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This Year, the Reproductive Justice Movement Showed Us What It Means to Fight

In a year of worst-case abortion access scenarios, reproductive justice activists showed us what solidarity looks like.

Abortion rights protesters shout into the Senate chamber in the Indiana State Capitol building on July 25, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

For reproductive justice advocates, the start of 2022 was ominous. In September 2021, the Supreme Court allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect in Texas, declining to block the law even temporarily despite the fact that it was an obvious violation of Roe v. Wade.

When oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization arrived in December of that year, the Texas ban had been in place for four painful months. That fact, plus some of the justices’ questions during oral arguments, cast an even deeper pall over the coming year. It was clear that the Supreme Court’s new and extremely conservative majority was ready to overturn one of the court’s most significant precedents and eliminate the constitutional right to abortion. But many activists, organizers and people working in abortion care felt like they were screaming and hardly anyone was listening. They didn’t see their sense of urgency mirrored in society at large.

Confirmation came in May, when the (apparently not-so-unprecedented) leak of the court’s majority opinion showed that the justices planned to pave the way for states to ban abortion entirely. This set off a torturous waiting game, where abortion providers and funders prepared for the worst without knowing exactly what day the hammer would fall.

One abortion provider told me at the time that his Texas clinic started packing appointments for the few abortions they were able to offer into the early morning hours in order to do as many procedures as possible each day before any Supreme Court decisions were issued. A telemedicine provider serving Wyoming, a state with a “trigger” ban designed to outlaw abortion automatically in the event of Roe’s demise, said she was checking her phone in between every patient to make sure abortion hadn’t become illegal during her last appointment. In late May, the state of Oklahoma — where nearly half of Texans who traveled out of state for their abortions received care — enacted a total abortion ban. When the official Supreme Court decision finally came down on June 24, providers in many states were forced to send patients home and stop providing services immediately.

2022 was the year that the Christian right succeeded in its decades-long plan to seize control of the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade. Yes, the Republican Party led that charge. But the Democratic Party failed — or perhaps, chose not to — mount a real defense. For years, pundits and politicians alike dismissed warnings that legal abortion was in jeopardy as hysterical, even as roughly half of U.S. states worked to legislate accessible abortion out of existence and many laid plans to ban abortion the moment they could. So far, 13 states have banned abortion entirely, and one — Georgia — has banned abortion at six weeks. In 10 other states, bans that have been temporarily blocked in the courts remain a threat.

There is no silver lining in suffering. But when the worst-case scenario that reproductive justice advocates had warned of for decades came to pass, they rose to the occasion with a bravery and grit that almost defies comprehension.

Overworked and overwhelmed, clinic workers kept showing up, even when they weren’t sure how much longer their jobs would exist. Though a wave of union organizing efforts began among clinic staff years ago, some of those unionized workers were still without contracts this year. However, just before the end of 2022, workers at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania — one of whom spoke with Truthout in September — won and ratified their first contract after 20 months of bargaining.

According to Abortion Care Network, an association of independent abortion clinics, 42 independent clinics closed in 2022 — each one a devastating loss. However, in the face of incredible adversity, a handful of independent clinics have managed to stay open to provide non-abortion services in states that now ban abortion. One of them is West Alabama Women’s Center, whose operations director told me in August that the clinic could be forced to close in a few months. It remains open, offering contraceptive access, prenatal care, treatment for pregnancy complications, and other general health care. Other clinics have moved to or opened new locations in nearby states where abortion is still legal, so they can continue providing abortion care.

Abortion providers also found innovative new ways to serve patients traveling long distances. Just the Pill, formerly a telemedicine service, launched Abortion Delivered, the nation’s first fleet of mobile abortion clinics, and several Planned Parenthood affiliates followed suit.

Elevated Access, which flies people from restrictive states to places where they can safely receive abortion and gender-affirming care, told Truthout it has received applications from more than 1,000 volunteer pilots. Partners in Abortion Care, a new all-trimester abortion clinic, opened with help from more than 3,000 individual donors and said it has been seeing patients from all over the U.S. and abroad since October.

