In the wake of Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, it’s tempting to blame the pro-choice movement. Blaming ourselves: Isn’t that what we progressives, especially women, love to do? Somehow, it’s our fault—for being too white/middle-class/respectable, too beholden to the Democratic Party in return for too few crumbs. Always throwing money at unwinnable races, allowing abortion to be stigmatized (“safe, legal, and rare”), maintaining bloated organizations that lumber and creak and resist change. It’s all true—I’ve written that piece many times. But today I’m not so sure any of that would have mattered. The truth is, Donald Trump came to power despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million, enabling Mitch McConnell to ruthlessly engineer the current right-wing Catholic anti-abortion Supreme Court majority, and here we are. The crisis of abortion is a crisis of democracy.
Whoever is in Alito’s majority, none of them care about public opinion, which is majority pro-Roe. Nor, apparently, do they seriously consider the many terrible consequences of forcing so many women into unwanted childbirth. (They can always give the baby away, as Amy Coney Barrett suggested helpfully.) They’re in their own theocratic bubble, where anything goes if it supports the holy cause—where, for example, Alito can approvingly cite Matthew Hale, a 17th-century British jurist who sentenced two women to execution as witches and wrote an influential treatise permitting men to rape their wives. Superstitious? Misogynistic? They just don’t care.
In the face of this disaster, it’s tempting to rant and rave. There’s been a lot of that, in print and online, and that’s fine. We need passion, articulate and splendid passion, to spur us to the work ahead. But this time I’m going to leave the rage and fire to others—take it away, Rebecca Traister! Instead, I want to think out loud here about what that work might be.
First, we need to bolster abortion rights and access wherever possible, and that means winning elections wherever possible. Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for Choice, tells me that the pro-choice movement has little to show for its electoral efforts in red states (remember the massive shower of gold for Wendy Davis?) and should shift its focus to shoring up blue states and providing actual services, such as organizing travel from abortion-ban states. I’m with her on strengthening blue states, but I don’t agree about abandoning the red ones. Taking back state legislatures and governorships will be the work of many years—and we can probably be smarter about choosing our battles—but whittling away at anti-choice majorities in the red states has to be on our to-do list, or our problems will only grow worse.
Kissling is certainly right, though, that there’s work to be done in Blue America. Currently, 16 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have enshrined legal abortion in their constitutions or statutes; we need all blue and purple states to do so, because the forces that came for abortion in the red states will come hard at them now. My part-time home state of Connecticut is a shining star here. This month it passed not only state constitutional protection of abortion, but laws protecting providers, abortion travelers, and those who help them from the legal reach of abortion-ban states. Connecticut now explicitly codifies the right of some non-MD medical workers to perform some abortions and give out abortion pills.
Second, Kissling argues, we need to energize (polite word) the whole medical profession and hold it to account. Many medical schools don’t teach the procedure. We need to force them to do so as part of routine gynecological care, because that is what it is. And what about hospitals? The economics of running a stand-alone clinic can be pretty daunting, especially given low reimbursement rates from Medicaid. That is one reason clinics have been closing, even in blue states. Hospitals could take on some of this work, but few do: In 2017, they performed only 3 percent of abortions, and that includes secular, non-Catholic hospitals. Why? Maybe a big donor is anti-choice. Maybe management fears being targeted by anti-abortion activists. There’s not a lot of money in an uncomplicated first-trimester abortion, and potentially a lot of tsuris. Tough. We need to pressure hospitals to rise to the challenge and give women an uncomplicated, legal service that one in four of them will need during their fertile years. Indeed, not to do so is a kind of malpractice akin to refusing to treat someone for a widespread, easily cured, but potentially fatal condition because it’s just too much of a bother.
Third, we need to push the blue states to fund abortion directly: to subsidize clinic and hospital services, raise Medicaid reimbursements, expand Medicaid to include undocumented immigrants, and make grants to abortion funds that help low-income people pay for their procedures. (The New York City Council has led the way here: Since 2019, it has granted $250,000 annually to the New York Abortion Access Fund.) What about blue states setting up bus services to bring red-state patients to clinics? Paying for hotel stays for abortion travelers?
Fourth: Donors—i.e., you—need to step up your giving. There are already way too many women who have to travel for their procedures. That is going to be magnified many times over in the 26 states poised to ban or greatly restrict abortion once Roe is overturned—and those women will be traveling farther as neighboring states pass bans of their own. Now is the time to give generously to travel funds like the Brigid Alliance, which covers the cost of transportation, plus food, lodging, child care—whatever the patient needs. Give to regular funds as well—the more money they have, the more they can fund first-trimester procedures before patients reach the far more expensive second trimester. The National Network of Abortion Funds is holding its annual fundraiser right now (fundathon.nnaf.org). On its home page, you’ll find a map of all its member funds, probably including one or more in your region. And don’t forget: Right now, abortion is legal in every state.
Fifth: Use your imagination. Can you host a traveling patient in your spare room, or even on your sofa? If you run an Airbnb, can you volunteer it one or two days a month? Can you drive someone from a banned state to the nearest clinic? Volunteer as a clinic escort? Mind a patient’s children while she’s having her procedure? Call your local clinic and ask how you can help. Pro tip: If you are feeling short of money to donate, look over your credit card bills. Believe it or not, there are women who are prevented from ending their pregnancy because they can’t pay for a babysitter or a bus ride. Fifty dollars could make all the difference. The fees for that streaming service you never use (ahem!) and that Substack you haven’t looked at in months could be transformed into a monthly donation to the Frontera Fund, which helps low-income residents of the Rio Grande Valley access abortion, or Just the Pill, which sends affordable abortion pills by mail and is starting a mobile clinic.
Sixth: Do more. If you are reading this, chances are you are already voting, donating, writing your legislators, and so on, like the good citizen you are. So, go further: Demonstrate incessantly, like the feminists of Argentina and Mexico. Walk out of that anti-choice church you still go to for some reason, like Polish feminists did in 2016 when the government threatened to ban abortion. Put up informative stickers, as Irish pro-choicers did back when it was against the law even to give out the phone numbers of UK clinics. Stand with your friends outside your local crisis pregnancy center, aka fake abortion clinic, and politely hand out leaflets telling people what the place really does.
Remember, though: It’s not the 1960s. For every kind of activism you want to get involved in, there are groups working on it already. You don’t need to start your own secret network to get pregnant women out of Texas—give to Fund Texas Choice, which already does that. Nor need you personally smuggle abortion pills into states with bans. Even in Texas, people can order pills online and, if necessary, have them mailed to a forwarding address in another state. Thousands of women have already gotten pills this way. What would be helpful? Smith College professor Carrie N. Baker, who studies the abortion pill, suggests you spread information about abortion pills and how to get them safely. Go to plancpills.org for details.
Finally, don’t let yourself feel pre-defeated. We can win this eventually, but despair will make it harder. Just concentrate on what you can do now: protecting and expanding rights where possible, supporting abortion services, and, above all, getting pro-choice legislators into office at every level. The progressive activist Heather Booth, a founder of the Jane Collective, which provided clandestine abortions in Chicago pre-Roe, told me, “I took two big lessons from the civil rights movement, which also seemed an impossible struggle. One is, sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority. The other is, if we organize, we can win. Even in the face of bad decisions and conflict and trouble, we still need to be agents of hope.”