The Limits of the Mainstream Abortion Rights Movement

The six-week ban in Texas is spurring a reckoning with the effectiveness of the mainstream abortion movement

In Depth
The Limits of the Mainstream Abortion Rights Movement

A little more than a week before Texas’s six-week abortion ban went into effect, a spokesperson for Physicians for Reproductive Health, a national doctor-led advocacy group, received an odd email. The message was from a staff member at NARAL, who said they were seeking feedback on plans to send out a fundraising blast for S.B. 8. According to Kelsey Rhodes, the email’s recipient, the NARAL staffer explained that the group intended to “send part of the proceeds to an abortion fund in the state,” but didn’t know which one was best. (On Wednesday, a federal judge halted S.B. 8.)

Rhodes wrote back and said that she didn’t think it was a good idea for a national organization like NARAL to be fundraising off the state law, especially if NARAL was going to hold onto some of the donations. She pointed out that no single abortion fund was best-suited to receiving the funds; there are several doing grassroots organizing in Texas. But that week NARAL tweeted out a call to action for the Texas law, linking to a page with a petition to support the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) that made no mention of local abortion funds. A few days later, the group also sent out a fundraising email informing its members about the dangers of S.B. 8, which included a link at the bottom to donate directly to NARAL. Earlier emails, in April and early August, had similarly sounded the alarm about S.B. 8 and entreated members to make donations to the organization to “help protect access to abortion care before it’s too late.”

The move drew swift backlash. NARAL’s Twitter mentions drew replies from abortion rights organizers who accused the organization of diverting money from smaller direct-action groups. Following the online criticism, NARAL posted multiple tweets and sent out emails with a link for people to donate directly to Texas abortion funds. Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of Avow, a Texas-based advocacy group, said NARAL only reached out about helping her with fundraising after being called out by leaders in an email. Kristin Ford, NARAL’s Acting VP of Communications and Research, says she reached out to Arrambide days before their August 27th tweet.

A NARAL spokesperson confirmed to Jezebel that staff had reached out to multiple groups on the ground and national partners, like Rhodes, to “figure out how to be most helpful in addition to our advocacy [work] and shaping the national dialogue.”

“It was all part of an integrated strategy, where we had a digital campaign, a landing page [for WHPA] and then social media fundraisers for Avow and other abortion funds in Texas,” the spokesperson said.

An incident like this could easily be written off as a simple miscommunication, but organizers leading smaller groups say it’s indicative of a deeper dynamic within the movement, which for decades has been operating on two planes. Large nonprofits like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have worked primarily on the national level, lobbying the White House and members of Congress, crafting policy, and using their well-staffed communications teams to shape the way many talk and think about abortion. Historically led by white women, these nonprofits also have boards of directors and multimillion-dollar budgets, usually funded by some combination of government grants, wealthy donors, and their vast membership bases.

In contrast, on the state and local level, there are dozens of groups that typically take a more hands-on (and, some would argue, full-throated) approach to their advocacy. Abortion funds work out the logistics of getting people to and from clinics and often pay for travel, lodging, and childcare as well as the procedure itself. The people who coordinate this care—largely on a volunteer basis—view their work as bridging the gap between the legal right to abortion and accessibility. Since Roe v. Wade, the two have only been tenuously connected.

These groups aren’t necessarily at odds with one another. But grassroots organizers have learned that the inner workings of their movement can be zero-sum. The limited funds, resources, and attention have historically been funneled into two major national groups seen as the de facto leaders of the movement, leaving other organizations chronically underfunded and struggling for recognition. A recent study on philanthropic giving found that of the $912 million people gave to reproductive rights between 2015 and 2019, just 3 percent went to abortion funds. Many of these funds are run by women of color, and all of the country’s 50 or so reproductive justice organizations are led by people of color.

Organizers say this lopsided relationship has left them ill-equipped to deal with the hundreds of anti-abortion bills that come out of state legislatures every year, many of them abortion bans like the one in Texas. (So far in 2021, there have been 561 abortion restrictions introduced across 47 states, according to Guttmacher Institute.) While Planned Parenthood and NARAL may create campaigns for individual states or rally their bases around new legislation, the bulk of the work is left to grassroots groups. Unlike national organizations, small state-level groups don’t have the bandwidth to preempt anti-abortion laws in their states or even get national attention on them before they’re passed.

As a result, anti-abortion opponents, whose strategy is almost entirely focused on the state level, have found an opening to steadily chip away at abortion rights. With the landscape of abortion access liable to get much worse, many believe it’s urgent to address a problem that some argue has set the movement back years. This isn’t the complaint of any single activist, but rather a rift that has split like a seam within the movement as escalating attacks have made abortion rights organizing more critical than ever.

