Opinion | Where the Pro-Choice Movement Went Wrong

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By Amy Littlefield

Ms. Littlefield is the abortion access correspondent for The Nation.

It was an all-hands-on-deck moment for the movement to defend abortion rights. On Sept. 1, the Supreme Court stunned much of the country by passively allowing Texas Senate Bill 8 to take effect, banning most abortions in the state in obvious defiance of Roe v. Wade. Not quite 24 hours later, the court issued an actual decision confirming that it would not block the law. On Sept. 2, a coalition including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the national organization whose affiliates operate more than 600 health centers around the country, convened a video meeting to coordinate a national response.

“Today we pulled folks on the phone super quick, super last minute,” Brianna Twofoot, Planned Parenthood’s national organizing director, said at the start of the meeting. As a result, the conversation might be “messy,” Ms. Twofoot said, but the goal was to get everyone “headed in the same direction” ahead of marches that were to take place on Oct. 2.

The link to the Zoom meeting went out to at least a half dozen listservs with no requirement that anyone preregister to attend. Close to 500 people joined.

Thirty-seven minutes in, someone in the meeting interrupted Ms. Twofoot with an anti-Black racial slur.

Ms. Twofoot seemed to hesitate, then continued talking. In the meeting’s chat box, people asked if they had heard what they thought they heard. (Ms. Twofoot said she did not hear the slur.)

Renee Bracey Sherman, the executive director of the reproductive justice group We Testify, called for a pause. There was a confused back-and-forth during which the meeting’s participants tried to identify who had uttered the slur. Then an unidentified person asked to speak to “the man in charge.”

“We should actually cancel this call, and let’s shut it down,” said Ms. Bracey Sherman, who is Black. “It’s been compromised.”

Someone on the call told Ms. Bracey Sherman to shut up, repeating the slur.

Then the video meeting disconnected, leaving the participants, including activists in Texas, in stunned silence.

The meeting’s organizers soon apologized in an email. “We at P.P.F.A. ended up exchanging speed and rapid distribution of information over the safety of the space. For that, we are deeply sorry,” they wrote, adding that all actions discussed in the call were “on hold until further notice.”

The incident was a stunning security lapse for Planned Parenthood, which has been targeted repeatedly by sting operations by abortion opponents. Beyond that, the chaotic meeting underscored how the movement’s leading national organizations seemed to be caught flat-footed, despite months of conversation and litigation leading up to the Texas ban taking effect. The lack of preparedness was not an anomaly for the movement, which has grown accustomed to reacting to crises rather than preventing them.

“I think that when you’re in a defensive position it’s hard to not be last-minute, you’re having to play catch-up all the time,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of the reproductive justice group SisterSong. “I wouldn’t say that we’re behind the mark or that we’re not paying attention,” she said of the broader movement. “It’s just when you’re constantly fighting it’s hard to be proactive and to think long term.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher right now. In addition to two cases regarding the Texas law, which remains in place as the Supreme Court considers its decision, the justices agreed this term to hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Oral arguments in that case, which takes direct aim at the 1973 Roe decision, are scheduled for Wednesday.

This moment has forced abortion-rights supporters to confront two difficult truths: The Supreme Court, with its three Trump-appointed justices, appears willing to decimate, if not overturn, Roe. And the abortion-rights movement and its supporters in the Democratic Party have failed to stop this from happening. The missed opportunities have become painfully clear in retrospect, as many abortion-rights supporters have begun to take stock of just how much has been lost.

There are ample factors that have been beyond the movement’s control — from the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the Trump administration to changes in campaign finance rules that have allowed conservative organizations to build political power. But in interviews with more than 50 advocates, analysts, abortion providers and legal experts, what emerged is a sense of the movement being forced to reckon with its mistakes.

Chief among those mistakes was the relative neglect of grass-roots groups in states where the battle over abortion access has been quietly waged for half a century. A key turning point came in 1992, when the Supreme Court overhauled Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, allowing states to restrict abortion before viability as long as they didn’t impose an “undue burden” on those seeking such care. This opened the door to states chipping away at abortion access through incremental restrictions — a trend that accelerated after the 2010 midterm elections, when a Tea Party-backed wave swept state legislatures.

The Casey decision “could have been, and probably should have been, a moment where abortion-rights organizations funneled attention and resources toward local and state-level organizations,” said Meaghan Winter, author of “All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States.” National groups, Ms. Winter said, should have been thinking “in terms of both changing the culture, and building clinics, doing whatever it took on a logistical level to provide access, and thinking about creative ways to build electoral power.”

That didn’t happen — at least not to the extent that it should have.

