Above Photo: Protesters attend the Rally For Abortion Justice on October 02, 2021, in Washington, DC. Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for Women’s March.
The attack on abortion rights is a ‘catastrophic public health emergency.’
So why aren’t Democrats and major reproductive rights organizations acting like it?
Update (5/3/22): On May 2, 2022, POLITICO published a leaked initial draft majority opinion ostensibly written by Justice Samuel Alito indicating that the Supreme Court majority intends to strike down Roe v. Wade in its impending ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade. And yet, there is currently no cohesive national campaign from either the Democratic party or large reproductive rights organizations to fight back. Abortion activists and healthcare workers are becoming increasingly frustrated with this failure, often finding themselves at odds with their supposed advocates as they try to ensure access to abortion in states like Texas and Kentucky, which are already facing extreme limitations.
“The Democratic Party has not had any substantial response to the recent attacks on Roe. Their statements and brief denouncements of these egregious abortion bans and restrictions have been toothless and weak, hardly even mentioning abortion services the majority of the time,” said Crystal*, an abortion care worker in Pennsylvania. “The only credit I will give to any Democrats are those who advanced legal abortion protections in their states, such as in Colorado. However, as these actions do not wholly address the loss of autonomy and access in vast regions of the United States, they are entirely inadequate.”
The anti-abortion movement has been mobilizing for decades in the hopes of achieving the kind of outcome that the Supreme Court is poised to hand them in the next few weeks in the Mississippi case Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization. Proponents as well as financial and legislative backers of this movement have focused intently on stacking the federal courts with anti-abortion judges; they have also demanded (and largely received) a lockstep agreement from Republican politicians to oppose any movement for abortion rights and to actively pass legislation to override those rights whenever possible. Meanwhile, Democrats have rarely been proactive in expanding abortion rights—and have often been ineffective and incompetent at stopping these attacks. Many Democrats still fall back on the language that Bill Clinton first used in 1996 when he called for making abortions “safe, legal, and rare,” rhetoric that many activists believe has led to unnecessary stigmitazation of abortion.
“Most Congressional Dems and those in the White House struggle to even say the word ‘abortion,’ much less champion the urgent need for expanding access and enacting federal protections,” said Hayley McMahon, a public health researcher who focuses on the structural determinants of abortion access. “Many continue to use stigmatizing talking points that have been provided to them by the mainstream reproductive rights organizations.”
Large reproductive rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Abortion Federation (NAF), the Guttmacher Institute, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) have traditionally had close ties with the Democratic establishment and have raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades, while abortion access has steadily been eroded throughout the country. A large percentage of this money has come from many of the same wealthy, white donors who comprise the largest donors to Democratic politicians who campaign on abortion rights. Activists often feel that the needs of these donors are elevated while the material needs of people seeking abortions are ignored.
“I think it’s a mix of a few things, but whiteness and classism are the big ones,” said McMahon when talking about the failures of mainstream Democrats to address the erosion of the right to abortion. “These are not just failures; they have actively held abortion access back and are part of the reason we are where we are. Politicians are frequently wealthy and white, and so are most of the decision makers at these organizations. Abortion bans and restrictions do not tangibly impact their lives.”
Savannah*, a volunteer with Kentucky Health Justice Network (KHJN), an abortion fund that raises money for people in the state, agrees with this assessment of the larger reproductive rights organizations, and thinks that these wealthy donors have also cultivated the timidity with which liberals speak about abortion in order to avoid upsetting the mostly mythical moderate voter. “Donors control the narrative, and most of them are rubbing elbows with the very same people that are writing anti-abortion legislation,” she said. “It’s easier to try to appeal to the right than it is to organize the left, because they don’t have to compromise their investments that way.”
McMahon also points out that because many abortion policies do not impact those who have the resources to obtain abortions even with restrictions, they are oftentimes overlooked. “Anti-abortion policies are primarily inflicted on Black and Brown people and poor folks, both populations that have historically not been priorities for either major political party,” she said. “The fight against abortion bans is an abstract political issue for most of the politicians and nonprofit executives who call the shots, not a fight for survival and basic autonomy.”
This elitist disconnect from the people who are actually seeking abortions (and who will be most affected by further restrictions on abortion rights) is most evident in the failure of Democrats to pass any meaningful federal legislation to stop the inevitable overturning of Roe by the courts. The most promising legislation proposed by the Democrats in Congress has been the recent Women’s Health Protection Act, which sought to codify the right to abortion in a federal statute. It passed the house 218-211 (with anti-abortion Democrat Henry Cuellar joining the Republicans to vote no). However, it failed to pass the Senate, with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin joining Republicans to defeat the bill 46-48.