“Big national orgs use our pain, our stories, what’s going on in our regions and in our states, and they get all of this money for it—to do what?” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, the executive director of the Alabama-based abortion fund Yellowhammer. “That’s the big question—to do what?”

Not everyone feels optimistic about the potential for national groups that have been around for decades to change. Multiple people who spoke to Jezebel for this piece began by saying they were tired of talking about the fraught dynamics in the movement over and over. “We have similar goals, but not always the same goal,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the founder of the abortion storytelling group We Testify. “Some folks are trying to fix the patchwork system [of legal abortion access] as it exists right now. Some folks are OK with there being cops at their events. Some folks take donations from corporations that are actively doing harm to people in our communities.”

In 2008, NARAL had 25 state-level affiliates, groups that took the national organization’s name but acted largely independently, setting their own agendas and creating their own messaging. These groups didn’t share NARAL’s membership or funding, though sometimes the affiliates were invited to participate in joint fundraising campaigns. Over the next decade, as the Tea Party flourished during the Obama administration, taking over state houses and local government, the number of these affiliates dwindled to just 11, with some groups breaking off from NARAL to rebrand and, perhaps, distance themselves from the organization, which faced a reckoning last year over how predominantly white leadership treated women of color on staff. (Earlier this year the group’s longtime president Ilyse Hogue stepped down.)

In July 2021, NARAL announced it was ending its affiliate structure altogether and adopting a “chapter” model, meaning that people working for state groups would become NARAL staffers. As Amanda Terkel explained at HuffPost, the shift allowed NARAL to exercise “more control over strategy, communications and policies.”

Affiliates who felt they were being pushed out of the national organization pointed to the decision as another example of NARAL taking resources away from state-level organizations when they needed them most. It also highlighted the extent to which NARAL and its affiliates weren’t on the same page about things like strategy and communication.

A NARAL spokesperson told Jezebel that chapters will share the national organization’s core values, but retain the flexibility to tailor their messaging to their regions. “Our shift to this new organizational model is not a scaling back of work at the state-based level,” the spokesperson said. “It’s a way of scaling up our state-based work, empowering our staff and having an aligned and integrated strategy across the country.”

We like to say we ‘heart’ abortion or that we’re pro-abortion, because we don’t want to perpetuate stigma

Arrambide, who formed Avow (formerly NARAL Pro-Choice Texas) after leaving NARAL in January, said the groups often had differences in opinion over the best way to approach abortion rights advocacy. In 2019, for example, NARAL pivoted to embracing the term “reproductive freedom” after an outside consulting firm provided the group with polling about a segment of voters who did not personally support abortion, but were opposed to government interference with the procedure. Arrambide doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with the phrase, which is in fact a framework created by women of color, but in Texas, she thinks it’s important not to shy away from saying “abortion,” a word the anti-abortion camp often uses more than anyone else.

“We like to say we ‘heart’ abortion or that we’re pro-abortion, because we don’t want to perpetuate stigma,” Arrambide said. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas (and now Avow) was also firm on wanting to use gender-inclusive language to talk about abortion, which she said NARAL pushed back on because polling showed stronger responses when slogans focused on women. NARAL has said in the past that this research was conducted with the intent to reach “conflicted voters” who may not be totally onboard with abortion rights. But the issue resurfaced recently, when an unnamed former senior leader in the movement told Politico that the concern over “using the right language of the moment” meant winning wasn’t a “priority” for abortion rights advocates.

“When you’re shifting culture there isn’t going to be high polling rates,” Arrambide said. “We’re trying to change the norm, so we did it anyway.”

What Arrambide describes may be one of the biggest disconnects in the abortion rights movement. Though many people who spoke to Jezebel pointed out that Planned Parenthood in particular has gotten better about its messaging, the mainstream movement still heavily relies on terms like “choice” and “safe and legal” to talk about abortion. (The former, grassroots activists argue, only applies to wealthy white women, the longtime focus of abortion rights organizing, while the phrase “safe” and “legal” can suggest that abortions that are illegal—for example, any abortion after six weeks in Texas right now—must also be unsafe.) Long ago, leaders of mainstream abortion rights and feminist groups decided against calling the movement “pro-abortion” for fear of backlash.

The preferences in rhetoric are often indicative of structural differences within these organizations: Whereas larger national nonprofits tend to focus on legal rights, many abortion funds and grassroots groups consider themselves reproductive justice (RJ) organizations, adopting the framework established by Black women in the 1990s. The framework aims to abolish the idea of abortion as a single issue and address the other factors that impact people’s bodily autonomy, like police violence, climate change, and class.

