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The Mainstream Abortion Rights Movement Needs a Complete Rethinking of Strategy

Abortion rights in the United States are in greater danger than any time since Roe v. Wade — and the abortion rights movement’s national leadership has proven incapable of mounting the kind of strategy needed to protect it. That needs to change.

Roe v. Wade is on life support and it’s unclear if the abortion rights movement’s establishment is prepared for what’s to come. (Gayatri Malhotra / Unsplash)

In 2013, with the politics of abortion changing rapidly and for the worse, the most recognizable voice for abortion rights in the country chose to change the conversation about abortion. While extremists won seats in state legislatures and Congress, brought the federal government to the brink of shutdown over Title X funding, passed a record number of abortion restrictions, and chipped away at the meager victories of the Affordable Care Act — coverage for contraceptives and coverage for some abortions — Planned Parenthood was launching the “Not In Her Shoes” campaign.

In an animated video shared with staff, supporters, and social media followers, Planned Parenthood Federation of America suggested that most Americans simply don’t like being labeled. Conversations about abortion had become too divisive. “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” fail to capture accurately how people truly feel about abortion. It was time to move beyond labels. It was time to change the conversation.

In an imaginary moment when abortion rights were not threatened, a linguistic shift to infuse nuance and compassion into a politically and emotionally fraught subject, might be welcomed, even wise. But, this came at a time when Planned Parenthood was caught up in a firestorm of reactionary legislation — much of it targeting the provider directly. The gradual erosion of abortion rights in the United States had intensified to an all-out landslide.

The time for nuanced conversation had long since passed.

Today, Roe v. Wade is on life support, and it’s unclear if the abortion rights movement’s establishment is prepared for what’s to come, or if they are capable of seizing this moment and using it to their political advantage. The last decade of anti-abortion legislation should be setting off alarms for national organizations. The statehouses are on fire. The Supreme Court, stacked with ideologues bent on curbing abortion rights and fulfilling an unspoken promise to end Roe, can no longer be relied on to douse the flames.

But the abortion rights movement’s national leadership seems intent on ignoring the lessons of the last decade and incapable of mounting the kind of all-out offensive strategy needed to protect abortion rights in the United States.

An Abortion Story Fit for the Opinion Pages

In the intervening decades since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, the limits and weaknesses of Roe v. Wade have been made increasingly apparent. Roe emerged from a landscape of nascent neoliberalism, of the slow and steady slackening of the social safety net and creeping privatization. Fundamentally, Roe is about protecting a patient’s right to privacy — it is not about a right held in common.

But abortion is a common experience shared by millions of people each year, some in doctors’ offices and some in the care of doulas and some on their own at home. Abortion cuts across class, race, gender identity, religious affiliation, economic status, educational attainment, and any other imaginable marker of identity. But that’s not evident in the stories elevated in the messaging campaigns from Planned Parenthood and the NARAL, or those trumpeted by Democratic politicians.

Each new wave of abortion restrictions can be tracked by the opinion pages; the op-ed abortion story has become ubiquitous in the news and on social media. The framing of these stories generally emphasizes the moral worthiness of the person who had the abortion, or the careers and successes realized because abortion allowed a woman to choose a different future for herself. There was much emphasis placed on exactly who is having abortions — most are already mothers! Most want to start a family when the time is right — positioning their moral worthiness, reassuring legislators of their desire to nurture, to be productive, to realize their potential as an individual.

This messaging tactic borrows directly from conservative’s “personal responsibility” playbook. It creates two categories of people who have abortions: those whose abortions are acceptable, and those whose abortions are not.

Protesters take part in the Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, DC, October 2, 2021. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, class is often the dividing line that separates the two. Under neoliberalism, we rise or fall, sink or swim by our own individual actions. The message this sends is this: your abortion is shameful and embarrassing — unless you’re a good woman who has followed the script, demonstrated your value to society. Unless you’re contributing. Unless you’re producing.

One powerful story that emerged during the height of the anti-abortion restrictions in the early 2010s came from a woman who was pregnant with twins after in-vitro fertilization. She learned at twenty weeks that one fetus had a severe anomaly that, if he survived, would require he be on oxygen and life support.

