Democrats Voted, and It Didn’t Save Abortion. What Now?

After now 49 years of Roe, in the face of federal inaction, advocates are increasingly focusing on state, local and community activism.

Democrats Voted, and It Didn’t Save Abortion. What Now?
Image:Tasos Katopodis (Getty Images)

Abortion is a constitutionally protected right. That was the promise the Supreme Court made to Americans in 1973. But after decades of targeted restrictions on abortion providers, the right seems just out of reach for millions. Crystal, a Pennsylvania-based abortion care worker, navigates every new hurdle with patients to get to their appointments, whether it’s legislative, economic or practical, but these days, it’s outside factors that get her down. “Anybody working in this field probably feels like we’re going to see the worst this year,” she told Jezebel. “The work gets harder and harder and harder. These last few months have been really difficult.”

Providing and receiving abortion care is only going to get more grim this year. Saturday is the 49th and possibly last anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the anniversary comes after a chilling year for bodily autonomy. In December, the ultra-conservative Supreme Court heard arguments to directly challenge the constitutionality of abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which capped off a year that saw 108 abortion restrictions passed in 19 states. After the passage of Texas’ S.B. 8 banning abortion after 6 weeks and instituting civil actions against anyone who aided or abetted an abortion in September, conservative state legislatures tripped over each other to pass their own Texas-style abortion bans, all while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across our respiratory systems.

All while Democrats hold power in Congress and the White House.

Even as a party that explicitly endorsed abortion rights in its platform, Democratic lawmakers have few gains in reproductive rights to show their constituents, leaving many advocates disappointed by federal inaction from a president who can’t seem to bring himself to utter the word abortion.

“It’s my position that Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same coin, and regardless of party, it’s our job as constituents to hold these people accountable or fire them,” Toni Watkins, voter mobilization director of URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity), told Jezebel.

This year, with midterm elections on the horizon, Watkins is leading URGE’s electoral organizing efforts in a three-pronged approach to advance reproductive justice at the ballot box by “identifying the issues that move people to vote, identifying the barriers that they face in accessing their right to vote,” and then “registering the tens of thousands of people in our key states that are turning 18” before the election.

“Young, Black and brown voters are the most impacted by reproductive justice issues — it’s our families that are torn apart by the criminal justice system, our mothers who are most likely to die in childbirth, our elderly that are denied health care, our children that live in food deserts,” Watkins said. Yet, young people of color have historically been excluded from both voter mobilization efforts, and a national reproductive rights movement that’s historically centered cis, white women and ignored varying barriers and experiences that disproportionately impact the reproductive lives of people of color.

Watkins believes mobilization on the state and local levels, inclusive of communities of color, will be critical to advancing reproductive justice, as federal legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which would protect reproductive health providers’ right to provide care, and toothless pledges from Congressional Democrats and the White House to “codify Roe,” stagnate. That’s why URGE is particularly focused on state and local elections and ballot measures this year — and it’s not alone.

Sister District was founded in 2016 by an all-women leadership team to partner — or “sister” — volunteers from strongly Democratic state legislative districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts in other states, to help flip legislatures across the country, and enact a progressive legislative agenda. With midterms on the horizon, Lala Wu, executive director and co-founder of Sister District, sees state legislatures as “a critically overlooked venue of power” to protect and even expand reproductive rights across the country.

“I hope this isn’t the last anniversary of Roe v. Wade,” Wu told Jezebel. “But if it is, then we’re going to have to do a full court press on every strategy, and building progressive power at the state level is going to be key.”

One issue that’s led to a groundswell of Republican, anti-abortion power in the majority of state legislatures, Wu says, is a tendency for many Democratic voters to pay attention only to the name at the top of the ticket, overlooking critical down-ballot races and, in many cases, leading to the election of anti-abortion extremists who enact laws like Texas’ SB8. “We know voters might be tired from this very long pandemic, and the continuing shadow for 2020, and not wanting to be involved anymore,” she said. “But it’s more important now than ever to stay engaged, to pay attention to what’s happening all the way down the ballot, to engage in every form of activism from voting and volunteering to mutual aid.”

