Episode 26: Comedian Lizz Winstead on What's Missing From the Pro-Choice Movement

June 9th 2017

Sarah Gray

Comedian Lizz Winstead just wants people to give "a shit" about abortion rights and the medical professionals who ensure access to reproductive care. Often associated with the now-iconic daily comedy news show, "The Daily Show," which she co-created, Winstead has had a successful career on television and radio. She's also an author and stand-up comedian.

But Winstead has grown tired of just being "an anger fluffer."

"I would make them laugh, and I would get them riled up," Winstead said in a phone interview with ATTN:. "And then I couldn't say, ‘And here’s what you should do.’ And I really wanted to add that piece to the next thing I did."

At a junction in her career, Winstead decided to combine comedy and activism with the organizations Lady Parts Justice and Lady Parts Justice League. The goal: Make educational videos, raise money via comedy shows, connect like-minded people to ways to get active in their communities, and ultimately give back to local clinics—whether that's by throwing the staff a party, or sprucing up a wall.

Winstead wants to not only bringing awareness to local laws that restrict abortion, but also the clinics that provide health services for women. Her interview with ATTN: (which has been condensed for length and clarity) can be read below or heard on our podcast, "Got Your Attention."

Lizz Winstead

Sarah Gray: I came across a headline from Cosmopolitan from 2015, which now seems just ages ago, and this headline even seems outdated, where it says "Talking About Abortion May Hurt Her Career, But This Comedian Says It’s Worth It." But I wanted to know why [you chose] this topic, and what got you started, and what made you decide to start Lady Parts Justice League?

Lizz Winstead: Right. You just don’t—No one’s begging the person who wants to talk about abortion all the time to be part of their larger showbiz structure. It’s not like I’m trying to mainstream it and put it back into its proper place, which is one of many medical decisions somebody might have to make in their lifetime, right?

We’ve parsed it out, we’ve centered it out. Too many people have made decisions about what abortion is based on non-science. There was just an article that came out that said over half of the states that have created these restrictive anti-abortion laws have done so based on pseudo-science, and that stuff’s really dangerous.

And so for me, I had an abortion at 16, and I ended up at a crisis pregnancy center—which is one of those fake clinics that goes unregulated and lies to people about pregnancy—before I actually found a clinic that would perform an abortion. And so for me, it was back in the days where I wouldn't have to get my parents’ permission. I could go, I was trusted to know that it’s something that I needed for myself. And those days are sort of over.

And when these laws started happening, I decided that I wanted to do some benefits for clinics to raise some money. And you know, I’m constantly—my standup comedy is just all political and social issues. And so I was writing a lot about it, and so when I would go do fundraisers, I would go visit a clinic after each show. And apparently no one ever does that, because the staff at the clinics were like, they were so appreciative to the point that I just felt really sad inside, because they were like, "Thank you so much for coming. No one ever comes here. Like, people don’t come here to visit or say anything nice or anything." And I thought that is a place where I can fill a gap in the movement.

But then it was also like, I do comedy. I make videos. I expose hypocrisy. Maybe I can figure out a way to take all that and have that be the next thing in my career.

You know, people are doing really good work and I didn’t want to step on anybody else’s work. But then it was also like, I do comedy. I make videos. I expose hypocrisy. Maybe I can figure out a way to take all that and have that be the next thing in my career. So I went back to New York and I had a meeting with a whole bunch of comics and editors and writers and graphic designers that I knew and said, "Something needs to be done. A) People don’t have a clue how bad this assault is, because when it’s happening on a local level, the national press doesn't report on it. And B) If it’s happening to women, people don’t report it." So it’s double not being reported. And when people do hear about something that happens in Texas or Ohio, they think if they’re not living in those states it’s not happening to them, when in turn it’s happening in those states to see how well it goes, so that other states can adopt it.

And so what the activist said to me was, "Can you somehow help us grow our work? Like help us get more people." Because they have really good ideas. I don’t need to go in there and tell them what to do. I need to go in there and help them just get more people to help them do what they do.

There was a clinic that had profound assaults on every procedure day by antis. And they had a fence, but there was like a spot where somebody could stand and yell and scream right into a facility, right smack dab into the window. So they were so busy not noticing that if we planted a big huge holly bush there, it would force that person to have to go yell behind the fence, and that would muffle their yelling. So we went to Home Depot and we got a holly bush, which is indigenous to North Carolina and it’s also prickly, and we blocked their view and we blocked that person from standing there.

