actually coerced -- into having an abortion to protect the child from living a life with HIV. A woman's right to self-determination was never considered. No one ever considered the rights of these women to be educated and exhaust all options, which now include HIV treatments that bring the mother-to-child transmission rate down significantly. Women living with HIV must embrace their right to family planning.

For many women living with HIV, treatment often occurs in the context of their general reproductive and sexual health care, which makes it all the more crucial to continue to build relationships with reproductive health clinics, not only to educate providers to help those women living with HIV receive access to care, but also to provide more education and prevention efforts towards those women who are not getting the appropriate information they need to make informed choices about HIV, as well as other sexual health issues. The infection rate in 2003 shows that women represent almost half of all infections. Organizing together for women's lives must go above fighting for individual rights; it must bring awareness through education. With the current political environment, we must continue our fight to protect a women's right to choose. However, it is important for freedom fighters to build awareness of all oppressions which affect women, bringing attention to those issues often overlooked. Clearly, there is a need to reach all women with educational messages that promote informed choices in health care, including HIV/AIDS. With this education, we can then hope to be successful in effecting legislation.

The development of fighting for women's lives from a pro-choice-only focus to a general concern for women's health freedom is a step in the right direction. There are several advocates in the community fighting for these rights; however, there is still an overwhelming need for the voices of women living with HIV/AIDS to be heard. Even though the march has come and gone, we have the chance to effect legislation this coming fall during the elections. It is important for all women to become educated about the issues affecting our health care and to become aware of those in the political arena who support our choices.

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