States have had some success in fighting back against abortion restrictions, and even expanding access, in places with large Democratic majorities. “The state response from Democrats has been a mixed bag,” said McMahon. “There are a lot of states—especially those with Democratic majorities—that could be doing a lot more to take proactive action right now, but there are also states who have had big successes on both defense and offense. Georgia, for example, just stopped a ban on telehealth abortion that would have had huge implications for abortion access in the state. Maryland just overrode the Republican governor’s veto of new protections for abortion access. Colorado enshrined abortion rights, and Oregon allocated funds for abortion providers and patients. Other states like Vermont and Rhode Island are also working on putting stronger protections in place.”
However, the battle in Virginia over a bill to codify the rights secured by Roe into state law before the incoming Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office showcased the divide between what mainstream liberals are willing to push for and what abortion advocates now think is necessary. In Virginia, mainstream organizations such as NARAL came out in favor of the last-minute law, but Democratic politicians pointed out that for years NARAL had lobbied against introducing similar bills and instead asked legislators to focus on defending the right to abortion from Republican attacks. “[NARAL said] ‘No, hit the brakes. Don’t do it.’ It’s awfully rich to hear that [criticism] coming from them now,” Virginia State Sen. Scott A. Surovell told The Washington Post.
The hesitancy in Virginia by NARAL and Democrats to actively work in support of abortion rights and to instead operate defensively highlights one of the major problems that activists have pointed out: they are engaging under the terms set by the anti-abortion activists and politicians attacking Roe. This is clear from much of the media coverage regarding abortion, which rarely talks about the content or impact of the laws and judicial decisions involved and instead treats the topic as only a political debate. This framing has greatly benefitted the anti-abortion movement.
In 2019, Media Matters looked at how the abortion debate was being framed in mainstream media and found that Fox News was providing most of the commentary around abortion laws and restrictions—and that their initial framing was then echoed on other outlets like MSNBC and CNN. This framing led to 83% of the information about abortion presented on mainstream outlets to be factually inaccurate. The study also found that Fox News in particular had an outsized role in driving the conversation on abortion, with their coverage of key abortion debates dwarfing the coverage on other networks (in some cases 94% of the debates over certain abortion restrictions on cable news were being conducted on Fox).
Instead of talking directly about the human impact of abortion restrictions, liberals end up playing defense against what are often ludicrous claims by anti-abortion politicians. That strategy has been unsuccessful in stopping the many rollbacks of abortion rights that have occured in the past 20 years. “The joke is that Democrats don’t really ask for anything, they just complain after the fact,” said Becca* an abortion worker in Texas. “Conceding [to] the Right has gotten us here—those concessions are as big as allowing anti-abortion legislation to pass and as small as the erasing of the word ‘abortion.’” Instead, Democrats are “hiding behind the euphemism ‘reproductive rights’ and the carving out ‘exceptions’ in abortion restrictions.”
The refusal of many Democrats to even utter the word ‘abortion’ is a common complaint among activists on the ground. “I’m particularly bitter about the silence from Joe Biden, and his aversion to even saying the word ‘abortion,’” said Savannah. “Most Democrats, national and state-wide, don’t want to be associated with abortion, as if it’s some scarlet ‘A.’ I mean, we’re seeing a catastrophic public health emergency, and we’re still trying to coach Democrats into saying the word. What does that mean for the hope to eliminate existing barriers in the future?”
Reproductive rights organizations have also faced criticism over their language around abortion access. During the Trump presidency, NARAL and Planned Parenthood notoriously tried to refocus the abortion debate around “reproductive freedom,” which polled better with moderates. NARAL went as far as sending an email to field staff asking them to no longer use phrases like “Abortion rights are human rights.” The disastrous reign of Leana Wen at Planned Parenthood was characterized by her insistence that abortion was merely a healthcare issue and not a political one, a shift that ultimately helped lead to her being ousted by the board in a unanimous vote after a mass exodus of long-term employees.
Activists also point to the lack of a cohesive national plan from these large organizations to fight back against the erosion of Roe as a huge problem, especially considering that these organizations have an outsized voice on the national stage compared to many smaller organizations, which are often more involved in direct services. “The response from the mainstream reproductive rights organizations has been timid, to say the least. It has largely just been messaging and fundraising for themselves with no clear goal,” said McMahon. “This fight is almost certainly going to play out at the state level, but that’s not where these organizations operate—so why are they continuing to position themselves as the movement leaders?”
Perhaps one of the most serious concerns raised by abortion workers and activists regarding the actions (or lack thereof) of the larger national organizations has involved the NAF’s behavior around Texas SB8. The NAF has prevented Texas abortion clinics that receive NAF funding from doing any procedure that might violate SB8 and make them liable for damages (SB8 allows any private citizen to sue anyone they think may have provided, or even helped provide, an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy). This has not only hamstrung local providers’ attempts to challenge the law; perhaps more seriously, it has also subjected patients to unnecessary procedures, including a second transvaginal ultrasound.
