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We Need to Build an Abortion Rights Movement That Demands More Than “Roe”

Abortion access can’t be left in the hands of the Democratic Party. We must wage this struggle in the streets too.

A protester holds a sign reading "MY BODY MY CHOICE" during an outdoor protest on May 14, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

For those of us who support reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, the 50-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade is a somber occasion, as it comes months after the Supreme Court ended legal protections for abortion via Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe.

The 50th anniversary of Roe finds the United States entangled in a patchwork of abortion access. Some states are serving as “abortion sanctuaries,” some have totally banned abortion, and others remain in a nebulous in-between area.

Providers in states with legal abortion access find themselves faced with unsustainable workloads; patients seeking care at those clinics face long wait times for appointments; and the forced-birth movement has escalated their campaign of clinic harassment in these areas to intimidate abortion patients.

In states with near-total bans, like Alabama, lawmakers are seeking new ways to prevent the termination of an unwanted pregnancy regardless of the circumstances. Alabama lawmakers are contemplating legislation that invokes “chemical endangerment” to criminalize pregnant people — not providers, despite the forced-birth movement’s rhetoric of “defending women” from the “Abortion Complex” — who turn to self-managed medication abortions.

As the forced-birth movement gains ground, this is a critical moment for the reproductive rights movement to reflect, learn from our mistakes, marshal our forces and foment a long-term struggle for abortion rights, demanding for protections that are far more ambitious than those achieved through Roe v. Wade.

The Failures of Liberal Leadership

For too long, supporters of abortion rights trusted in Roe, in the Democratic Party and in a network of professional nonprofits and NGOs to defend reproductive rights. Complacency with this strategy and leadership persisted even as reproductive rights declined across the country, clinics closed, abortion providers were murdered, people were jailed for their pregnancy outcomes and teenagers were forced to carry out dangerous pregnancies. The assault on these rights disproportionately affected low-income workers, Black, Brown and Indigenous people, LGBTQ communities and undocumented persons in need of abortion care. And this erosion of abortion rights and access has been spearheaded by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Democratic politicians had regularly invoked Roe to gain votes and campaign donations and often made rhetorical concessions in order to win votes — like former President Bill Clinton’s mantra of “safe, legal, and rare.” Even the euphemistic terminology of “pro-choice” elides support for abortion as an essential component of the liberation of women, transgender men, trans-masculine people, and everyone who can become pregnant with a general affirmation of the liberal principle of “choice.” In a misguided attempt not to alienate an imagined “middle of the road” voter, Democrats continued to cede ground to the forced-birth movement. Pledges made on the campaign trail to stand up for reproductive rights often were often dropped after elections. For example, Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul — who ran in part on defending abortion access in the state — nominated the anti-abortion Hector LaSalle to New York’s highest court as chief judge. LaSalle ruled against an investigation into a so-called crisis pregnancy center, Evergreen Association, which provided manipulative and potentially dangerous misinformation to pregnant people, such as “reversing” the abortion pill. Crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics in New York. These kinds of actions demonstrate that defending abortion access in New York City cannot be left in the hands of Democratic politicians.

Police Defend Clinic Harassment

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement has taken up increasingly extremist views, appropriating the terminology and logic of “civil disobedience” to reignite campaigns of clinic harassment and clinic invasion. Red Rose Rescue, formed in 2018, is one such campaign. The group’s “rescues” consist of trespassing into a clinic’s waiting room with roses in an attempt to harass and intimidate people who are waiting for appointments. When the police arrive, the invaders resort to tactics like going limp.

These “rescues” are spearheaded by figures such as Christopher “Fidelis” Moscinski and Joan Andrews Bell, who have been active in campaigns of clinic harassment and invasion since the early 1990s. Both of these people have appeared on video, urging their followers to consider what they are willing to sacrifice in order to “defend the unborn.”

Moscinski is also a prominent figure at the Archdiocese of New York’s “Witness for Life” procession. People are usually shocked to learn that in liberal Manhattan, the church leads a monthly procession to harass and intimidate patients at the Planned Parenthood location on Bleecker Street. One member of the congregation even dresses like a Planned Parenthood escort and stands directly in front of the entrance in order to deceive people into talking to her. Perhaps even more shocking is the direct collusion between the church and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to facilitate this procession — despite Mayor Eric Adams administration’s claim that the NYPD will protect abortion access in New York City, as the city becomes a destination for people seeking abortion care.

