We are curious about who you are and what kind of work that you do?
I’m Deb Kopech and I am 64 years old, married for 41 years with three adult children. I’ve had several jobs in my life and a few different career paths – starting after college with a pretty traditional job as an assistant to an executive in NYC, not based on my academic life, just on my wanting to eat and have a place to sleep life.
I had my children in a whirlwind – 3 in 3-1/2 years and stayed home to care for them for seven years. In those days, day care was not an organized industry the way it is now and the expense of three children in daycare could not be offset by any salary I would be bringing home. Instead, I did all kinds of things to make money including caring for kids, proofreading books edited by relatives, working in retail, whatever would bring in few extra bucks. I finally got a part time evening position collecting on defaulted student loans, again not my dream job but it paid bills, and, ultimately, led to my next career as a management executive. Along this road I always tried to instill in my children the value of social justice, the importance of environmental prudence, the importance of gender and racial equality, the need to be compassionate for those with less than we had and to try always to put a little aside to donate to causes and organizations that supported these issues. We took our kids an hour and a half away from home one sunny weekend to participate in Hands Across America to allow them a chance to lift their voices in support of people in need.
TWP has been working to pass a bill that codifies Roe V Wade into RI state law. We are interested in the ways that Reproductive Freedom impacts your life and the work that you do?
I’ve been retired for 1-1/2 years from my last career, as a Human Resources Director for a RI School District. Roe v. Wade was the first of several issues that really changed women’s lives in my lifetime. In college, after it passed, I remember a conversation with a dorm mate whose mother had had a backstreet abortion because she didn’t feel capable of handling another child. I don’t remember the details of the story but I remember that my friend was sad that her mother had to engage in something illegal and ugly to prevent herself from becoming unglued and stay available to her children. In my youth, mostly in the 1960s, the women I knew were largely tied to their homes and children especially in those homes with many children like mine. There was no choice, no discussion. My mother was never able to pull herself out of the drudgery of constant parenting and scraping funds together to keep our family comfortable. My father worked hard to keep us financially solvent and the struggle took a toll on both of them mentally, emotionally and to some extent physically. But my mother was totally dependent on my father for sustenance for herself and for us and because of that she subjugated her desires and her goals and plans. It was a paltry mental and intellectual existence. She probably would not have had as many children and would likely have had a career if she had had access to birth control beyond condoms and without the judgement of the Catholic Church. But she didn’t.
I vowed early in my adult life that I would not be cowed by convention or constrained by rules created subliminally or purposefully to ensure that women would not have equal rights, access and opportunity; and I believed that the key way to achieving parity was personal control over reproduction. So Roe meant a lot to me. I was 19 when the Supreme Court ruled, in college, in the midst of young adult exploration and in the midst of watching long held beliefs begin to blow away. We had classes in Women’s Studies – unheard of only 4 or 5 years before and Our Bodies Ourselves was first published around this time. We were ending an awful war, dismissing a nasty president and as women, finally finding a voice. It was exhilarating.
I also think that having those rights is not only advantageous to women but to men as well. Women freed from constraints are women contributing on every level of society and when that happens, men are also freed from the excruciating burden of breadwinning. Without that pressure, men can learn of the extraordinary wonder of bonding with children on a deep level and they can also grow more aware of the stultifying nature of constant home care without relief. Sharing both the burden and the wonder of a full household is the real blessing.
Finally, the health of women, understanding the biology of our bodies, the calculus of our childbearing years, being able to PLAN for our lifetimes was a new, unique and freeing idea. For the women of my generation this was a drastic and important win, to some extent assuaging the disappointment of the lack of state votes for the ERA, although not completely. For the next generation, for my daughter and my sons, that fresh wind was just a matter of fact. Their mom became an equal breadwinner to their dad, and he made dinner most nights. Their mom and dad coached athletic teams. The children all played sports but my daughter was the one who continued onto varsity teams in high school and felt no issue about vying to be among the top students in her class. So the disappointment of this past year has been palpable for all of us. We have all marched, and rallied and called and written government officials.