And so, another clinic needed medical records that were old—or, not just even old medical records, but it was just shit that had been piling up from ten years—to be shredded. So we got a shredding company to come and shred up their stuff so they could free up their room and then safely dispose of records that nobody needed anymore. So we communicate with these clinics and we do that. And so it’s been great—or we’ll throw a party in a parking lot after-hours for the staff. And so what the clinics have said to us was that it gives them a break. Some of the clinics have said, "Oh, now we get together once a month, because like that moment, it took somebody to throw us a party, put us together so we could communicate just with downtime." They don’t have any time to even like, self-care. So, we try to look out for the clinics, right?

And so it got too expensive, because we have a tiny bit of funding, for us to go on these like one-off trips. So what we decided to do this summer is go on a massive tour, where we stay out for two months and visit 16 places. And what we’re gonna do in each space is we’ll do a comedy show, which immediately brings people together, right? And then we have a talk-back with either a clinic owner or a physician at the clinic and somebody who runs their escort program or maybe their abortion fund. And I talk to them, and they tell the audience what their needs are. And then the audience signs up to be an advocate for the clinic, to help grow their clinic escort program, and to help go to lobby in their state legislatures so that they’re building a base. And then we will go to the clinic ourselves, and then we vet those people to make sure that they’re safe and they’re fine and they are good.

the pill

SG: I feel like a lot of these places are places where there’ve been a lot of restrictive laws passed.

LW: Yep, a lot of restrictive laws passed and you know, and the thing is is that there are people fighting the good fight in every one of these towns, and quite frankly I get sick of hearing people who are like, ‘Well why do they vote like that?’ ‘Why don’t they just move?’ ‘Why are they whatever?’ And there’s a million reasons why people have shitty politicians, and those reasons don’t matter to me. Because I know that the people who are really fighting hard are fighting really hard, and they should be recognized.

SG: I was listening to the New York Times podcast, "The Daily," and this morning’s podcast piece was about how there’s completely two separate sets of facts for the right-wing media and sort of the mainstream media, and then obviously the left side of media. And I couldn’t even believe what was even being said. These two separate facts was just very jarring. And that’s sort of how it’s been in reproductive rights world for a very long time. There’s no scientific basis for a lot of these laws that are being passed. How do we bridge this, when it feels like it’s getting even further apart?

LW: Well, the first thing I would do is challenge The New York Times, because in the past two months they have given free range Op-Ed to people from The Human Coalition, who literally when you go to their website it says, "We need to stop the Holocaust of abortion." They’re the worst and most dangerous activist group that runs crisis pregnancy centers that you’re never heard of. They’ve given two people their free range non-fact-based Op-Eds, one about abortion is not an economic issue, and another one about how Democrats need to stop talking about abortion because it’s not an issue. So A) It’s hilarious to me that on The New York Times’ podcast that they are talking about the two sets of facts when they literally let one of those sets of pseudoscience’s not-facts-at-all—and that’s actually super dangerous—go unchecked in an Op-Ed. You can have differing opinions, but to indulge Op-Eds with people who are denying reality and promoting things that aren’t true, it’s just bullshit. So New York Times, I’m calling you on your bullshit. 

And B) I think that we need to—part of it is that we have not talked about abortion enough. And so when people say to me, "You know, clinics do other things but abortion," I’m like, "I know they do." But I don’t care if they do 100 percent ... abortions. If the statistic is that one in three women will need one in her reproductive lifetime, it’s important that we don’t shame people. And the fact that you ask me to not talk about abortion? I hear from doctors and women who have had them, and myself including, who feel embarrassed, and they feel ashamed. And when physicians are feeling shamed from community because they specialize in abortion care, that’s problematic. And it’s not just even the right, it’s even people who purport to be pro-choice people, who will say, "Well, no one’s for abortion." Really? You know what? People who need abortions are for abortion. I am for abortion, because people need to have them. And so that kind of framing—

SG: I’ve always hated that phrase "safe and rare."

