By Callie Ferguson | 29 December 2016
About once a month, a group of fired-up grandmothers from the Brunswick and Bath area gather around a kitchen table and talk about reproductive rights.
They sound like college students – if college students could remember a time when birth control wasn’t widely available; when safe and legal abortion didn’t exist; when a girl from the neighborhood might suddenly disappear for a while, and people didn’t ask questions.
The group is called Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, and the kitchen table belongs to Judy Kahrl, who founded the group in 2012.
“I grew up with this being ‘daddy’s great cause,’” Kahrl, 81, said in an interview earlier this month.
Her father, New York gynecologist Dr. Clarence Gamble, founded the multi-national nonprofit Pathfinder International, which partners with communities around the world to provide family planning services; Kahrl serves on the board.
Her father was friends with birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Kahrl said Sanger allegedly told him, “‘I’ll take the U.S., and you take the rest of the world.’”
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a nice story,” she said with a laugh.
What drove Kahrl to start her own group, however, was a recent feeling that progress was no longer on the side of advocates like her father, and that her grandchildren may not be guarranteed the rights that earlier generations fought to secure.
“GRR came about because of the frustration I heard in my own mind and others because of restrictions being put on abortions,” she said.
For Kahrl, age is both a resource and a tool and, like many of the other members of GRR, she draws her sense of activism from both conviction and memory.
Her experience is something that adds authority to her testimony when she is speaking at a rally; it adds empathy when she approaches a protester on the street in front of Portland’s Planned Parenthood clinic who might otherwise relax at the sight of Kahrl’s white hair and kind eyes.
But it isn’t all grandmotherly kindness, and the implicit growl in the group’s acronym is intentional.
When in public, the members of GRR wear bright yellow T-shirts, and Kahrl delights in their flamboyance.
“We were really surprised by how many people wanted to know who we were,” she said, after the group made their first trip to Augusta to testify at a hearing.
“We are becoming more and more aware that we have a special niche,” Kahrl said.
Drinking tea in her kitchen, she scanned a headline on her laptop computer about a male Ohio lawmaker who admitted to never having thought about why women choose abortion – even though he supported a bill that would prevent the procedure six weeks after conception.
Kahrl closed her computer with a frustrated exhale. She has seen progress, but it hasn’t been linear.
“Attitudes have changed a lot, but nevertheless, I think there’s a lot of old-fashioned ones around,” she said. “I hate to stereotype, but particularly with white males.”
That sentiment hung like a storm cloud over the group’s most recent steering committee meeting Dec. 14, when about 10 grandmothers gathered to discuss the election.
“I think people were flattened. We were kicked in the belly,” she later said, referring to President-elect Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in November.
“I know that my sense of activism has risen since all of this has happened,” she added.
Since the election, the anxiety and uncertainty about reproductive rights has been stoked.
Kahrl, on the other hand, didn’t sound alarmed as she sat with her tea. She sounded focused.
“Sometimes I feel like the elevator is dropping to the bottom of the chute,” she said. “I force myself to be optimistic.”
Kahrl and GRR still plan to march in Augusta on inauguration weekend alongside other women and marginalized groups that feel threatened by the incoming administration.
She repeated what one of the long-time GRR members said recently: “‘It’s fighting times.’”
While the results of the Nov. 8 election delivered an ominous setback to GRR and similar advocates, Kahrl said the group will stay focused on tracking changes in the state.
“What we’re discovering more and more is that so much is happening at the state level,” Kahrl said.
She identified the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court as a landmark event that made states the primary battleground for reproductive rights.
The ruling opened channels of corporate funding for political causes, often with little transparency. Kahrl said she felt the tides shift dramatically against the pro-choice movement when the ruling made it easy for wealthy donors and corporations to financially back political candidates and organizations.
The decision has benefited conservative candidates and groups, she said, in their effort to pass legislation that limits access to reproductive health care, especially safe and legal abortion.
Conservative and anti-abortion groups are more organized and better funded, according to Kahrl, who pointed to groups that send template bills to legislators as an example of a common political strategy that takes place at the state level.
According to The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive laws on a state-by-state basis, the primary ways states can restrict health care are parental notification or consent requirements for minors, limitations on public funding, and burdensome regulations on abortion facilities.
Luckily for GRR, it has a member in the Maine Legislature.
Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, ran for office on a platform that included better health-care options for Mainers. In her first term, she sponsored a bill that expanded Medicaid to include reproductive health options, which was passed Oct. 16, 2015.
“I was firm that I wanted this to be for both men and women,” McCreight said in an email. “Partly to reinforce that reproductive health isn’t just a woman’s issue, but also because it covers men and women for both family planning and reproductive health care – screenings and treatment for certain cancers as well as contraception.”
The law has yet to take effect; it is stuck in the rule-making stage with the Department of Health and Human Services.
McCreight, who was re-elected in House District 51 in November, has more ideas for the future, but is concerned about a lack of bipartisan support.
“Bipartisan support? Again hard to say,” she said. “The Maine Legislature has passed expansion several times only to have it vetoed and the veto not overridden.”
She wrote that she is also concerned about what the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and de-fund Planned Parenthood will mean for Maine.
Kahrl and the rest of GRR will have their eyes on these incremental movements going into the new year. She said the group has no shortage of zeal, but does have an “energy budget” in terms of how much members can do on a weekly basis.
At their Dec. 14 meeting, the steering committee discussed a campaign to ask lawmakers to consider bills in the next session that advance and expand reproductive health-care access.
They also discussed developing a better system to communicate with their members. Since forming, GRR has added more than 200 women around the state to their email list.
The statistic buoyed members of the group, which after about an hour and a half of discussing the challenges and resistances before them, noted how lucky they are to exist in a time when they feel needed.
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