The president of NARAL Pro-Choice, one of the largest abortion rights groups in the country, announced on Monday that she was stepping down.
Ilyse Hogue has led the organization since 2013, when Democrats held both the Senate and the White House, and enjoyed a comfortable liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Though superficially it might seem as though Hogue’s departure arrives amid similar political circumstances—with another Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate—the landscape of abortion access has changed dramatically over the last eight years, and the threats to abortion rights have only become more dire.
“I remember sitting in a conference room, Nov. 13, 2016, after Trump was elected, with my senior leadership and saying, ‘What is our most urgent imperative in this moment?’ And it was clear to us that was building awareness of political power around the courts,” Hogue told the New York Times. “The peril to Roe, the peril to reproductive freedom comes from the courts.”
Major national abortion rights groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood have historically focused on legal rights to abortion, having the resources to develop national messaging campaigns and mount expensive legal battles against conservative state governments. But this focus has earned more scrutiny over the last few years, as it becomes increasingly clear that measures like “codifying Roe” aren’t enough to guarantee access to abortion. Nor are they particularly moving for young people: A June New York Times piece found that calls to action around Roe v. Wade failed to resonate with many Gen Z and millennial women, who believed other political issues—like climate change and police brutality—took precedence over abortion rights.
“A lot of the language I heard was about protecting Roe v. Wade,” Brea Baker, 26, told the Times, describing her experience as a campus activist. “It felt grounded in the ’70s feminist movement. And it felt like, I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying. The narrative around abortion access wasn’t made for people from the hood.”
Under Hogue’s leadership, NARAL has been criticized by current and former staff, who saw the organization as catering to white women, both with its messaging and when it came to how leadership treated employees. (Planned Parenthood came under fire for similar reasons at the time.)
“Every single time we wanted to in a way embrace reproductive justice, to talk about the people most impacted, it was essentially a ‘no, because our audience is white middle-class women and they’re not gonna understand,’” China Dickerson, a former deputy national political director at NARAL, told BuzzFeed News in August. Another employee told the outlet that a member of NARAL leadership told them explicitly that the organization’s “target was white women.”
“We have definitely failed in places and certainly fallen short of our goals at times,” Hogue said in a statement to BuzzFeed News at the time. “I take responsibility for each instance where a person on our staff or board, a member, or an ally felt the impact of that failure. This is … an opportunity for institutions like ours to own our history and commit to do better.”
In a press statement, Anna Burger, the chairwoman of group’s board of directors, described Hogue as putting NARAL in a better position to “take advantage of Democratic control of Washington to make reproductive freedom a reality for everybody.”
But the post-Trump era of abortion rights organizing is going to require more reckonings like the one that took place at reproductive rights groups over the summer if it’s going to be effective.