LW: Me too. No, it’s terrible. And I always say that the framing should be "Safe, legal, and mine." You know? That’s just it. Or "Safe, legal, and necessary." Because since the history of forever, people have been having sex, and unintended pregnancies have happened. And if you can say out of your mouth, "Mommy? That’s the hardest job in the world." And then I would say to you, "Then why would you force someone who has acknowledged that it is not something that they want to do to do it?" Like, that’s insane. You wouldn’t force somebody to be a brain surgeon who thinks, "You know what? I don’t think I'm cut out for this." My God, it’s like what? And so much has to do with not trusting when women say, "I already have a kid. I can’t afford to have another one. I’m not cut out for this. Motherhood is not in my wheelhouse of things I want to do." Like, to force birth and to force family and to force parenting onto someone is anathema to everything, but especially Christianity, if that’s your wheelhouse. And if you look more and more at these places and people who are cutting off services to access birth control and abortion, and as we’re funding these crisis pregnancy centers who don’t provide help at all, in fact what they’re doing—and this is where the cycle of insanity comes, to me is what they’ll do to help women to not terminate pregnancies is drive them to social programs by the government that are going to be cut.


SG: Wow.

LW: And so it’s like, don’t say you’re helping women by getting them signed up for WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and things that are gonna be profoundly cut in this new world order that we are experiencing. You aren’t helping anyone.

It’s like, okay: Well, they’re trying to take responsibility by saying, "I can’t have another child. I would like to have an abortion." And you’re saying "No." And then you’re funding the crisis pregnancy centers that are driving that woman to government-funded care that you say not everybody should have, and that care’s going to get cut, and then where is that person and her family and her children? You know? I get a little riled up.

But I just really care, seriously, that we start trusting women and start trusting people when they say what their needs are, you know? And learning about people, whether you’re screaming about you don’t understand trans people, well get to know some. If you don’t know trans people, why are you talking about them? Why are you legislating their needs? Why don’t you just understand the profundity of what it’s like for a poor trans person who needs HRT [hormone replacement therapy], and a lot of these clinics that we’re going and supporting are introducing really interesting programs for trans people that are vital to their lives. And all of it seems like people just talk about other human beings as though they’re statistics or they’re—I dunno. It breaks my heart. So if I can do the work, try to elevate their conversation or have people ask different questions, maybe I can be helpful? I don’t know.

I just feel like I don’t care how someone got pregnant. I desperately care if they’ve assessed their lives and can’t have a baby.

SG: And that’s why I think I like the idea of bringing comedy into it. A movie that I go back to all the time is "Obvious Child." Because it was female humor that was about this subject without making it dramatic, but just making it seem very real.

LW: Because the whole abortion experience is vast, right? One of these Op-Eds in The New York Times that I was railing against from this woman who is the communications person from The Human Coalition. She actually recounted that she was gonna go have an abortion, and then she had second thoughts, so she went back to—and decided to have the kid, and her parents hired a tutor for her, and she dropped out of high school and got a tutor, and then her sister took her kid while she worked her way through college. And it was just this privileged story about a person that—90 percent of the world [does] not have this support system in place.

And so that’s one person’s experience of like going ahead and not having an abortion. It’s like so, whether your abortion is something that you’re like, "I can’t. I’m just done. I don’t wanna be pregnant. I’m gonna go have my abortion. I gotta move on with my life." To you finding out in the third trimester that you have a fetal anomaly and you have to terminate a wanted pregnancy. And it’s tragic, right? So to not understand that it’s not a big drama for everyone, but at the same time it’s like I don’t wanna have a root canal either. I’d like to floss and do shit that’s like preventing me from having to go in and having something that’s like an inconvenience on a lot of levels. But there’s no shame in having it if I had to have a root canal because I didn't floss.

Sometimes you forget to take a birth control pill and I'm also not gonna shame you if you got pregnant because of it. I just feel like I don’t care how someone got pregnant. I desperately care if they’ve assessed their lives and can’t have a baby. I wanna help them and be able to make that decision feel right for them and normal for them. And so I think a lot of people who have been so put into that space that abortion’s wrong and that abortion’s this and that and who have them, are desperately begging for forgiveness. I mean, I have had clinicians tell me stories of people who have had abortions who have been picketers. They know their face. That person’s been pregnant, that person had an abortion secretly, and then that person was back out on the front line picketing the clinic.

SG: Wow.

