This week, Senate Republicans breathed new life into what seemed like a lost battle since the end of summer: the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Without the ACA and its protections for those with preexisting conditions, millions of disabled, elderly, sick and low-income Americans would lose insurance and, according to some estimates, thousands could die as a result.
It’s no surprise that political maneuverings with such steep consequences for so many Americans’ everyday living standards have reinvigorated activism across the country. Over the summer, congressional phone lines were flooded with calls from enraged or terrified constituents, and disabled people staged “die-ins” by the dozens in Senate offices. The new Graham-Cassidy bill could yield the same reactions.
All of this demonstrates how the experience of oppression and political targeting does not give affected individuals the option to “be political” or not. You’d be hard-pressed to find an individual who has been fired or evicted for being gay, or an African-American mother grieving the loss of a young son to police brutality, indifferent about today’s political climate and current events. Political apathy and irritation at those darned “social justice warriors” emerge from a very specific group: those who do not face identity-based challenges and persecution from political institutions.
The new Graham-Cassidy bill, like its previous incarnations, would be a disaster for a number of groups, but it would have devastating consequences for women and new mothers in particular. The bill defunds Planned Parenthood and slashes funding for Medicaid, which pays for roughly half of all births in America and provides family planning services to 13.5 million women. Ironically, Graham-Cassidy follows Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, which would provide universal health care as a right, and cover all women’s health services, including abortion.
Sanders’ bill marked not only an impressive moral step forward for the Democratic Party (to argue that in the wealthiest country in the world, sickness and poverty should not be a death sentence is a surprisingly radical stance), but also a move to respect women’s bodily autonomy through pregnancy and maternity, and invest in their economic enfranchisement. This jarring 180-degree reversal in the Senate shows how our standards of living as women, like the standards of living for all marginalized people, are — for better or for worse — powerfully dictated by the choices of our lawmakers.
The potential for suffering, poverty and death from the dismantling or defunding of Obamacare underscores the lived consequences of politics. It shows that the ability to separate politics from one’s personal life is the epitome of privilege and that, in no uncertain terms, the personal is the political. Empathy and recognition that the absence of and need for social justice regardless of one’s personal experiences is another important driver of activism, and we certainly shouldn’t expect the only people fighting for health care to be the ones at risk of losing it.
But while oppression exists on a wide spectrum, experiencing any form of it — from identity-based micro-aggressions to hate crimes — is life-changing. Our politics are shaped by our experiences. And it doesn’t necessarily take losing your health care and facing certain death to realize the inextricably personal nature of politics.
As much of a women’s rights news junkie as I may be now, the conception of this column was born far more from 18 years’ worth of gender-based personal struggles than some arbitrary, detached interest in politics. As a 16-year-old high school student, I made the “choice” to become “political” about as much as I made the “choice” to routinely face sexual harassment, endure mental health and body image struggles, and — until very recently — face conflict after conflict with my parents about my behavior as a young woman.
From the clothes I wore to those most intimate aspects of my personal life that my male peers could partake in without fear of being subjected to traumatic verbal assault, my consciousness of the reach of patriarchal politics — beyond Capitol Hill to my suburban Bay Area high school — was born of my personal experiences. Granted, these experiences coincided with my AP United States History class, a course rife with lessons about our nation’s past that opened my eyes to lingering injustice.
It was the same year as my first visit to my local Planned Parenthood — the same year an anti-choice gunman killed three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and extremists set a handful of clinics across the country on fire. And it was also the same year as some of the most high-profile, racially-charged police killings in our nation’s recent history: Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. They were all their mothers’ babies, shot dead or brutalized to death, in the same year I was barely on speaking terms with my own mother, and I watched in disbelief as Republicans struggled to concede that the lives of those young black men did, in fact, matter. From that year onward, the part of me that had long filtered the expression of my beliefs and convictions, that had grit my teeth to force my silence on what I cared about, was utterly expunged.
Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning and fight for what, to many onlookers, appear to be lost causes? I wish I could identify the reason as some noble, higher calling — a decision made not from urgency but from the goodness of our hearts. But in many cases outside of celebrity activism, the answer is that many activists don’t have a choice. So much of political activism is a war for survival — a war for the right to live in this country, to love and marry who we choose, to have decision-making power over our bodies, to not have to die because we can’t afford health care.
In this political moment, activism is a war for the right to exist in a country built by slaves and, to this day, ruled by white men. And for people of marginalized identities, for people on the brink of losing their lives because of Obamacare repeal, activism — like being political — isn’t a choice.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.