It is difficult not to feel an overwhelming sense of defeat and fear for the year ahead in reproductive health and abortion rights as the Supreme Court deliberates on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case. Brought against Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which runs the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, this case could reshape abortion law countrywide. Among the many restrictions being challenged, the one abortion advocates are watching the closest is a 15-week ban. If upheld, this 15-week restriction would represent the first pre-viability abortion ban upheld by the Supreme Court. The landmark Roe v. Wade case set the precedent that states could not outlaw abortion prior to the viability line, which currently sits around 23 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Should the court uphold this ban, dozens of states would be in position to unleash similar, or possibly even more restrictive laws.
This is also coming at the same time that on December 27, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hold a hearing on Texas’s draconian six-week abortion ban. The move did little to assuage the fears of reproductive justice activists, and abortion providers in response quickly filed a brief to the Supreme Court, arguing that this action is time-consuming and unnecessary. Abortion rights activists worry this decision seems likely to touch off a game of ping-pong around various federal and state courts of who can challenge what parts of the restrictions and in which courts. While this law is held up in challenges, people who can become pregnant in Texas are still scrambling to find abortion care.
But activists from around the country are not losing hope. Instead, they are strategizing about how to turn the tide. Organizers from Wisconsin; Chicago; New York City; Seattle and Everett, Washington, tell Truthout about their organizing plans for the year ahead, and weigh in with their hopes, fears and dreams for abortion rights in 2022.
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“Our dream is reproductive freedom,” says Hayley Archer, a Democratic Socialists of America member and organizer in the Madison, Wisconsin, Socialist Feminist working group. The caucus is working on repealing one of many pre-Roe v. Wade state laws that outlaw abortion under any circumstances. Eight states in total have similar laws on the books that date back to as early as the 18th century but were never repealed following the passage of Roe. Two pro-choice state legislators introduced the Abortion Rights Preservation Act into the Wisconsin legislature in 2020, but the bill has been languishing in committees, and Archer tells Truthout it is unlikely to pass currently.
“We’re not organizing to lobby or to wait for the ‘experts’ to do the right thing,” she says. “Our campaign aims to build solidarity relationships with Wisconsin abortion rights [activists] and reproductive justice organizers.”
Archer is among many who have come to the conclusion that lobbying elected officials and voting for pro-choice candidates won’t be enough to protect abortion access. Her organization’s focus on repealing the abortion ban while also building community, solidarity and engaging in mutual aid is gaining steam across the country.
Many grassroots groups are looking to direct action to build momentum. New York City for Abortion Rights, which has been organizing direct abortion clinic defense for close to a decade, is looking to present an alternative to the conservative, non-confrontational politics of the older wave of feminist organizations.
Lizzie Chadbourne is a member of NYC for Abortion Rights and a public health researcher whose work focuses on reproductive health and abortion. She is worried about two major threats that will make abortion rights difficult to win in the coming year. She identifies the movement’s biggest threats as “a lack of mobilization, education and energy regarding abortion on the left, and the effort of anti-abortion groups to co-opt progressive ideas and language to further their objectives.” For example, organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List and Feminists for Life have turned feminist concepts of “choice” and “freedom” on their heads, insisting that abortion represents a failure of modern society to support birthing people and families. The anti-choice movement has shifted their tactics from fire and brimstone to young activists like Lila Rose, featured in a short documentary by The Atlantic. They have sleek, modern websites that use similar colors and photography styles to organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority Foundation. Their language is insidious, mostly because any pro-abortion activist would agree that working parents are being failed by our system and that they do deserve much better.
While the anti-abortion machine has been working diligently for the past 50 years to overturn Roe, many liberals have been lulled into a false sense of security that electing Democratic politicians will protect abortion access. Each of the activists who spoke with Truthout conveyed deep fears of losing national abortion rights, but also made it clear that many people who can become pregnant are already living in a post-Roe world.
“While affluent people will continue to access safe abortion care, even if that means crossing state lines, working-class people won’t be able to travel to access reproductive health care, and they will resort to unsafe abortions, just as in the days before Roe,” says Anne Rumberger, another member of NYC for Abortion Rights.
