Since the Supreme Court gave people in the United States the legal right to abortion care with Roe v. Wade 42 years ago, residents of historically “safe” states have too frequently taken our access to reproductive health care for granted. As someone who has lived in the blue states of Illinois, Maryland, New York, and now California, I’ve seen the pervasive assumption by those who identify as pro-choice that candidates on the left will prioritize access to abortion care—and that we need to do nothing more than dutifully pull the lever for them each November.
This is simply not the case. It’s time we in blue states engaged en masse to demand bold, proactively pro-choice talking points on the campaign trail and in platforms from our would-be legislators and direct action from current office-holders. We should be aggressive about storytelling to end stigma, changing culture by posting our lived experiences on our social media networks, and normalizing abortion care so others in our networks also expect and demand access. If we do not curb our complacency, we risk the complete curtailing of our rights.
Those of us born around or after 1973 often have little, if any, personal connection to the time of abortion prohibition. We assume that although individual legislatures might propose, and even pass, bills restricting our rights, they’ll never get away with it in the long term. After all, we think, that’s what the court system is for! To protect us from extremist legislators and their fits of fancy! We rely on the courts because the media typically refers to Roe as the presiding law without including the effects of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Gonzales v. Carhart, or other successful measures that have chipped away at our ability to obtain abortion care over the past few decades.
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Week one of the 114th Congress should have gotten everyone’s attention. With the reintroduction of the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” which would ban abortion after 20 weeks in all states, the GOP-led House of Representatives declared its top priority for the session: the contents of Americans’ wombs. The following day, not to be outdone by his pseudoscience-obsessed colleagues Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) picked up the anti-choice baton by proposing four abortion-restricting laws. Vitter’s bills would see Planned Parenthood completely stripped of federal funding (a fight that led to the last government shutdown), outlaw the non-problem of sex-selective abortion, require admitting privileges for all providers, and allow doctors and nurses to refuse abortion care even in life-threatening situations.
These restrictions would endanger abortion access in every state: red, purple, and blue.
Currently, we have a presidential veto to fall back on. With primaries less than a year away and a new administration around the corner, however, that safeguard is not ensured. We can’t wait for that uncertain outcome to urge our elected and would-be legislators to make reproductive health care a priority.
And for those of us in progressives areas, our rallying cry must not simply be, “Please don’t let those restrictions creep across our state’s border!” It’s not just unconscionable for us blue-staters to breathe sighs of relief, confident that our access to safe, legal abortion care will hold as we watch it crumble for our neighbors in red and purple states; blue state access has been slowly and quietly eroded as well. If you’ve been one of those people waiting for restrictions to affect you before engaging, consider this your call to enlist: Your state is not safe, and your rights are not guaranteed.
This year, the Guttmacher Institute deemed more than half the states in the nation to be “hostile” to abortion care. Twenty-four prohibit Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance plans from covering abortion, most with only extreme exceptions such as in cases of rape or incest. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider. None of these anti-choice environments are limited to red states.
In fact, in a recently released report card on reproductive rights and health from the international nonprofit group the Population Institute, only 17 states managed a rating of B- or above, based on a combination of factors that include affordability, implementation of comprehensive sex education, and access to clinics and emergency contraception. We should not look at the report card itself as a comprehensive depiction of the health-care access situation in the United States; after all, those of us living in the four A-rated states—California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington—can and do face significant barriers to abortion care. My newly adopted home of California, with its vast social safety net and recently enacted abortion provider-expanding law, still only offers care in 55 percent of its counties. My ACA plan through Blue Shield of California may have recently updated its policy to remove the words “medically necessary” from the abortion provision, but I’m still going to fork over substantial travel costs in order to use the coverage I pay for if I move to a rural area. This means none of us can afford to thank our lucky stars and call it a day. People are already being left behind in the “A” states—with more in jeopardy if we don’t safeguard against restrictions enacted on a national level.
In fact, the only reason we aren’t worse off nationally is the implementation of the ACA’s contraception mandate, which greatly improved prevention across the country. When it comes to the Population Institute’s report card, the ACA should have led to drastically higher marks, but thanks to the 231 laws enacted at the state level over the past four years, we’re barely clinging to our C grade overall. And we’re in serious jeopardy of backsliding.
So those of us in blue states with friendly representatives and the rare, but not yet extinct, pro-choice champion must make a habit of letting our legislators know we oppose coverage bans like the Hyde Amendment. When Congress debates a federal budget, Hyde will be reintroduced—as it is every year—in order to prevent Medicaid funds from being used to provide low-income Americans with safe, necessary abortion care. Furthermore, we must also press them to stand against TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws that would make it even more difficult for patients to realistically access care. Legislators from conservative districts will seek to continue the tradition of punishing the poor, so we need to embolden our blue state reps by writing, tweeting, and signing petitions asking them to speak for us as well as for those whose representatives work against their interests.
Roe should have been more than a court decision; it should have cemented the right to safe, legal abortion care for all. That is not the case. As of 2012, just 15 percent of Americans said they required a candidate to agree with them on choice—but far more than that will be directly affected by the decisions their candidates make on their behalf. The time to ramp up our stigma-fighting, legislator-lobbying, and capitol-protesting is right now. Legislators in the state houses and in Washington need to hear loud and clear that bodily autonomy isn’t something we take for granted and that we expect them, no matter the ZIP code of their constituency, to affirm our right to decide what happens in our doctors’ offices.
Become part of the storytelling movement—something anyone can do in any state. Speak out against red-state-shaming and lift up the activists fighting uphill battles in their extremist state legislatures. And find out the state of access in your ZIP codes: Are there clinics? If so, do they need support, volunteers, or advocates? What’s the policy on sex ed in your school district? The full slate of positive reproductive health-care policies gets a massive lift when complacently pro-choice blue state residents get off the sidelines.
Take this week’s recognition of Roe and run with it. Use the anniversary as an excuse not just to demand proactive policies from your legislators, but also to discuss abortion and the reality of access in your networks. Then keep at it as though your bodily autonomy depends on it. Because, no matter where you live, it does.