LW: I’ve had abortion doctors tell me that they’ve had patients say, "I hate you for doing this to me." As they’ve come in for their abortions.

Just because you might have some feelings about your abortion doesn't necessarily mean it was the wrong choice for you to make. And that’s a hard conversation to have.

SG: But they were able to have that choice and make that choice.

LW: And so when the doctor says, "Would you me to not perform this abortion?" They’re like, "No, of course I want this abortion." And it’s like, so, you’re mad at yourself for the choice you made. And those are things that are not society’s problem, right? Your abortion regret is not society’s problem. And your not wanting to have one but having one, like none of that is my problem. Just like your bad facelift is not my problem. Just like why did you wear those fucking jeans ... none of that’s my problem, right? That would be like literally saying "We should have arranged marriage, because I might regret the person I chose to get married to." So what if you regretted the arranged marriage? "Well it wasn’t, at least I didn’t pick it so I can’t hold myself accountable." We make choices and we make bad choices all the time in our lives.

Just because you might have some feelings about your abortion doesn't necessarily mean it was the wrong choice for you to make. And that’s a hard conversation to have. And I think that when you talk to them a week after their abortion, a month after their abortion, six months, a year, five years, those feelings change. Because their lives have changed in ways. And so I feel like if people were allowed to take a breath and not have outside influences help them shape their feelings, I think you would hear very different stories. Because you talk to any clinician and they’ll tell you that the number one thing a patient will say is that they feel relief. And I know that was my experience, and so many people that I've talked to.

People don’t even know how pregnancy works. They don’t even know that conception’s not a medical term, you know? Conception’s not a medical term. And even as people who are pro-choice and abortion rights advocates, conflating—I don’t think you should always say, "It’s a clump of cells." Because sometimes it’s not. There’s embryos and there’s fetuses, and you need to talk about when that is and what that is and what that looks like.

I was at a conference where we got to look at the products of conception at different gestational periods, and it was really helpful to see what seven weeks look like, what 12 weeks look like, what 20 weeks looks like, and to have somebody explain to you that so much of what you’re looking at—in fact, about 90 percent—is the tissue from the uterine wall, you know when you have an aspirational abortion. I was like, "Where is the actual embryo or fetus?" And it had to be pointed out and circled, because you can’t even see it. And so I think it’s important to really try to talk medically about things, so that you know, that lie isn’t going to go away. People will pull out pictures and models of fetuses that are not the age of the gestational period of the abortion you’re having, and they scare people. It’s just wild.

SG: Now that we’re five months into the Trump presidency [at the time of the interview], he has signed a bill that would allow states to not provide funding to Planned Parenthood. What do you think the biggest threat to reproductive rights and abortion rights is?

LW: Well, first of all I would say the bill that he signed was not just about Planned Parenthood. That was about anybody who wanted to fund any place that provided abortions. So that includes independent clinics also. So I just wanna make sure when we’re talking about abortion access, don’t just talk about Planned Parenthood. I love them, but the independent clinics provide 70 percent of abortion care in our country, and we need to educate people about them as well.

It’s just really important to me, because there’s seven states in the country that have one clinic, and six of those states are indies. So people need to know that in six states in America, an independent community clinic is providing all the abortions for people in the states. That’s astounding.

So we have two organizations. We have Lady Parts Justice League, and then we have Lady Parts Justice, which is our 501(c)(4) political base, so we really talk about the politics of abortion there. And when you go to that site, we have an interactive map, and then you click on the state, and we update all of the local laws that are coming down the pike in your state, and we have a funny video about something that’s happening. So we’re really, really invested in the local part of it, because it’s exactly like you said. Somebody goes on the city council—and also people forget that Americans United for Life is this giant organization that no one’s ever heard of that writes mono legislation, and then hands it to these politicians, helps get them elected, and they’re the ones that push this stuff through.

It was interesting, like when we just had this kerfuffle with the mayoral race in Omaha about Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders in varying ways announcing that we could use abortion as a place to compromise, that’s a real problematic place to be for people who are supposed to be progressive, you know? To still refer to women as a wedge issue, to not understand abortion as an economic issue. You can’t be sort of pregnant. That means you can’t have sort of options. That’s just ridiculous. And so we’re fighting on both fronts. We’re fighting the pseudo-science, [and] we’re fighting and begging people to prioritize the issue as a human rights issue.