With the decision in the Dobbs case looming, many emphasized the need for action on the local level in the absence of a national, coordinated response. NYC for Abortion Rights’s Chadbourne offered this advice for those who are wanting to get involved and make a difference: “Start local and work to support existing abortion funds. Folks across the U.S. can amplify the call to fundraise for abortion funds that cover not only the cost of procedures, but also help with costs associated with travel or missing work and assist with the organization of transportation and lodging, if necessary.”
There is undeniable sadness and fear in the abortion activist world, and deep frustration with the large women’s rights organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW), NARAL Pro-Choice America and the political arm of Planned Parenthood, for allying themselves with the Democratic Party over mobilizing the grassroots organizations and decoupling abortion rights from other struggles. Michael Dola, another organizer with NYC for Abortion Rights, touched on this point, and argued that in order to win free abortion on demand, “We have to be as integrated as possible with where people are already in motion: particularly from Black Lives Matter and … abolition-focused work, but also with tenants’ rights and housing struggles, environmental [and] Land Defender movements. No one has a blueprint for this, but many of us clearly feel that deep intersectionality and real freedom need to be the red threads uniting all of us.”
Lisa Loew, a leading member of Chicago for Abortion Rights, notes that some of this knitting-together of movements is already underway. She pointed to a burgeoning coalition that is working to build broad support for a counter-demonstration to the annual March for Life in Chicago on January 8, 2022.
Following the March for Life counterprotest, Chicago for Abortion Rights is planning “continued and escalating activities into the spring, all before the [Supreme] Court is expected to issue its ruling [in the Dobbs case],” Loew tells Truthout. “We know we can’t rely on any politicians to rescue us, or even a sympathetic [Supreme] Court justice. The Supreme Court does not exist in a vacuum. If the feminists of Argentina, Mexico and Ireland can mobilize millions of supporters in the streets to decriminalize abortions, so can we.”
The Chicago coalition is working in collaboration with the Clinic Vest Project, which sends free vests to clinic escorts around the country to help distinguish them from anti-abortion demonstrators. Benita Ulisano organizes clinic escorts for the Illinois Choice Action Team and is also the founder and president of the Clinic Vest Project. When asked about her hopes for 2022, Ulisano said that her goals include “educating those who are not as connected in the movement as we are. Those folks who are pro-choice but not so engaged to realize what is really at stake here. Abortion will never stop, only safe abortion will.… It breaks my heart to see what is happening now. I got involved in this movement when someone I know died of an illegal abortion.”
As we enter a new era of abortion rights activism, the movement must grapple with the actions that have led it to this moment. NYC for Abortion Rights’s Dola was dismayed by the small attendance of pro-abortion activists at the Supreme Court during the Dobbs case. He feels like the time for non-engagement and “respectability politics” in the abortion rights movement is over. “The reproductive justice/abortion rights movement needs to prioritize unrelenting, creative and tactically astute modes of direct action/confrontation with whatever antis show up to clinics, rallies, and other politicized spaces.”
One of the most salient and publicized political actions of the December 1 actions during the Dobbs hearing was Shout Your Abortion activists self-administering mifepristone, an abortion-inducing pill, outside the SCOTUS building as part of a national day of action to increase awareness about how to procure abortion pills and self-manage an abortion. Amelia Bonow, founding director of Shout Your Abortion, told Truthout that taking the abortion pill in public represents “a new front in pro-abortion activism…. We weren’t just doing so to raise awareness of the drugs, but to show that we do not care what this or any court rules about abortion — we will be having abortions and helping each other have safe abortions forever.”
As abortion activists prepare for the possibility of sweeping abortion restrictions in the coming year, their dedication, creativity and desire for a just world can be felt even while they recount dire circumstances in their home states. Janean Desmarais, a clinic defender with Everett Clinic Defense, a suburb about 30 minutes north of Seattle, recounted their years-long battle with the city of Everett for refusing to take violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act at their local clinic seriously. Activists there have been defending the clinic from anti-abortion harassment nearly weekly for five years by holding signs in front of anti-abortion demonstrators and keeping clinic entrances clear. They have also been pushing for local buffer zone protections and prosecution of clinic invaders.
Desmarais, along with so many others, have been undeterred. “The harassment and threats to patients and staff is not going to go away, and neither are we. See you on the sidewalk,” she says.