“NAF not only didn’t allow providers to defy the law, they came up with strict compliance rules,” said Becca. “The law doesn’t mandate a second ultrasound, but it does mandate the first one and a waiting period, so I figured we’d just use the first one as our only check for a heartbeat. I realized just how afraid of lawsuits NAF was when they came back with their policy [for] transvaginal ultrasounds both days. Penetrating a patient for a transvaginal ultrasound was never seen as a casual protocol for abortion doctors. I was always taught, in my almost 4 years working at the clinic, that it is patient-centered and trauma-informed care to always allow a patient to refuse a transvaginal ultrasound and opt for abdominal instead.”
According to Becca, their clinic has found a heartbeat many times during this second ultrasound, and had to cancel the patient’s appointment. “We have to then deny an abortion because of an ultrasound that the law did not require us to perform, but it was required by the organization that is supposed to be on our side,” Becca explained.
This hesitancy to confront the Texas law is frustrating to providers because NAF has much deeper pockets than the local organizations who have funded the legal fights against SB8. Susan Rinkunas recently reported in Jezebel that NAF’s “biggest anonymous donor is the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the organization billionaire Warren Buffett founded in 1964.” The Buffett Foundation has donated over $300 million to the NAF since 2001. McMahon believes that these kinds of donors are actually part of the problem with the NAF and other organizations’ responses to the attacks on Roe.
“What NAF is doing to Texas abortion providers is more than just foreshadowing [of how reproductive rights organizations will respond in a post-Roe future]; it’s a perfect example of how many of the mainstream, historically white, reproductive rights organizations have been responding to attacks on abortion for decades,” said McMahon. “It is and has long been about protecting legacy organizations’ longevity, not the well-being of people who need abortions. It’s about the big, multimillion dollar organizations hoarding wealth and then using their resources to dictate the national conversation and wield power over the organizations on the ground who actually do the work.”
Savannah agrees with McMahon and is calling on these large organizations to start funding the people on the ground who are actually ensuring abortion access for people who need it. “I think any national organization that claims to serve abortion seekers should put their money where their mouth is and support abortion seekers. Full stop. People need money for their procedures, travel, and other logistical needs,” she said. “National [organizations] have all the money and all the resources to invest in local organizations doing the work, and their unwillingness to do so is irresponsible… But national [organizations] work on a different wavelength than grassroots [organizations] to keep their donors happy.”
This disconnect of the donors and management of large reproductive rights organizations can also be seen in their internal operations. Almost all have faced complaints about their responsiveness to racial justice issues. Many of the boards and upper level staff of these organizations have been mainly composed of white women, creating an ongoing tension between the actual needs of the population these organizations purport to serve and the management of these organizations. “[Reproductive rights organizations] often fail to center Black and Brown experiences to make sure that older white women don’t feel left out,” said McMahon.
In addition to claims of racial discrimination, many of the larger reproductive rights organizations have also faced complaints about their labor practices, with Planned Parenthood specifically being accused of trying to undermine the formation of a union by their employees on more than one occasion. Crystal thinks that these actions against their staff undermine the overall mission of the organizations themselves. “They act publicly as if they are happy to work with the union, then drag their feet and stall contract negotiations. They continue to treat staff poorly and attempt to deny employees of their Weingarten Rights,” she said.
McMahon thinks that shifting the support, financial and otherwise, from large mainstream organizations—who have struggled to adapt to the new terrain upon which the fight for abortion rights is being waged—to on-the-ground reproductive justice organizations, particularly those that are Black and Brown led, will be very important in the years to come. “I just can’t overstate how important abortion funds are. Roe v. Wade has existed only in name for many years in much of the South and Midwest, so abortion funds and their allies have been building power for reproductive justice there for just as long,” she said. “They already know what it’s like to operate in communities where abortion access is nearly nonexistent.”
As abortion activists look at the almost certain end of Roe, they are now looking outside the Democratic party and national organizations for solutions, recognizing that they will need flexibility that those institutions do not provide in order to do effective work around abortion access. “I think it’s time to brace for impact,” said Savannah. “We need to prepare for states to lose access, as they are already, and realistically strategize what is needed for abortion seekers. Some of that will be legal, some will not. People deserve the ability to make their own decisions and own risks, while also having support.”
Crystal believes that the best way to face the coming storm is to find solidarity with the people providing abortion access on the ground. “[We need to] support frontline staff, who are working daily to make sure people are still getting the abortions they need. This can look like supporting their unions or their unionizing efforts,” she said. “As always, support abortion funds, particularly those that are operating in regions that are most affected by these horrific bans and restrictions. [We should] communicate, empower, uplift, and collaborate with all of these groups. When we build successful networks, based in solidarity and camaraderie and practical support, we can survive this attack and make it to the other side together.”
* Many of the abortion care workers in this story declined to give their full name due to harassment from anti-abortion protesters and/or retaliation from their employers/ funders.