Instead, Ms. Winter writes, national abortion-rights groups and the progressive movement at large have tended to focus on federal policy and elections and on defending access through federal courts, while neglecting many fights at the state level. While big-name organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have long maintained a presence in states including Texas, those state groups operate independently and must raise much of their own money.

That often puts groups in conservative states at a disadvantage. For example, the Texas A.C.L.U. — which has the job of opposing attacks on the rights of transgender students and immigrants as well as efforts to roll back abortion access and voting rights — had a budget of about $5 million in 2018, similar to that of its counterpart in the much smaller state of Massachusetts.

Investing in states matters because states are often laboratories for a movement’s boldest ideas — like S.B. 8, with its unusual enforcement mechanism that’s made it extremely difficult for abortion providers to fight it in court.

Abortion-rights groups were actually the ones who pioneered this state-focused model. NARAL’s name originally stood for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, reflecting the state-by-state effort to end abortion restrictions. This movement cinched a major victory in 1970 when New York legalized abortion.

But in the years after Roe, that trend reversed. Having lost at the Supreme Court, anti-abortion organizations set out to restrict abortion in cities and states. By the late 1970s, the leading anti-abortion group at the time, the National Right to Life Committee had a staggering 3,000 local chapters. NARAL, meanwhile, devoted so few resources to its state affiliates that by the 1990s its national field department quit in protest, according to Gloria Totten, NARAL’s political director from 1996 to 2001.

As state groups left the organization or were pushed out, the number of affiliates shrank to 11. This summer, NARAL announced it was getting rid of its affiliates altogether, shifting to a chapter model that will give the national organization more control.

To Ms. Totten, the move is baffling. “The entire strategy right now should be on winning state elections so that we can pass proactive abortion-rights legislation,” said Ms. Totten, who has focused much of her career on building progressive power in the states. “That’s the path forward: Go big or keep getting trampled.”

In some places, local abortion rights groups, supported by the handful of national organizations that focus on state policy, have moved into a more offensive position. These activists have persuaded several cities and states in the past few years to expand access by authorizing funding for abortion or repealing requirements that parents be involved in a minor’s decision-making.

But given the overall picture of rapidly eroding access, it’s not surprising that national groups have often acted defensively. Planned Parenthood has had to contend with state efforts to undermine its ability to provide reproductive health services at its clinics and, during the Trump administration, efforts at the federal level, too. In response, the organization has expanded its team of lawyers from a single attorney in the 1980s to 17 attorneys who are dealing with about 40 open legal cases now. Then, there were pivotal elections to fund; for the 2020 election, Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political arms spent $45 million.

That was the election when it became clear to Aimee Arrambide just how outgunned she was in Texas. Her reproductive-rights group, Avow, used to be an affiliate of NARAL but broke away in January to pursue its own “bold and unapologetic” agenda. Like the rest of NARAL’s affiliates, the group had always had to raise its own budget, outside of the occasional joint fund-raiser or grant that state groups could compete against one another for.

Last year, Ms. Arrambide’s political action committee spent $6,000 on digital ads in two districts to support pro-choice candidates in races for the Texas legislature. Meanwhile, the political action committee Pro-Life America spent well over $100,000 on mailings, text messages, phone calls and digital ads in the same two districts. One of those races ended up being decided in favor of the Republican incumbent by just over 200 votes. “That’s basically what we’re up against in most of the state and local work that we do,” Ms. Arrambide said.

By last spring, as S.B. 8 sped through the legislature, all that Avow and like-minded groups in Texas could do was register their dissent. On April 7, a handful of these advocates sat in the Texas Capitol until nearly midnight as half a dozen anti-abortion bills were heard, including the one that would become S.B. 8.

“The thing that I was thinking was, like, how can it be just us?” said Rosann Mariappuram, executive director of the reproductive rights group Jane’s Due Process. With an annual budget that only recently topped $1 million, Jane’s Due Process helps minors who, under state law, must appear before a judge to seek permission for an abortion if a parent won’t sign off.

“We’re so underfunded as state groups,” Ms. Mariappuram said, adding, “We were facing this huge abortion ban, and it’s a handful of people in the Capitol doing this fight.”

In the months leading up to Sept. 1, the day when S.B. 8 was to take effect, Texas abortion-rights groups dropped banners over highways, protested outside the Capitol and tried their hardest to drum up national press coverage. In interviews, many of these groups’ leaders repeated some version of this sentiment from Diana Gomez, advocacy director for Progress Texas: “We were screaming, and nobody was there to hear us.”

