Below is an excerpt from Controlling Women: What We Must Do Now to Save Reproductive Freedom, by Kathryn Kolbert and Julie F. Kay, who have spent years on the frontlines of the battle to protect reproductive rights.
We started our book standing in protest in front of the Supreme Court. Neither of us is very good at chanting or making signs, and we both feel more comfortable in a courtroom than in a street dance. While we always enjoy being with friends, kids, and colleagues for a good cause on a sunny day, that’s not the reason we show up.
Progress does not happen without popular support, direct action, and outrage in the streets. History has taught us that activists loudly calling for social change is a movement’s lifeblood. A bold, loud, strategically targeted movement creates a sense of urgency, gains broader allies, and propels progress.
Our post-Roe world will demand that many people engage in activism. The best way is the one that works for you, something that is sustainable and hopefully fun too. In college Julie used to hide behind the lens of the camera at protests and then publish the photos in the campus newspaper. Kitty and her wife Joann owned a microphone and portable sound system that they loaned out to activists who literally wanted to amplify their voices.
In the days before Roe, women with means were able to travel to New York, London, or Japan for legal abortion or to Puerto Rico or Mexico, where abortion was more accessible or affordable, even if not entirely legal. Unfortunately, those left behind—low-income women, teens, those in violent relationships—turned to back-alley providers or were forced to carry their pregnancies to term. In a post-Roe world, such a discriminatory and inequitable system should not stand.
Some activists can help women obtain abortion services, much like Rosa Hartford, who took a teenager facing an unintended pregnancy to a clinic in a nearby state. With all the restrictions on teens’ access to reproductive health care, particularly waiting periods and parental involvement laws, many teens are in need of a trusted adult to support them and connect with professional counselors and providers. We must set up networks of supporters who will assist teens in making their decision whether to abort or not and help them to implement that decision whether by obtaining an abortion or by finding the resources they will need to succeed as a teen parent.
Low-income and undocumented women, who are disproportionately women of color, as well as survivors of domestic violence or women with disabilities, have an increased need for access to resources and counseling in order to find services. Travel across state lines, overnight stays, additional childcare, and other expenses create further strain. When abortion was illegal in Ireland, the Abortion Support Network in London would provide women in Ireland with funds and information about clinics abroad, help schedule appointments, arrange travel, and connect them with volunteers who could offer a place to stay. In the US, the National Network of Abortion Funds works to remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion access through a network of funds.
Time and time again, research has shown that as abortion gets harder to obtain, it does not go away—it goes underground. The good news is that with self-managed medication abortion now an option, women need not return to the pre-Roe days when back-alley abortions were performed by scary practitioners in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. As state restrictions, provider shortages, and outright bans put abortion further out of reach, more and more women are likely to use medication abortion on their own to terminate an unintended pregnancy.
Increasingly, women will obtain medication abortion pills online from foreign countries or through underground networks that buy the medication in states where prescriptions are legally available and bring it elsewhere. While medication abortion has been proven to be a safe and effective way to terminate an early pregnancy, women who do this on their own will need appropriate information, counseling, and medical backup.
Activists are already developing ways to help women who choose to self-manage or self-induce their abortions. Plan C provides information about the online availability of medication abortion from reliable sources. If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice provides free legal assistance for women seeking to self-manage their care. With help, a large percentage of the women seeking early medication abortion outside medical settings will be able to do so safely and without shame.
Over the last several decades, activists have spent considerable time providing clinic defense—surrounding patients and escorting them into clinics to avoid the hateful, angry confrontations by abortion opponents. A report from the National Abortion Federation notes that incidents of anti-abortion picketing at clinics grew from just over six thousand in 2010 to more than a hundred twenty-three thousand in 2019. Now as the Supreme Court sanctions abortion restrictions and even fewer clinics provide abortion, we need more clinic defenders.
On a sunny Saturday in November just after Election Day 2020, there was dancing in the streets of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and worldwide. Four tense days of ballot counting had passed before the election was called for President Biden and Vice President Harris.
The political activism and effective organizing of Black women in key battleground states, particularly Georgia, and support from suburban women voters helped catapult President Biden to victory. Without a doubt he is indebted to women, particularly Black women, and that gives leverage but no guarantee that gender equity and reproductive freedom will be at the top of the administration’s agenda.
At the same time that Biden won the presidency, Republicans maintained state strongholds and made House gains. The Senate remains closely divided on partisan lines and not united on anything. However, as the old political adage goes, if you can’t change their minds, change their faces. There are over five hundred thousand elected offices across the United States, any of which could use the energy and enthusiasm of reproductive rights activists.
Explore running for office yourself, and seek training and backing from organizations that recruit progressive candidates, like Vote Run Lead, Higher Heights, and Vote Mama. Stacey Abrams’s successful Fair Fight, LaTosha Brown’s Black Voters Matter, and other activist organizations made it strikingly clear how important it can be to register new voters and turn out the vote. Consider managing or volunteering for a local campaign for a candidate who inspires you. Knocking on doors, writing postcards, joining phonebanks, and raising money are things we both have done for a whole range of local, statewide, and federal elections each year, not just in presidential election years.
Don’t forget to support reforms that will open the voting systems to more people, such as automatic or same-day voter registration, mail-in ballot programs, and ranked-choice voting. Such mechanisms increase the likelihood of more women and Democrats winning office. Winning political power is the first step to getting reproductive freedom to the starting line.
Excerpted from Controlling Women: What We Must Do Now to Save Reproductive Freedom by Kathryn Kolbert & Julie F. Kay. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Kathryn Kolbert has had a long and distinguished career advancing women’s rights. In 1992, she made her second appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the landmark case that has been widely credited with saving Roe v. Wade. A co-founder of the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Athena Film Festival, she also created NPR’s Justice Talking and the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College.
Julie F. Kay began her legal career at the Center for Reproductive Rights and has spent the ensuing decades developing innovative legal and policy initiatives to advance gender equality and religious freedom in the U.S. and internationally. She helped lay the groundwork for the legalization of abortion in Ireland through the first direct challenge to the country’s absolute ban before the European Court of Human Rights and has fought for legal reform to protect the parenting rights of people leaving ultra-religious communities.