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1 Year After “Dobbs,” We Must Build Movements to Defeat Anti-Abortion Extremists

We can’t count on courts, the Democrats or nonprofits to defend abortion — we must mobilize ourselves to fight for it.

Giuliana Cangelosi, 11, and her mother Nichole Cangelosi share a moment together while attending a protest opposing the Supreme Court's ruling overturning federal protections for abortion rights Friday, June 24, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s been one year since Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the ruling that ended federal protections for abortion rights by overturning the almost 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade. The ruling was the culmination of decades-long work by the anti-abortion right, which has chipped away at abortion access at the state level, lined up “trigger bans” and mobilized to reignite the clinic harassment and invasion tactics of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The anti-abortion right is determined to criminalize community resistance and further impose state control over our bodies. In New York City, the Archdiocese of New York continues to host Witness for Life, a campaign of harassment outside abortion clinics, and receives a dedicated armed escort from the NYPD’s “Strategic Response Group” in order to do so. In Florida, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as the FACE Act, is being used to bring federal charges against activists who vandalized a crisis pregnancy center, a type of nonmedical organization pretending to offer counseling and services but in reality deceives and manipulates pregnant people seeking reproductive health care including abortion.

Federal investigations into and surveillance of pro-abortion protest activity have been documented by two recent investigations by The Intercept. In May, it reported that the U.S. Marshals Service had been using social media surveillance to receive alerts about pro-abortion actions. Even more recently, The Intercept uncovered that after Republicans in Congress pressured the FBI to target activists engaging in what they sensationally labeled as “pro-abortion terrorism,” the FBI’s caseload of investigations into abortion-related “extremism” sharply increased. In November 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate that the FBI was investigating not only anti-abortion activities but also “attacks or threats against pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, and other pro-life organizations.”

Patients and providers have also been targeted by criminalization. In Nebraska, 18-year-old Celeste Burgess was recently sentenced to up to two years in prison for taking abortion pills. Her mother, who helped her obtain the pills, faces up to eight years. When Indiana abortion provider Caitlin Bernard attempted to raise awareness about the disastrous impacts of abortion bans by speaking publicly about providing abortion care to a 10-year-old who was forced to travel from Ohio for the appointment, the Republican attorney general of Indiana investigated Bernard on false accusations that she had violated reporting and privacy laws.

Issuing abortion pills through the mail has long been a mainstay of the reproductive rights movement to help patients in states with restrictive abortion laws; and this initiative has expanded after Dobbs. Looking back to the “self-help” methods of the pre-Roe era, many activists have turned to self-managed abortion with pills as a way to resist patriarchal state control over our bodies.

The anti-abortion right has its eyes on restricting access to mifepristone, one of the two medications that make up the most commonly used medication abortion regimen, through a lawsuit challenging the FDA’s approval of the drug. And this week, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) signaled that she and her colleagues are poised to reintroduce a 15-week federal abortion ban, an abrupt departure from previous “states rights” arguments made by the GOP.

The abortion rights movement has largely put its faith in Democratic politicians and the nonprofit-industrial complex over the past several decades to protect abortion access — a strategic mistake that has led us to this moment. The reliance on Roe and other court rulings for legal protections did not go far enough to enshrine our rights to bodily autonomy. A recent New Yorker investigation detailed how Planned Parenthood, which has come to represent the vanguard of the movement in the public eye and collected the lion’s share of donations and funding, has in fact shied away from defending abortion in the interests of protecting itself as an institution, while independent clinics have assumed most of the risk. When Planned Parenthood of Montana announced to their staff that they would no longer provide medication abortion services to patients visiting from another state, independent clinics stepped up to provide this legally precarious care to patients traveling for abortion care, but with less protection and a fraction of the financial safety net of Planned Parenthood affiliates. Similarly, while courageous providers have been mailing abortion pills to restricted states, Planned Parenthood still refuses to send pills across state lines. For example, even though out-of-state patients can now receive medication abortion through Planned Parenthood of Montana, only Montana residents can take advantage of their offer for pills by mail. Out-of-state residents who must be seen and take the first dose of abortion medication at the clinic are still being asked to shoulder the burden of Planned Parenthood’s aversion to risk.

But in the face of prosecution, community mobilization and grassroots efforts have sprung up as antidotes to attacks on abortion access. Scores of activists, both within the U.S. and outside, have formed networks for distributing abortion pills in hostile states. Youth organizers have also established the next front of abortion access: provision of medication abortion on college campuses. This spring, New York joined the growing list of states mandating that public universities provide medication abortion to students in campus clinics. This success reflects an increasing consensus among young people, who comprise the majority of abortion seekers, that medication abortion should be widely available as a care option. The passage of this bill also shows the powerful role that community organizing — especially youth organizing networks — will continue to play in the fight for abortion access post-Roe. When people come together and make demands, their voices are heard.

Abortion funds have stepped in to fill the holes left by increasing criminalization as well. Largely funded through grassroots donations, abortion funds like Buckle Bunnies, the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF) and ARC Southeast use a combination of regular donation solicitation and mutual aid-style requests to provide funding for transport, lodging, child care and abortion care for patients traveling from hostile states to get abortions. NYAAF alone provided nearly $1 million in abortion funding to patients in-need in 2022, correlating to enormous increases in demand from some hostile states.

Clinic defense is also a crucial act of community care and protection post-Dobbs. While clinic harassment has been an issue long before the overturning of Roe, harassment has become endemic at abortion clinics since the Dobbs decision was handed down. This is a reality not only in restricted Southern states, but even in so-called abortion destination states. Clinic defense, a decades-old practice of protecting patients from right-wing and often christo-fascist harassment, shows anti-abortion extremists that there is no place for them in our communities, and provides resistance in the event of more extreme right-wing violence like firebombing and clinic invasions. Clinic defense also reminds patients that abortion is not an exceptional, taboo event, but rather an act of liberation and self-prioritization.

To win free nationwide abortion on demand — because we deserve nothing less — it will take a mass grassroots movement to not only help each other access safe abortions, but to also insist on a right to abortion in clinics and by pill as a guarantee of our bodily autonomy. We have already seen the growth of such a mass movement through recent organizing around abortion pills, abortion funds and clinic defenses. But if we want to win the fight against anti-abortion extremists in our country, it will take all of us.

Note: An update was made to clarify that the lawsuit challenging FDA approval of mifepristone seeks to restrict it but has no chance of “banning” it.

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