Despite this being every bit a much-desired pregnancy, despite her own moral and ethical concerns, she made the decision to terminate her pregnancy. She wanted to wait until the third trimester to give the other twin time to develop, but her doctor reminded her of the law in her state banning abortion after twenty-four weeks. The decision was made for her. This was a good woman who wanted to start a family, who wrestled with moral qualms, who had a very private, personal decision made for her, without her consent.

Stories like this are haunting, heartbreaking, and they humanize the experience of abortion, but they did little to move the needle on policy, and did little to stop a tidal wave of Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws.

The abortion rights movement’s rhetorical turn to a vague and veiled message, full of caveats and asterisks, has come at a cost: by decentralizing abortion in the conversation, abortion as a common experience has lost legitimacy. The othering of abortion, either through a deliberate messaging campaign to de-emphasize it or through the well-intentioned elevation of models for “acceptable” abortions, meant that abortion was for all intents and purposes re-stigmatized.

This is the wrong approach. Abortion rights should be value neutral. One shouldn’t need to prove their worthiness or morality to have full and unfettered access to a right. This strategy has also served to draw a dividing line down the middle of what could be a movement, erasing any hint of solidarity with those who have had abortions that are not worthy of mainstream op-ed pages.

We are Already Post-Roe

A challenge to Roe has been the objective of the Right since 1973. Unable to secure it thus far through landmark cases like Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 and Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016, the architects of the anti-abortion movement worked strategically and patiently, focusing on what wins they could claim while continuing to work toward a favorable Supreme Court composition. The death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach employed in the more than four hundred fifty state-level anti-abortion bills enacted in the last decade served to placate voters while they worked toward their objective of a post-Roe world.

And now, they have the court.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The issue before the court centers on the constitutionality of pre-viability abortion restrictions. The law in question, which was enacted in Mississippi in 2018, erases decades of precedent, banning abortion beyond fifteen weeks. The court’s conservative members all but wrote on the wall their intention to uphold the law.

After the arguments closed, following two hours of barbed questions and stilted hypotheticals, the only question remaining was, “Is this it, then? Is Roe dead?”

In reality, many parts of the country have been living in a post-Roe world for years. In Missouri, a single clinic services the entire state. Mandatory waiting periods, requirements for multiple clinic visits, and a host of unnecessary testing including transvaginal ultrasounds can prolong the process of having an abortion days and even weeks. Clinics have closed when they failed to secure admitting privileges at hospitals, and when the width of their doorways failed to meet arbitrary requirements of TRAP laws.

Many states are now abortion deserts, with the nearest provider hours away. And abortion has always been out of reach for people who lack the financial means to access it.

Roe has been slipping away and the people entrusted to protect it have failed us. Democratic candidates run on protecting Roe, but their defenses have been tepid at best, and are usually accompanied by urgent fundraising appeals. The Biden administration has been conspicuously quiet, intervening only minimally through the Justice Department.

As has been the case for decades, there is no robust legislative framework for resisting Roe’s decline, and no proactive attempts to protect abortion underway that have a chance of being signed into law. There are no efforts to codify abortion rights in law, no talk of altering the structure of the Supreme Court, no mention of simply ignoring the Supreme Court’s decisions on these cases — a plausible and reasonable response.

Democrats are doing what they do best when they are in power: insisting that someone should do something, not realizing they are someone. Their gestures are largely perfunctory and performative and a cynic might believe that’s by design: with Roe’s precariousness center stage, donations pour in. These same politicians count on the endorsements of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and these organizations are all too eager to sign off.

The Fight in the States

Texas’s Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), which deputizes private citizens to enforce a ban on abortions past six weeks, was years in the making. Its passage and the copycat legislation it has inspired in other states should come as no surprise to anyone who has been even casually attuned to the aggressive anti-abortion legislation working its way through state legislatures around the country.

Dobbs, if upheld, will no doubt inspire copycat legislation. The Supreme Court’s reluctance to intervene in the Texas case in September sent a signal to extremist state legislators and elected officials, sparking a round of vows to implement similar and more restrictive legislation in Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and South Dakota, among other states. The fight at the state level is not over.

