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'We Are to Be Respected': The Woman at the Helm of the Fight for Abortion Rights

NARAL president Ilyse Hogue on her years of fighting for reproductive rights, the radical importance of speaking out about abortion, and the fallacy of family planning as a "women's issue."
Photo courtesy of NARAL

In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100-year anniversary, we're taking an in-depth look at the history and future of reproductive rights. Read more of our coverage here.

It was about two years into the newest iteration of the War on Women when Ilyse Hogue took over as president of NARAL, the country's largest abortion advocacy group.

In 2011, "the war on women" became a sort of cultural shorthand for "sustained, politically motivated attacks on women's basic reproductive autonomy carried out on a state and federal level." In the subsequent six years, it's resulted in hundreds of proposed and passed abortion restrictions, dozens of clinic closures, countless terrifying statements from conservative politicians regarding female anatomy, and, hearteningly, a historical Supreme Court ruling in favor of women's constitutional right to choice. However, calling these political attacks on reproductive access an attack on women specifically is perhaps misleading. As Hogue notes, the effects of family planning reverberate throughout families and society as a whole.


Read more: 'Abortion Saved My Life': The Activist Who Shields Women from Clinic Protesters

"What I had experienced throughout my life in advocacy was that women and families, on every level, thrive when women are in charge of their reproductive destinies," Hogue tells me. "People actually know that on a very visceral, cellular level."

Hogue's background isn't in reproductive freedom work; she spent most of her career working in international human rights and environmental advocacy. In fact, when she was first offered the position at NARAL, some of her former colleagues worried about her pigeonholing or limiting herself to "women's issues," which many people somehow see as niche despite the fact that women comprise more than half of the world's population. In addition to the whole "speaking to and working in women's issues is a 'pink ghetto'" thing, Hogue says, there was also the fact that "working on abortion rights specifically is sort of this stigmatized room within the pink ghetto."

But Hogue doesn't see reproductive rights as "just a small part of women's issues"—she describes it as "the nucleus of equality." This is something she clearly and ardently believes, and she often cycles quickly between the personal, the political, and the global, noting in one breath that the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy is a private one that every woman should have the ability to make on her own terms, that gender equality is not possible without ensuring that women have full control over their reproductive futures, and that countries that value and promote family planning services are more successful in every way.


"Without control of our own reproductive destiny, everything else for women fades from view," she says. "You can't decide how to structure your education, you can't excel professionally, you can't generate economic security to take care of the family that you want and have."

Without control of our own reproductive destiny, everything else for women fades from view.

Of course, the fact that abortion is at once extremely personal and highly politicized is the result of sexism and stigma, and many women who've had abortions still struggle with feelings of shame in coming forward. "When we have this conversation out in the open, that's when we win. I think, for a long time, there was this idea, because of the stigma surrounding abortion, that you don't really talk about it," Hogue says. "When we talk about it, elected leaders who actually champion these rights tend to win."

This is why she chose to publicly speak about her own abortion experience at DNC earlier this year, becoming the first woman to do so in the history of the convention. "About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have," she said. "It's not as simple as 'bad girls get abortions and good girls have families.' We are the same women at different times in our lives—each making decisions that are the best for us."

"It was not on my bucket list," she says drily when asked what made her decide to share her story with millions of people. However, she understood the importance of speaking out about an issue that anti-abortion politicians and activists often reduce to hysterical abstraction. "It's much easier to sort of vilify a theoretical decision of a theoretical woman on whom you impose your own idea of who she is and why she's doing what she is, but when you put a human face to it, it's a really, really different equation for people."

This isn't the first time Hogue has found herself disrupting the anti-choice movement's theoretical conception of women who advocate for, or choose, abortion. When she was pregnant with twins last year, some media outlets were quick to point out the purported irony—an abortion rights activist, starting a family!—despite the fact that NARAL also vocally advocates for the rights of pregnant women, as well as working mothers and fathers. When I asked Hogue about this false sense of dissonance, she responds laughingly, immediately placing her personal experience in a larger political context. "The data show over and over again that seven in ten Americans believe in legal access to abortion," she says. "If none of us had kids, we would be experiencing a population collapse unlike anything before in mankind."

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More serious, she adds, "People are really able to express pro-choice values while also making important decisions about having kids. These are all anxious myths that the extreme anti-choice lobby continues to move in order to sort of silence people and not have the real conversations."

As the pro-choice movement gains momentum, as more women speak out in favor of abortion access, Hogue believes these real conversations will be harder to suppress or ignore. "The thread that runs through our work… is this demand of women, that we are here and we are to be respected and we are to be taken seriously, and that anyone who doesn't do that cannot expect to call himself a leader in this country," she affirms. "I think that through line of values—of dignity, of equality—is absolutely going to shape the conversation for the next century."