In this exchange, Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, and Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced so far as leaders of abortion access organizations in the context of one of the most hostile cultural and political climates since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The two leaders also highlight the importance of working across movements to build momentum around expanding abortion care. “In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue to work with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country,” said Hernandez.
Madsen added: “Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice.”
Rewire: What brought you to a movement seeking unrestricted access to abortion?
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Yamani Hernandez: I came to the abortion-specific movement because, among other things, I was frustrated with the messaging around abortion, which I felt didn’t necessarily represent my abortion experience and was not super accessible to people in the various communities I come from. I was also frustrated with how dangerous parental involvement laws were seemingly a low priority within the broader movement. “Pro-choice” people will often shy away from advocating for young people’s unfettered access to abortion. Young people are not offered comprehensive sexuality education; birth control is hard to get; and then, if a young person becomes pregnant, they are shamed for parenting and shamed for attempting to access abortion services. I really viewed my arrival to this movement as a way to change it from the inside.
Nikki Madsen: I think a culmination of many moments in my life brought me to this movement and have kept me here for more than a decade. My parents holding open and frank conversations with me about sex; my two step-siblings becoming pregnant and parenting in their teens; volunteering for the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood as a young adult; having women’s studies and sociology professors who believed in me; taking a “history of the fetus” course in graduate school (best class ever!); volunteering as a clinic escort at a local, independent abortion care clinic; learning about my grandmother’s pre-Roe abortion; facilitating an after-abortion support group for many years and helping people access financial resources for abortion care in my prior job at Pro-Choice Resources; and planning and creating a family of my own have all shaped the person I am today and my commitment to this essential human rights work.
Rewire: What challenges do you see the movement confronting in 2016?
YH: There’s no denying that we are in a tough climate right now. While we’ve made some great strides forward in 2015, the year was also marked by attacks on abortion providers, TRAP laws, the continuation of the Hyde Amendment—which bans Medicaid coverage of abortion—and stark racism. The election is likely to set the tone for many of our health-care rights, from the Affordable Care Act to protections for or restrictions on abortion, and a lot is at stake. After five years of increased restrictions, we need more elected leaders to speak up for abortion access. Whether we’ll see that in 2016 or in the years that follow is unpredictable, and it’s hard to know whether we’re close to some much-needed victories for low-income people and people of color, or whether we’ll have to struggle more than ever to exercise our basic human rights. The safety of those seeking and providing abortions, the ability to afford health care, and the safety of communities of color are issues integral to the success of the movement. In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue working with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country.
NM: It sure would be nice to think that the New Year would bring a respite from the constant challenges of 2015. We all have anxious eyes on the Supreme Court. If the Court rules in favor of Texas’ omnibus abortion law, HB 2, we will see access diminish as more clinics are forced to close their doors, and emboldened legislatures pass more and farther-reaching laws that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to receive the care they need. We are hopeful that the Court will see the injustice and unconstitutionality in HB 2 and strike it down, but even if it does we are likely to see a continued onslaught of attacks from anti-choice extremists. The dynamics of an election year are likely to escalate already elevated rhetoric against providers and people who seek abortions, which we will see playing out not only in legislatures, but on the streets in front of clinics. I also believe we will continue to see the prosecution of pregnant people for everything from drug use to miscarriage. Attacks on pregnant people are unlikely to stop.
Rewire: What is your hope for bridging intersections between movement leaders, and in what ways do you think intersectionality brings strength to the movement?
YH: My hope lies in building authentic relationships and integrating our work based on the ways that actual lives are lived. For instance, when people call abortion funds because they have to choose between paying for rent or paying for health care, there’s not only an economic issue but a housing issue. Intersectionality brings strength to the movement because advocates don’t have to sacrifice other aspects of our identity and experience in order to do this work. We know that advocates’ personal experiences actually inform the work they do, and people can bring their whole selves to work when we start connecting abortion access with other political and social needs. Activists from different movements are stronger together, and we can’t keep preaching to the choir. We need more people speaking up and rejecting the status quo, across lines of race, class, gender, geography, and issue area. We show up for movements that affect those seeking abortions because we don’t lead one-issue lives, and there are many ways we can make real progress in abortion accessibility by supporting economic and racial justice initiatives. Abortion rights activists have been showing up for Fight for $15, with national office staff members in Boston and Madison marching in solidarity with low-wage workers, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. We have also made efforts to lift up this issue up in our online and offline communications with supporters and constituents. Since then, we’ve been proud to see the Fight for $15 movement talk about reproductive rights in the context of economic justice. It’s been great to be able to lift one another up.
