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Should the APHA be doing more to support abortion rights?

Reproductive Justice Rally 2022

The American Public Health Association—which maintains that access to reproductive health services, including abortion, is a fundamental right—condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade earlier this year as a “catastrophic judicial failure.”

“The Supreme Court decision sets the nation back decades and demands action by all of us to protect reproductive freedom for all,” the APHA’s executive director, Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, said at the time.

This week, though, the APHA advised members heading to its annual conference starting Sunday in Boston not to attend a reproductive justice rally organized by APHA members. The demonstration, planned for Sunday outside the conference hall, will feature speakers including Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Massachusetts’s former secretary of health and human services, and U.S. representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

“This demonstration is NOT being planned or endorsed by the APHA,” the association’s staff said in a mass email. “Permits have not been obtained for this unofficial event and Boston Convention and Exhibition Center security has been very clear about their concerns. Participants run the risk of being arrested.”

The Supreme Court’s decision was “deeply unsettling and the greatest setback for reproductive rights [in] more than a generation,” the APHA wrote, but “instead of joining this demonstration, if you feel strongly about this issue, we encourage you to contact your member of Congress and use our shareables to promote the importance of reproductive health services.”

While some APHA members interpreted the guidance as practical, it confused and disappointed the rally’s organizers, among others. Organizers say the APHA declined to sponsor the event due to logistical and other concerns but knew they were working closely with Boston city and event center officials to comply with all laws and regulations. Due to local officials’ concerns about noise control, for instance, organizers say, the rally will be broadcast via a QR code to participants’ cellphones. And while a permit from the city was not required, they say, organizers sought one from local transportation officials anyway and received notification of approval.

Dr. Mardge Cohen, practicing physician at Boston Health Care for the Homeless and a faculty member at Rush University Medical College, said in interview that organizers months ago “went to APHA, which obviously supports abortion accessibility, to participate and to inform them of what we wanted to do. They were concerned with anything being outside of the conference center. And we said we think it’s important to be outside, so that two days before the [upcoming midterm] election, the whole nation knows that the voice of health workers nationally supports reproductive justice.”

Nancy Cheak-Zamora, associate professor of health sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia and chair of the APHA’s maternal and child health section, said that she and colleagues have been “working with organizations across Boston to get their support, and also help with logistics and, again, making sure that this is a safe event for people to attend.”

The APHA’s message discouraging attendance was jarring given these efforts, she said, especially as event organizers were not notified in advance.

“This is a pressing issue, obviously, for maternal-child health in addition to public health in general,” Cheak-Zamora said, with implications not just for access to abortion but also contraception and potentially other rights. “This something that we have to take a stand on.”

Joe Bremner, an APHA spokesperson, said via email that the association "is a strong supporter of reproductive justice, which is an essential part of health, and encourages our members to speak out on the issue. We share the concerns of activists who plan to protest the court decision in Boston. APHA’s concern was solely based on whether the event would be permitted and comply with Boston regulations for gatherings.”

A number of conference panels address abortion rights.

This isn’t the only controversy related to the APHA’s upcoming meeting. Some members have objected to a conference panel with Dr. Leana Wen, commentator and research professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, who will speak on backlash to public health policies; Wen has been harassed by antivaccine activists for promoting vaccination against COVID-19, but fellow APHA members have said she’s downplayed the severity of the pandemic, especially for certain demographic groups. Separately, members criticized the APHA for not initially requiring face masks at the event (masks are now mandatory).

Dr. Cohen said she’d like the APHA to take more of a public stand on the abortion issue, such as by refusing to hold future meetings in states where women can’t legally seek abortions. Bremner, of the APHA, said he expects this to be discussed going forward but that "we, like most organizations planning large meetings, select venues several years out. As such, we may not contractually be able to change any already selected locations." The APHA's 2023 conference is planned for Atlanta. Georgia's new abortion law bans most abortions after six weeks.

Chris Chanyasulkit, the association’s president-elect and adjunct professor of public health at Temple University, who will emcee Sunday’s rally, said it’s her understanding that APHA is supportive of the rally but “wanted to ensure that it was safe and had the legal permits to convene.”

Chanyasulkit’s own goals for the rally are “that we, as a public health community, stand in solidarity in our belief that reproductive rights are human rights, that abortion is essential health care, and that we will continue to advocate for true reproductive freedom for all across our nation. We will vote, get out the vote and support and hold accountable elected officials and candidates who will continue this fight for reproductive rights with us.”

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