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House Oversight Won’t Hurt, But the Fight for Abortion Is Waged at Grassroots

It is not a fight to be legislated in Washington, D.C., but won in the streets.

A group of people are gathered at the Times Square of New York City on September 4, 2021, to protest that a Texas law banned abortion.

Today the House Oversight Committee holds a hearing to examine states’ efforts to restrict abortion access, and how this has affected patients medically and economically. This hearing comes on the heels of the passage in Texas of SB 8 — but the Texas law is only the most recent development within a decades-long trend of states slowly dismantling abortion rights. As a result, the hearing is discussing federal legislation to “protect and expand abortion rights and access” more broadly.

But the fight for abortion rights is not a top-down effort — it is and always has been staged on a grassroots level. Indeed, the right has made extensive use of these tactics. Far from the liberal call not to “politicize” abortion, the right sees the clinic space as a political territory to be conquered, and has continued to do so — not just in red states, as some might think, but all over New York City as well. It is not a fight to be legislated in the White House but won in the streets.

The debate around the passage of Texas’s SB 8 (which bans all abortions after six weeks, and deputizes private citizens in its enforcement) and other similar bills has focused on its legal mechanisms — the Supreme Court’s shadow docket, its blatant unconstitutionality. The shadow docket, for example — when the Supreme Court makes a decision without the usual long process of receiving an application for a case to be heard, deciding to hear it, announcing it, poring over briefs filed months in advance, making a series of public oral arguments, engaging in an explicit deliberation and offering a thorough presentation of its findings and decisions — comes as a blatant example of the Supreme Court’s lack of democracy and transparency. In this particular case, the court took less than three days and released a single paragraph in the middle of the night, with the majority opinion unsigned.

While the specificities have differed, this contention of abortion through the courts isn’t new. The question of abortion has for decades now been posed as an issue, first and foremost, of legality. The very premise of Roe, after all, was that abortion was a “decision between a woman and her doctor” and access to it an extension of our right to “privacy.” It was not about the right to health care, gender liberation or democratizing abortion (because there will always be a privileged few with access to safe abortion, even if it is illegal).

This hyper-fixation on legality has obscured the way in which abortion rights, and reproductive rights more generally, have been chipped away for decades. Despite the technical legality of abortion in the United States, the lived experiences of many have shown that abortion is not in fact safe or accessible. In many cases, it is almost impossible to obtain an abortion, making its legality largely irrelevant. To take one example, as of 2019, six states were down to one abortion clinic: Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia. All anti-abortion laws exacerbate existing inequalities, as they disproportionally impact people of color (and Black people in particular), undocumented people (who often have to choose between the risk of getting deported or the risk of not getting an abortion), poor and working-class people, people without private health insurance, queer and trans people, and so on. Anti-abortion laws kill us.

The mantra of “safe, legal, and rare” (cue Hillary Clinton doubling down: “and by rare, I mean rare) has actually contributed to the stigmatization of abortion. Tote bags and stickers defending the legitimacy of Planned Parenthood often read, “I went to Planned Parenthood and all I got was a mammogram and a pap smear and STD testing [and so on]” — but, despite its exclusion from official merch, abortions are also a service people receive there, and they should make no secret of it. The right doesn’t attack clinics because we get cancer screenings. We cannot expect to counter them, to fight the backlash against our reproductive health, by skirting the very issue at stake. We need an unapologetic, fighting movement for abortion as a basic right — not a shameful but necessary secret. We need to move away from litigating over when a cell becomes a fetus becomes a baby and what the definition of a heartbeat is. We are not incubators; we are entitled to make our own, sometimes complicated (and sometimes not), decisions free from coercion; and we exist more than just for you. It is really that simple.

Attacks on abortion, ideological and material, don’t just happen in red states. They happen everywhere, even in what is often called, by anti-abortioners and pro-abortioners alike, the “abortion capital of the United States”: New York City. New York City for Abortion Rights, of which we are members, has been defending clinics against anti-abortion harassers in New York for over four years. The group was founded in 2017 by a group of people (including some of us writing this piece) who came together because we were sick of writing letters to our senators. And we were sick of being told that the best thing to do when anti-abortion harassers stalk clinics is to leave them alone, because “giving them attention is exactly what they want,” because “patients can’t tell the difference” between someone sending them to hell and someone trying to make sure they can access health services safely. (Uhm, yes, they can!) Even Planned Parenthood’s official approach to anti-abortion activity in front of their clinics is, well, to do nothing. We defend Planned Parenthood — every month for years, in fact —but we don’t let their board of directors dictate political strategy. We are patients and providers too.

In our latest fight against the Archdiocese of New York’s anti-abortion Witness for Life program, we have seen both the religious right and the police work hand-in-hand to crack down on us. Witness for Life is led by the notorious clinic invader Fidelis Moscinski, who has easily been involved in over half of all clinic invasions in the country since 2017 in the tradition of Red Rose Rescues, an ultra-right, militant wing of the anti-abortion movement.

Early in the morning on the second Saturday of every month, a group of us make our way to St. Paul & St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, one of the several churches that regularly hosts the Archdiocese of New York’s anti-abortion Witness for Life program. While the Witness for Life followers are in mass inside, we picket in front of the church, holding signs, chanting and raising awareness about how clinic harassment happens here too. Billed as “peaceful prayer,” the program’s weekly mass ends in a march to the nearby Planned Parenthood, where clergy and parishioners — frequently over a hundred of them, frequently bussed in from out of state — assemble to stigmatize abortion and pressure patients to give birth against their will, including through the heinous impersonation of Planned Parenthood escorts. As soon as the procession starts out the door, we assemble in front of them, on the sidewalk, and, essentially, walk very, very slowly backward. The point is to delay them long enough for abortion patients to get into their appointments (the majority of which happen in the morning) without facing them in front of the clinic. A few months ago, we held them off for several hours — we’re talking hours to move 10 blocks.

On August 14 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, the NYPD sent its militarized Strategic Response Group (a particularly violent and well-armed unit, infamous for systematically abusing protesters throughout the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising) to repress one of our protests opposing harassment. They arrested two of our members and held them for hours before releasing them on several charges. There has been no “justification,” however feeble, from the police. The moment that this historically wealthy and powerful patriarchal organization, which is importantly also the city’s largest landowner, feels threatened by everyday people — who simply refuse to concede that it’s benign for the Catholic Church to stigmatize us in the streets for exercising bodily autonomy — they call in the most repressive arm of the state to beat us back, while continuing to claim religious persecution.

It is clear that the fight for reproductive justice isn’t going anywhere any time soon; that the Supreme Court isn’t coming to save us; and that Roe will never be a guarantee, because it was never premised on abortion as a democratic right and an unapologetic good. Liberation won’t come from policy wonks or precise and conciliatory word choice; it’ll come from the streets, from showing those intent on stripping us of our agency that they are not welcome here. We need an unapologetic, fighting, explicitly pro-abortion movement that upholds SisterSong’s framework of reproductive justice — the human right to personal bodily autonomy, to have children, not to have children, and to parent the children we do have in safe and sustainable communities — rather than the glib slogan of “the right to choose,” which obscures that choices made out of financial or social coercion are not in fact choices.

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