Monday, September 20, 2010

From Ros Petchesky

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Rhonda, Rhonda –

What year was it when we first met? I was beginning the research and writing that would become my book on abortion, and you were preparing litigation that would become McRae—that brave milestone case that would break your heart. Several friends said, You have to meet this amazing feminist lawyer who’s doing work parallel to yours, and we inevitably would—in CARASA in its earliest days (the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse), formed in 1977 in opposition to the infamous Hyde Amendment; and then that first bike ride in the Provincetown dunes where all my synapses immediately responded to your energy, deep intelligence, passionate feminism, and needless to say your charm. So began 33 years of interminable phone conversations, finishing each other’s sentences, complementing (and sometimes fighting over) each other’s perspectives: your human rights, my political theory, your legalism, my leftism.

Reproductive rights – it felt like we and many others were in that moment and the next two decades making this movement, defining its terms, closing ranks against its conservative enemies. But of course this was a grandiose illusion; the movements were making us at least as much. In CARASA we worked with many others to build the vision that many younger activists today aptly call reproductive justice—to link abortion and contraception to a much broader view of women’s right to have or not to have children in conditions of dignity and social support, with full access to health care, child care, housing, livelihoods, sexual and bodily self-determination, and freedom from class, racial, sexual and gender inequalities. You brought this social justice perspective to your historic litigation of the McRae case in the Supreme Court—challenging the Hyde Amendment and its exclusion of poor women from Roe v. Wade’s constitutional protection of abortion by denying federal Medicaid funding. You always identified the loss of McRae as one of the greatest sorrows of your life. Just this past year, when Democrats debating health care reform seemed poised to bargain away women’s hard-won abortion rights, you came out swinging once again, in the midst of cancer, and urged not only that we take on the compromisers of the status quo but that we renew a full offensive against Hyde itself—push to abolish that shameful denial of poor women’s access once and for all. And I’ve no doubt, had you lived, you would have led us in this fight—even today in the midst of the biggest right-wing backlash since the McCarthy era.

In the 1990s we carried on the struggle in international arenas—in the UN meetings in Cairo and Beijing, where you and I found our niche as partners in crime in the reproductive and sexual rights drafting committees in the Women’s Caucus and somehow people kept getting our names mixed up, which was fine with me because there wasn’t anyone I’d rather be mistaken for. (So what’s this about, we wondered. Jewish? intense? dark curly hair? names that start with R?) Together we argued strenuously for the words “bodily integrity” in the documents. “The physical integrity of the human body”—awkward language that finally made its way into the Cairo Program and the Beijing Platform—just didn’t do it for us. Nor did the Cairo document (Beijing was better) really capture the scope of what you identified as the “indivisibility principle” linking political, civil, economic, social and cultural human rights and I as “enabling conditions” and “social rights.” So in our writing together in the preparations for Beijing, we talked about “the significance of bodily integrity and self-determination, including health, wellness and sexual pleasure, not as individualistic concerns, but as inseparable from women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of social life.” And we insisted the concept of “means” to achieve reproductive and sexual rights had “to include . . . food, shelter, work and basic security, as well as the right to development.”

Sexuality, pleasure, passion—they were always inseparable for you, dear Rhonda, from reproductive politics, as from your political life at large. For years we shared intimate stories—our secret crushes, our hopes and disappointments with the latest lover, our pulls and self-doubts in love and work. And always lurking behind the long shared dishings lay the question—so are lesbian and heterosexual sex dramas really so different? Are bodies so different in their needs, desires, vulnerabilities, mortality? Is this common yearning really the core of human rights?

Meanwhile, the body’s journey had its own will and way. I hoped and grieved with you during your own struggle to reproduce, the painful and costly years of fertility treatments, embarked upon with the same stubborn determination you brought to every advocacy effort, and finally to fighting the ovarian cancer—the cancer you later thought germinated from those very hormones you let into your body trying to get pregnant, the cancer that would ultimately reproduce and reproduce until it took your life.

But, Rhonda, we all know you really weren’t defeated in your desire to experience parenting. Just look at how attentively you mothered generations of students and protégées; your adopted granddaughter, Eugenia; your dear sister-cousin Terry; your beloved Finbar, then Sophie (another passion we shared, our cats, and mourned together when they died). And how persistently you extended this nurturing to your hundreds of close friends across the globe, insisting that we all know each other and be connected whether we wanted to or not. Such a heterodox and far-flung family you produced!

Of course many of us not only basked in the joys and clarity of your attentions but also suffered the frustrations of being part of, not merely your “gang,” but your veritable multitude, your horde, your battalion. How did our friendship survive the countless times when I got the dreaded message, “MAILBOX FULL,” or waiting 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour for you to stroll into the designated meeting place before the opera? It did, because invariably you would emerge with your gorgeous beaming smile that dissolved my curmudgeonly scruples about time and that said, I am so happy to see you, you are the person I most wish to be with at this moment on this earth. My wise son Jonah—who was fondest of you, I think, of all my friends—once told me: Rhonda may be frustrating, Mom, but when she’s there she is totally and completely there. Indeed.

In the end you wanted us to see death and the body’s disintegration as something not so frightening, even another kind of opportunity for reflection and discovery. Somehow you made the ultimate loss of your body’s integrity an opening for new forms of community, connection and passion, a way to bind you to the world even as you left it. Reproductive and seductive to the last minute, and always the teacher, you left us with a great and bounteous love.