The untold ways women are fighting to protect abortion access if landmark Roe v Wade falls

‘We’re here to continue our work, no matter what happens,’ says one activist

Emily Shugerman
New York
Saturday 21 July 2018 13:07 EDT
An examination room at a women's reproductive health centre that provides abortions in a city in South Florida
An examination room at a women's reproductive health centre that provides abortions in a city in South Florida

The nomination of Brett KavanaughDonald Trump’s conservative, pro-life pick for the Supreme Court – has set off a wave of activism among women’s rights advocates seeking to protect abortion rights across the US.

Groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America have staged protests and phone drives in an attempt block Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination, warning of a return to the days before Roe v Wade – the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion.

More quietly, however, other women’s groups have been laying the foundation to keep abortion accessible – regardless of what happens on the Court.

“The Supreme Court may continue to close clinics across the country. Policies are changing all the time,” said Hannah Rosenau, who works for a group providing abortion funds to low-income women.

“But we exist to support people in need, so we’ll continue to support access the clinics wherever they may be,” she added. “We’re here to continue that work, no matter what happens.”

If Mr Kavanaugh were confirmed by a Senate vote, he would solidify the Court’s pro-life majority for the first time in decades. Experts say anti-abortion groups would rush to bring a case before the Court that could overturn Roe altogether – in fact, many have been lining up such cases for years.

Short of a complete overturn, the Court could simply refuse to shoot down restrictive state laws on who can obtain an abortion, and when. The effect, many experts say, would be akin to a reversal of Roe, without the fireworks.

It’s understandable why women’s groups are concerned by this possibility: outlawing abortion has never stopped the practice before, just made it more dangerous. In the decades immediately before Roe was decided, experts say between one and two million women obtained secret, illegal abortions each year.

Hundreds of these women attempted their own abortions, penetrating themselves with needles or coat hangers or swallowing toxic chemicals. In 1965, eight years before Roe was handed down, illegal abortion accounted for 17 per cent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Faced with this health crisis, clandestine organisations emerged to help women find safer – if not always legal – means of ending their pregnancies. The Clergy Consultation Service (CCS), a group of more than 1,4000 pro-choice religious leaders from across the country, quitely referred women to abortion providers they had researched and found to be safe.

The Jane Collective, a service launched by then-19-year-old Heather Booth, also connected women with vetted, discreet abortion providers – and eventually started providing the service themselves.

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Today, 45 years since Roe was decided, the Jane Collective has been shut down, and CCS has become the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) – an organisation that provides abortion counselling, not the procedure itself. Faced with a flood of restrictive state laws in recent years, however, similar groups have sprung up around the country to help women obtain abortions who couldn’t do so otherwise.

Perhaps the most popular of these groups are abortion access funds, like the one Ms Rosenau helps run. There are more than 70 abortion access funds in the US today, which help women cover the cost of the procedure. Many also help with travel and lodging costs – a growing necessity for many women, as state laws have left wide swathes of the country with no abortion clinics at all.

Ms Rosenau's group, the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, is actually a merger of two, smaller funds from Seattle and Portland. The groups combined when they realised they were both fielding numerous travel requests from more restrictive, neighbouring states like Idaho and Alaska.

This kind of interstate travel will undoubtedly become more common if Roe is overturned. At least 22 states would quickly move to outlaw abortion in that scenario, according to experts from the Centre for Reproductive Rights, leaving a woman’s right to choose largely dependent on her location.

Ms Rosenau said her group was prepared to meet that challenge.

“We as abortion funds are really resilient, and we will continue to do the work that we have done to continue to get people the care that they need,” she said.

Thanks to post-Roe medical advancements, however, women today may not even need to travel to a clinic to obtain an abortion. A medication abortion, also known as the abortion pill, is a combination of two prescription drugs, taken six to 48 hours apart, that successfully ends a pregnancy more than 90 per cent of the time in the first trimester. According to multiple studies, the procedure is safer than childbirth.

Much like abortion funds and clinical abortions, new grassroots groups have emerged to help women access the abortion pill. They obtain the pill – usually from online retailers outside the US – help administer it, and provide support before and after the procedure.

These groups are usually smaller, less formal, and more secretive than abortion funds. This is by necessity, as many states still require a physician to be present for a legal medication abortion. But if states start outlawing abortion under an anti-choice Supreme Court, some experts say we can expect these clandestine abortion networks to grow.

Susan Yanow, a long-time reproductive rights activist and founding executive director of the Abortion Access Project, compared these networks to the sanctuary cities that protect undocumented immigrants from ICE, or the states that pledged their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement after the Trump administration pulled out.

“I think resistance to this regime is already springing up in many ways, and will continue to spring up,” Ms Yanow said. Under an anti-choice Supreme Court, she added, “I think people will get involved around sexual and reproductive health and rights in ways they haven’t before, because they felt they didn’t have to be.”

Asked who these people might be, she said: “I’m waiting for the suburban woman who voted for Trump, whose daughter has an unwanted pregnancy and suddenly realises there are no resources.”

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Not surprisingly, however, women who choose to administer their own abortions often face criminal charges. That’s where above-ground networks like the SIA Legal Team come into play.

Jill Adams, the chief strategist for the SIA Legal Team, said her organisation is launching a legal helpline this autumn for women who have administered their own abortions. Women can call and leave a message, and will quickly get a response from a non-attorney advocate with advice. If the woman has been questioned by police, or fears she may be soon, helpline staff will activate their network of attorneys to secure a local defender.

In anticipation of the helpline launch, the SIA team has doubled its staff, and is working overtime to bring local attorneys into their network. Just like the lawyers who flocked to support travellers stranded at airports thanks to Mr Trump’s Muslim ban, Ms Adams said, lawyers are “coming out of the woodwork” to support this pro-choice effort.

Perhaps the biggest boon to this kind of proactive organising thus far has been the internet – a means of quickly and covertly connecting like-minded activists that their pre-Roe predecessors never had. Ella Dawson, a Brooklyn-based reproductive rights activist, realised the power of social media shortly after Mr Kennedy announced his resignation.

In a moment of concern, Ms Dawson sent a tweet suggesting that New York women provide housing for abortion seekers from more conservative states if Roe was overturned. She was floored by the response.

“I saw a lot of people who had the same feeling I did: I will not go down without a fight, and I will be the one to protect women and people of any gender who need abortion care,” she said.

“If Roe were to be overturned, I think the internet and social media will give this completely unprecedented wave of support to folks who are impacted,” she added.

This may well be the reality: a new coalition of activists, lawyers, and clandestine abortion providers, unified by the internet, rising up in the face of an anti-choice Supreme Court.

If Roe is overturned, however they can expect some support from their forbearers, too.

Molly Katz, the communications director at RCRC, said she speaks frequently with members of the original Clergy Consultation services, who connected women with abortion providers before Roe was even considered a possibility.

“Many of them have said, ‘If we need to do it again, we would do it again’,” she said. “Their commitment to it and their belief in it is just as strong as it ever was.”

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