Three ways you can help save abortion rights

Jan 9, 2019 at 9:38 am
abortion rights

The confirmation of Brett “Animal House” Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court was a call to post in the race to see who can most effectively end a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. I don’t mean the assault allegations, but rather what Kavanaugh represents to religious extremists and Federalist Society incels: an end to legal abortion.

While we don’t yet know the full extent of what legislatures have planned for this year, things look as precarious as ever for reproductive freedom. Kentucky is on the brink of being the first state to have no abortion clinic at all, and Indiana has only a handful remaining, mostly concentrated in urban areas. Thankfully, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, whose dictatorial gravitas is stuck somewhere between Donald Trump Jr. and Gonzo the Great, lacks the civic know-how to give a coherent, constitutional order shuttering the clinic. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb seems more old-school politician than Muppet, and thus less inclined to pull cartoonish stunts in broad daylight. Still, many patients in rural Indiana and Kentucky already must drive hours to the nearest clinic, which may be in a different state operating under a different set of opaque, draconian rules. “Indiana has the third-highest maternal mortality rate in the country,” and “nearly a quarter of maternal mortality deaths in the state” are black women, according to Wandalyn Savala of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky (PPINK). The situation is dire.

Now, state legislatures find themselves with an opportunity to make things even worse, as their formerly unconstitutional restrictions may yet have a chance to cross the finish line. In seven states, “trigger laws,” designed to criminalize abortion to the extent possible if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe, are already in place. Several bills banning abortion after six weeks — before most people even know they are pregnant — are about to race through reactionary legislatures this month. And at least one bill contemplates capital murder charges for abortion patients, circumstances be damned.

I asked leaders of the reproductive rights movement in Indiana and Kentucky what regular folks can do to fight the stampede of anti-choice legislation that’s coming down the stretch. Their answers can be grouped into three broad categories.

1. Talk about it A common theme among many veteran activists is the need to openly discuss one’s views on, and experiences with, abortion. There isn’t a consensus on what the “right kind of story” is, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Decades of trying to pacify domestic terrorists into not killing women and doctors has failed, even in the face of heartbreaking stories of loss. To the contrary, the increasing power of the extreme right has only emboldened those whose mission is to harass people seeking medical treatment. For people who view women as livestock, narrative, rationale and nuance have no place. “I worry daily about violence against abortion providers and clinics,” said Dr. Katherine McHugh, an activist and OB/GYN in Indianapolis. “As reproductive rights move more into the crosshairs, so do the real people involved in this work. For many people, it has to be safety first, which means leaving the work due to threats.”

A better way to view the function of narrative is to normalize abortion, both as healthcare and as a cultural reality. As Dr. McHugh puts it: “Talk about abortion to destigmatize the word and procedure.”

“Tell your personal story or the story of a friend or relative (without naming names), outlining why access to abortion is crucial to the health of women, their families and our community as a whole,” said Kate Cunningham of A Fund Inc., in Louisville. “What is the societal price we all pay for unwanted, abused, neglected children?” Shelly Dodson of All-Options in Bloomington said: “Talk to your friends and family about these issues. Make yourself known as someone people can turn to when they need unbiased support.”

2. Call your legislators Activists generally recommend calling elected officials to relate personal stories. This may be valuable on some level and in some places, but third-string autocrats such as Bevin tend to be impervious to public pressure (because they don’t seem to notice that there is a public at all).

Federal legislators do, however, seem more susceptible to pressure when it comes to confirming judicial nominees. Our hyperfocus on Supreme Court justices tends to ignore a basic reality of federal law: Lower court judges are often where justice begins and ends.

Despite gains by Democrats, Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate, which is responsible for confirming federal judges to lifetime appointments. These judges have final say in all the law that the SCOTUS decides to stay away from, which is a lot. They will be the arbiters of whether and how American abortion is put to pasture. Yet, organizing efforts have been mostly tepid when it comes to these judges. Even with Democrats in control, a cadre of supervillain judges could be (and has been) appointed in broad daylight with nary a hint of controversy. Organizing efforts around lower court nominations could make a difference; a few of the more outrageous Trump nominees have been sidelined by public outcry.

3. Give money This one may seem the most obvious, but it may be the most important. The fight for reproductive freedom has been ongoing for a long time. There are people who know what works and what doesn’t. The best thing well-meaning folks can do may be to pay these professionals to do it right. Dodson said her organization, for example, “helps people get the care they need by providing financial assistance and practical support like transportation and lodging. Most people don’t realize that an abortion in Indiana can cost upwards of $780, plus expenses, and the litany of state-enforced barriers they must overcome. With 95 percent of counties not even having an abortion provider, abortion care is often too far out of reach for most Hoosiers.”

Those more inclined to a hands-on experience can (and should) do their homework first. Trainings for new activists are available periodically throughout the region (look up the organizations mentioned above), and on Jan. 19 at 10 a.m. in Indianapolis, there will be a pre-Women’s March Institute hosted by All Options and PPINK, so that those who wish to do more can “fight back against local attacks on abortion and birth control,” and then join the women’s march. Sign up at

One last hopeful note, though one given cautiously. Some reproductive rights advocates (not the folks quoted here) whisper that the end of Roe would actually be a good thing, galvanizing the formerly apathetic, dormant activists, and those who have seen the chimera of criminalized healthcare on full display. The result could be long-term solutions to ensure enduring abortion rights in a less ham-fisted way than Roe.

There are short-term, unjust consequences involved with this outcome, though; the kind that can echo indefinitely throughout history. A Roe reversal would hit the most vulnerable people the hardest. Women of color, poor women, trans men, rural families — they are not sacrificial lambs any more than they are cattle for childbearing. The hallmark of the reproductive rights movement is its deep regard for humanity. No matter what happens, whether in marathon or sprint, we cannot be made into animals.