What Will It Take to Build a Mass Movement for Abortion Rights?

What Will It Take to Build a Mass Movement for Abortion Rights?

What Will It Take to Build a Mass Movement for Abortion Rights?

It’s time to turn a committed core of supporters into a force capable of reclaiming what has been lost.


On December 1, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices sat down to consider how, exactly, they might overturn Roe v. Wade. During arguments over Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Justice Amy Coney Barrett seemed to suggest that being forced to give birth is no big deal, because you can drop the baby off at a designated “safe haven” for adoption. Justice Brett Kavanaugh rattled off a list of times the court has overturned precedent, suggesting he is considering doing just that when it comes to abortion.

Outside the court, abortion rights advocates like Jessy Rosales were already thinking beyond Roe. Five years ago, as a low-income student at the University of California, Riverside, Rosales had an abortion. At the time she had no car, struggled to find a clinic, and faced a long wait for an appointment when she did find one. By the time she had her abortion, she was past 15 weeks. As she stood flanked by thousands of people at competing rallies on the pro- and anti-choice sides, Rosales said she started sharing her story to break the isolation she felt. Now she is part of a growing movement of activists who have set out to help the public understand just how relevant abortion is to their daily lives.

“Who’s ready to liberate abortion today?” Renee Bracey Sherman, the executive director of the abortion storytelling organization We Testify, shouted from the podium. Such slogans made it clear that many advocates assume that the court, with its three Trump appointees, will not uphold their rights and are rallying their base around a full-throated rejection of abortion shame and stigma in anticipation of the fight to come. By sharing their stories, advocates like Bracey Sherman are doing the painstaking work of turning what is now a committed core of supporters into a mass movement capable of reclaiming what has been lost.

That’s what the other side did after 1973. The Roe decision was a cataclysm for the anti-abortion movement. Overnight, abortion went from being legal in a minority of states to being legal nationwide. That galvanized anti-choice people who were already engaged in the movement, motivated new activists to get involved, and provided a single target upon which the movement focused in the years that followed.

The abortion rights movement has had no such cataclysm—yet. Instead, the right to abortion has been eroded over time by incremental defeats, starting with the loss of access for many who rely on Medicaid and for residents of states like South Dakota and Texas, which have extensive restrictions and a dwindling number of clinics. For years, abortion rights advocates have tried their best to fill these gaps in access, fundraising to pay for abortions while enduring a rising sense of frustration that the wider public doesn’t seem to get how bad the situation is.

It now seems likely that the cataclysm will come by June. But if people are hoping for a mass movement of abortion rights supporters to arrive the day after the court issues its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, they are likely to be disappointed, say historians who study the anti-abortion movement. After all, overturning Roe took almost 50 years of organizing on a foundation laid before 1973.

Roe transformed an already robust anti-abortion movement,” said Gillian Frank, a historian and cohost of the podcast Sexing History. “They rapidly moved from defense to offense.”

By going on the offensive against legal abortion, anti-abortion leaders built a mass movement that was able to capture the Republican Party, federal courts, and state legislatures. The groundwork for that success was laid at the grassroots level, in “the intimate places of [people’s] lives,” said Jennifer Holland, an associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. Anti-abortion activists made their way into churches, sex education classrooms, and Sunday schools, often using tiny plastic models of fetuses to help people “imagine fetal life as essential to their own sense of self,” Holland said. “They have been incredibly good at doing the small things.”

Building a mass movement in favor of abortion rights will require a similarly intimate strategy. That’s where the storytellers come in.

“If you’ve had an abortion and you haven’t shared your story with someone you love, please do,” Bracey Sherman of We Testify said, closing out the six-hour rally outside the court. “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion.”

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