In 1965, Connecticut was at the forefront of an important battle on women’s privacy and reproductive rights. The US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut paved the way to legalize birth control for unmarried couples — and then for Roe v. Wade, which guarantees safe and legal abortions.
Nearly 5 decades later — as abortion and women’s reproductive rights are under assault in parts of the nation — Connecticut stands on the other side. State legislators follow citizens’ leads in protecting — even strengthening — abortion laws and reproductive health choices.
It’s easy to sit here and tsk-tsk places like Alabama and Georgia, where women’s rights to abortion — and personal choices, and ultimately their health — are under attack.
It’s another thing entirely to live there, and be on the front lines of those battles. Westport native Janet Lefkowitz does, and is.
At Staples High School, she enjoyed a broad range of activities: Players, WWPT-FM, senior class vice president.
Dr. Janet Lefkowitz
After graduating in 1983 — and 4 years later from Sarah Lawrence College — Lefkowitz did children’s theater. She temped.
She did not — immediately — follow the career path of her father, orthopedist Dr. Larry Lefkowitz.
But her family, and Temple Israel, had imbued in her a strong belief in Tikkun Olam: acting as constructively and beneficially as possible, for as many people and as long as possible.
Eventually, Lefkowitz found her way to medical school. During her residency in obstetrics and gynecology in Hartford, she realized that field was perfect for her.
“I was working with generally healthy women. There were emergencies, but I could help them help themselves,” she explains.
Her personality — “formed in Westport,” she says — was perfect for that specialty. “I could talk to people,” Lefkowitz says. “As an OB-GYN, you spend a lot of time building relationships with patients.”
She joined a busy practice in Rhode Island. She counseled women, performed surgeries, and taught at Brown University. Her husband — former Staples classmate Jonathan Leepson — was in banking. When his job took him to Atlanta. Lefkowitz moved too.
Though Atlanta is a young, thriving and cosmopolitan city, it’s still in Georgia. Schools teach abstinence-based sex education. Lefkowitz was stunned.
The wife of a rabbi was past president of the local Planned Parenthood chapter. She encouraged Lefkowitz to get involved.
Realizing that women’s access to reproductive health care was at great risk, she soon became chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Southeast. The organization provides reproductive health care, along with advocacy and education, throughout Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Those states are ground zero in the current national abortion debate.
Officially a part-time job — she was hired to work 21 hours a week — it is actually much more. Yet it’s a “labor of love,” Lefkowitz says.
It’s also very frustrating.
“We’re having constant conversations about things that are should-haves — access to cervical and breast cancer screenings,” she notes. “It’s eye-opening, and scary.”
For a while, she worked behind the scenes. But when Alabama passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws — it would permit abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus cannot survive, but not in cases of rape or incest — and Georgia and Mississippi pursued legislation that would ban abortion as soon as a physician detects a fetal heartbeat, the national Planned Parenthood office asked her to speak out.
The video “sort of outed me,” Lefkowitz. Previously, some neighbors did not talk to her because of her work. Now, many more people knew what she does. And where she stands on perhaps the most controversial topic in the region.
“There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of misconceptions,” Lefkowitz says of the current debate.
She sees the issue as “protecting a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body, for the good of her family and herself. It’s fundamentally a health issue.”
So I wondered: After spending time on the front lines, is she optimistic or pessimistic? Proud? Worried?
“All those things!” Lefkowitz says.
“I’m super-proud to be engaged in this work. Women are being denied their rights. If I can help people understand that abortion is safe — and that it’s not a choice made lightly — that’s good.
“I’m angry that politicians don’t see women as responsible decision-makers. They feel they need to make choices for us.”
Alabama is ground zero in the national abortion debate.
They’re also forcing doctors like her, she says, “to choose between providing ethical care, and breaking the law.” If the new wave of legislation is upheld, she believes most doctors would follow the law — or leave the area. That would worsen the already poor state of health care for women.
Yet Lefkowitz is also hopeful the laws will be stopped in court. She’s heartened that what’s happening in the South has spurred activism around the country. States like Connecticut, New York and Vermont are trying to widen — rather than restrict — women’s reproductive rights.
And she is heartened that people are now talking about the issue.
Personally, Lefkowitz says, one good thing has come out of her recent activism.
“This has helped me become a more compassionate physician. Women are being forced to make heartbreaking decisions. But I’m glad to be with them, taking care of them during a very important part of their lives.”
(Hat tip: Emily Silverman)