After the Sept. 2 Zoom meeting in which she was called a racial slur, Renee Bracey Sherman had a panic attack. For four days, she couldn’t work or sleep much. “It felt terrifying to be interrupted in that way and also, that not everyone in our movement was equipped to handle anti-Black racism, or even recognized it, as vicious as it was,” Ms. Bracey Sherman said. “That was really painful.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

“It’s so hard to describe to non-Black people what it feels like to hear that word with malicious intent,” said Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. “It felt like the wind was knocked out of me.”

“I am exhausted by a movement that will use Black women’s labor, scholarship, brilliance and relevance, only to shrug and step over us when we are being attacked and directly harmed,” Ms. Jackson wrote after the Zoom meeting. “Whether it’s malice or carelessness, it feels equally humiliating.”

Eight days after the meeting, Planned Parenthood said in an email that it wanted to “again take responsibility for the harm caused to our Black colleagues on the call.” The group said it was strengthening security and designating staff members to intervene against racism. In an interview, Planned Parenthood’s president and chief executive, Alexis McGill Johnson, who was not in the meeting, took responsibility for the breach, saying security steps were “missed.”

The sense of the movement’s leading institutions failing to protect Black women dates back decades — as do the political losses that have mounted as a result.

One of the earliest missed opportunities came in 1976, when Henry Hyde, a Republican representative from Illinois, introduced a legislative rider to ban federal funding of abortion. Hyde said that he wanted to ban all abortions but that “the only vehicle available” was the Medicaid bill, which would put abortion out of reach for poor people, many of them women of color. Over the next several years, the Supreme Court upheld restrictions on public funding of abortion that effectively made abortion access in America a two-tiered system: those with resources could get one, and many of those without could not.

“That should have been the fight,” said Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Organizations that were established at the time, that were predominantly white women-led, ignored then the suffering that Latinx and Black women endured, including back-alley abortions that took place after Roe because poor women of color could not afford to terminate their pregnancies.”

An exception to this disregard for the Hyde amendment was Faye Wattleton, who in 1978 became the first Black woman to lead Planned Parenthood. She announced at the time that restoring Medicaid funding of abortion would be one of her top priorities.

“I felt that if we didn’t secure the right to abortion for the most vulnerable women with the immediate reversal of Hyde, the ability of all women to exercise their reproductive decisions, including abortion, would be put in jeopardy,” Ms. Wattleton wrote in her memoir, “Life on the Line.” She soon faced an uprising from within the ranks of her own organization’s affiliates. Democrats and abortion-rights groups willing to trade poor women’s access for other priorities allowed the ban on federal funding of abortion to become a routine part of the budget process for years to come.

This would not be the last time that the largely white-led movement would ignore warning signs that came in the form of Black women’s suffering. In her book “Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood,” Professor Goodwin documents how, beginning decades ago, the arrests of Black women for using drugs during pregnancy were a harbinger of efforts to advance an agenda of “fetal personhood” that now targets abortion access.

“Black women were simply the canaries in the coal mine,” Ms. Goodwin said.

The national movement’s strategy of relying on the courts as a firewall meant that advocates were often playing Whac-a-Mole against the growing onslaught of anti-abortion laws coming out of the states. After Roe, a predictable loop came to characterize the fight: State legislatures would pass a slew of bills that made it harder to get an abortion, but that were so technical-sounding that few individual pieces of legislation caught the public’s attention. When abortion-rights groups challenged these laws in court, they tended to win. But they couldn’t challenge all of them. There were just too many.

In 2013, when Texas passed an anti-abortion law that gained national attention thanks to an 11-hour filibuster by a state senator, Wendy Davis, the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged provisions in the law that related to building standards and hospital admitting privileges,  provisions that forced half of the state’s clinics to close. But the organization left untouched the section of the law that banned abortion 20 weeks after fertilization.

Stephanie Toti, who argued for the Center for Reproductive Rights before the Supreme Court, said that this seemed like the right move at the time. It was possible, during the Obama era, to imagine that the court could become more favorable to abortion rights in the years ahead — in which case, why risk losing a challenge to a 20-week abortion ban?

What Ms. Toti and many other advocates failed to see coming was the election of Donald Trump. By now, more than a third of states have instituted some form of a 20-week ban. While abortions at that point are rare, those seeking them tend to be disproportionately young and poor. Not only have these bans been normalized, but abortion opponents have been emboldened to “bait” pro-choice groups with more extreme laws, like the 15-week Mississippi ban now before the Supreme Court.

S.B. 8 took a different approach. To evade federal court review, the bill’s authors outsourced enforcement to private citizens, which meant abortion clinics couldn’t just sue the state to stop the law. Texas operatives tested this formula in a venue few people were watching: cities and towns, where an abortion opponent named Mark Lee Dickson would set up shop to convince local lawmakers and voters to declare their municipalities “sanctuary cities for the unborn.”

