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A Brief history of Women-led Movements in Grand Rapids: Part II – The Reproductive Justice Movement

March 16, 2022

(Editor’s Note: During the month of March – Women’s History month, GRIID will highlight three Social Movements that were led by women in Grand Rapids. These three posts will be part of a chapter that will be included in the book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.)

In Part I, we looked at the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Grand Rapids, a movement that began in the 1870s and eventually won the fight for women to vote in local elections in 1918, along with the passage of the 19th Amendment being adopted in 1920. Today, we want to take a look at the Reproductive Justice Movement in Grand Rapids.

In the history of the United States, women have rarely had body autonomy. It wasn’t until the early 1980s in the US, that all states finally overturned laws that made women who married men, the property of their husbands.

However, there is one area that women have fought for and are still fighting for, which is reproductive justice and the right to have an abortion. What is interesting about the issue of the right of a woman to have an abortion, is that it was legal until 1873, when the federal government outlawed abortion. Contraceptives were also outlawed at the same time, with the primary sector lobbying for the outlaw of abortion and contraceptives being male doctors. This meant, that like the rest of the US, in Grand Rapids women did not have the legal right to have an abortion until the US Supreme Court decision known as Roe V. Wade. 

Roe V. Wade was not adopted as a legal ruling until 1973. This doesn’t mean that women were not defying the law and choosing what to do with their own bodies. For decades prior to Roe V. Wade, women were seeking out and creating their own networks and resources to practice reproductive justice. In Grand Rapids, many people are familiar with the Choice Fund that has been part of the work done by Fountain Street Church. What is less known is that the Choice Fund had begun in the mid-1960s, in a very clandestine fashion. 

In an interview conducted with Dani Vilella in 2021, I discovered that women from Fountain Street Church (FSC) were going out of state to have abortions. This eventually prompted women who were connected to FSC to create the Choice Fund. In fact, the Choice Fund had remained clandestine until the early 1990s, primarily to avoid the wrath of the anti-abortion movement, particularly the religious branch of the anti-abortion movement, which was the dominant aspect in West Michigan.

The Choice Fund did not go public with the work they were doing to raise money for women wanting to have an abortion, not until the late 1980s. The Choice Fund made this decision because of the growing anti-abortion attacks against clinics that were performing abortions. The money raised by the Choice Fund would go directly to the Heritage Clinic for Women, covering the costs for those women who wanted to have an abortion. 

Beginning in the late 1980s, the antiabortion attacks certainly escalated in Grand Rapids. Operation Rescue, the anti-Abortion group led by Randall Terry, came to Grand Rapids on several occasions beginning in the late 1980s. Protests and efforts to stop women from choosing to have an abortion were intense and often confrontational, as you can see from this Grand Rapids Press article above. 

There are literally hundreds of churches in West Michigan that embrace an anti-abortion stance, some evangelical, some Christian Reformed, along with the Catholic Church. Many of these churches would include information about protests and other so-called Pro-Life actions happening in Grand Rapids, Lansing or in Washington, DC.

Additionally, there are thousands of religious people in West Michigan that make regular contributions to Michigan Right to Life. More importantly, there are several members of the West Michigan elite that have collectively contributed millions of dollars to anti-abortion groups and other “family-values” organization that want to keep women in a subordinate role in society, which also means they do not women to have bodily autonomy. In Russ Bellant’s book, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, he cites the DeVos family, Peter Cook, the Prince family, the Van Andel family and the DeWitt family as major funders of the anti-abortion movement. Many of these same families continue to make significant financial contributions to anti-abortions groups like Right to Life.

The financial and ideological support for an anti-abortion stance has contributed to more serious acts of hate and violence against women and organizations that do reproductive health education or perform abortions in the greater Grand Rapids area. Besides physically blockading the entrance of clinics, many clinics and other organizational offices have been hit with graffiti or doused with butyric acid, which smells like vomit and is difficult to get rid of once it is used.

Many members of the Religious Right in West Michigan have also participated in what they refer to as 40 Days of Life actions, which are primarily about people coming to one of the clinics for 40 days in a row to pray, to protest and to often shame women who enter those clinics.

As a counter, there have been 40 Days of Choice campaigns and actions done over the years, primarily as a means of countering the anti-abortion forces. People who are committed to defending a woman’s right to have an abortion, would show up to provide support to the women coming to clinics, as well as acting as volunteer security to intervene if any of the anti-abortion folks attempted to harass, shame or do bodily harm to those entering the clinic. In 2012, I conducted an interview with someone involved in the 40 Days of Choice campaign, which you can listen to at this link. 

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, those committed to defending a woman’s right to an abortion, mobilized to go to Washington, DC to protest the inauguration in early 2017. The overly anti-feminist and anti-abortion rhetoric coming from the Trump administration also reinvigorated the Reproductive Justice Movement to provide security and accompaniment at local clinics in Grand Rapids. A new wave of young people began showing up and working with the clinic to provide support to women and to keep anti-abortion protestors at a distance. 

In May of 2020, there were two anti-abortion protesters arrested at the Heritage Clinic in Grand Rapids. I interviewed someone who worked there at the time, but chose to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. Some of those involved in the protest were with the group Red Rose Rescue. Here is what the clinic employee shared with me about what happened:

On the day of their protest, they showed up in a large group, gathering outside of the clinic. When patients exited their vehicles, they would either shout loudly at the patients or would directly approach them. They were verbally aggressive and their voices were elevated (we could hear them screaming from inside the clinic). One particular protestor, a woman named Caroline Davis, was seen and heard screaming “Repent your sins”, “You’re going to regret this every day”, and more to patients. Many members of the group entered the building in the stairwell in an attempt to gain access to inside the clinic, but due to the safety and privacy measures we always have in place, in addition to the diligence of precautionary measures our staff took, they were not successful with entering.

Patients came into the clinic visibly shook up and unhappy. Patients disclosed to us that protestors had approached their cars and physically banged on their car windows. One protestor held open the door to the clinic for a patient and told her to “have a nice day” (in a way that felt insincere and manipulative to the patient). Another patient came to her appointment in a vehicle with a business logo on the side, and a protestor called that business to inform them of where they were, violating their privacy.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked the clinic employee what some of the most important aspects of reproductive rights are. What they shared was deeply moving ton this writer, so I will end with their comment: 

Many times, people hear “reproductive justice” and think that it is solely a pro-choice vs. anti-choice issue. It is so much more than that, though: It is ensuring that people who want to have and raise children have the adequate means to do so, and should be able to build a family on their own terms. They should be financially prepared with a living wage, paid family leave, and unbiased employers. We need social structures that allow for anyone regardless of background to receive proper pregnancy and childbirth care. There should be easy access to free or affordable contraceptives, STD/STI/HIV testing, and safe sexual health measures, such as condoms or other birth control, PrEP medication, etc. Equal access to abortion care, regardless of reason. Comprehensive sex education in public and private schools. Freedom from sexual and domestic violence. Supporting LGBTQ parents, teen parents, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Other issues that are often overlooked or not considered to be – but are 100% interrelated with reproductive justice –include food security and access to clean water; unwavering support of gender and sexual identity/presentation; immigration justice; environmental justice; disability justice; indigenous rights; and more. We must build and sustain safe communities for EVERYONE.

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