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Northup ’81 P’16 advocates access to reproductive rights

Center for Reproductive Rights president and CEO talks human rights advocacy, social justice

In spite of G.O.P. presidential candidates and congressional bills threatening Planned Parenthood funding, Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup ’81 P’16 is working to ensure reproductive rights are not up for debate.

Reproductive rights have emerged as a politically divisive issue recently. The U.S. Senate blocked a spending bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood Thursday. The bill passed in the House of Representatives Sept. 18.

As a global organization, the Center for Reproductive Rights works to uphold reproductive freedom through constitutional and international law, bringing landmark cases to national courts, United Nations committees and human rights bodies, according to the center’s website.

Northup began her fight for social justice during her first few weeks at Brown. She spoke with The Herald about the past and future of her advocacy, the potential defunding of Planned Parenthood and the power of youth to develop social justice.

Herald: How did your time at Brown shape your career trajectory in advocating reproductive rights?

I started my advocacy for reproductive rights when I was at Brown. I was a volunteer lobbyist with the Rhode Island Women’s Political Caucus, so my senior year I would spend one day a week going down to the State House in Providence and lobbying elected officials in Rhode Island on access to abortion rights. Of course, the wonderful thing about being at Brown is it’s walking distance to Rhode Island’s legislature. So I was able to go down there once a week and walk the halls and lobby House and Senate members on abortion rights issues.

What was the greatest takeaway from that experience?

The most important thing I learned while I was at Brown was the necessity of becoming an advocate and getting out there and talking to people. I had begun my student activism at Brown with the South African Solidarity Committee. We were working at the time on having Brown divest from its investments in companies that did business in South Africa. I was part of that protest movement at Brown. I worked on a political campaign the summer of 1980 — that presidential year — and came back with the experience of working on door-to-door petitioning and canvasing and the importance of lobbying people about your vision of social good.

Before the Center for Reproductive Rights, you worked as a constitutional litigator and federal prosecutor. What initially drew you to the center?

I had the opportunity in 2003 to join the center as its president and CEO, and I was delighted to be able to have the opportunity to come back working full-time on women’s rights, but also to be working for an organization that is global in its human rights work. The Center for Reproductive Rights works not just in the United States. We also have offices in Bogota, Columbia; Nairobi, Kenya; Kathmandu, Nepal; and Geneva, Switzerland. I was very drawn to the global struggle for women’s rights and to being able to work from the perspective of women’s rights as a human rights issue.

How would you respond if Planned Parenthood were defunded?

Right now, the key thing is we’re working very hard to ensure Planned Parenthood does not get defunded. The current attacks are political attacks, and we’re joining with our other reproductive rights organizations in working very, very hard to make sure that the reproductive health care that Planned Parenthood provides in this country continues. And I would just say that what’s important to know is that the majority of the American public supports women’s reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion. Seven of 10 Americans support the rights protected in Roe v. Wade, so we’re going to make sure that those rights are protected and those services — including the services Planned Parenthood provides — are available.

What insight can you offer into any anticipated Supreme Court cases addressing reproductive rights?

The Center for Reproductive Rights has two cases right now that are waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether they’ll take them. We have been suing the state of Texas now for several years over a set of abortion restrictions they passed that, if allowed to go fully into effect, would close over 75 percent of the abortion clinics in the state of Texas and take Texas down to only about 10 clinics.

So we are asking the Supreme Court to review that case. It will be the most important abortion rights case in the Supreme Court in over 20 years. What the Supreme Court decides in that case will define the constitutional protection for access to abortion services for the next generation, so we are working very hard to ensure that the Supreme Court not only takes the case, but also reiterates the importance of the long line of established law saying women have a right to access abortion services. The other case is the ongoing case in Mississippi, which involves the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, and we have won so far in that case.

Aside from Planned Parenthood potentially being defunded and these two court cases, what concerns you most about the current state of reproductive rights in the United States?

What concerns me is that the issue has become so politicized. This should be an issue of public health. It should be an issue of women’s well-being. But women’s reproductive rights are used by politicians as ways to score political points. We need to respect women’s access to reproductive health care as a fundamental human right. It should not be subject to being revoked in a particular election any more than our right to free speech or our right to religious freedom. So the politicization of the issue is what concerns me most. The reason it is so important that fundamental rights are protected is it takes them out of the political arena and makes sure that those rights exist for, in this case, women across the nation regardless of who is in office.

Internationally, what’s most concerning to you?

Let me start by saying what’s exciting on the global front. We had a really important legal victory in the last decade on defining women’s reproductive rights as fundamental human rights, so the center has been bringing groundbreaking litigation not only on the national level but also in regional and international human rights bodies. We’re seeing really, really strong advances, and that is to be applauded and welcomed as an important trend and direction.

Of concern is that so far, too many women in the world do not have access to contraception when they need it. Too many women do not have access to safe and legal abortions. Too many girls are forced into early marriages when they are still children. All of these amount to human rights violations, and it’s important that women’s ability to control their reproductive health care and their planning and spacing of children be understood as essential to women’s human rights.

What advice would you give to current Brown students about becoming advocates and leaders?

To take advantage of every opportunity you can while you are a student, to engage with the issues happening around the world, to engage with your fellow students, to take leadership in student organizations, to volunteer in the community around Brown. One of the wonderful aspects of Brown is that it is in the capital city in Rhode Island, it is in the middle of a thriving city and it is full of opportunities to be able to work in the community and to learn how to begin building toward more social justice. So get involved, get active and make change.

— This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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