In 2014, Monica Simpson, the founder of Georgia-based RJ group SisterSong, wrote an open letter to Planned Parenthood pointing out instances in which the organization failed to connect attacks on abortion to other political fights resulting in losses for people of color. Three years earlier, Planned Parenthood was battling a fetal personhood amendment in Mississippi, which would have criminalized abortion and miscarriages. Also on the ballot was a voter ID law threatening to infringe on Black people’s right to vote in the state. Though organizations like SisterSong asked Planned Parenthood to tackle both issues, the group focused its energies on the personhood measure. The fetal personhood amendment was defeated, but the voter ID passed into law.

“Marginalized communities know all too well how challenging it is to live in a world where we can be violated, killed, or criminalized just for the color of our skin, our gender identity, or who we love,” Simpson wrote in the 2011 letter, which was signed by nearly 40 organizations. “We also know how difficult it is to provide the programs and services to our respective communities when we are all struggling for the same limited resources.”

Simpson told Jezebel that she’s seen Planned Parenthood be somewhat responsive to the demands in the letter—Planned Parenthood is now led by a woman of color, for example—but the general divide between large nonprofits and Black-led reproductive groups still persists.

“We’re so underfunded,” Simpson said of SisterSong and other RJ orgs. “I don’t think there’s a lot of trust in us to lead the movement.”

Some Black activists in the movement said they feel tokenized by larger groups after being called up at the last minute to attend conferences and events, or invited to “collaborate” for the sole purpose of making a predominantly white organization look more diverse. “We get to come, put our photos on Instagram, and for the cost of getting us there they get to act like they had a bunch of women of color from the South at their event,” said Bertram Roberts, the head of Yellowhammer.

Bracey Sherman, the We Testify founder, said the experience is often like being the “Black best friend” or a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant.

Some Black activists in the movement said they feel tokenized by larger groups after being called up at the last minute to attend conferences and events, or invited to “collaborate” for the sole purpose of making a predominantly white organization look more diverse

In the past, when organizers have wanted to level criticism against national groups in the movement, some of them have asked to go off-record or described the tensions only in veiled terms. Others have hastened to add that Planned Parenthood and NARAL play an essential role fighting expensive legal battles. More outspoken critics are often accused of promoting infighting, or distracting from whatever crisis is happening at the moment. And often it’s Black women who face these charges.

“If national orgs were fighting on the state level we would not be where we are right now; that’s just facts,” Bertram Roberts said. “Everyone’s like, ‘I want all the attention on Texas.’ That’s great, but you know why we have to do that? Because we didn’t have all the attention on Texas 10 years ago, or any of these other states where the Tea Party was taking over.”

Many say the mainstream movement has been hamstrung by its aversion to risk, a tendency they attribute to the funding streams and big-dollar donors larger organizations rely on to continue operating. In the early 2000s, one of the biggest fights in the reproductive rights movement was to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve over-the-counter Plan B. Jenny Brown, an activist based in Florida, was trying to put pressure on the agency with a group of about 30 organizers who made up Gainesville Women’s Liberation (later to become National Women’s Liberation). The small grassroots group wanted to get the FDA to agree to full access to OTC emergency contraception without any restrictions, but Brown said Planned Parenthood and NARAL preached caution. According to Brown, leaders of those groups were worried about the optics of advocating for teenagers’ right to access the pills and suggested aiming for a smaller victory instead, like getting emergency contraception available in emergency rooms for rape victims.

“We looked at our own experience, and realized that most of us who had needed the morning-after pill in the past hadn’t needed it because we were raped,” Brown said. “And those of us who had been raped hadn’t gone to the ER. So this wouldn’t have helped any of us and yet this was the immediate go-to [proposal] for the nonprofit leaders we talked to.”

While the Center for Reproductive Rights handled many of the legal battles around the issue, Brown and the NWL took actions that CRR and other major nonprofits found too radical and confrontational. NWL sent a letter to the FDA, signed by thousands of supporters, informing the agency that they were prepared to break the law and hand out emergency contraception to people. At protests, Brown and her fellow organizers found doctors willing to write prescriptions for the medication and passed out the pills illegally. They held a sit-in at the FDA, blocking the entrance to the agency’s Maryland headquarters, and nine women, including Brown, were arrested. (Notably, NWL also tied its Plan B advocacy to larger calls for universal health care, a demand that was still on the margins of mainstream politics and virtually nonexistent in the larger abortion movement.)

In 2013, the Obama administration ordered the FDA to approve OTC emergency contraception for all ages. Brown believes the victory was only possible because independent reproductive rights groups made radical demands.”We were constantly being counseled not to do any of the things that were our most successful tactics,” Brown said.