The local stuff is real, because the local stuff is what ends up in federal courts which ends up in the Supreme Court and then you’ve got to figure out which of these cases they’re gonna actually hear. So how many of these laws falls to the wayside, how many will they hear that will be helpful? And then how do we get an apathetic electorate to re-center this issue and hear why it’s important?

And I think that of all the things that LPJ can do, I think that we can help with that awareness raising piece and through our passion and our work and our stories and the providers, and then asking people to just do a little bit of self-examination about: How did a clinic help you at some point in your life? Because if they helped you and they allowed you to not have to think about that clinic anymore, we need to live in a world where nobody—everybody has the option to just have the clinic happily exist. You use it, and everybody gets to use it, and it’s open, and you know that. Until that point, you have to do a reset on thinking about that clinic and making sure that if it’s happening, realizing that. If something’s happening to people who are of low income and people of color, it’s also happening to you. And you can’t walk away from something that was there for you and forget that it needs to be there for somebody, the next person who’s gonna come up. Because that person, they have their own dreams, they have their own destiny, and they have their own hopes. And they deserve to have all the obstacles that we can help take out of their past taken out. You know, like Dr. Willie Parker says, "You could come to my clinic with 58 problems and I can solve one of them for you. And I'm able to do that."

And you know, so one of the things that everybody can do is try to fight for these clinics to stay open, so that an unintended pregnancy—or a pregnancy that’s wanted—and we can work towards having that person have happy health care and try to get them to like have a birth that's positive. A lot of these clinics have birthing centers now. They’re starting to open birthing centers because hospitals are taking having a baby out of the hands of the person having the baby, and putting it in control of the doctor. How it’s done, when it’s done. And so being able to promote a pregnant person-centered birth, right? And then providing the healthcare and the services for somebody who’s poor to help raise a healthy family. They might need a leg up, you know?

[W]hen did we become a society that is now looking at poverty as a profound character flaw?

I think the third thing that we’re not talking about is, when did we become a society that is now looking at poverty as a profound character flaw? Because when you literally see these like Prosperity Christians talking about like, "That’s just the way it is," and "It’s not my job to help people," and "Figure it out yourself," and "bootstraps," and all this other stuff. Like, they closed down the boot factory in the town, and then people don’t have money to buy boots. So shut the fuck up about your bootstraps. Because like, there is so much that is just a simplification of crap that I can’t even believe it. I mean, it’s just the biggest social responsibility of anybody who calls themselves a person of God should be, you know, let’s care of the least of us first. We’re judged by how we take care of those who have the least. And if you’re just gonna start like taking that out of your doctrine of humanity, then we’re all screwed. So we need to call them out on their hypocrisy for sure.

SG: I wanted to ask you if you had any final words or anything that you think we didn’t cover that you have a burning desire to talk about and you’re like, "Sarah, why didn’t you ask me that?"

LW: No, I really feel like we talked about a lot of stuff, and I hope that people will go to vagicalmysterytour.com and look at our website, see our tour dates, come and really just start thinking about this issue in a whole new way, and you know, I just think I’m excited for the summer and I’m excited to roll out, as it were, on The Vagical Mystery Tour.

SG: It’s a great name.

LW: Well, it’s the 50th anniversary of The Magical Mystery Tour of The Beatles, which is why we picked it.

SG: Oh wow, that’s really smart right there. That’s good.

LW: Yeah, so sadly we have a van, we don’t have a big tour bus. But you know, we’ll do it. We feel good about it.

And thank you for giving a shit and caring and writing about this issue. Because you know, it’s just really hard and people don’t. And it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. And so instead I tell jokes.

SG: Seems like it would bring more joy and be a little happier that way, and less painful for the head.

LW: I think so, yeah. Concussions are not that fun. They prohibit a lot of work.

SG: I learned so much about not leaving the clinics behind.

LW: That’s the whole thing. That’s the luxury of it. And the problem is it should be that way for everyone. And so and that’s why like abortion story storytelling is so important for me, it’s crucial. Because those of us who can tell our stories should just so for people who can’t, they know they’re not alone. And so that there’s a lot of stories out there that vary from tone and feeling and all of it, you know? And it’s like you just gotta talk about abortion, so I just gotta be that person.