NM: After the gravity of the challenges we face, this is where I find hope. While Abortion Care Network is obviously focused on abortion care, we know that abortion occurs within the context of people’s lives, where there are many layers of concerns and injustices at play. People’s need for abortion care is wrapped up in their desire for healthy and safe families and communities. Abortion is the exercising of the basic human rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy. We must recognize that the threats to family and community, and the assaults on those basic human rights, are multifaceted and hit people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—from many directions and in many layers. When we see the struggle for justice in its full frame, and don’t just focus on our own little piece, we can create a more powerful and unified front against our common oppressors. In fact, it’s the only way we can. Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice. It is heartening to see a new generation of activists and organizations leading us in that direction.
Rewire: How do you think the reproductive rights movement should go about investing in new leaders?
YH: I think there are two crucial ways we can invest in new leaders. First, “new” leaders can be younger leaders and sometimes “new” leaders can be people outside of the existing movement. I think that we should invest in explicit succession plans that free up space for new people to join. It would be great for new leaders to have a standard movement-wide orientation that informs them about our history, our opposition, and the unique aspects of doing our work. Second, I could envision a formal executive director support group that these new leaders are brought into. Individual coaching is great, but group coaching could also be really useful. Taking the time to listen to the unique perspectives of each individual could be an essential part of this investment and I can envision this taking place very effectively in a group setting. Drawing strength from the relationships and dialogue we have with one another, “each one reach one” will strengthen not only each individual leader but also the movement as a whole.
NM: Oh how I wish I had the answers. I do think identifying people who will serve as movement mentors for new leaders is essential. And a support group would be lovely. I do know for certain that it’s essential we think beyond our traditional pathways to leadership and structural supports that favor already privileged people. I think much like raising a child, it’s all about your support system. I’m lucky that my position at Abortion Care Network came with a built-in support system, a network comprised of experts and compassionate individuals who allowed me to ask questions and brainstorm ideas. They have lifted me up on the toughest days. For example, just a few weeks before the Colorado shootings at Planned Parenthood, Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police officers in my hometown of Minneapolis. These two tragedies happening so close to one another left me emotionally and physically exhausted as I tried to balance my work demands, commitments to my broader human rights community, and my family. Cristina Aguilar, executive director from COLOR, reached out to me in response to my public statement on the Colorado shootings and offered support—that simple gesture made all the difference in the world.
Rewire: Reflecting on Roe v. Wade, how would you describe what has been happening since it became law, and what is your vision for reclaiming any rights we have lost?
YH: Among many other things, we’ve seen anti-choice lawmakers try literally anything to obstruct access to abortion. We’ve seen waves of clinic closures, steadily increasing numbers of people forced to carry their pregnancy to term against their will, and youth-targeted anti-abortion laws that exist in states that are otherwise progressive when it comes to reproductive health and sex education. Abortion has been stigmatized, racialized, and criminalized to the point that a person can’t have a miscarriage without facing the potential for incarceration, particularly if they are a person of color. Simply put, having something legally on the books and how it actually plays out are entirely different things.
My vision is that all people not only have reclaimed rights but also the resources and recognition to thrive. That means that they can afford the families they want and that they are safe. It also means that they can afford their health care, that it’s in close geographic proximity to them, that it is compassionate health care, and that they don’t have to wait forever to get it. Though the climate is challenging, we are seeing an impressive and powerful wave of people saying, “Enough!” Across the United States, leaders are rising to the challenge, and more and more people continue to join our movement every day. That’s in no small part due to the efforts of member funds on the ground, and providers, and those seeking abortions, telling their experiences and declaring that abortion will not continue to be a health-care option for only those with economic resources. We’re refusing en masse, and people are awake and angry because abortion is a fundamental societal good. We can’t afford to keep going back, and the urgency is spreading like wildfire.