Organizers see versions of these dynamics playing out on the ground in Texas and across the country right now. Since self-managed or at-home abortion is criminalized in several states, groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL don’t advocate for this method of abortion, even though it is safe and effective. Smaller grassroots groups are doing the work of both getting people in Texas to bordering states for abortions and educating them about the full range of their options after six weeks.

It was only on Sept. 24 that a major abortion-rights group came out in support of abolishing the Senate filibuster, a huge obstacle to passing federal legislation codifying Roe. Earlier this year, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson told Politico that the organization was “supportive” of other groups opposing the filibuster, “but it’s not our focus.” A NARAL official said leadership was “watching the conversation really closely.” Some have defended the groups’ position on the filibuster, arguing that abortion supporters may need to use the filibuster for their own ends if Republicans take the Senate. But there’s nothing stopping Republicans from abolishing the filibuster if they do indeed regain the majority. Anti-abortion opponents are not nearly as careful about power grabs.

The filibuster isn’t just an impediment to protecting abortion rights. Eliminating the government procedure would allow Democrats to counteract infringements on voting rights, pass gun control legislation, advance immigration reforms, and shore up civil rights protections, which RJ groups see as intersecting with reproductive rights. Though Planned Parenthood and NARAL will issue press releases and calls to action for some of these causes, grassroots advocates say they have not fully adopted the reproductive justice model.

Brown said that in doing so, the national organizations have unwittingly shrunk their bases. While the majority of Americans support legal abortion, many struggle to see their place in the mainstream movement. Younger generations have prioritized issues like climate change and police violence ahead of abortion. By reducing the fight for abortion to one primarily for legal rights, groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have struggled to establish the solidarity and goodwill with other movements that could expand their own.

“Asking the Supreme Court to please give us abortion rights is not going to be effective,” Brown said. “We have to frame this issue as a crisis of democracy, unite with other movements, and demonstrate a show of force. There are a lot of people who are willing to take a risk or do something a little transgressive if they see their role in the fight.”

Asking the Supreme Court to please give us abortion rights is not going to be effective

The organizers who spoke to Jezebel had different theories about what should happen next. Bertram Roberts and Simpson both said it’s not necessarily a bad thing if both arms of the abortion movement simply “stay in their lanes,” with large national groups continuing to focus on federal policy and legal battles and smaller groups taking on advocacy in their individual states as well as the everyday work of helping people access the procedure. A “unified” movement need not be one that speaks with one voice, Bertram Roberts said: “In my opinion, it’s better if there’s a plethora of us out here,” she said. “If you only see a couple of voices then what does that look like? A couple of voices. Our movement is way bigger than that.”

Bertram Roberts and some others, however, contend that it would be preferable if some of the groups—particularly those that don’t provide clinic services—disbanded. It may be that whatever good they do for the movement is outweighed by their hindrance of more radical, intersectional organizing. “I think Planned Parenthood looks a lot different than it did five years ago, and I appreciate their growth,” Arrambide said. “I think NARAL missed the opportunity to uplift the work states were doing and pour resources into that infrastructure. They just missed the mark completely and I think that’s unfortunate.”

The NARAL spokesperson told Jezebel that their national platform is important for the movement, particularly since anti-abortion legislation typically spreads from state-to-state in near-identical form. The group said it also has the ability to endorse candidates and expose anti-abortion lawmakers, which some organizations can’t do because of their 501(c)(3) status. “We do have a role to play and a place in this movement,” the spokesperson said. “We do different work and want to complement other people’s work so everyone can thrive and have the resources they need.”

But smaller abortion funds are looking more to each other for support (though many of them will continue to partner with national orgs as a matter of necessity). Arrambide said the heads of former NARAL affiliates are in constant communication, especially during a crisis like the one in Texas; because anti-abortion lawmakers pass so many of the same laws across the country, they often talk strategy. And though funds are already part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, Bertram Roberts hinted at new efforts to form coalitions at the grassroots level, so organizations like hers aren’t so dependent on the Planned Parenthoods and NARALs of the movement.

“There are conversations happening right now about what a strong abortion fund coalition looks like and how that might involve mutual aid networks and things like that,” she said. “And we’re thinking about what it looks like to build power within those networks so we no longer have to point to big national orgs and say, ‘‘Hey! We’re with them!’”

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect Kristin Ford’s statement that NARAL reached out to Aimee Arrambide prior to their August tweet. Arrambide’s language has also been updated to more accurately reflect the timeline.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the nature of Avow’s organizing; it’s an advocacy group, not an abortion fund.

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