‘The Daily Show’ Co-Creator Lizz Winstead Talks Reproductive Rights [Interview]

Photo: (Mindy Tucker)

Photo: Lizz Winstead, left, with Sarah Silverman. (Mindy Tucker)

Lizz Winstead is a comedian, author, producer and co-creator of “The Daily Show.” If that’s not impressive enough, she’s also a major activist for women’s rights.

And after all the recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights, Lizz is working harder than ever. Recently she co-hosted the online telethon Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Choose with comedian Sarah Silverman, which combined comedy with real facts. Despite the cultural shame and stigma that can surround birth control and abortion, here’s the reality: 99% of American women have used birth control, and according to Lizz,  one third will get an abortion. Late-term abortions are rare, and when they’re done, they’re done only in extreme cases, like if the pregnant woman will die without an abortion, or if there’s something so wrong with the fetus it’s not going to make it as a baby.

To talk more about the recent attacks on women’s rights, the realities of abortion as opposed to the myths, and how you can get involved in this cause (don’t forget to check out the Center for Reproductive Rights at the bottom!), Lizz gave MTV Act the lowdown.


Photo: Lizz performing at a fundraiser for reproductive rights. (Mindy Tucker)

ACT: For those who might not know, can you explain in a few sentences what’s going on with women and reproductive rights in America?

LIZZ: 49 out of 50 states have proposed or passed legislation that removes access to birth control, abortion care or both. Most of these things are happening at the local level. It’s pretty sneaky, because of all the political things going on, sometimes we’re not as good at paying attention to our local state representatives, city councils and school boards. Now the Right isn’t just targeting statewide bans, they are testing the waters on legislating abortion on a city level. Recently conservatives in Albuquerque were trying to ban abortions after 20 weeks, and they put it to vote on an off-election time, but people were paying attention and it was defeated.

ACT: Why do you think there has recently been such a seemingly unprecedented campaign against abortion across the nation?

LIZZ: I think the reason it’s happening is because when women have a seat at the table and are powerful, they start making changes to dismantle the structure that’s been set in place by rich white guys all these years. The first thing you do to control women is affect their economic choices, and one of the biggest choices a woman can make economically is if and when she has kids. If women exercise their sexual freedom and get pregnant, if they’re forced into a pregnancy they can’t afford or they can’t see is good for them, that takes them farther away from having a seat at that table.

ACT: Your book from last year, “Lizz Free or Die,” has some very personal stories about your own experience with teen pregnancy and abortion, but you wrote in your Huffington Post column that you won’t “fall on a societal shame sword” because of it. Where do you think this shame about sexuality and abortion comes from for so many women, and what do you think we can do to combat the stigma and its effect on the discourse around women’s rights?

LIZZ: I think the shame goes back to some people really being invested in women living in an environment that men control. When women start saying they’re free and sexual beings, that changes the paradigm.

But when you talk about shame around abortion, it can also comes from how we talk about abortions. When saying, “I can’t economically have a child” or “I’m not emotionally ready to have a child” isn’t considered enough of a valid reason to keep abortion safe and legal, and you have to add on, only for “Rape and incest,” it tells society that there are “forgivable abortions” and “bad abortions.” Whatever reason a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy or use birth control, it should be a reason we all accept as a society because it’s her decision.

I think we combat the stigma by putting a face and a name to it. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and if women can find a time and place to come forward and say, “I’m one of those women,” that makes change. Some people try to demonize abortion, but eventually it will be their sister, their mother, their daughter and themselves getting an abortion. By putting a face on it, we show that people have abortions and that abortions happen. As long as there has been sexual behavior, there has been abortion. As long as there has been sexual behavior and women have gotten pregnant, men have been involved.

Men often get let off the hook. It’s very bizarre. We demonize women who exert their sexual power: we call them sluts and whores. Just because they want to use birth control or have a sexual life, they have to be demonized. Women don’t get pregnant alone, but she’s the one who’s often targeted as bad. We don’t talk about the role men took in getting a woman pregnant, like if he used a condom. You always hear language like, “You should just keep your legs shut, then,” and not holding the men responsible at all for hooking up.

ACT: What are some stereotypes about abortion and the women who choose abortion that need to go away? Can you clear these stereotypes up for us?

LIZZ: There are a lot of stereotypes that are really damaging and incredibly offensive, especially when it comes to late-term abortion. There are stereotypes that women are waiting around, and they say, “Oh, I’m going to have an abortion” after 28 or 30 weeks. Late-term abortions are done because there’s something horribly wrong with the fetus or because the pregnant woman may die [if she doesn’t get an abortion]. There are all sorts of medical reasons and people don’t take these decisions lightly.

There’s misinformation that if you have an abortion, you’ll suffer from mental illness or you’ll get breast cancer. All these things have been disproved over and over again. Women go to crisis pregnancy centers, which are not regulated and do not provide healthcare, and they’re just a means where people on the extreme Right are counseling women with misinformation to scare them out of making the decision to terminate their pregnancy.


Photo: “Girls” actress Jemima Kirke working the phones at a fundraiser.(Mindy Tucker)

ACT: Are you optimistic about America’s ability to make general progress on these issues, such as the Women’s Health Protection Act being proposed in Congress right now?

LIZZ: I’m really excited about the Women’s Health Protection Act. I think women are finally seeing the relentless assaults on abortion and birth control. The people doing these assaults don’t really care about healthcare. It seems about control. I think people are waking up when they see so many laws. It’s like a game of Whack-a-Mole at this point. Women are saying, “You know what, I had to terminate a pregnancy, and if I don’t step up and start talking about it, then my story is going to forever be defined by someone who does not take the interests of me or the interests of women into account.” This is the only healthcare that’s legislated, and that’s really bizarre. I feel really positive that legislators, women and activists are looking at this and saying, “How are we going to get people engaged?”

That’s what we’re going to try to do at Lady Parts Justice. We’re going to try to create a website that’s informative, engaging and uses humor and outrage to introduce to people in all fifty states to the kind of legislation that’s trying to be passed. Then we’ll be getting together our V to Shining V campaign, a big rally in all fifty state capitals next fall where we throw a party that celebrates women and gets women and men active, gets people to say, “We’re not going to sit back anymore. We’re done sitting on the sidelines. It’s a luxury to not pay attention.”

ACT: You recently hosted a telethon with Sarah Silverman that raised over $50,000 for advocacy groups in Texas. Have you considered professionally focusing more on political activism and less on comedy?

LIZZ: I feel like instead of making it an either/or thing, why not combine it? Comedy is a very effective tool to get people to pay attention. I’ve had more comics, and more actors, and more comedy writers coming to me and saying, “What can we do?” I’m going to harness all that energy and we’re going to use our craft to really raise awareness. If we can inform through humor while being entertaining and fact-based, I think we can inspire people in terms of wanting to help out as well.

Sarah-Silverman Lizz Winstead 2013

Photo: Lizz, right, performing with fellow comedian and activist Sarah Silverman.(Mindy Tucker)

ACT: How else can people get involved in the work for reproductive rights?

LIZZ: The best thing you can do is start off by looking at the laws being proposed where you live. Find out who the people are who are undermining what you think and get together with neighbors and friends who are like-minded. Get people registered to vote and get those people out of office. Bring awareness. I think now is the time where we really start looking at all the ways we can all come together and start hearing how we’ve all been affected and how we can be partners in helping each other.

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