Abortion funds have also raised and distributed millions of dollars this year. The New York Abortion Access Fund recently reported that it had disbursed over $1 million as of October this year. The Missouri Abortion Fund distributed more than $647,000. Kentucky Health Justice Network (KHJN) told Truthout it helped roughly 1,650 abortion seekers this year. Prior to August, over 80 percent of its callers were going to one clinic in Kentucky. Now KHJN funds procedures at nearly 20 clinics across the region. Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire said it met 100 percent of the need for abortion funding for in-state patients and funded $50,000 toward procedures for out-of-state patients. New abortion funds launched, including the REACH Fund of Connecticut and Abortion Freedom Fund, which specifically funds telehealth abortions.

Though most abortion funds have historically ran on volunteer labor, many have begun to hire paid staff in order to make their work more sustainable. For example, DC Abortion Fund, which told Truthout it pledged over $2 million to more than 5,000 callers this year, also hired five full-time paid staff members for the first time in its history. Holler Health Justice, a fund in West Virginia, told Truthout its staff unionized with Industrial Workers of the World-West Virginia and finalized a first contract in May.

Online, I Need an A created a new advanced search feature allowing internet users to look for clinics based on the type of procedures offered and local legal restrictions, as well as search for abortion support organizations. Online Abortion Resource Squad told Truthout its volunteers answered 11,000 posts with accurate information on Reddit. A late 2021 Food and Drug Administration rule change made telemedicine simpler and more accessible, although only in the 31 states that allow it.

Advocates have also successfully defended people against criminalization for their pregnancy outcomes. In April, organizing by South Texans for Reproductive Justice, Frontera Fund and the Repro Legal Defense Fund helped secure the release of Lizelle Herrera, who was arrested for allegedly self-managing an abortion and held on $500,000 bail. Repro Legal Defense Fund posted Herrera’s bail and all charges against her were later dropped.

Pregnancy Justice (formerly known as National Advocates for Pregnant Women) told Truthout that it has secured the release of 10 pregnant and postpartum women — and counting — who were being held on unconstitutional bond conditions in an Alabama jail, and secured a policy to change those conditions moving forward. Along with a coalition including the ACLU of Northern California and Drug Policy Alliance, Pregnancy Justice also secured the release of Adora Perez, who spent four years in prison after being charged with murder when she experienced a stillbirth.

In a huge organizing and get-out-the-vote victory, Kansas voters resoundingly rejected an anti-abortion ballot measure in August. Despite concerns that the post-Dobbs momentum had faded, abortion-related ballot measures in the midterm elections in Michigan, Kentucky, Vermont, California and Montana all went in favor of abortion access and rights. Several states also enacted laws to expand and protect access to abortion, and even invested in directly funding abortion. And this is not even a comprehensive accounting of the victories, large and small, that advocates for abortion access have achieved this year against all odds.

And yet, there are many people who aren’t getting the abortions they need.

It’s hard to know exactly how many; based on data from Texas and surrounding states, researchers estimate the abortion rate among Texas residents declined by more than 30 percent after that state’s six-week abortion ban was enacted in 2021. However, that was a six-week ban, not a total ban, and Texas residents were still able to travel to nearby states at that time.

Now, for many people across the South and Midwest, the nearest abortion clinic is hundreds of miles away. Though some will order abortion pills online and self-manage their abortions, it is likely that thousands of people will be forced to carry pregnancies to term and give birth against their will. Every single one of these denied abortions will be a gross violation of human rights and bodily autonomy — not just the ones that endanger the pregnant person’s life.

Across the board, reproductive justice advocates and abortion care providers tell me they are exhausted. No one should have to work as hard as they have this year, with such high stakes. I’m tempted to say that we don’t deserve them, but the truth is that we do. Each and every person deserves someone to fight for their right to self-determination with such ferocity. But these tired, overworked people can’t do it alone. So, for 2023, I ask: How will you help them?

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