This past Thursday, January 19, Adams appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show to tout his administration’s support for “a woman’s right to choose.” When one member of NYC for Abortion Rights (NYCFAR) asked him about the police support for Witness for Life, Adams deflected with a defense of “free speech,” saying: “We know that the city is a city of free speech, even when we disagree with the speech … the Police Department has kept people at a safe distance away to allow individuals to walk in and out of a clinic to make sure they get their medical needs. And once they cross that line to go from their right to protest to harassing someone, the Police Department takes the appropriate action.”

Adams clearly is unaware, or unwilling to admit, that anti-abortion groups mob patients from their cars or the subway to the clinic doors, bang on the clinic windows, shout at patients and even follow them away from the clinic as they leave from their appointments.

The NYPD’s notoriously violent Strategic Response Group regularly mobilizes to support the “Witness for Life” procession, whether or not it has a permit. The police do not keep anti-abortionists away from the clinic or help patients enter the clinic safely; in fact, they often claim ignorance of the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act. Rather, they often brutally arrest anyone who attempts to blockade the procession in any way — apparently, “free speech” protections only apply to anti-abortion activists harassing patients at the point of care. NYCFAR (of which I am a member) regularly witnesses the anti-abortionists and the cops colluding amicably at these actions. The connections between police and far right groups have long been documented; trusting in the police to protect spaces which are vulnerable to violence by right-wingers is a tenuous strategy at best. Even as Moscinski has been arrested in multiple states for trespassing into clinics, the NYPD continued to personally escort him directly to Planned Parenthood locations to harass patients, up until this month, when they were forced to abide by the terms of a temporary restraining order preventing him from going within 500 feet of a reproductive health care facility in New York, due to his recent padlocking of an abortion clinic in Long Island. In fact, at this clinic defense, the Strategic Response Group claimed not to know about Moscinski’s temporary restraining order, or where “500 feet of a clinic entrance” was — NYCFAR members had to prove to them that one existed. Without NYCFAR’s persistent intervention, the police would have literally helped Moscinski unlawfully proceed to the clinic — all the while threatening clinic defenders with arrest.

After the 2022 midterms, in which U.S. voters overwhelmingly defended abortion rights in ballot measures, 40 Days for Life — another nationwide anti-abortion organization that also mobilizes in New York City, released an email to its followers stating, “The midterms proved that nothing is more effective at closing an abortion facility than standing outside it, as nearly half of all abortion facilities we’ve closed were in blue states.… There’s no time to whine … we’re going on offense.”

Building a Winning Movement

Something I heard frequently after the Dobbs decision — and after the release of HBO’s documentary on the Jane Collective — was that “we need to bring back the Jane Collective.” But reincarnations of the collective, which was an underground Chicago network that provided safe abortions before Roe, have in fact existed this whole time, as abortion rights have been whittled away in red states. For example, there are many organizations that distribute the abortion pill through the mail such as IneedanA.com, Women on Waves, PlanCPills and Shout Your Abortion. Every supporter of abortion rights can help by familiarizing themselves with how to obtain and use abortion pills in case they, their friends or their community members need an abortion.

For too long, we’ve thought of Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Party as the sole defenders of abortion rights. They aren’t; in fact, they’re latecomers to the struggle and among its most ineffectual partners. Of course, we cannot allow right-wing anti-abortion politicians to assume positions of power and pass anti-abortion legislation. But our movement to oppose the right wing and defend abortion needs to be as strong in the streets as it is at the ballot box. It will take an organized, militant movement of clinic defense, civil disobedience and consciousness-raising to win free abortion on demand — an essential component of our bodily autonomy. Our slogan must be free abortion on demand — not “choice,” not “safe, legal and rare,” not “well, federal funds aren’t being used for abortion anyway,” not “only a fraction of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion-related.” This was the goal of our foremothers in the abortion struggle which won Roe — and it needs to be ours now.