Women of color have long had a love-hate relationship with white feminists. While the two groups clearly have the united goal of dismantling the patriarchy, all too often the efforts are co-opted by white women. “Wins” are typically not “wins for women” but in fact, “wins for white women.” The pro-choice movement has been no different.
However, in that dark landscape of frustration is Jan Bianchi. And though she has recently passed away, like every other unsung hero, her legacy will live on. Unlike many white feminists, her work has greatly benefited women of color.
With an increasing number of TRAP laws and the recent case in Texas, the discussion around reproductive rights is largely focused on stemming the seemingly contagious spread of anti-woman legislation. One can’t help but wonder what it would look like if the opposite were true.
Jan Bianchi was one of the co-authors of the Washington State’s Initiative 120 that was passed in 1991 by popular vote and created the most liberal abortion legislation in the country. Washington is also the only state that legalized abortion through popular vote rather than through legislators.
Flying in the face of common practice, Initiative 120 removed any strict gestational limits. Instead of arbitrarily picking a week of pregnancy in which abortion would no longer be allowed, it set the limits based on viability. While this idea is not new, what was cutting-edge was how Jan and her co-authors defined “viability.”
As Stewart Jay, another drafter of the legislation explained, “We felt Roe v. Wade is too vague because it leaves the question of fetal viability to the judgment of physicians under an equally vague standard of what ‘meaningful life’ is.” Instead, Initiative 120 defined “viability” to be when the fetus could “survive outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” Given the propensity of congress and other politicians to believe that their political experience gives them the expertise to make medical judgments, this definition is pivotal and far more robust.
Furthermore, it has a clause that states that as long as physicians make a “good faith judgment” about viability, they are immune to prosecution.
By writing it into state law, it’s far more durable as it does not depend on Roe v. Wade. In a move of brilliance, the initiative also stipulated that after enactment, it could not be altered for 2 years.
However, what’s really special about Washington’s legislation is that it goes far beyond gestational limits to address the more nuanced issues that frequently limit a woman’s access to healthcare:
* It explicitly protects every woman’s right to birth control;
* It states that legislation about abortion can only be valid if it is consistent with current, established medical practice;
* It requires that if the state provides benefits and information for pregnancy and childbirth, then it must provide women with equivalent benefits if they want to have an abortion.
Only a few Medicaid programs use state funds to cover abortion. Even fewer have laws that require Medicaid to do so. Depending on location and gestational age, an abortion can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
Nearly a fifth of women have to travel over 50 miles to access abortion services. That percentage jumps to 74% for women in rural areas. If travel costs and wages lost are not already cost-prohibitive, certainly the medical bills can be.
Given that 91% of abortions done in this country are in the first trimester, cost is arguably a larger barrier than gestational limits. The I’m pact that racism in this country has on wealth makes affordability a disproportionally important factor to women of color, something that white feminists have frequently forgotten and ignored.
The names of the people who have made widespread societal change are not always remembered. Instead we think about how their spirit will live on in all the lives that their work has touched. While this, in it of itself, is not disappointing as most people who do social justice work are more concerned with impact rather than fame, the lack of recognition of Jan and her co-authors’ work on Initiative 120 is a shame because so many white feminists could learn from their example.
As a friend, I will always remember her gruff sense of humor. As a physician, I will always be in awe of her incredible impact on public health through the lens of women’s health. Not only has her work increased access and restored human rights to 50% of the population of the state of Washington, it has also created a fertile ground for physician training thus influencing and teaching generations upon generations of young physicians to provide abortions. In a country where the number of abortion providers is on the decline, the import of this cannot be understated.
Jan will also be cherished by those who knew her for her immense generosity not only to friends and family, but the global community. The fact that it was almost always accompanied by an ostensible crankiness made it only more endearing. She was a skillful woodworker (after all, what else is a retired, queer woman supposed to do?) and a tremendous facilitator of community whether it be through her weekly Sunday night dinners, book club, or mentorship.
Jan Bianchi died at the age of 72 on August 20, 2016 from cancer in her home in Seattle, Washington. In addition to her work in women’s reproductive rights she is also known for championing LGBT equity. She is survived by her daughter, Rachel Bianchi, and her sister, Sue Schubert.