Oddly, that gives me some hope. To know that there are young people who won’t back down, allows those of us who thought this garbage was over to keep on fighting.
What about the lives of the people who you affect with your work?
As I said, I am retired. But in my various jobs, I have often had the opportunity to support the efforts of women and provide them with medical information about birth control and pregnancy. I have not known a great many women who have had abortions (as far as I know) but starting with my own children, I have over time provided a great deal of information about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and I hope helped others to make informed, intelligent and personally valuable decisions concerning both their health and their rights.
The lives of the women in your personal life?
For most of the people in my personal life, I would be preaching to the choir with one exception. And this exception makes me crazy. I have an elderly aunt, strict Catholic who will not be swayed on the value of Planned Parenthood. She has been inculcated by the church with deceitful statements about Planned Parenthood. I have tried to get her to understand what the organization does, but her response is always that they “kill babies.” I have explained to her what the technical definition of an abortion is and tried to reason with her about the importance of gender parity, an issue which she thinks she is in agreement with me about. She is not a fan of Donald Trump, she finds him crude and disgusting. She has no problem forgiving people for violating the requirements of the church – her only child, a son, has three daughters by three different women, two of her three grandchildren were pregnant out of wedlock, one has three children, and is not married – all violations of Catholic teaching and she forgives and supports them in many ways. She has been an activist for the poor most of her life working with the Wiley Center to help people get heating oil in the winter. But she has also picketed abortion clinics, turning her back on the teachings of her Church regarding charity and casting stones. So this has been a huge failure for me. It has become “the subject about which we do not speak” and that saddens me.
When you think about your community (or communities) what is something you would like them to know about Reproductive Freedom in RI? Why?
The concept of reproductive freedom for me is larger than the issue of abortion. Growing up in a world with gender inequality, I have come to the determination that this issue is the last great battle to deny women what men have. Men have reproductive freedom in a way that women cannot have. Lately, when I discuss the state legislation with someone, my position is that reproductive freedom is about believing that women are smart enough, emotionally stable enough and compassionate enough to be left alone to make their own decisions. If people don’t believe that, then they don’t believe in gender equality and I find that more dispiriting than anything else.
What are the best ways in your opinion to educate people about this issue?
Because this issue is so polarized, much like immigration, I struggle with this one. I had a discussion at one of the hearings at the statehouse with a man carrying a Pro-Life sign as we watched groups with opposite opinions in the corridor below the stairway landing on which we were standing. The discussion lasted a long time and was civil. But as happens so often in these discussions, he was in agreement with me about many things – birth control, the difference between reproductive freedom for men and women, the medical reasons for abortions but he would not be swayed.
What might be interesting would be to create a multi-denominational group of religious leaders including Catholics, to begin a dialogue about this issue and see where that leads.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I guess in summary, I view women’s reproductive rights and this proposed legislation from the perspective that our leaders and legislators must recognize that women are intelligent, thoughtful people who carefully examine the reasons and backdrop for all of the decisions we make in our lives. We are often, after all, the primary decision makers about other lives – our children, our elderly parents and our spouses, and rarely are those decisions questioned. So for me, the issue of having full control of decisions regarding our reproductive freedom, is exactly the same as having the full control we now have of decisions about the well-being of all of the other people in our lives, who we love, cherish and care for. And no one should have the ability to prevent that. Frankly, it disturbs me that we even have to create this protection of that right. I am troubled that our government does not see how contradictory, how insulting, how uncivil, how immoral and in accordance with our constitution, how illegal it is to intrude on lives of women with regard to the issue of reproduction, yet remain silent on that same issue with regard to men.
I am also tired of what I see as the notion that reproductive freedom is considered to be a synonym for abortion. It is not. Reproductive freedom afford men and women the opportunity to plan parenthood, which allows them to also fulfill dreams and contribute to society. Reproductive freedom gives women parity in terms of birth control, care during illness and other medical conditions and even eliminating taxation of feminine hygiene products.