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The Abortion Justice Act Is the Reproductive Rights Legislation the US Needs

While the act may have little chance of passage, it’s a message to those who need an abortion that they are not alone.

Reproductive rights activists protest in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City, on July 1, 2023.

Marking the tragic one-year anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in which the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, a group of progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled their latest attempt to protect abortion rights: the Abortion Justice Act. Introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus’s Abortion Rights and Access Task Force, and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), this latest attempt at securing federal abortion rights goes beyond simply codifying Roe — it would provide a unique federal pathway to achieving reproductive justice.

The legislators who proposed this bill know that it will fail. Even when they had control of both houses of Congress, the Democratic Party has been unable to pass any legislation to codify Roe v. Wade into law. Now, with the House under Republican control and Democratic holdouts like Joe Manchin refusing to change his tune, this latest proposed bill won’t change that record.

The Dobbs decision unleashed a fury from the U.S. electorate. In every election since that abhorrent decision was handed down, voters have expressed support for legal abortion, even in traditionally conservative states like Montana and Kentucky. The electoral appetite is there for federal abortion rights legislation. And since the bill is essentially dead on arrival, why not go big? Why not actually introduce a law that truly addresses the problem in a holistic, justice-centered way?

It’s not enough to simply codify Roe v. Wade into law. For the nearly half century that abortion was legal nationwide, there were still numerous barriers to abortion care, particularly for Black and Brown women, immigrants and low-income folks. The discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which has barred federal funding for abortion care since 1976, forced those on federal Medicaid to pay out of pocket for their abortions even while Roe was the law of the land. Reproductive justice advocates always said that Roe was the floor, not the ceiling. If the Democratic Party is going to propose legislation that’s doomed from the start, it should at least propose legislation that addresses the many obstacles that have reduced abortion access for decades.

That’s why the Abortion Justice Act is so exciting — not because it has any chance of becoming law, but because it boldly lays out a vision for what a truly reproductively-free U.S. would look like. In the bill’s introductory text, it makes clear that this legislation isn’t just about legalizing abortion, but about addressing the gaps that have always existed: “Roe v. Wade was never enough. Without the ability to access abortion, the legal right did not help many people working to make ends meet, who are Black, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx, young people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, disabled people and gender nonconforming people,” the bill reads.

Unlike the failed Women’s Health Protection Act and the even more mealy mouthed Murkowski-Kaine bill, the Abortion Justice Act is comprehensive and far-reaching in its scope. In addition to affirming a legal right to both abortion and miscarriage care, the bill calls for federal investments in abortion care training, research and outreach. It would protect both providers and the patients they serve from criminalization nationwide and would require insurance companies to cover abortion care. Plus, the Abortion Justice Act specifically calls out systemic racism and xenophobia as barriers to care, and would address the myriad ways in which both hinder the U.S. health care system.

It is refreshing to see a bill championing abortion rights that addresses the disparity in access, even under Roe. And, amid the rampant legislative attacks on trans and queer folks in this country, it is sadly unique but deeply heartening to see a bill that uses gender-neutral language around abortion, acknowledging the reality that nonbinary people and trans men have abortions.

I am under no illusion that the Abortion Justice Act, or anything as comprehensive, will become law anytime soon. Republicans are doubling down on banning and criminalizing abortion, despite its electoral unpopularity. But after more than a year of acute suffering, of thousands of miles patients have been forced to travel, of near-deaths from sepsis, of teenagers forced against their will to give birth, it’s heartening to see a bill like the Abortion Justice Act be introduced. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that there are, in fact, members of Congress who understand and embrace reproductive justice as a fundamental tenet and are willing to attach their name to it. For abortion providers, funders, clinic escorts and staffers, it’s a reminder that the work they do, work for which they often risk their safety and lives, is recognized by someone in a position of power as worthy and venerable.

That won’t ease the suffering that the Dobbs decision unleashed on this country. But if there’s no chance of a passage, then it’s at least an opportunity to swing for the fences, to signal to the rest of the Democratic Party what kind of abortion rights legislation it should be embracing. At the very least, it lets people who may need an abortion, especially in a state where it’s currently illegal, know that they’re not alone.

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