“Do you know what it’s like to travel with the Pope? Can we talk about that?” Erin Matson said.
Matson was carrying around a life-sized cardboard cutout of Pope Francis that she had lugged with her from Arlington, Virginia to Phoenix, Arizona, where thousands of progressive activists and operatives were gathered at the Netroots Nation political conference to network and share strategies.
His Holiness was helping Matson and her co-conspirator Pamela Merritt introduce their new nonprofit, Reproaction, which aims to be the new “left flank” on reproductive rights and hold pro-choice politicians and advocates accountable to their views.
Matson and Merritt wandered the halls of the Phoenix Convention Center over the weekend, encouraging Netroots attendees to pose for a picture with “Pope Francis.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Responding to the prompt “#HeyPopeFrancis,” people posed with signs displaying messages they’d written like “Women don’t need forgiveness for what they do with their own bodies.” Or, referring to the Pope’s comments on transgender people, “Stop calling me a worse threat to humanity than nuclear weapons.”
Or simply, “Thank you, but please go farther.”
“Pope Francis is this revolutionary figure, right?” said Matson, a former Rewire colleague. “On the environment, on poverty, he’s amazing. But there are also a number of areas where he is not taking a social justice stance at all.” One of his most prominent blind spots is women’s rights, Matson said, but it doesn’t have to be that way—doctrine comes from people, after all, rather than being intrinsic or inflexible, and the Vatican almost embraced birth control once.
The Pope is just one of many figures Reproaction intends to target using direct action, and most will be closer to home than the Vatican. Some will be pro-choice Democrats whom reproductive rights activists see as too accepting of the status quo, and some may even be the founders’ colleagues in the pro-choice community.
“People should expect us to be raucous, to be audacious, to take our demands for reproductive justice to those who seek to deny it—whether they are classic ‘allies’ or not,” Merritt said.
“Too much of our movement has been co-opted by the Democratic Party,” Matson said. “When the rubber meets the road, what are we getting in return? Is defeating Republicans alone going to get us abortion funding?”
Progressive idol Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) may have brought down the house at Netroots with her rousing speech pushing for a true progressive agenda, but Matson and Merritt weren’t impressed when that agenda included no mention of reproductive rights. They wrote an open letter to Warren signed by other Netroots attendees, this reporter included, which called the senator out for ignoring “a basic economic issue for half the population.”
“We could use a lot more confrontational action,” Matson said. “Change happens when people are willing to be unpopular.”
That was an especially timely sentiment at Netroots, which erupted in controversy Saturday after a group of Black women activists protested a town hall with presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. The activists demanded that the candidates say the names of Black women murdered by police, asked for specific plans to combat systemic racial injustice, and interrupted when the answers rang false.
Some attendees and event organizers were incensed by the action, fearing that no presidential candidate would ever come to Netroots again after that. But other attendees said the event was an important reckoning for white progressives, and an embarrassing failure by the candidates to connect with a marginalized community over an urgent problem.
“This was a case study in why I joined Erin to co-found Reproaction,” Merritt said. “They were doing exactly what activists do. It was almost as if people in the audience were annoyed that they went to a town hall that turned into a real town hall.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has deep personal resonance for Merritt, a Black woman living right next to Ferguson in St. Louis, Missouri. She said it showed her that a defensive crouch is a losing move in activism that just backs oppressed people into a corner.
“We have people who are willing and empowered and capable and excited to fight for their rights,” she said. “And they’re fighting for their lives.”
The same goes for women who need abortions but can’t get them, Merritt said, and the two issues are deeply connected. “As reproductive justice activists, we are fighting for reproductive health care, but also a lot more. … We’re fighting for the right to raise our families, however we define our families, in an environment free of oppression and violence.”
The founding theory of Reproaction is that the pro-choice movement is losing. Not because most Americans oppose reproductive rights, but because pro-choicers have been on defense for decades—apologetic about abortion, deferential to conservative moralizing, and too focused on defeating anti-choice politicians and legislation to actually work on advancing rights.
Meanwhile, anti-choice activists and politicians have chipped away at reproductive rights so severely that some states may actually have worse abortion access today than before Roe v. Wade.
“We are now educating multiple generations of activists that being defensive is all that we are capable of doing, when the fact that we have these rights is because women went on the offense,” Merritt said.
When Merritt traveled to Mississippi to work on the successful campaign to defeat a fetal “personhood” bill, she said it didn’t really feel like a victory—she was proud of the work they did, but frustrated that so much time, energy, and resources had to be spent just to keep the state from going backwards.
“It felt like, gosh, we saved them from pulling down the fence, but the house is still on fire,” Merritt said.
When Matson started organizing interviews and convening sessions with activists to discuss how to not just “protect choice,” but to actually expand reproductive rights and justice, Merritt jumped at the chance to join.
The sessions hit a nerve, and started a spark. “People were jazzed, people were pumped, they were like, let’s do this,” Matson said.
“It got me all fired up,” Merritt said. But she also felt discouraged: “As a Midwest activist, this kind of stuff always happens in D.C., and then we’re the afterthought. I wanted to be a part of this, but I’m in Missouri and I’m not leaving, because this is where the fight is.”
After extensive conversation, Merritt and Matson decided to work together. Having one person in D.C. closer to the establishment and one in the Midwest closer to the “grassroots” seemed like the perfect combination for what they were trying to do.
Merritt and Matson hope to create a “culture of direct action” in the pro-choice movement that will spread beyond what they do with Reproaction, although they acknowledge that this will be easier for some in the pro-choice sphere than others.
“Health-care providers are not situated to do that kind of thing,” Matson said. “Nor are lobby shops, because relationships are your transaction and you need your relationships. That’s the problem—so much of how we got where we are is based on maintaining relationships. And that’s fine, but there’s a component that’s been missing.”
Part of the reason the pro-choice movement is “stalled,” Matson said, is because it has “deep divisions, especially related to race, but also related to geography, who’s inside, who’s outside, too much focus on national when the real problems are in the states.”
The Pope action was just a preview of what’s to come before Reproaction’s official launch on August 19, and the co-founders are tight-lipped about the specifics on future actions or next steps.
But they can say that they won’t be concerned about either popularity or partisanship, and that they will name names—perhaps President Obama for his support of religious exemptions for civil rights laws, or Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for compromising with Republicans on anti-choice language in her signature Medicare bill.
“There is too much time in our movement that is spent celebrating the people we have in elected office and not enough time holding them accountable,” Matson said.
“The most important thing I would love to hear policymakers say on both the state and federal level is that abortion is health care,” Merritt said. “We need to start talking about abortion with the kind of respect that we should hold for health care, instead of apologizing for it and acting as if it’s this godawful horrible thing nobody wants to talk about.”