At the state level, abortion rights proponents have been engaged in the defensive advocacy and legal work associated with combatting a revolving door of restrictive and punitive legislation that began in earnest following the 2010 midterm elections. That work will continue regardless of the decisions on the cases out of Texas and Mississippi.

The question will be whether Roe is there as precedent. It seems increasingly unlikely that it will be. In the coming months and years, the experience and knowledge of those doing the grinding work of statehouse advocacy, boots-on-the-ground organizing, and relationship building will be indispensable.

Yet in June of this year, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced it would be reorienting its relationship to its eleven state affiliates, subverting the ability of NARAL’s state affiliates to set their own legislative and advocacy agendas.

Under the proposed chapter model, NARAL’s state affiliates would become employees of the national organization, which, affiliates fear, will limit their voices and undermine the deep relationships they have cultivated from years of working on the ground in the states that have served as legal laboratories where some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion legislation is tested. By disinvesting from state affiliate work, organizations like NARAL are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Abortion was a proving ground, an easy target and a political hot potato that Democrats were too cowardly to defend and conservatives were able to demonize and thus mobilize voters in earnest.

SB 8’s implications range much farther than abortion and reproductive rights. In state legislatures around the country, dozens of SB 8–inspired bills that deputize civilians to enforce laws regarding gun ownership, union activity, political speech, are floating in the political imaginary of extremist conservatives, waiting to be drafted, introduced, passed, litigated, and upheld.

In Uncharted Territory, Opportunity

SB 8 and Dobbs will loom large until the Supreme Court convenes in June. By now, there should be no confusion about the wider aims of the Right. This goes far beyond Roe. It goes far beyond abortion. This political moment is bleak, almost universally bleak, with so much hanging in the balance, so much risking collapse.

This can be a generative moment, though. We’re in uncharted territory. It is clear that old tactics have failed. Decades of appeals to reason, of compromise, of sacrifice for the sake of civility have failed. The anti-abortion movement has grown increasingly militant, and the pro-choice response has not matched its energy and zeal, or its effectiveness.

It’s not for lack of trying on the part of grassroots organizers and activists, who have been faithfully showing up at statehouses and filling the streets in protest. It is, rather, movement leadership that has been toothless: it has put a stranglehold on the way we talk about abortion, disinvested from local affiliates, and continually allied itself with politicians who check all of the pro-choice boxes to earn endorsement, but are unable to take the kind of bold action needed to protect abortion.

In uncharted territory, we can permit ourselves to expect better of those in power. We can put resources into the hands of the people who have been organizing and working tirelessly for years and let them take the reins.

Roe was decided at a time when the neoliberal obsession with privatization of public services was taking off. Rather than strengthening and widening the social safety net that had emerged from New Deal and post–World War II policy, the safety net was parceled out to be managed not by the state, but by private enterprises, which often had no incentive to serve those who could not pay. This arrangement ensured that, even when Roe stood intact and unchallenged, its boundaries stopped with those who could not pay in the free market of privatized health care.

The 1976 Hyde Amendment further codified the disparity in who could freely exercise the right enshrined in Roe. By preventing the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the pregnant person, Hyde excluded an entire class of people — the poor — from access to abortion care.

Even fully intact, Roe does not do nearly enough to enshrine the right to abortion. The Supreme Court this week stopped just short of announcing the end of Roe. But even if Roe survives, it will be in tatters, and abortion will still be out of reach for many, as it always has been in a country where basic health care is commodified like luxury goods. In this moment, we can imagine and demand better for ourselves.

To win a future where abortion is available on demand, for free, and without apology will require radically different tactics. It will require that the country’s major abortion rights organizations back universal health care, that their political arms break up their love affairs with politicians who have no interest in advancing that agenda — and if they can’t do that, they need to step aside. It will require solidarity with and support of people working on the ground at the state level, people managing abortion funds, people making abortion possible even if it becomes illegal, other movements invested in upending systems that work for few and trample on many.

Ultimately, navigating a post-Roe world will demand a different way of thinking and an expansion of our political imagination. We deserve much better than Roe. Now is the time to seize that future.

An end to Roe v. Wade would be tragic, but its death might make way for a new abortion politics rooted in solidarity and unafraid to speak its own name.