By Enrica Nicoli Aldini
It’s been a rough year for Planned Parenthood. Not only have Republicans in Congress repeatedly tried to pass bills to suspend federal funding to the reproductive health services organization, but a Planned Parenthood clinic was also the object of a gunman attack in Colorado Springs, Colo. last November.
However, the mood was far from somber among the reproductive rights advocates who filled the dining rooms at City Winery on the Near West Side Thursday night. An estimated 600 donors, supporters and elected officials came together to raise funds for Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, the health organization’s political arm in the state, and celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
“Tonight is about celebrating choice,” said Carole Brite, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
“Since July 2015, there has been an increase in hateful rhetoric,” Brite said, looking back at what she called a “hell of a year Planned Parenthood has had.” “The attacks have been about destroying the right for all women to make their own reproductive decisions. Planned Parenthood has stood steadfast because of all your help.”
Several elected officials took the stage to speak in support of women’s right to choose. Some received special awards for their advocacy to advance women’s rights. Illinois Senator Daniel Biss (D-9th) was the recipient of the Richard J. Phelan Profile in Courage Award for his efforts to fight bills that would restrict access to health care.
At an event whose chief occasion was celebrating women and their rights, Biss said men have to recognize that they too are involved in the fight for women’s reproductive freedom.
“It is my responsibility to be an ally and do whatever I can to advance that cause,” Biss said. “These fights are not going to be won if men don’t stand up and do the right thing. Every day and every hour I’ll be standing with this community because it is essential.”
Lorie Chaiten, director of the Reproductive Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, received the Dr. Marvin Rosner Lifetime Achievement Award. Chaiten reminded the audience that while the level of health care and services for women in Illinois is progressive, minors still have to face many barriers when seeking an abortion. If they don’t want to involve their parents in the decision, they’ll have to go through the lengthy and burdensome process of requesting a parental approval waiver in court. Plus, the costs of the procedure might be prohibitive for women who can’t afford proper health care coverage.
“Every day in Illinois women without Medicare have to decide whether to pay for the procedure or pay rent,” Chaiten said. “We must educate the public so they can elect pro-choice officials, until we’ve finally secured reproductive justice for all.”
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she’s never seen such an attack against women’s rights since Roe v. Wade. “Planned Parenthood has become the poster child for Republicans who want to attack women’s rights,” Schakowsky said. “They feel free to say the most ridiculous and hateful things.” The congresswoman is the ranking democratic member in a select House committee to investigate Planned Parenthood after allegations that the organization makes profits from fetal tissue donations.
Schakowsky told the audience she had actually objected to the formation of the committee. She said she believes it would foster violence and the use of an aggressive rhetoric.
Just as Schakowsky spoke, pro-life activists protested the fundraiser and celebration outside City Winery, with anti-Planned Parenthood banners and signs showing gruesome pictures of damaged fetuses.
“These people are clueless,” said Henrietta Burmakova, a recurrent donor to Planned Parenthood and clinic escort volunteer in Chicago. “I’m here to raise awareness because it’s surprising how many people don’t know exactly what’s going on with abortion clinics.”
Kate Votava, who attended the night as a VIP donor, also spoke of a “horrible angst” against Planned Parenthood that made her come out to stand up and support women’s rights and the reproductive health organization.
While it certainly has not been a good year for Planned Parenthood, the atmosphere at City Winery was upbeat. Waves of optimism for women’s rights came especially from the older attendees, who remembered what it was like before 1973 and Roe v. Wade.
“We’re still here and kicking,” said Schakowsky amid applause and cheers from the crowd. The congresswoman noted how abortions had been sought and performed for days on end before 1973, but only Roe v. Wade made sure abortions would become safe.
“Roe was not the beginning of women having abortions,” Schakowsky said. “But it was the end of women dying having abortions.”