Commentary Abortion

46 Years After ‘Roe’ and We’re Still Fighting. We Must Do Better.

Andrew Jenkins

Rather than continue to feel helpless about the situation we now find ourselves in, here are seven clear steps those of us working in the reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice movement can take to strengthen our tactics and organizing.

It’s no surprise to anyone who has ever worked within the reproductive health, rights, and justice fields that our movement has a history of leaving the most vulnerable behind.

We’ve consistently failed to repeal the Hyde Amendment—even when Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House—denying some of the most vulnerable people access to abortion coverage. As a movement, we’ve sidelined this issue for far too long, and it’s hurting real people all across the country who are stuck making dehumanizing choices about whether to pay for an abortion out of pocket or for rent, groceries, or even to keep the electricity on.

The mainstream pro-choice movement has also ignored the unique issues facing young people. I can’t even remember the last time there was a nationwide push to repeal state-level parental consent or notification laws. It’s almost as if advocates have accepted defeat without giving young people a fighting chance.

And we’ve allowed our opposition—extremist, right-wing, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, classist, religious anti-choice fanatics—to control the narrative for decades. They’ve done such a tremendous job stigmatizing abortion that our country has reached a critical tipping point: The U.S. Supreme Court is now made up of a conservative, anti-choice majority. Red states are just drooling over the opportunity to be the one to send an unconstitutional ban on abortion straight to the Supreme Court, where it will most certainly threaten Roe v. Wade and legal abortion in the United States.

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Sen. Damon Thayer, Republican Majority Leader in the Kentucky Senate, had this to say on the subject earlier this month: “I would be proud if it’s Kentucky that takes it up to the Supreme Court and we change Roe v. Wade.”

I’d love to say I’m shocked, but I’m not surprised. The political climate we’re in today isn’t an anomaly. It’s the product of decades of planning, strategizing, and controlling the narrative on the part of the anti-choice movement. It has managed to create a culture of fear and stigma around abortion, allowing for state-level restrictions and the nomination of a conservative, anti-choice majority to the highest court of the land.

That doesn’t mean I’m not scared. I’m outraged and sad for all the people who will be negatively affected by the loss of Roe, including people in the LGBTQ community, who are typically overlooked by mainstream organizations. But rather than continue to feel helpless about the situation we now find ourselves in, there are seven clear steps those of us working in the reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice movement can take to strengthen our tactics and organizing.

1.) Broadly adopt the reproductive justice framework. We need to leverage a reproductive and gender justice framework when approaching this work—without co-opting it, taking credit for it, or erasing the contributions of the women of color who created the term and brought it to life through grassroots organizing and advocacy. And what I mean by reproductive justice is a framework and methodology recognizing that choice isn’t enough. It means we have to recognize the circumstances that affect and influence a person’s life based on their identities, and that affect their ability to access the social and political capital necessary to make healthy decisions about their reproductive and sexual health care.

I’m all about mainstream organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America adopting a reproductive justice lens. In fact, if an RJ lens is used authentically and respectfully by mainstream pro-choice groups, I think it might lead to better, more strategic decision making on their part. But I’m not down with them hitting the ground running as if they somehow had the brilliance to come up with something as nuanced and experiential as reproductive justice. That was women of color, Black women in particular, and organization leaders should give them credit every time.

2.) Recruit more allies. Yes, this means engaging and recruiting more cis men to be active, not passive, allies invested in fighting for abortion access and reproductive justice. I’m not saying hand them the megaphone or book them as the keynote speaker at your reproductive justice conference. The reality is that men vote, and if we’re not engaging, educating, and activating them—young men in particular, who tend to have more progressive views on gender and reproduction—to fight on our side, you better believe the other side is recruiting them.

3.) Youth development. Invest more resources into youth leadership development.  It’s time to stop using young people as numbers on our petitions and at our rallies, and start giving them the space to flex their creative and strategic muscles to map out a better future. And I don’t just mean for one-off engagements. I’m talking about sustained, long-term investment and leadership development so that even if we’re facing harsh and hostile times, we can at least rely on the upcoming generation of leaders and constituents to continue making progress on these issues.

As an example of what I mean, look no further than URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, where I worked previously, and the strategic and visionary work they’re doing investing in youth leadership in some of the most vulnerable states across the Midwest and South. We need more organizations with the courage to lead in this way.

