The fury of the anti-choice movement is always in Kwajelyn Jackson’s face.
Protesters stand outside of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works. They harass her doctors. They destroy clinic property. They break COVID-19 social distancing rules. They hound her patients, who are mostly poor and black or Hispanic.
Patients are sometimes at the clinic to get abortions. Other times, they are there for a pap smear or a prescription.
“Our patients and our staff just have to endure when people are yelling at them and being intentionally cruel,” said Jackson. “There’s not much we’re able to do besides encourage our staff to not engage.”
But as executive director of the clinic, it’s not enough for Jackson to provide care and ignore the negativity outside.
Throughout Jackson’s career, she has fought for abortion access at every political level. She canvasses for voting rights, which were recently compromised in Georgia. She reads the news to track anti-choice victories against reproductive health care, but she says the media only covers the loudest voices. Inside the reproductive rights movement, there are people who are just like her.
“There are certainly some very stalwart opponents to abortion access and reproductive justice, but there are also some very well-informed, very vocal champions,” added Jackson. “I am acutely interested in people who take public office because they want to make an impact on the lives of people and they hold that responsibility as paramount. That’s what I’ve got. I’m not interested in politicians who use placating language and act like celebrities.”
With COVID-19 bringing the abortion access debate to a fever pitch, pro-choice advocates like Jackson are challenging all progressives to do better than celebrity politicians.
There is a moral imperative to act. Access to reproductive health care is a matter of life and death, and the pandemic has reminded many activists of the urgency of now.
Pro-choice believers are being forced to ask themselves: am I an outspoken, well-informed champion of abortion and reproductive rights, or am I no better than a placating celebrity politician?
Furthermore, do we all have to be as passionate and engaged as Kwajelyn Jackson in order to preserve abortion rights in this country? The answer, spoiler alert, is yes. Progressive action is officially a matter of life or death.
The Danger Of COVID-19 Abortion Clinic Closures Is Real
Mainstream attention toward abortion rights has grown somewhat louder recently, thanks to the extreme strides achieved by anti-choice politicians.
Since 2016, President Donald Trump has accelerated the Christian fundamentalist agenda with lightning speed. From his 150 pro-life federal judge appointments to the case currently before the (anti-choice) Supreme Court that could effectively end abortion access, many reproductive rights advocates are reckoning with facts that Jackson already knew: Roe v. Wade is fragile, and the state-by-state patchwork policy for reproductive health care is a disastrous model.
With COVID-19, Republicans in states like Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama and more used the pandemic as a reason to chip away at abortion rights. Those states’ governors tried to categorize abortion as an elective procedure that would waste personal protective equipment.
So far, their efforts were squashed on a federal level, but they loom heavily over abortion providers and patients.
In April, a temporary ban in Tennessee was implemented by Governor Bill Lee then blocked by the federal courts. But the decision came after dozens of women were turned away for a procedure that depends heavily on timing.
According to a study from the Guttmacher Institute, the ban increased Tennessean women’s driving distance from 26 miles to 119 miles to get to the nearest clinic—if that clinic was even open.
“Forcing people to overcome these challenges in the middle of a global pandemic places unconscionable burdens on them, and the consequences fall hardest on people who are already struggling to make ends meet and those who are marginalized from the health care system,” declared Guttmacher Institute principal research scientist Rachel Jones.
Some clinics that are not affiliated with Planned Parenthood or hospitals paused service deliberately because they were unequipped to serve patients during COVID-19.
Many of these clinics depend on patient care to stay financially afloat while others could not afford the massive sanitization and personnel efforts required to work through the pandemic.
The Abortion Care Network (ACN), an organization of 125 independent clinics across the country, said 92 percent of their member clinics are in financial straits. Three out of five abortions are currently performed at independent clinics, and the majority of them are in danger of shuttering.
“On-the-ground access to abortion care is changing every minute,” according to Nikki Madsen, executive director of ACN. “If we lose those clinics, there would be 10 states that would have no care after 11 weeks of pregnancy, and four states that would have no care at all.”
A total lack of abortion care would disproportionately impact the nation’s poorest women, as well as women of color who already face a myriad of inequalities when it comes to reproductive health.
For example, black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes due to discrimination and a lack of health care access.
“Without these clinics, it is a very dire situation,” Madsen warned. “We’re talking about completely losing bodily autonomy. Maternal mortality among Black women is already dire in the United States and these clinics serve pregnant people in communities with some of the worst Black maternal death rates in the country.”
“Many of these clinics care for women through a pregnancy, as well as for women who want to end them.”
From Political Indifference To Bold Action
For decades, privileged progressives and pro-choice politicians were largely quiet on the issue of abortion, often lumping it in with other topics or taking existing rights for granted.
“The supporters of abortion rights kind of rested on our laurels after we got the Roe v. Wade decision,” said Kelly Baden, vice president of reproductive rights at State Innovation Exchange, a nonprofit that identifies and cultivates progressive state politicians and candidates. “It took a long time for us to catch up.”
Reproductive rights advocates say recent developments have forced this silent majority to finally take action.
“As things have gotten more extreme, people have wanted to help however they can,
and they’re not sure where to start,” said Kat Green, managing director of nonprofit advocacy group Abortion Access Front. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in people wanting to get involved.”
There’s a lot of work to do. The right-wing minority has made forceful gains in its decades-long culture war on abortion rights.
No longer can pro-choicers get away with saying that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” as Bill Clinton urged in 1992. Reproductive rights also cannot remain the sole responsibility of women’s nonprofits and grassroots organizations.
Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden voted in 1981 in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have given states veto power over Roe v. Wade. That measure failed. In 2007, Biden wrote that his views on abortion were “middle of the road.” He has waffled back and forth on the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of a woman.
Then, in a 2019 New York Times abortion rights survey, Biden said that he would instead aim to codify Roe v. Wade and fight for abortion access.
Biden’s politics are the result of too much passivity and complacence on the part of pro-choice organizations that align themselves with the Democratic Party.
“It is too little too late,” Green said. “We’re getting lip service because there are crises happening right now. They’re paying attention to abortion because they can’t not.”
These days, anti-choice Democrats are finding it harder to exist in the Democratic Party. Former congressman Dan Lipinski, an outspoken anti-choice Democrat from Illinois, lost his incumbency this year to progressive challenger Marie Newman. Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirstin Gillibrand did not shy away from abortion during their presidential campaigns. High-profile congress members, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, are using their platforms to speak explicitly about the issue.
“We are seeing a nationwide assault on reproductive healthcare and abortion rights during this pandemic,” Omar told Shadowproof. “I will continue to fight against efforts by Republicans to reduce access to reproductive healthcare because your zip code shouldn’t determine whether or not you have access to the health services you need. We do not need to wait for a poll to speak out on behalf of women’s rights. We do it because it is right.”
In response to Trump-era extremism, a small swathe of of outspoken pro-choice female candidates of color ran for state legislatures and won, even in red states.
“There’s evidence that people who resist Trump are becoming a part of actual governing,” stated Baden. “I have found that, certainly anecdotally, they’re a different kind of legislator. They’re born of social justice movements.”
Democratic Georgia State Representative Rennita Shannon was elected to office in 2017. She speaks openly about the fact that she herself had an abortion in college and has no regrets.
When Georgia’s strict six-week ban went up for a vote in 2019, Shannon spoke non-stop at the podium in hopes that the state would table the bill. Filibusters, however, are not legal in Georgia. In the well-documented incident, Shannon’s microphone was switched off and she was urged to step down by security and fellow Democrats.
“It was not difficult for me because I know that abortion care is health care,” said Shannon. “But people say ‘it’s better to be spoken about in the closet.’ What you’re doing is saying that your constituency ought to feel shame.”
Anna Eskamani, who is 29 years-old, is the first Iranian-American to be elected to office in Florida, where a strict parental consent law passed this year. As a state representative, she has been a leading force in attempting to repeal the law.
“We’re going to show up for this issue whether it’s convenient or not,” Eskamani declared “There’s this issue of Democrats only caring when they have to.” But she added, “My hope is that our courage to talk about these issues inspires those of a more senior generation to understand that our values are the same, and it’s okay to be out loud about it.”
Representative London Lamar, who is also 29 years-old, is the only Black woman under 60 in the Tennessee legislature. Lamar has fought against her state’s strict heartbeat bill, which would ban abortions as early as six weeks and force mothers to view an ultrasound if they are seeking the procedure.
The bill was shut down by the Tennessee Senate last year, but Governor Lee announced a new version in January that he hopes will pass the Senate and higher courts.
Lamar fought against the short-lived COVID-19 abortion ban too.
“A large amount of people in Tennessee believe that abortion should be legal, but unfortunately a lot of those people are not taking part in the political process,” Lamar contended. “So you have a bunch of men sitting here trying to tell me what abortion is.”
“Young people are more supportive of reproductive rights in general, but they don’t vote. We have to make sure that young people are not just tweeting, but that they understand advocacy and are committed to action.”
Roe v. Wade is not enough
What is clear to on-the-ground activists is that major change needs to happen surrounding reproductive rights. Kwajelyn Jackson believes COVID-19 may be a potential springboard for this change.
“All of the seams are showing. All of the flaws are clear,” argued Jackson. “COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated all the gaps and inefficiencies and neglect that exists in the systems that have been set up to protect the people of the United States.”
Jackson continued, “We need big pendulum swings. We need things to look significantly different. Incremental change is not sufficient any longer.”
Right now, Roe v. Wade remains the only barrier between Republican efforts and total abortion bans in their states, which is why right-wing politicians are eager to topple it.
But Roe v. Wade, which is now a 47-year-old decision, has proven to be light on details and vulnerable to attack.
In 1992, for example, Planned Parenthood v. Casey weakened Roe by allowing states to pass abortion laws as long as they don’t pose “undue burden” on patients. Since then, Republicans have seized on the vague standard by proposing and sometimes passing a mishmash of restrictions.
“Credit goes to the women of color activists who have done the work to say Roe v. Wade isn’t enough,” said Baden. “The movement is getting more intersectional and more sophisticated in its understanding of what the actual issues are.”
When they’re not on the defensive from Republican onslaughts, advocates dream of full protections—not just a federal abortion legality protection.
True protections begin with things like strong sex education laws in schools, no-cost prescription availability, accessible gynecological and family planning care, universal Medicaid and Medicare coverage for reproductive health, transportation, access to medication abortions and access to clinics without fear of protesters or violence.
“I would be in favor of some strong federal and state protections for abortion rights,” concluded Baden. “This includes a broader set of policies that would actually help people who need or could need abortions that truly is comprehsensive. Everything from paid family medical leave to higher minimum wage. Abortion is just one key part of these human and reproductive rights.”
Correction (June 4): The original version of this article contained an error in a quote from Nikki Madsen. We’ve updated the quote and regret the error.