NM: There just isn’t a simple answer to this question, but there is no doubt that we have lost ground, and I believe that is owed to a movement that has been too narrow in its focus, and too afraid to speak our truth. We have focused primarily on a narrow definition of the right to privacy and to choose, and have used language that both stigmatizes (i.e., “safe, legal and rare,” “no one is pro-abortion, we are pro-choice,” etc.) and lacks the complexity of people’s feelings about abortion. The result has been a movement that has been too quick to accept narrow political victories at the expense of broader justice and access, one that has failed to speak effectively to a broad cross-section of the U.S. public, and that may have contributed to the prevailing silence that exists around the abortion experience. Meanwhile our opponents’ attacks have been broad and their rhetoric bold. When they have been unable to attack the basic isolated right we have protected, they have effectively chipped away at access, disproportionately impacting the most marginalized people and targeting providers, which has weakened our movement at its very base. Our opponents have also effectively spoken to people’s emotions and have systematically shamed and silenced the millions of people who have had abortions. I believe the route forward lies in a broad, intersectional movement that recognizes abortion not as an isolated right, but as a piece in a broader puzzle of justice, and in a unified and coordinated movement for justice. I also believe we must be bold in our language, unafraid to speak openly, proudly, and without defensiveness about the nature of abortion and the positive role it plays in the health and well-being of people, families, and communities.
Rewire: With the case challenging HB 2 (Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole) at the Supreme Court, what is most important for advocates to lift up in conversations about the case?
YH: In the Supreme Court case, Whole Woman’s Health is challenging parts of HB 2: the regulations that require abortion clinics to make massive upgrades to convert their clinics to ambulatory surgical centers, or mini-hospitals, and admitting privileges at local hospitals for abortion providers. Fighting these regulations is extremely important in maintaining access to abortion care across the country, but we must remember that if we win the case, it’s only a bandage on the broader issue. Our callers in Texas, and across the country, will still have an extremely challenging time saving money to pay for their abortion or finding a clinic that they can travel to. They will still have to take time off of work, unpaid, because their jobs don’t offer sick leave. They might risk their immigration status to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion. They’ll have a hard time finding someone to care for their children while they make the multi-day trip to an abortion clinic, or won’t even make the trip because the logistics are too challenging. This case is very important, and we must remember that politicians have put so many barriers in the way that abortion access is becoming nearly impossible for those without economic resources.
NM: It is pretty simple: HB 2 and similar laws are thinly veiled attempts to shut the doors of abortion clinics and limit abortion care. These laws, enacted under the guise of protecting women’s health through stringent regulation, actually do the exact opposite. When clinics are forced to comply with regulations that fall outside of the standards for all other medical facilities, and that are intentionally so expensive and onerous that compliance is difficult if not impossible, many of them will be forced to close their doors. This will leave great numbers of people in this country without access to abortion care, which we know from looking around the world and throughout history is a real and dire threat to people’s health and lives.
Rewire: In 45 amicus briefs sent to the Supreme Court, many people shared their personal abortion stories. Why do you think they chose to share something so personal with the Court?
YH: People want to share their abortion stories because they want to stop the undue burdens put upon us by the state. If abortion is legal, it should not be so hard to access it. People who have abortions aren’t “victims.” Folks want to share their stories because they are taking back the narrative and showing both their resilience and also that enough is enough. They’re hoping that the listener will leave the conversation with a deeper and more complex understanding of abortion. I believe this is what the storytellers are doing in their briefs. They’re asking the Court to understand why access to abortion was so profound and important in their lives, and to maintain that care across the country.
In one of the interviews for our amicus brief, a 31-year-old Texas woman named Courtney asked if the Court wanted to know why she was having an abortion. Courtney explained, speaking about her existing family and children, “Sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from or how you’re going to pay this bill or [how you’re going to save money] to make sure they eat.” She said she’d rather have an abortion “than bring another kid into the world and make them suffer.” It’s people like Courtney who want the Court to hear their stories. They are doing their best to make their voices heard and speak up about why they decided an abortion was the right decision for them; and in Courtney’s case, it’s because she wants to ensure she is able to provide for her three children. She loves them deeply and she wants the Court to know that abortion was the best decision for her and her family.
NM: Abortion is such a normal and common experience. And yes, it is personal, but the idea that it is something we don’t or shouldn’t talk about is part of the stigma that has been placed on people, not necessarily a universal instinct that abortion need be private. I think there is a growing frustration among people who have had abortions that their experience is both broadly misrepresented in the prevailing public dialogue, and that it is being used to take away from others the necessary access to care. In recent years, organizations dedicated to combating stigma and individuals aided by online communities and social media have created a groundswell of sharing of abortion stories. I feel a growing recognition of the power of those collective stories and resistance of that stigma and silence. Those briefs were powerful and have impact, hopefully with the Court, but also with the public. As a movement we must harness that power, but also effectively support those who are able and willing to share their stories and the personal contribution they have made.
Rewire: The restrictions placed on abortion providers by HB 2 pose a threat to safe and legal abortion access in the state of Texas. What are the national implications of the law?