4.) Invest in abortion funds. With Roe under threat, people will be relying on abortion funds more than ever before. We need to ensure that any person, at any time, at any age, and at any income can have safe access to affordable abortion care. And I say abortion care very intentionally. This is basic health care we’re talking about, and it’s time to start framing it that way.

Abortion funds are literally the last line of defense for thousands of people whose care costs skyrocketed due to unjust abortion restrictions or targeted regulations of abortion providers. People likely affected include those who live in the 90 percent of counties that lack an abortion provider in this country, or who happen to live in a deeply conservative state that will immediately criminalize abortion if Roe is overturned by the Supreme Court.

Add in the cost of child care, transportation, a place to stay—specifically in states with waiting periods and other burdensome restrictions on abortion access—and it can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000 to receive reproductive health care, if not much more.

So stop what you’re doing right now, and make a plan to save $25 to $50 of your next paycheck and donate it to an abortion fund of your choice, if you have the financial security to do so. There are literally hundreds to choose from across the country—in urban and rural communities.

5.) End abortion stigma. We have to challenge the dominant narrative that stigmatizes abortion so atrociously and insidiously. People are afraid to share their personal experiences with loved ones or friends. Research tells us that about one in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime: That’s your best friend, younger sister, mother, or just someone who had sex and wants to terminate their damn pregnancy.

We have to counter the despicable lies perpetuated by abortion foes by lifting up the voices and experiences of the most vulnerable to experiencing gender and reproductive oppression.

6.) Restructure your board of directors. We’ve seen time and again that while diversity is increasing at entry and management levels, boards of directors at reproductive health and rights organizations are still primarily made up of the same old white women. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are not enough. We need more women of color representing the needs of the most marginalized communities in the country on your boards: women of all colors as well as more trans and gender non-conforming folks, especially if you call yourself an ally to the LGBTQ justice movement. And while you are at it, get some young folks on there to help shape your strategy and focus. They are more plugged into what the core issues are in communities than anyone else because they’re the most diverse generation in history.

If you are missing these folks on your board, you need to seriously rethink “claiming”—or better yet, co-opting—the label reproductive justice. And you need to do some deep thinking about how your organization is perpetuating the same power structures we’re aiming to dismantle by maintaining the status quo politics as usual.

7.) Expand our core issue areas. Using a reproductive and gender justice framework, we should make it an absolute priority to orient resources toward issues that impact the most vulnerable and marginalized communities first. These are issues like the criminalization of pregnancy, affecting women of color who use substances and need access to humane treatment, not prison sentences; or issues like the lack of trans-aware care throughout the health-care system, but particularly in reproductive health clinic settings.

Or the fact that young people can be denied access to birth control pills at a pharmacist’s discretion, citing their religious beliefs as justification.

We need to prioritize issues at the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and age. This means fighting to end poverty, or putting more resources behind projects working toward ending the Hyde Amendment, like the All* Above All campaign, founded by a collective of reproductive justice organizations and spearheaded by young women of color like Kierra Johnson, deputy executive director at the National LGBTQ Task Force. It also means fighting to make sure immigrant families aren’t being inhumanely separated from one another at the border, or through immigrant detention centers.

It means making sure that LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, have safe access to education free from bullying and harassment, as well as employment free of these obstacles. It means standing with sex workers when they’re in the streets literally protesting for their livelihoods and their lives. It means fighting to overturn state laws requiring young people to either notify or, in worse cases, get consent from their parental guardians for permission to make a health-care decision about their own bodies. It’s absolutely ridiculous and the fact that the mainstream reproductive health and rights movement isn’t making it a priority to get this proactive agenda moving in some of these conservative states just gets my blood pressure up.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to do better. We owe it to ourselves—and to the communities that may be struggling just a little bit worse than we are—to do better. I believe a reproductive justice and gender equity framework is the way forward. It’s how we hijack the dominant narrative around our own issues and transform that narrative to one that undermines systems of power and oppression, rather than upholding and perpetuating them.

We’re at a crossroads, and it’s on us as activists, organizations, donors, advocates, and movement leaders to do a complete paradigm shift in how resources are allocated and where we choose to make the most strategic investments. That has always been—and will always be—by bolstering young people, communities of color, LGBTQ folks, and low-income communities.

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