In Los Angeles in early May, I woke up at 5:30 am to a barrage of texts and phone calls. The day before, the Alabama Legislature had passed a law banning abortion completely. This move came on the heels of the Georgia General Assembly criminalizing abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. I was in LA with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to talk to film industry leaders about how they could challenge that law, given their extensive investments in her state. The Alabama ban was a tipping point, and women across the country were rising in anger, frustration, and disgust over the attacks on our reproductive freedoms.
Among the calls were several from presidential contenders who wanted to put together plans to address the erosion of reproductive rights by the Trump administration and the state-level attacks that started years ago in the form of 20-week bans, mandatory waiting periods, forced ultrasounds, and much more. In all, 20 presidential candidates spoke out that day.
It hadn’t always been so. In 2016, when reproductive freedom and justice groups pushed debate moderators to ask then–presidential primary candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders about the threats to reproductive rights as a part of the #AskAboutAbortion campaign, we were mostly dismissed by the media and the political elite. Despite the attacks on reproductive freedom that were well underway, many in the Democratic Party and the progressive movement didn’t understand the toll of these escalating assaults on the ability of women to access abortion, birth control, and prenatal care—not coincidentally, assaults that are primarily felt by poor women, rural women, immigrant women, and women of color. Given the complacency of many at the top, including in the media, only one question was asked about abortion rights during the primary debates—the very last one.
Clinton and Sanders were both pro-choice, so people scoffed, “Why should we waste our time on that?” Having our concerns minimized came as no surprise to those of us who do the work. We explained again and again that pro-choice values are great, but we expect plans.
To their credit, Clinton and Sanders didn’t shy away from the issue. When asked, they were aggressive in response, and as the nominee, Clinton led the charge to insert in the Democratic Party platform a call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion services. Still, the conversation existed on the margins for most pundits and observers.
That brings us to today. Through fiat in the federal agencies and an unapologetic takeover of the judicial system, President Donald Trump has thrust the question of access to abortion—and all it represents about control and freedom—to the center of the 2020 presidential election.
So far, the Democratic field has risen to the occasion. Candidates have advanced explicit positions on abortion rights, and all the major ones support the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the decades-long discrimination it embodies. That commitment was tested this year when Joe Biden reversed his stance on the issue—vowing to lift the ban on abortion funding for low-income women after quick and severe public criticism.
This progress is due to the painstaking work of those raising the alarm year after year, even when too few listened. In 2014, All Above All, a leader in the reproductive justice movement, began educating people on the evils of the Hyde Amendment and calling for its repeal. Six years ago Wendy Davis, then a state legislator, mounted her famous filibuster against Texas’s 20-week abortion ban. The backlash against that law was enormous, and it planted seeds of resistance against today’s bans. Legislators in the anti-choice movement knew their agenda was unpopular and that they were living on borrowed time. So they moved quickly and quietly to introduce bills designed to outlaw certain kinds of abortions, shame women out of choosing the procedure, and shut down clinics. These lawmakers used every trick available to jam these bills through, convening special legislative sessions and hijacking unrelated legislative efforts. In North Carolina, a bill to impose restrictions on abortion clinics was even attached to a motorcycle safety bill.
Trump’s victory heralded the end of this stealth approach. But as state-level bans sweep the nation, so does an awareness of what’s at stake. The vast majority of American adults—77 percent, according to a 2019 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll—support legal access to abortion, an increase even from last year. Support is overwhelming among Democratic voters, who have had it with the reproductive oppression enabled by misogyny. It’s undeniable that left and liberal candidates must take these issues seriously if they are to be competitive. People who understand that the freedom to access abortion is inextricably part of our fight for gender equity are marching and resisting in record numbers.
This is an inflection point, and it’s crucial to treat Roe v. Wade as the floor of what we need and not the ceiling. The next president will have massive challenges in digging our nation out of the hole we find ourselves in. Fortunately, the contenders for the Democratic nomination have some ideas. The crisis requires dedicated resources and attention, which would be part of Cory Booker’s call for a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom. The crisis requires nominating judges to all levels of the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, who would protect reproductive freedom, as promised by former candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke and current contenders Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro, among others. The crisis requires innovative thinking about the relationship between state and federal government, like the proposal put forward by Kamala Harris, whose plan models the preclearance process in the Voting Rights Act, stipulating that the most regressive states get permission from the Justice Department before a new abortion law takes effect. The crisis requires a health care plan that includes coverage of comprehensive reproductive care, like the one proposed by Bernie Sanders. And the crisis requires us to address the increased threats to and violence against abortion clinics, as proposed in Elizabeth Warren’s plan. And of course, the next president must push to codify Roe into statute; repeal the Hyde Amendment permanently; remove the global gag rule, which bars giving federal funds to any foreign health organization that provides abortion or even discusses it as an option; and reinstate Title X funding for Planned Parenthood and other full-service reproductive health care providers.
These plans—and the fact that several presidential candidates vowed during the Democratic debates to restore reproductive rights, even when they weren’t asked about them—are a good start. Still, all of that should be the minimum. To adequately confront this moment, we have to elect pro-choice champions. Congress will be instrumental in safeguarding our reproductive rights, and perhaps more than anything, we need a national leader who can convey with moral clarity and conviction what’s at stake. The Trump administration is a manifestation of a radical anti-choice movement’s deep misogyny and racism. Extremists in the White House have used this opportunity to move an anti-science agenda and force their narrow moral code on all Americans. We need the exact opposite in our next president.
In a dystopian move, the Trump administration has tracked the periods and pregnancies of migrant women being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers to prevent them from having abortions—a move that implicitly acknowledges the sexual violence experienced by these women on their travels and in detention. This White House has put people in charge of our family planning programs who do not believe in contraception and have pursued a strict abstinence-only, sex-shaming agenda. This administration moved funds away from Planned Parenthood and other comprehensive health care providers to fake clinics that lie about everything from abortion to contraception.
Of course, the crowning achievement of this administration is to install justices on the Supreme Court dedicated to gutting Roe and criminalizing abortion. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of multiple sexual assaults, to the nation’s highest court by a president who is an alleged serial sexual predator himself sent a clear message: We will have no rights to, no ability to feel safe in our own bodies. This president and the anti-choice movement that put him over the top in 2016 see our personal agency as something to gleefully extinguish.
This spring, emboldened by a president who said women should be punished for seeking abortion, Texas held a hearing on a law that would allow prosecutors to impose the death penalty on women who terminate their pregnancies. And in many states, women are fodder for test cases to establish the statutory rights of a fertilized egg over those of the person carrying it. In Alabama, Marshae Jones was charged with manslaughter after being shot in the stomach and losing her pregnancy. Although the charges were dropped, the message was clear: Our ability to reproduce can and will be wielded as a weapon to keep us in our place. Left unchecked, this is the future for all women, just as it is the present for the less powerful voices among them.
So therein lies the challenge. The mantle of leadership is not in seeking a return to a pre-Trump status quo that was already victimizing so many. It’s certainly not in treating the anti-choice movement as a benign force that we have a mild disagreement with. The leader we need will realize that he or she has a mandate to move policy that recognizes reproductive rights for what they are: the nucleus of gender equity and a fundamental guarantee without which women will never be free.