YH: Texas is the largest state where we’ve seen these harsh laws, but the laws are by no means isolated. Neighboring states like Louisiana all the way through the deep South also are losing clinics and creating a sparse patchwork of access. On the other side, we see New Mexico having to absorb a wave of overflow. During the period when HB 2 was being enforced, our Texas abortion funds reported callers having long wait times and many having to forgo their abortions due to time and logistical constraints. Our member funds in the South have had to expand to offer practical support like travel and lodging assistance when there was already not enough resources to pay for abortion procedures. It’s straining the safety nets we’re already struggling to hold together and leaving millions without affordable, accessible abortion care. Which is 100 percent the goal of those passing these laws. If HB 2 is allowed to stand, we can expect an almost immediate wave of copycat laws across the South and Midwest, creating a truly stark divide in the ability to get an abortion in the United States. A threat to legal abortion access in any state is a threat to legal abortion access in every state. We can’t sit by and watch that happen there. It’s unacceptable.
NM: Currently, 1.5 abortion care clinics are closing each week in the United States. And according to Abortion Care Network’s internal numbers, since 2005, almost half of independent abortion care providers, who provide the majority of abortion care in this country, have closed their doors. There is no coincidence that these closures have coincided with the repeated passing of sham laws (like those in HB 2) from state to state, which place restrictions on abortion care clinics and providers and do nothing to protect women and people in need of abortion care. If the Supreme Court accepts the lower court ruling, we will see many more abortion clinics close their doors. And although abortion will technically still be legal under Roe, with each legislative session it will slowly become even more inaccessible for people living anywhere other than the coasts.
Rewire: You both started in May, and the Planned Parenthood videos and the cyber attacks both came in July. How has it felt to be hired for one thing but have to navigate to do something totally different, like security?
YH: It is exceedingly difficult. As a new leader with an organization in transition, dealing with operational challenges like security can really compromise more mission-driven work. We’ve had insurance companies tell us they will not cover us for workers’ compensation because we work on abortion, and that covering our employees is a liability. Last week I came close to signing an office lease, only for the landlord to tell me that they will not rent to us. At such a politically hostile time, running an organization with abortion explicitly in its name has been a bit of a storm. I’m just trying to do my job and build the power of our member organizations. I wasn’t prepared for this, personally or organizationally—I think I’ve needed a different kind of support and I don’t entirely know where to get it. I received a lot of support from my staff, and we were still building our team at the time. Planned Parenthood also offered security support, and a couple of funders responded and assisted with funding so we could research solutions. We are continually strengthening our cyber security, and we’ll be working with our network to build theirs as well.
NM: Recently a friend said to me, “It seems like the worst time in history to become an executive director of a national abortion rights group.” He must have sensed my response, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe it’s the best?” All of us working in the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements have felt as if we have been on a roller coaster ride over the past few six months—because we have. On days where I long to do the proactive work I was hired to do, but instead find myself responding to the new crisis, I focus on abortion care providers, clinic owners, movement allies, and people in need of abortion care and it inspires me to push forward. Well, that and red wine.
Rewire: When Planned Parenthood is under attack we are all under attack, but all of us don’t have the same resources as the national health-care organization. How do groups and leaders in the reproductive rights movement navigate this?
YH: Larger organizations really need to take smaller ones into the fold when they are dealing with a problem that impacts everyone. Some of this has happened with Planned Parenthood, but in general, there are tons of operational challenges that most of us organizations are not talking about as a group. Our victory is only possible when we are all working to our highest potential in our area of this movement, when we’re building power on a local and grassroots level. While different organizations have varying levels of resources, we’re all critical to long-term success, and we all have our own specialities and areas of expertise. In this historic moment, when we’re under constant attack, but also seeing higher levels of support than ever, we can channel so much passion into this fight. I know that we will win because we are fighting for a social good, but it will take all of us working together.
NM: Many organizations are necessary to create a healthy ecosystem of abortion care in this country. To truly reach this goal, organizations and leaders within the movement need to find better ways to share resources and support one another—especially the smallest and most under-resourced groups that are often serving the most marginalized communities. It’s essential that we create safe spaces to talk about our organizations’ vulnerabilities with our colleagues and how we can cost-share or support one another to fill the gaps. Equally important is that we encourage our own supporters to give and learn about the essential work of our colleagues. No matter how well resourced or under-resourced we are, we must at all times keep the big picture of a “healthy ecosystem” in the forefront of our mind and work toward that goal.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the timeline of the release of attack videos against Planned Parenthood.