2016 Bruce S. Jansson MSW Award
Contest Winner: Dina van der Zalm
Faculty Advisor: Clark Peters, University of Missouri-Columbia
In 2014, in the second semester of my MSW program, I had the opportunity to work as a legislative intern for Planned Parenthood. Prior to this experience, I had always considered myself to be politically engaged and involved, but shadowing a lobbyist for a matter of days opened my eyes to how much I still had to learn about legislative politics and the policy process. After sitting in on hearings and taking notes for a few weeks, I became incensed at the way reproductive health was being debated largely by men and predominately in a very condescending tone. As a woman of reproductive age, who would be directly impacted by the 32 proposed anti-abortion bills that session should they become law, I could no longer sit quietly and keep a record of the dialogue. I had to be a part of the conversation and help ensure that women’s voices were being heard, especially since the fate of women’s health was being decided. The lobbyist and grassroots organizer agreed that I could testify against bills as long as I testified as myself, rather than as any representation of the organization.
The next anti-abortion bill to get a committee hearing became the focus of my life for the next nine months, and fighting against it throughout the legislative process influenced both its trajectory and my own professional path. In late January, I testified in the House Family and Children Committee against identical House Bills 1313 and 1307 that would triple the mandatory waiting period between the informed consent process and accessing an abortion procedure from 24 to 72 hours, without exceptions for rape or incest. As a part of my testimony, I started a protest, telling the committee that as the bill language implies that women cannot make up their minds or think quickly enough to make important life decisions without the input of politicians without medical degrees, I had no reason to believe they would take my testimony seriously that day. Therefore, I wanted to take their recommended 72 hours of reflection time and return to let them know if I still opposed the bill the following week, reasoning that then they could not dismiss my well thought-out opinion and testimony. Unimpressed with my comments and the reaction from the crowd, the chairman ended public testimony and adjourned the hearing, despite the fact that there were more than five other witnesses waiting to testify. The chairman’s and committee members’ reactions helped fuel the social media response, which resulted in #Wait72Hours trending and video footage of the hearing going viral. The following week, I returned to the Capitol as promised and submitted written testimony to the chair of the committee, and I also testified against the senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 519.
The media attention I was able to garner through protesting and testifying brought national attention to an issue that might have otherwise passed without much notice from the larger public. I gave my first national interview to Think Progress, and other national media picked up the story as well. While the legislature did pass the 72-hour bill, they did so under scrutiny and were forced to account for their words and votes in ways they had not previously. Despite the senate filibuster being interrupted with the rarely utilized previous question option, continued advocacy efforts and pressure throughout the session and summer months, like the 72-hour filibuster that women held on the steps of the Capitol, convinced Governor Nixon to veto the bill.
While the super-majority overrode the governor’s veto in special session that September, making the 72-hour mandatory waiting period a reality in Missouri, the amount of constituent involvement throughout the process had skyrocketed. Generations of women’s voices were heard through testimony, letters to the editor across the state, and in the floods of email and phone messages to their elected officials. Of course, the law now impacts the lives of women in Missouri who must factor in the 72-hour mandate to their travel to St. Louis, where the only abortion clinic in the state is located.
However, it has also motivated the Planned Parenthood Generation of activists, who remain vocal in our communities and have been instrumental in the recent months and years as we continue to fight abortion legislation and attacks on our health centers at the local, state, and national levels.
Although my efforts to stop the 72-hour legislation were not successful, tracking a bill from January to September helped me reframe the legislative process as a program with multiple stages and varying approaches, much like the implementation of so many other social work programs in communities and organizations. My exposure to policy was very hands-on and intense, but I thrived under the pressure and felt empowered by understanding the complexity the process. I began my MSW program to become a non-profit director, but I am graduating into a world of advocacy, lobbying, and policy analysis, and I have this experience to thank.