Dozens of these ordinances passed in cities that did not even have abortion clinics. But in May, voters passed such a measure in Lubbock, which did have one Planned Parenthood clinic. The clinic had only recently resumed performing abortions after it was forced to close by anti-abortion policies and budget cuts in 2013. Planned Parenthood’s national office contributed to a $430,000 campaign to defend the clinic. Supporters knocked on doors and made almost 200,000 phone calls. But voters passed the measure, even after the City Council rejected it.

The ordinance contained a private enforcement mechanism holding those who “aid or abet” an abortion liable to “the unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings,” and allowing any Texan to collect damages to enforce the ban. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas filed a lawsuit to keep the clinic open. On June 1, a federal judge, citing the civil enforcement mechanism just like the one in S.B. 8, ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to stop the ban.

The clinic stopped providing abortions. In that West Texas city, away from the national media spotlight, the familiar loop whereby courts protected abortion access had failed.

In the days before S.B. 8 was to take effect, as lawyers representing abortion providers turned to the Supreme Court as their last hope, Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an abortion provider in Texas, felt a sense of dread. She wanted to rally providers to take a stand and perform abortions in violation of the law. But the movement’s leading organizations balked at the very real threat of financial ruin that a violation of S.B. 8 could bring. So far, the only provider to openly break the law is Dr. Alan Braid, who owns his own clinic and is in his 70s.

As the ban dragged on for weeks, and patients from Texas filled appointment slots at clinics hundreds of miles away, Dr. Moayedi echoed the sentiments of many in the movement who said abortion-rights groups had to go on the offensive.

“A lot of the broader movement’s work for a long time has been operating out of fear,” Dr. Moayedi said.

She pointed to the decision not to challenge the 20-week ban in Texas as an example. “It’s not like they stopped banning abortion because we didn’t push that,” she said, adding that it felt like “the same story over and over again, that we don’t really push for what we deserve, we don’t push for what our communities deserve.”

In the decades since Roe was decided, the pro-choice movement’s fears and weaknesses emboldened the other side. While national abortion-rights groups shied away from many state fights, their opponents took control of state legislatures and gerrymandered districts to lock in control. Abortion-rights groups depended on the courts, while their opponents stacked benches with anti-abortion judges and then used S.B. 8 to make an end run around the judiciary.

When white-led groups focused on upholding Roe and left Black and poor people to struggle to get access to abortion, their opponents moved down the list, attacking access for everyone else, too. The abortion-rights movement all too often depended on political norms that the other side was willing to ignore.

There were people within the movement who saw flaws in this defensive strategy early on. Twenty-seven years ago, a group of Black women gathered on the sidelines of a pro-choice conference and came up with the term “reproductive justice” to describe an expansive vision for their lives. Reproductive justice encompasses not only the right to access an abortion but the right to parent in the face of forced sterilization of women of color and to raise children in communities safe from violence.

Activists who followed this framework knew they could not depend on the courts, or on Congress, because those institutions had all too often upheld rather than repealed policies that hurt people of color. They knew, too, that Roe was never enough to make access a reality for Black women. And long before the infiltration of the Sept. 2 meeting, they understood that the struggle for abortion access could not be separated from the struggle against white supremacy. While it has taken decades, and a broader national reckoning over racism, the reproductive justice framework is becoming more mainstream.

One sign of this shift is that both NARAL and Planned Parenthood are now both led by women of color.

“We have the opportunity in this moment to reimagine the most inclusive, multiethnic, multiracial, multigenerational movement,” Ms. McGill Johnson said. She is the first Black woman to lead Planned Parenthood since Ms. Wattleton’s departure in 1992. Like Ms. Wattleton, Ms. McGill Johnson has embraced boldness — for instance, by eschewing talking points that she sees as stigmatizing to abortion and grappling with the racist legacy of one of Planned Parenthood’s early leaders, Margaret Sanger.

Newly at the helm of NARAL is Mini Timmaraju, an Indian immigrant who has spent much of her life in Texas. She is the first woman of color to be the organization’s president.

There are painful divisions that these leaders must heal — between Black women and white women, between national groups and state ones, and between those who couldn’t imagine how catastrophically the nation’s political institutions would fail, and those who knew that they would.

On Oct. 2, when the marches planned during that ill-fated Zoom meeting came to fruition, Monica Simpson, from SisterSong, walked onto the stage in Washington under a hot sun.

“I am deeply, deeply aching for something that is bigger than just Roe, good people,” Ms. Simpson said, speaking with a pastor’s conviction. In front of her, thousands of people cheered and waved hand-drawn signs. “If you want something that you don’t have, good folks, then you better be willing to do something that you have never done.”

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