State Innovation Exchange’s Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council (RFLC) trains and supports state legislators across the country who are championing abortion access and reproductive freedom in their legislatures, which have been sites for both some of the most repressive and progressive abortion laws in the country. Jennifer Driver, the senior director of RFLC, says she’s felt encouraged by their “proactive legislators who are really working toward healthy communities, beyond just fighting back against abortion bans,” including lawmakers in legislatures from Kentucky to Tennessee introducing bills to address high Black maternal mortality rates.

Whenever an abortion ban like Texas’ SB8 draws national attention, Driver says she’s sometimes concerned by the responses of those who see these outcomes only as an opportunity to mobilize “pro-choice” voters, and ignore the devastating ramifications these bans carry for pregnant people and those already marginalized by the health care system.

“To mobilize a base can’t be the only strategy — the strategy should be, how do we ensure that we have healthy communities? We need abortion access for that,” Driver said. “It’s not just about getting people to vote, it’s about saving our communities.

Driver says RFLC legislators’ efforts to build healthy communities and access to reproductive care sometimes extends beyond their day-to-day legislative work, as they recognize “the connection between voter mobilization and voting rights, and reproductive justice.” According to Driver, some RFLC legislators have “organized simultaneously” working with abortion funds — like Selene Colborne, a Vermont state representative who helped run an abortion fund in her state before joining the House.

While state legislatures present a critical avenue to enact legislative change that pregnant people may experience most directly in their day-to-day lives, mutual aid and community care have always existed to bridge the gaps of government shortcomings, and the systemic neglect of poor people of color. Even with Roe in place for 49 years now, instead of looking to the government and elections for saviors, people seeking abortion care have long created solutions within their own communities: abortion funds, which meet the unique needs of the localities they serve, and have sometimes worked with municipal governments to create public city abortion funds, like in Austin, Portland and New York.

The infrastructure to address the crises affecting abortion access, today, already exists on the community level. This week, abortion funds across the country launched Abortion Within Reach, a vision for the future of abortion access. The demands came from a working group of a dozen or so abortion fund operators working across the country, Chicago Abortion Fund program manager Qudsiyyah Shariyf told Jezebel. One of the key demands is targeted and long-term philanthropic giving to abortion funds. It turns out funds are good at getting people the help they need: The Chicago Abortion Fund fielded 183 calls in 2018, and quickly scaled up to answer more than 3,700 calls for patients in need in 2021.

CAF also has experience working in a state that allows Medicaid coverage for abortion care, allowing it to use the fund’s budget to reach even more patients. “We need to invest in abortion funds because abortion funds deserve that support and are already leading in creating models of support that work for our communities,” Shariyf told Jezebel.

Abortion funds see the consequences of years of anti-abortion legislation and inaction from Democratic lawmakers every single day. Abortion Within Reach has a number of demands that want to increase access. For example, in Arizona abortion via telemedicine is illegal. “Given the geographical landscape, most of our clinics are located in Phoenix, but a lot of our work involves rural communities,” Abortion Fund of Arizona Executive Director Eloisa Lopez told Jezebel. What we see is usually those patients will face the most barriers, and a percentage of them will not be able to access abortion at all.”

Across the country, as of Oct. 2021, the National Network of Abortion Funds includes 92 member funds, which supported close to 200,000 callers seeking abortion care and dispersed $9,437,004 to callers between July 2019 and June 2020, per a report from last year.

As bleak as the political landscape may be for reproductive rights right now, there’s some cause for hope if you look closely enough, mostly on local and state levels. For instance, even within a legal system stacked with Trump-appointed judges, just earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a guidance to state police departments to not criminalize or prosecute people for their pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriages possibly induced by substance use, or self-managed abortions.

Watkins believes radical optimism is essential to preserving and expanding our rights — and as is following the leadership of young people. “If you cannot visualize victory, it is not possible,” she said. “History shows us the power of camaraderie, collective power, and young people power, especially. I’m so encouraged by the righteous anger that I see in the youth of America, that mirrors that same righteous anger that led to us getting the rights we’re working to protect, today, in the first place.”

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